For the Love of the Ocean

In my imagination, the ocean is a shadowy mosaic of colors and movement. Sharks dart around dark corners, hunting prey with single-minded ferocity. A red octopus slithers along the bottom, its tentacles sweeping the sand, its mind quiet, unwaveringly open to vibrations and sounds. Silvery fish hung motionless, perhaps swimming casually against a light stream. Dolphins frolic, and seal lions dive deep. The seaweed harbors secrets, and the coral swarms with life, while giant eels peer unhurriedly at the dark depths below the last touch of light. Deep in those canyons, blind sea creatures loiter near the bottomless-bottom of the ocean, while far above blue whales lumber light-weightedly from Mexico to Alaska, gulping at krill, spewing out salty water, confident in their huge, magnificent size.

The ocean is the last great mystery on earth, a mystery which covers 70% of our world. To this day, we have explored less than 5% of it. “A troubling nautical reality,” the National Geographic calls it in an article from 2005, referring to an accident in which a submarine crashed into an unknown underwater mountain. Several submariners were wounded in this accident and one killed. Even safety aside, we humans are fascinated by the ocean, by the yet-unknown but easily imagined uses we could make of it, the wealth of both money and progress we could gain. From mining, drilling, fishing, and shipping, to building floating solar farms, offshore wind turbines, and possibly floating cities, our collective human imagination is ready to expand into the ocean, uncover its secrets, and stop this wasteful and ignorant underutilization of its resources.

At Sunset Beach, I look out toward the uninterrupted horizon and imagine the pods of dolphins which I cannot see. The ocean seems simultaneously empty and full, incomprehensibly vast, compelling and dull all at once. I have no interest in taking a cruise or leaving on a year-long yacht voyage to the West Indies. My weak eyes prevent me from taking up diving, but the truth is that this hobby was never a yearning or a desire I had to have. I peek, that is all, into this tiny, limited corner of the ocean and enjoy far more the sight of sanderlings running in and out of the reach of waves, the rare snowy plover pecking in the wet sand, the gulls staring at me, unmoving, through one eye. I love watching pelicans nonchalantly skim the tips of waves as they glide in a line, like ocean liners with wings. And I laugh whenever I get a glimpse of a cormorant drying its wings. I am a land woman. I like feeling the ground beneath my feet. I like the stability of a non-earthquake-moving earth, the grounding of it, the safety. The ocean feels to me dangerous and foreign, uncontrollable and unexpected, predatory and forever wild. I am content to let is stay unexplored and unmapped.

The United States has over 95 thousand miles of shoreline. The number continually changes and shifts with the tides, with erosion, with landslides, hurricanes — the forces of human development and nature combined. As a nation, we exercise control over the water of the ocean that are by our coast, to the distance of 12 nautical miles from the shore. The first three miles are under state control, the rest under federal. But we also exercise economic control over more than that, up to 200 nautical miles from our shore, what is called the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, “coastal nations have sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve, and manage marine resources and assert jurisdiction over: i. the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures; ii. marine scientific research; and iii. the protection and preservation of the marine environment.” There are rules defining every aspect of the exploration, exploitation, conservation and management of the marine environment, but as always happens with human language, those are subject to interpretation, or, we could almost say, the rules themselves are subject to being explored, exploited, and managed, depending on the wishes and desires of whoever is in control.

It has been a few weeks now since I committed to writing an article on off-shore drilling off the California Coast for the Loma Prieta eNewsletter, and I’ve been progressing at the rate of an old and decrepit sea-slug. I’ve interviewed two people, discovering the depth and breath-taking breadth of this subject. I read articles and took notes. And yet the writing itself fumbles, grinds to a stop. Guilt bubbles in me for neglecting this assignment, for postponing writing about this important and time-sensitive issue. I yearn to write, and yet I can’t. I sit, and the words do not come. And then, like lava boiling deep in an ocean trench and hitting the coldness of water that has never seen the sun, fear and pain rush into me. Fear and pain for our ocean and the creatures who live in it and over the development already done and already contemplated. Fear and pain for the impact our actions on land, even far from the coastline, have on the corals, the water, and the aquatic magnificent life. And I realize I have counted on the ocean remaining apart, untouched. Ever mysterious and wild. I imagined, like the incorrect image of an ostrich hiding its head in the sand, the the ocean can stay safe from the long-reaching human hand.

Joanna Macy, environmentalist, activist, Buddhist scholar and teacher, says we must walk the razor-blade edge between hope and despair, that we must act to protect our world without needing hope and without heeding despair. Bringing gratitude in to strengthen us, she opens the door for the pain to come, allowing us, as a result, to see our place in the world and our duty to it with new eyes, inspiring us to the fourth step: action for the world. Having jumped directly into unexpected and unexplored pain, I am frozen from action. Sadness flows and ebbs in me like the tides. Fear rolls me over and around, crashing into me like a tsunami. Knowing the ocean is in danger, has been in danger since long before I was born, liquidates the stable ground beneath my feet, and my mind, as yet not well-trained, needs to be wrenched away and forced…

…to remember and be grateful for:

Hilton Head, sandy beach, standing in early dusk and watching a pod of dolphins in the water. “They are teaching a baby dolphin to hunt,” Dar speculates.

On a boat back from the Channel Islands, seeing a Blue Whale rising up from the ocean and diving in again. A single sighting. A miracle. My breath taken away.

Plovers in Florida. Looking formal and elegant in their white-tan-and-black-feathered suits.

Manatee tails creating a square of depressed water in a channel off the Melbourne, Florida Coast. The joy.

Otters blinking in the sun, lying on their backs in one of the twists and turns of Elkhorn Slough. Bobbing in the kayak, staring at them staring at us.

Myself and the kids, floating up and down gentle waves in the Mediterrenean Sea off the coast of Tel Aviv, little fish nibbling at our bare feet.

The sea lion following us through the surf as we trudge from Alamere Falls back to Wildcat Campground on a warm day in June.

Rainbows twinkling in the horse-galloping tops of waves crushing on Bodega Bay rocks.

The forests of kelp undulating beneath the kayak, my son capturing a red crab on his paddle.

Los Osos on an early morning, pelicans flying by.

The feeling of sand rushing off into the ocean from under my feet, the coldness of wave-water around my ankles.

Every sunset, every sunrise ever viewed.

Relaxing on a beach in Hawaii in Waipi’o Valley with my cousin, hoping to see some whales.

Open-mouthed, momentarily torn between the California zebra and the feeding humpbacked whales just below Hurst Castle. The whales win hands-down. It’s a much better show.

And as I write, my heart eases. Not yet able to handle the pain, but calmer, I take a deep breath. There is much to be loved, much to be appreciated, and yes, still much to be saved.

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The Silent Extinction of the Giraffe

Giraffes have been in the news lately. The birth of a male baby giraffe at Animal Adventure Park in Upstate New York had giraffe fans from all over the world in ecstasy, only for this happy news to be overcast by bigger, less enjoyable news. Giraffe populations are falling. According to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), giraffe population dropped by 40% in the past three decades, while some subspecies have declined by 80-90%. Despite these numbers and the animal’s popularity, the danger to giraffes remains largely unnoticed, prompting experts to call this a “silent extinction.”

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to travel through Botswana and Zimbabwe with my family. We visited several of the area’s wildlife preserves and saw elephants, giraffes, lionesses, wild dogs, and countless wildebeest, antelope and other ungulates as well as colorful fantastic birds. I still remember my first sighting of an elephant. We were driving in a Land Rover and still reeling from our guide having run over a bird, still wary of tse-tse flies, still wondering where exactly we can pee (if we need to) in this wilderness of low acacia trees and wide open spaces. When the vehicle stopped, we looked about us, wondering what was wrong. “Elephant on the right,” the guide explained, and one confused moment later, we turned to the right, and there it was: a giant flapping its ears, staring at us.

As I write this, it occurs to me, it was afraid of us. It flapped and stared, and then, with a snap and a crackle of the vegetation around it, it was gone.

On our final safari day, about to exit the park and head over to Victoria Falls (our last stop on that trip) we saw a large herd of giraffes. They seemed numerous, surreal, like a cloud of gnats except tall and huge and somehow orange against the yellow and grey-green of the African savannah. When we saw the wild dogs several days before, our guide paused for an hour to admire and photograph them. This time, perhaps eager to get rid of us and go home, he pressed his foot on the accelerator, and on we zoomed, passing by the giraffes as though they were a common sight, as though they will always be there for us if we ever came back, as though they were nothing but a blur.

Someone said to me not too long ago: “Why are conservationists working so hard to keep pandas alive? Let them go extinct if they must, but don’t keep them alive in artificial ways and artificial places.” Why, indeed? Why are some people fighting so hard — even risking their lives — to keep the last few giant pandas, mountain gorillas, and rhinos from dying out? Why do scientists and conservationists warn us again and again of the plight of the polar bears, frogs, elephants and bats?

According to experts (see the Center for Biological Diversity or E.O. Wilson’s books) between 30% and 80% of the world’s species could be gone by 2050 — that’s thirty-three years from now. I was born in 1972 and potentially could still be alive in 2050. My son and daughter, born at the turn of this century, would in all likelihood live to see whether this prediction comes true. In order to imagine the magnitude of this extinction event, which some call the Sixth Extinction (and say we’re in the midst of it right now), E.O. Wilson recommends looking around us, and then imagining 80% of everything gone. If outside my window there are live oaks, valley oaks, black oaks, bay trees, poison oak, hound’s tongue, blue dicks (these are two kind of wildflower), madrones, redwoods, and manzanita, this could mean that by 2050 potentially only two of these species would still exist. And this prediction refers not only to plant life, but to animals as well.

Perhaps some can imagine a world without pandas, without dolphins, manatees, or giraffes. Perhaps some think, so what? So what if they’re gone? We humans are inventors, creators. We will make something else beautiful to replace them. Today, some might say, we can do almost anything, and it is only a matter of time before we can create whole new animals from scratch. Some might rejoice at a world without poison oak, or ants, mosquitos or yellow jackets. But to me, and perhaps to you too, our world becomes poorer with each species that goes extinct. I have never seen the dodo or the great auk. The passenger pigeon flew its last flight over the Eastern United States before I was born, and the Steller’s sea cow, a relative of the manatee, floated its last in the North Pacific kelp even before my great-great grandmother was a thought in her mother’s mind. There will never be a dodo or a great auk to replace them. The richness of two-hundred species of frogs and their myriad interwoven contributions to the natural world can never be reproduced and will never be experienced again.

Doing something for the world doesn’t have to be hard or require you to pull out your purse. Commit not to drink from straws and bring that cup to Starbucks in order to reduce your plastic usage (in fact, skip the Starbucks altogether and make yourself coffee at home). Turn off the lights behind you when you leave a room. Go for a walk with a child and teach them about appreciating nature. Or even better, go outside right now and hug a tree or appreciate the song of a bird or the flight of a hawk. We’re doing this not just for the survival of the pandas, giraffes, and golden frogs, but for our own kids, who — has it occurred to you when the estimate of 80% of all that you see around you was mentioned before? — may also be one of the species facing extinction thirty-three years away in an unknown future.

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Determined to Hope

In my inbox, a few days after the election, an appeal from Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club:

“Donald Trump’s presidential victory feels like a nightmare that surely we can awake from. But it’s real. Very real.

Yes, my heart sank when I heard Trump’s rumored cabinet wishlist — Sarah “Drill, baby, Drill” Palin as Secretary of the Interior; anti-EPA Texas Ag Commissioner Sid Miller as Secretary of Agriculture; fracking billionaire Harold Hamm as Energy Secretary.”

I read, and my heart too sank by this list — but no, that is not an accurate statement. For a moment, my heart stopped. Sarah Palin responsible for my national parks? A fracking billionaire in charge of making decisions about fracking? My mind went to the Boundary Waters Wilderness where sulfide-ore copper mining threatens the integrity and health of the water, the North Dakota pipeline that would trespass on Native American sacred land, the recently stopped arctic drilling and Keystone XL. I knew the nominations and the anticipated disasters have not yet happened, might never happen, but fear gripped my heart with its chilly hands and would not let go.

Most mornings, after letting the dogs out, I sit and meditate. At 5am, the sun does not yet peek above the horizon, and the world is dark and silent. Even the frogs and the crickets have gone to sleep. Our resident great horned owls alone rule the yard, hooting back and forth, hidden in the murky darkness of the oak trees. That morning, I sat with worry, my mind busy with the places I love and the dangers that loom over them. Every few moments, I’d remember that I am meditating, that my feet are touching the floor, that I am sitting on the cushion and am safe at home. I’d remind myself that I know how to sit with worry and fear, and I’d be a Buddha for a moment. Then my harried brain would go off once again into the fantasy — or horror — of what could be awaiting in the future.

Since the moment of their creation, our national parks, forests, and lands  have faced repeated and innumerable threats and dangers. By its very nature, preservation is a fight that is never over. Whether it is the threat of development, residents’ resentment and objection to the federal government taking over state lands, or the overarching effects of nearby human action (like pollution, invasive species, or hunting), our public lands have had to contend for their right to existence again and again.

Fortunately, nature had and still has many friends, Wilderness Warriors fighting on its behalf: John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Theodore Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, Terry Tempest Williams, Tim DeChristopher — the list could go on and on. In 1972 Supreme Court Justice Douglas O. Williams, another Wilderness Warrior, stood up for trees’ right to sue. He said: “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.”

I also love this quote by Olaus J. Murie, one of the founders and the first director of the Wilderness Society and the lead defender of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (together with his wife Mardy):

“I think we should go beyond proving the rights of animals to live in utilitarian terms. Why don’t we just admit we like having them around? Isn’t that answer enough? Don’t we realize that something exciting and satisfying will be gone from the world if we no longer hear coyotes howling? And surely some of the meaning and mystery of the night will be destroyed if we kill all the great horned owls.”

On Thursday I went to practice qigong with Tom. Twenty minutes remaining to our session, we decided to end with a protection meditation which I like to call the five animal meditation. In the meditation, the five elements: earth, fire, water, wood and metal, generate in turn a mist (yellow, red, blue-black, blue-green, and white), the latter four of which in turn condense into animals: a red phoenix, blue-black turtle and snake, blue-green dragon and white tiger. As Tom guided us to the blue-green mist, the energy of wood and spring, a powerful image came to me. In my mind, the mist did not generate only from my liver organ (where the wood energy resides) but arrived connected to the whole of nature as symbolized by the trees, lakes, rocks and wildflowers of Emigrant Wilderness. The dragon, once formed, was huge at my side.

My whole being was almost entirely engulfed by the vision of Emigrant Wilderness as it was in July 2015 when I last visited it. The blue-green dragon, the land, and I were one. I felt protected and alive, as vibrant as water rushing on granite. I felt my connection to the land even as my heart longed to walk its paths again.

I have spent these first forty-four years of my life afraid to voice my passion, love, outrage and opinions, but perhaps the blue-green qigong dragon signals a new courage. A few weeks have passed since then, but the connection remains within me.

Edward O. Wilson, a naturalist, environmentalist and ant researcher, points out the disastrous extinction process which is taking place in the world (possibly has been taking place in the world since humanity arrived). Wilson points out that with 6 billion people alive in the world today, the ratio of species to the number of humans is 1 to 1,000. If every human alive today took responsibility for one species, he says, just think what we could do, how many we could save! I, however, am greedy and would like to apply Wilson’s idea to a larger perspective: if each of us cared even about one cause — whether it is gay rights, immigrants, pollution from coal, nature preservation, polar bears — if each of us cared and did something about one cause, think what we could accomplish together!

I have began putting myself out there, and you can too! Here are some ways to feel effective right now and bring to life your own dragon, tiger, turtle, snake or phoenix:

Join and/or donate to the Sierra Club or the Wilderness Society to help them fight for the environment and our Wild.

Join a group like Bend the Arc which fights for social justice and interracial relationships.

Do a random act of kindness — buy coffee for whoever comes next in line, or give a sandwich to a homeless person.

Adopt a bird through the Audubon Society or rescue a pinniped through the Marine Mammal Center.

Call someone who might be feeling threatened by the election results and express your support of them.

Participate in an ocean clean-up day — those are fun as well as helpful.

Commit to using less plastic — decide not to get straws with your drink at restaurants and carry a reusable coffee cup.

Donate to Save the Boundary Waters and support their campaign!

You might have other ideas too!

We can all of us be what Joanna Macy calls Shambhala Warriors — wise, legendary, healers of the pains of the earth — and while we’re at it, the rewards are instantaneous and immense: we feel powerful, effective, and protected ourselves.

2

I’d Rather Be Monkeywrenching

Lesley, Lesley’s boyfriend Tim, Dar and I are on a “wind and water caves” group hike in Point Reyes. We’ve only just began hiking down from Laguna Trailhead, trailing, as always, at the end of the pack, when Leslie says, “I want to buy you a gift.”

Eyebrows rise. I ask: “What kind of gift?”

“A car sticker,” Lesley says, as though it’s obvious.

“It’s an I’d rather be monkeywrenching sticker,” Lesley explains.

My breath hitches. “I want five,” I reply.

The term “monkeywrenching” originates from the book The Monkeywrench Gang by Edward Abbey, which I recently read. The book tells of a band of three men and a woman who set out to protest and prevent the destruction of the Utah-Arizona-Nevada desert. Their end goal: blow up the Glen Canyon Dam.

Monkeywrenching is a term not found in most dictionaries. The organization Earth First! defines monkeywrenching as “…a step beyond civil disobedience. It is nonviolent, aimed only at inanimate objects. It is one of the last steps in defense of the wild, a deliberate action taken by an Earth defender when almost all other measures have failed.”

You might wonder what I have to do with monkeywrenching? “Sigal,” you might say. “You’re a law-abiding citizen. Are you really posting about civil disobedience? Is this really something you think about?”

Well, yes, I guess.

The Monkeywrench Gang inspired the creation of the organization Earth First! which engages in activities as varied as barricading a train carrying fracking equipment (in order to prevent it going up to North Dakota, to give a current example), painting graffiti on dams, chaining oneself to trucks or other construction vehicles, and sitting in trees to protest and block logging. The group is fragmented in order to protect its members (in fact, the best monkeywrenchers work alone). From what I can find, despite having a special section in the website called “Security Measures” and a call on the defenders that basically says, “Don’t get caught,” there are quite a few Earth First! members who are serving lengthy sentences in jail.

Yes, monkeywrenching can send you to jail.

In the movie DamNation, we get a glimpse of Earth First! defender Mikal Jakubal as he sneaks to the top of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, rappels down, and paints a giant crack down the face of the dam with the words, “Free the Rivers — J Muir.”

Imagine it. imagine yourself packing the car with the equipment you need: rock climbing gear, rope, paint, brushes, dark clothing, and a balaclava. Maybe some snacks for the road? Imagine the rush of adrenaline when you arrive, park your car off the road in the shadows. Imagine sneaking onto the bridge in the dark, deciding where to set up anchor, working as silently and as fast as you can. Keeping watch. Imagine trying to keep all the equipment from jiggling and making noise, and then the concentration that falls once you’re standing on the lip, taking that first step backwards into the ominous darkness that is the face of the dam, rappelling down. And finally, imagine the exhilaration of painting the words by the flimsy light of your headlamp, of painting the crack, of making your escape, hiking up quickly from the bottom of the dam. Your headlamp, a single ray of idealism in the darkness of capitalistic blight.

Have you noticed that darkness cannot overcome even the tinniest candle, but even the most feeble light can overpower the dark?

This is what legends are made of. These are acts that make history and inspire countless people. Brashness, courage, disregard to personal safety. Standing up for what’s right.

When I was 18, I wanted desperately to serve in the Israeli army in a position that would make a difference. I was an idealist, yearning to defend the land where I had grown up. Now, at 44, I am still an idealist, seeking for a way to defend another land which is as, or perhaps more, important: our land, where the wild still exists, and the living beings that exist on it.

I stand in defense of water, soil, and air. I stand in defense of Emigrant Wilderness, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Boundary Waters. I stand in defense of the redwood trees and the mariposa lily, the ruby-throated hummingbird, manatees, and beluga whales. I stand in defense of our planet and its myriad of different species. In the light of recent events, I feel determined and resolved to do all in my power to protect those I love, from the smallest organism to the entire planet.

Now, ask yourself, where do you stand?

2

The Perspective of the Giraffe (and Other Animals)

These days, it seems we are like ants overwhelmed by an elephant perspective. We read the newspaper and shiver at the pessimistic prognostications, the harried and worried discussions, and the doomsday divinations that are taking place. (The Israeli newsletter dubbed the results of the elections a “Trumpocalypse,” which I thought especially creative). But is our myrmecological perspective of the elephant in the room something we can trust? Is it the truth?

There is a Buddhist story about five blind men who encounter an elephant. One touches the side of the elephant and calls out: “This elephant is like a wall!” Another touches the leg and says: “It’s like a pillar!” A third handles the ear and remarks: “An elephant is like a fan!” A fourth holds onto the tail and insists, “An elephant is like a rope!” And the last holds onto the trunk and contradicts all the rest, “It’s like a tree branch!” Of course they are all right, and yet an elephant is greater, more complex and interesting than any of these parts.

In order to see the elephant, we need to move back enough so our eyes (or touch) can encompass the whole of it. And in fact, even then it would not be enough. An elephant is so much more than its shape. It is the historic path it takes in the jungle, its knowledge of water holes, its place within the biotic community, the food it prefers, its history of being hunted, the parasites which live on it, its bathing habits, and the list could go on and on. Why then do we think we have the perfect perspective of this so-called elephant (or Trumpocalypse, if you prefer to insist on that version) when we’re barely holding onto even one little toe?

What we need is the perspective of the giraffe.

In his wonderful collection of poems and stories, The Sixteenth Ram, Yehonatan Geffen writes (translation, and pronouns, mine):

The giraffe has a tall neck
She can see a bus before it leaves the station
And the sun before it rises

Everything we see, the giraffe sees before us
She has a kind of expression on her face:
How lovely it is to be a tall animal

The giraffe has a tall neck
She sees clouds at the end of the world
And announces

Friends, in two months it will rain here
From the height of a giraffe we all seem small
And our greatest problems
Are mere dots for the giraffe.

Living from the perspective atop the tall neck of the giraffe does not mean that we are blind to the future. We stay vigilant. We see trends (the bus) before they become established (it leaves the station). We see trouble (the rain) by recognizing the clouds at the end of the world. We prepare, and we still fight for what we believe in, but we do it by having the perspective, the ability to recognize that most of our worries and anxieties and predictions are mere dots (most might even be mere shadows) on the map of life.

At this moment in time we are all of us blind men and women hanging on to various parts of an elephant, insisting that our vision of it is the right one. What we need are tools with which to feel effective, ways to increase our feeling of safety and confidence in the world. But how can that be done? The troubles we see coming — global warming, political unrest, religious extremism, and more — seem insurmountable. How can one blind person (in my case, a very near-sighted contact-wearing short woman) succeed in overcoming so much?

Fortunately, we don’t have to overcome all of it alone. As an exercise, I typed in the search “non-profit organizations in Palo Alto” on the web. The results: 799,000 hits. “Social justice organizations in California” generates 2.3 million hits. “Environmental organizations in the world” generates 142 million hits. To me, the results of my experiment are clear: there are many of us here who want to see a change for good. There are many of us who care about the world and all the beings and creations in it.

A month ago, I attended a women’s retreat at Spirit Rock led by Joanna Macy and several other wonderful women teachers. There were a hundred of us at the retreat, women of many sizes, shapes, and ages, but we all had one thing in common: we came to the retreat because we care about the earth. There was an older woman, ferocious looking despite her white hair and short stature, who told us she marches for gay rights. Another woman, curly-haired and grey said she holds signs in front of the police station to protest mass incarceration. A third, tall and regal-looking, worked with women kidnapped and sold to sex slavery in Africa. A fourth was concerned with the stress women live with in the Bay Area. Me? I was there because my heart beats for the natural world. All of us there cared about the environment, diversity, safety, freedom. We cared about the survival of the human race alongside the survival of all other species. We didn’t insist on any one part of the elephant. Instead, we put together all of our little dots to make a spacious and accepting mosaic of life.

It was, I confess, a frightening, overwhelming, and yet hopeful picture. And still it is not the complete picture. Still there are farther perspectives from which our life here on earth at this time can be seen. We, as a moment in history, will probably never know these perspectives, but we can know now that there are many people who care, who work tirelessly to make things better each in their own little piece of the mosaic. This knowledge, that we are not alone in our efforts, can give us the freedom to act. All we need do as an individual is choose a piece of the mosaic that speaks to us and participate in this one meaningful and manageable way.

At the end of the retreat, we all took Joanna Macy’s Vows for Active Hope:

I vow to myself and each of you

To commit myself daily to the healing of our world and the welfare of all beings.

I vow to myself and each of you

To live on Earth more lightly and less violently in the food, products and energy I consume.

I vow to myself and each of you

To draw strength and guidance from the living Earth, the ancestors, the future beings, and my brothers and sisters of all species.

I vow to myself and each of you

To support each other in our work for the world and to ask for help when I feel the need.

I vow to myself and each of you

To pursue a daily practice that clarifies my mind, strengthens my heart and supports me in observing these vows.

We live, as the Chinese blessing goes, in interesting times. We don’t know what will happen, what the future holds. But as Joanna Macy said at the retreat, not knowing allows us to be creative, to have hope, to think of new solutions and possibilities. It allows us to avoid repeating history and instead to soar to new places. It allows us to use Hillary’s election slogan in a way which she may or may not have meant, because truly, in this way, with each of us a part of the mosaic of hope and love, we are stronger together.

In order to be present to the sorrows and difficulties of our world, Joanna says we must first develop love and gratitude for it. As a start, here is the song by Jennifer Berezan, “Praises for the World.”

May our combined force for good be the tipping point for the survival of all beings.

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Nature Education

Growing up, I was lucky to be raised in a paradigm that promoted both nationalism and a love of nature. Israeli zionist ideology in the 1980s, when I went to school, was a perverse combination of reproducing, sacrificing and hiking our way into dominion of the land. Dividends for having more than two kids were accompanied by such slogans as “It is good to die for one’s country,” and ideas that where our feet walk, the trail belongs to us.

My family took the hiking ideology deeply to heart. Every Saturday we all piled into the car (for a long time, my father had a brown-and-tan VW van), and off we would go. We visited archaeological sites. We swam in waterholes and creeks. We hopped over basalt rocks in the Golan Heights and leaned over sandstone cliffs near the Arava. We wandered through fields of wildflowers. We crawled down steep dryfalls in the Negev and took photos of waterfalls teeming with icy water in the Galilee. We climbed steep mountain peaks to see the endemic Tavor iris or an ancient ruin which witnessed the destruction of our ancestors at the time of the Roman Empire. We ventured far and wide. We got to know, and claim, the country with our feet. And with witness knowledge, with sacred experience, my love of nature grew and matured into a lifelong passion that has never dimmed.

My children, born in the early years of the 21st century, live through interesting times. They have been raised in the United States, not in Israel, a country so large that much meaning disappears in sheer size. A single person’s vote can feel insignificant in its influence. A single person’s sacrifice fades away within a few degrees of separation from his or her family. A disaster such as September 11th impacts the country, but the smaller sacrifices of a soldier fighting in Iraq often pass unknown to the general population. At school, my children receive lessons on the history of humanity, the literature which humanity has produced, the experiments and discoveries humanity has made. They learn sports which humanity has invented and mathematics with which humanity had sought to order the world. It is an education in human supremacy, the world according to mankind viewed by the lens unique to mankind.

When my children learn about nature, most often they learn about its use to us. Thus, in first grade, the rainforest unit concentrated on cute animals and chocolate, vanilla, shampoo and other rain forest products that were relevant to the kids’ lives. In 7th grade, during the unit about animal adaptations, the students were asked to invent their own animal and its survival mechanisms. With the advent of genetics and genetic modification techniques, the creation of animals we humans fancy or need is right around the corner. Already our children grow up not knowing that a chick hatches from an egg laid (and nurtured) by a chicken. After all, in 2nd grade they learn that a chick hatches (and often doesn’t) from an egg in an aquarium watched over by infra-red lights.

I would like to see schools teach children of their place in the world, as one animal out of many. I would like to see schools teaching kids about the importance of being in the world with a light touch, of taking only what they need and no more, of the importance — the equal importance — of other species. But perhaps I am arguing a moot (and too late) point. Even with the best intentions, I wonder if schools, at this point, could overcome the influences of technology. My children, probably like most American children with similar economic backgrounds, live almost entirely inside their devices. They barely ever raise their eyes to look outside. There’s a rainbow? They can see a much clearer one on instagram. The weather? They don’t need to look out the window — it’s at their fingertips on an app.

Some years ago, long before I had children and when I was just a young adult myself, my family traveled to Yosemite with my grandmother. I have always loved Yosemite, the smell of pine and fir as you drive in, the clear, crisp air, the grey and white never-ending shapes of rocky surfaces. Perhaps it was the long drive, or frustration at the noise we teenagers were most likely making, but my grandmother exclaimed something which had stuck in my mind since. She said: “Why are we driving so far? We could see it all much better on the television screen.” Twenty plus years ago, when this happened, we all laughed. But my grandmother then as now was ahead of her time, a prophet to be attended, not ignored. My children — born to a mother who identifies most as a hiker, nature lover, backpacker — are not interested in seeing Yosemite even on the television screen. Their one redeeming connection to this unimaginably beautiful place is the snow. They don’t want to go hiking, and they plan to complain all the way there and back about the drive, but once in Yosemite Valley, they will play and play and play in the snow.

Sadness. Sorrow over the disappearing gifts of this world. A sense of loss, of fear of loss of these rare, fragile places which we so tenuously hold against the progress of human supremacy over the world, the fear that we have lost connection with nature of which we are a part. Then, I look outside. On my hillside green is sprouting. Much of it is non-native, mostly oats which were brought here from Europe in the early 19th century. But some, not a lot, will be plants that have grown on these hills for hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years, long before us humans decided to step on these hills, to build our homes here, to change the shape of the hills and their ecology with our tools and technology and desires. The history of these plants, could they tell it to us, will be a history of survival, strength and resiliency. They are heroes, have managed not to fall prey to axe and digger and shovel, to spray and exotic plants and hooves of cows and horses. They have seen the grizzly come and go, and some of them, perhaps, have seen the disappearance of the dinosaurs. The tales they could tells us! The cautionary tales!

And here I sit, staring at a screen and typing. I too looked at a screen before I checked the weather outside and was later surprised to find the app was wrong. There is no rain. The sun is peeking through the oaks, creating patches of sunlight on the new green and rain-dewed grass. Perhaps it is time to turn the computer off and go smell and luxuriate in the autumnal air which we can really only do when we’re outside. Perhaps the birds are singing, or I can spy the shadow of a migrating hawk. And perhaps, as the wind carries the clouds over my head, the promised rain will come, and I too can be nourished, with the oaks, from the much-needed bounty of our vanishing world.

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California Naturalist Class, Part 5: David Plays

There are no lights outside the Chief’s House, and Lesley and I follow David carefully up the uneven stone stairs to the grassy area (which I’d been eyeing jealously as a comfortable meditation spot) and around to the back of the house. It’s late at night, but the fog which had rolled in with the evening’s wind makes the darkness seem lighter somehow. Perhaps particles of starlight, colliding with particles of water, become diffused in the atmosphere, illuminating the darkness with infinite drops of fluorescent fog.

The cypresses wave and creak behind us, and I wonder if our Great-horned owls are watching us from the canopies, eyes yellow and bright, penetrating the shadows with ease. Raptor eyes, they had followed and hunted countless scurrying beasts like us in the mad scramble on the ground from one place of safety to the next. The inner mouse in me quakes at the thought of them taking off on their silent wings, gliding above us. Are they scrutinizing us, establishing our general height and weight, determining if they could — perhaps together? — grasp one of us in their claws and….

I know David’s been in the Chief’s House many times, but our quiet stumble and tiptoe to the back door seems somehow stealthy and clandestine, as though we are breaking in somewhere we’re not allowed. We seem to me, in fact, not much different from the two musicians in Some Like It Hot as they walk-crouch near the wall, covering themselves with their instruments, trying to seem inconspicuous as they run away from the police trap. I am carrying David’s violin, and he is carrying his mandolin and a guitar, so the reference is not quite as far-fetched as it would seem.

“The front door key doesn’t work,” David explains.

I am not surprised. I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if in order to get in David lifted a rock and broke the window in the back door, threaded his arm through the broken fragments, and opened the lock from the inside. My breath hitches, but David does not lift a rock. He pulls out a key, and the door swings open without a squeak or a groan.

The three artists who had stayed in the house for the past week had left earlier that day. I’d watched them in the days since we arrived at the Boathouse, a peek here and there, as they wandered the grounds. One carried a camera with a big lens. Another, young, had come to listen to a lecture and had stayed for lunch with us. The third I often saw near the docks where I meditated in the mornings. We, aspiring California Naturalists, had left them be. They had come to spend the week in retreat with the intention of growing creative and inspired, becoming nourished by sea and sand and wind. Now they’d gone home, perhaps to turn the inspiration into essays and poems, paintings, photographs, eternal works of art or books.

The house towers above us, windows tall and unlit. David puts two instrument cases down, reaches for his violin, and holds the door open for us. Lesley and I tramp in and find ourselves inside a small mudroom which opens to a kitchen and a spacious dining room beyond. The kitchen has white cabinets, old and crooked. No table or chairs. A refrigerator hums in the corner. It reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen when she lived in her old house in Tel Aviv. To my surprise, the rest of the house is beautifully furnished. I had expected it to look sparse, having heard from David that he had scrounged every single item himself from people he knows or at the office. I should have known better. This is David, after all, and the house is, therefore, lovingly decorated with attention to detail and comfort. There are paintings on the wall, apples in a bowl on a side table, and knick-knacks, suitably ocean-themed. David proudly leads us to a sitting room, the most beautiful room in the house, he says. He showcases the front porch and a window, from which, he says, we could see Drake’s Bay in the morning.

We follow David up the stairs to see the three bedrooms. None has a bathroom attached. The bathroom is downstairs, David tells us, and there is another one in the basement, but the basement had not been cleaned out yet.

“We could fit twelve people in here,” he says.

I wonder how. The beds are easily recognizable as halved bunk beds, perhaps from the Boathouse. One of the rooms, which both Lesley and David declare as their favorite, is so tiny as to be more like a monk’s cell than a room. I wonder what it’s like to walk downstairs in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, to sleep in this haunted, groaning old house. What is it like to sleep in a house with a cellar which may still have remnants of inhabitants dead long ago, spider-webbed furniture, old photos strewn near a clothes chest that smells powerfully of dust?

Downstairs, Lesley and I settle on the sofa. I drag the ottoman toward us, and we both put our feet on it. David sits across from us near the dining table and brings out, in order, his mandolin, guitar, and violin. He plays and sings. The dining room is cheery, and David’s voice fills the silence of the house with a lively song. David wrote the words and the music to all the songs he’s singing for us, real and fantasy stories about his experiences mixed with commentary and dialog.

I don’t dance, but I wish I could. I let myself merge with the music, the old house, the nearness of new friends, the cypresses waving in the wind outside. Only one and a half  days are left in the class, and my mind and body are tired. Tired of not sleeping well, tired of being in close proximity with other people, of filling my head full of facts and names of things. I am happy to surrender to the sound of David’s music, to the notes twirling around the room in a jiggy dance. The house creaks gently. Rob, our cook’s partner, comes in and settles in a chair across from us. Later, the next day, I’ll discover he’s a backpacker, and my interest in talking to him will unfurl, but for now I am ready to leave and allow him to stay with David and talk about whatever it is men talk. Lesley and I make our way back around the house and under the cypresses and down the hill to the Boathouse. David’s cheerful music, the ominous creaking of the cypresses and the imaginary wings of silent owls hunting follow me into my sleeping bag and uneasy dreams.

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California Naturalist Class, Part 4: The Perseid Meteor Shower

David and I are lying in the middle of the road, our heads propped up by a slowly-deflating air mattress. David says the mattress may not have been the best buy in the world, but here we are putting it to good use. Paulette and Trish are leaning their heads against David’s car, their eyes glued to the night sky. We’re in the middle of the road in an area usually busy with cars and tourists, but it is past midnight, and we think we’re safe enough. Hardly anyone comes to the Bear Valley Visitor Center at midnight. And if they did, well, it’s the dead of night, and we’ll hear them, or see their headlights, long before they are near.

It’s the perfect place to watch a meteor shower. Dark as dark can be. Of course, part of the darkness is due to the fact that the fog is thick in the sky. Only one less-than-dusky patch is showing a single star twinkling above us. Paulette claims to see not one, but three stars. I’m not about to argue about it. Her eyesight, I daresay, is better than mine, and even if not, her optimism is an asset. For us to see the shower, the meteors will need to streak exactly through our one patch of unclear skies.

We are all giggling uncontrollably but still keeping our eyes on the heavens. I no longer know why we are laughing, only that everything is funny. For some reason, David and I started calling the mattress the Guillotine. This is hysterically funny to us. Perhaps every word, even the word “guillotine,” becomes funny when it’s way past your bedtime, and you are lying on the cold ground in the middle of the road on a fast-deflating mattress, hoping to see a meteor shower in a foggy sky.

“I saw one, there!” Yells out Paulette. We all aim our eyes at the spot to which we think she points, but nothing is there, of course. Meteors tend to do that, I hear. They streak across the sky, and then they are gone.

“Which direction did it go?” I ask, remembering that the only time I saw a falling star was when I knew which part of the sky I should look at. It’s a lot of space to cover, otherwise.

Paulette spans the whole night sky with her arm. “This way,” she says.

The fog rolls in, threatening to cover our patch of sky. I no longer see even the one star. Nonetheless, I scan everywhere. We’ve come all this way. I know we’ll see a meteor shower tonight.

A car approaches, its beams scouring the road. We watch it as it passes slowly through the parking lot behind us and then turns, its wheels crunching pebbles, onto our road. David and I jump up and move to the side. David snatches at the mattress, which droops feebly in his hand. The car pauses, its headlights wavering, then backs up, tries to go forward where there is only a trail. I wonder, briefly, if the car would breach the barrier and head up the Bear Valley trail which eventually will lead the occupants to Arch Rock and the ocean. Now, that would be an exciting drive in the dark.

David jogs toward the car to see if he can help. Perhaps they had taken a wrong turn. I notice that I am not afraid of murderers and rapists. The car is a minivan, the backseat probably filled with children sleeping in their carseats. I watch David for another moment, then remember the shower. I cannot fall asleep on my watch. I return my gaze to the sky.

A light, like a racing, single firecracker, arcs through our one clear patch, disappearing before I can yell, “There!” I feel redeemed. I saw a meteor. We can go back to the Boathouse now if we must, though if it was up to me, we’d drive to Mount Tamalpais to see if up there we’d have better luck.

We drive back, tired but satisfied. Paulette of the sharp eyes had seen two meteors. David, Trish and I each saw one. The drive back is nearly uneventful. As we make the turn toward Chimney Rock, a pale shape materializes on the side of the road. David stops the car, and we all hold our breaths. It’s a barn owl, just sitting there, as though waiting to hitch a ride. The owl stares back, unblinking, its white face remarkably expressionless. Every detail of it stands out in the darkness. A frightening ghost. A predator to be feared. Suddenly, it opens its wings wide and soars up and away above us. We let out our collective breaths. Meteors and owl. There can be a no better end to our foggy foray.

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California Naturalist Class, Part 3: Barf Car Vignettes

Rumbling down Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, cow ranches on either side, the sky is heavy with fog above us. In the car, some of us concentrate on surviving the nauseating drive, breathing in and out, staring ahead. David, both hands on the wheel at all times, foot perhaps too attached to the accelerator, recites J.R.R. Tolkien poetry:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.”

We discuss which character of Lord of the Rings is closest to our hearts. I choose Sam, the hobbit, for his honesty, loyalty, bravery, and trustworthiness. He is not the hero, and yet the hero depends on him utterly for his success. Tonya interjects, pointing out that Sam is tempted not to return the ring to Frodo after he rescues him from the spider. I counter by saying that actually, though the ring tries to gain control over Sam, and arguably perhaps succeeds momentarily, Sam proves stronger and does, in fact, return the ring (unlike Gollum, if we want to compare, who kills his brother for the ring, Sam’s love belongs first and foremost to Frodo, and no ring can breach his loyal heart).

David, perhaps predictably, chooses the elf, Legolas. I poke fun at his choice, saying the elves don’t really and fully participate in the adventure. Higher beings, immortal, they seem somehow above any danger encountered by mere humans and hobbits. David’s reddish hair glitters and his eyes shine as he speaks of Legolas, his honor and courage. The elf from the book, he emphasizes, not the movie. David mentions Gandalf, too, as a possible choice, because of his humility. Gandalf’s hand is in every instance where help is needed, and yet he wanders the countryside humble and unobtrusive. You’d never know he had done anything to change history. I agree with that choice. I love Gandalf. I’d be Gandalf in a heartbeat if I could.

Tonya and Lesley, sitting in the back, choose no character for themselves. Perhaps they have not dreamed of living in Middle Earth the way I have, the way I sense David had. Perhaps their hearts are inextricably tied to some other book. Or perhaps David and I dominate the conversation too much with our Tolkien passion, our need to dive into the world of the book.

*********

I look out the window as cow ranches turn into marshy yellowing grass. Drakes Estero stretches to our right. I know somewhere there is water, fresh mixing with salt, but from where I’m sitting my view is mostly blocked by the bushes that frame the road. I search for wildlife, and suddenly, far in the distance, I see a tan shape of what looks to be a cat. I yelp intelligibly. David breaks the car at the side of the road, and we all run out, holding onto our binoculars (in my case, a monocular). I jog breathlessly after David and Lesley, both of whom, far ahead, seem much more used to running (or else, just younger). Tonya chooses to stay near the car. If it’s a mountain lion, perhaps she’s being wiser than us, but at the moment, it doesn’t matter that I may be running toward a carnivore that could kill me. My heart races with the joy of discovery, of something new, with the joy of being alive.

The estero lies before us, green and yellow and grey, punctuated by stretches of pristine, transparent water, and there, right in front of a little boulder mound, is the cat. I jerk the monocular to my eye and squint through. Tan indeed. Muscular. A cat for sure. But what kind of cat?

“I don’t think this is a bobcat,” David says.

“It’s a mountain lion,” I say with confidence, because I want it to be so. In the eye of the monocular, the cat walks regally up the boulders. Its muscles ripple. I have never seen any animal look quite this powerful, quite this strong. Nothing exists but its shape in my monocular. No estero, no birds, no grass. Just me and the cat. I wonder if it’s looking back. The monocular is not strong enough that I can see a face. Just a shape. Just the blatant power of a wild, living body.

The van with the rest of the class turns the corner. David runs to tell them to come see the cat, just as it walks around the boulders and disappears behind the grass. “It was small, but I think it was a mountain lion,” David says. I hear Chris say in reply that it was a bobcat. I gnash my teeth in frustration. It was a mountain lion. I know it was. I saw, as clear as day, the long tail, the tan, sleek body. This was no kitten. This was it, the king of the beasts, the top predator.

“A bobcat,” Chris says later in class.

“A mountain lion,” I insist quietly to myself, wondering why I feel so irritated. “I know what I saw.” But (fearing what?) I don’t speak up. The mountain lion, now a part of the estero and the park and the mythological journeys of the Barf Car, remains, for the time being, singularly mine.

*********

David likes raptors, and not just any raptors. I’d guess his favorite is the harrier,  He never says it in so many words, but I can tell. Every time we see a raptor in the sky, David pulls the car over. “It’s a harrier,” he says with bated breath, hands locked around his binoculars, eyes peering through with an intensity no plastic instrument can hide. “I can see the white band on the back.”

“I don’t know,” Lesley says. Her eyes, too, are glued to the binoculars. “The tail looks very red to me.”

A pause, followed by a slight sigh, “Oh, it’s a red-tailed hawk,” David admits. Then, “No, it’s a harrier. Look at the white band. Oh, no, it’s a red-tailed hawk.”

The hawk flies beside us over the golden hills of the coast, its wings spread out as it catches the wind. I watch it, entranced. Ah, to fly like a bird. To swoop down close to the waves. To dive through the air down the cliffs, wings tight at my side. To soar above dolphins as they slice through the waves. Ah, to fly like a bird. Like a harrier. Or a falcon. Or a red-tailed hawk. Even a sparrow would be fine.

“Now, that’s a harrier,” David says and pulls over the car again. “Look at the white band.”

*********

I must be feeling comfortable with David, Tonya and Lesley, because here I am singing to them a Hebrew song. David’s entranced. He’s a musician, but I can’t tell if he’s excited because he’s hearing a new song in a different language or because he actually likes it. The song is an Israeli rendition of a poem, “A Walk in Caesarea.” The poet, Hannah Szenes, was a young woman on the brink of volunteering to be the first woman paratrooper to Nazi-held Hungary. The poem can be translated like this:

“My God, My God,

May it never end,

The sand and the sea,

The rustle of water,

Lightning in the sky,

The prayer of Man.”

“Can you teach me how to sing it?” David asks.

In Israel, “A Walk in Caesarea” is often sung as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies and has become, for many people, a song of sorrow about a lost life. Hannah Szenes was captured by the Nazis, tortured, and eventually executed. She was twenty three years old when she died. Despite that, to me her poem is a symbol of hope and love. It reminds me that humanity deserves to be prayed for. Sometimes, as I look at the trash which we humans carelessly throw out, at the toxins we thoughtlessly pour into our rivers, and at other damage which we believe our right to perpetrate upon the earth, it is hard for me to remember that everyone is worthy of prayer and love, even us humans. Hannah Szenes’ poem does not separate lightning, sea, sand and man. Standing on the beach in Caesarea and watching the Mediterrenean’s waves calmly wash upon the sand, she puts her faith in the power of regeneration, in life itself. She will parachute into Nazi-held Hungary to save other people precisely because she sees the interconnectedness of every grain of sand, every human soul, every drop of water.

I lean my head back against the Barf Car’s seat and think of Hannah Szenes as she stands, so many years ago, not in front of the firing squad but on the beach. I think of Hannah writing her poem in the tranquility of the sand and the sea, of the Roman archaeological ruins in the background. The Barf Car rumbles on back toward the Lifeboat Station. Harriers and red-tailed hawks fly by and owls hoot. Baby peregrine falcons balance on cliff tops as elephant seals and sea lions roar in the water below. Somewhere, a meteor rockets through the sky, and ahead, at our destination, our cook, Yaella, fills the Lifeboat Station with the good smells of food and love. For this moment in time, all falls into place as planned by the Great God in the Sky. Later all might be chaos again. For now, here is life and love.

Watch Ofra Haza, an Israeli singer, singing the song “A Walk in Caesarea.”

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California Naturalist Class, Part 2: From Back of the Pack to Front of the Van

Lesley, Bruce and I have fallen behind the rest of the pack. Chris, our teacher, strides behind us purposefully, spotting scope and tripod resting on his shoulder, herding us before him like a sheepdog guarding wayward sheep. Lesley peers into every crevasse looking for critters. I am frantically trying to draw a flower in my notebook while pretending to move forward. Bruce is also fascinated by the plants. We just need a little more time, but the rest of the group is already walking around the bend, and the pressure to move is greater than the wish to stay behind.

We’re hiking the Muddy Hollow Trail down to Limantour Spit, and it is gorgeous! Next to us, but mostly out of sight, is the creek. So many plants grow happily here with all the water. Hedge nettles bloom below overhanging willows and alder trees. Coffeeberry cradles red and black berries inside rounded green leaves, and a blackberry vine sprawls luxuriously nearby, its fruit having been already consumed, perhaps, by a passing deer. Ocean spray, past its bloom, still pours bouquets of dried flowers from every branch, and lilac hides its now forgotten flowers under a dark-green canopy of leaves. Birds are twittering from every direction, and the group stops to listen. Our guide, David, can tell the birds by their call as well as (so it seems to me at least) by their shadow. Tit wren, he says. Rough-wing swallows. Towhee. Gold finches. Song sparrow. Natalie, Chris and he set up scopes to allow everyone to take a close-up look at a great egret. A little bird darts by. A swallow, David says. I try to take note of some characteristic of the fast-moving bird so I’ll remember. Perhaps the shape of the wing? The fast flight? The V-split tail?

“When the group stops, this is your chance to get upfront,” Chris observes with some impatience as Lesley, Bruce and I find ourselves in the back of the pack again. He strides behind us in a way that makes it impossible to fall too far behind, bodily blocking the sandy trail. Lesley tells me in a soft tone that she would, if possible, do what he says, but she doesn’t want to push aside the other people. I agree with her, but I think that both of us don’t really want to be in the front. We want to be in the back: she to look for critters under the leaves and in the trees, and I to check out all the plants. I want to know all the plants’ names. I want to be able to recognize them by their leaves, stalks, general shape. I want to know what they are even when the flowers are gone.

We see Tule elk in the distance. Another egret, or perhaps the same one. A blue heron. We’re getting closer to the beach. The plants change, turning into a coastal community. Lower bushes and shrubs. Then, the dunes. Lesley and I eat lunch on the beach, staring into the bay. It is windy, and our food fills with sand. I can feel its grittiness against my teeth. Our geology instructor from the day before told us that Limantour Spit was a flowing river of sand, and I believe him. I can see the movement of it before my eyes. Seagulls watch our every bite. I remember another picnic on a beach, on Santa Cruz Island, being warned about the seagulls. “They will grab food from your mouth,” the kayaking guide had told us. “They will grab anything you drop or put on the table. The only thing they haven’t learned to do yet is unzip a cooler.” On Limantour Spit, we are not attacked by ravenous seagulls. We finish our food and rejoin the group, ready for a walk on the edge of Limantour Marsh.

Obedient, Lesley and I take the front, immediately behind David, turning after him onto a side trail leading closer to the marsh. Turns out European grass is not just invasive. It also cuts into unprotected legs like a knife. “Deal with it,” says David after he warns us against it. Lesley is looking for critters. I stare at little yellow flowers and wonder what their names are. We peer through the scopes at sand pipers flying in a cloud, spiraling an infinity near the marsh, their wings turning silvery as they dip in and out of the sun. We learn how to recognize pickleweed and eel grass, but my favorite is the tiny marsh lavender. I now notice it is everywhere, growing like a cute little tree out of the pickleweed-covered sand.

On the way back, Chris points out a rare plant: the Point Reyes rein orchid. It’s green and spiraling on a single stalk. I’m impressed. I would never have noticed it on my own, but now the other students recognize it in several spots along the walk. I find I am tired. All this walking and stopping in the sun had taken its toll. The names of plants swirl around my head, and I try not to remember any for fear of forgetting them all. When we arrive back at the Boathouse, I will transfer them to my journal and look them all up in my book.

In the parking lot, I push my way into the front seat of the van. The other David, our David who had been driving Lesley, Tanya and I in what he termed the Barf Car, had to go to the office, and there is no choice but to ride in the van with everyone else. I’m ashamed of pushing my way to the front, but there’s no choice. Sitting farther back a few days ago had ruined my entire afternoon with nausea and headache. I don’t want that to happen again. I stare forlornly out the front windshield, feeling like I’d done something wrong, forgetting all about the magical day in the wobbly, dizzying ride out of Limantour. Had it even happened — the walk, the plants and the birds, Chris herding us — or was it a dream? Perhaps, a dream. Or perhaps a week later, when I sit at my desk and write this blog, it is the opposite: the walk will be real, and the memory of the ride in the van all gone.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109