Archive | hiking

Pooping on Mount Whitney

At 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney watches, serene and deceptively inaccessible, over the Owens Valley. The tallest peak in the lower 48 states, it is a desirable destination for so many hikers and climbers that a permit quota system had to be enacted. Not only is the mountain big enough to feel unique and simple enough to be “peak-bagged” by the layman, but you can climb it in as little as a day. Compare that to Denali (two to three weeks) or Everest (nearly six weeks), and you can see the allure.

Hiking up the trail on Wednesday, June 6th, I knew we were most likely too early in the season to make it to the summit. Still, the day was lovely. The sun shone brightly on blue sky, grey rock, and white snowy patches, and after having hiked for four hours in the dark, we were enjoying the sharp sun-to-shade contrast and, even more, the tiny alpine flowers which, I was delighted to discover, had began to bloom.

As I bent to take a photo of one intricate violet bloom which was growing, like a miracle, on a shelf in the rock face, I noticed something which did not seem nature-made had been stashed right next to it. A bulky black plastic bag, tied into a knot and weighed down by a big rock, was almost perfectly hidden beside the flower.

The little flower next to the secreted WAG bag

Once upon a time, when only a few people climbed Mount Whitney, there was little need for regulations and rules. Today, however, the land surrounding the trail is heavily impacted by human traffic, including the waste that said human traffic leaves. In 2004, the Forest Service removed two composting toilets and one pit toilet from the trail camps and the summit of Mount Whitney. The toilets required maintenance, which in turn required helicopters to fly in and out of the area — a big deal when the area is a federally protected Wilderness. A new solution had to be found.

Enter the WAG bag.

On Monday, June 4th, Karen, Ross, and I went to claim our permit at the visitor center in Lone Pine. We each received from the smiling ranger a rectangular tag with the date of our climb and a plastic-wrapped WAG bag. The ranger then asked if we had ever used a WAG bag.

“No,” we replied, shifting in place.

The ranger turned around and, in one swift motion, collected a demonstration kit. “You spread this out,” he said, “and poop here, and pee a little which activates the sawdust, and then you put it here, and tie it up like this, and,” he added triumphantly, “they are reusable!”

WAG stands for Waste, Alleviation, and Gelling, an unappetizing name. Once open, the bag is bulky and not exactly scent-proof, making it uninviting to hang from your pack or, worse, place inside. Perhaps this is why we saw several of these bags deserted on the trail. Whether behind or under rocks or unashamedly out in the open, hikers on the Mount Whitney Trail make no fuss about leaving their poop — nicely bagged — behind.

I see similar bags frequently on the trails by my house, sometimes even on the street. Owners collect poop, this time their dog’s, and leave the bag behind, adding — it seems to me — littering to negligence.

Sadly, pooping all over the place is not the only way we pollute our world. A headline from the New York Times reads, “The Chemical Industry Scores a Big Win at the E.P.A.” Turns out, as of a few days ago, when evaluating new chemicals, the industry need worry only about chemicals in direct contact with humans, for example, in the workplace. The impact of potentially-toxic chemicals on the environment, our water, air, and land, need not necessarily be examined.

Water is everywhere on the Mount Whitney Trail.

Perhaps I am in a minority, but to me these are all examples of a nearsightedness almost unbearable to behold. Human poop as well as dog poop contaminates water and soil, sending, moreover, (in the case of Whitney) an unpleasant odor into the pure, rarified air of higher elevations. The plastic bags, whether compostable, recyclable, or not, are not meant to be left out on the trail and end up contaminating the environment, a hazard to water, air, soil, and wildlife. Need I mention they are unsightly as well? Seven billion of us poop and pee every day and flush the toilet to make it disappear. Except, of course, that it does not. Neither do the compound chemicals which we release into the world.

Perhaps if we cared enough about the impact of all this poop, if we educated ourselves about how this poop affects our environment — our water, our air, our soil — we would not be so callous about allowing toxic chemicals to enter into the air, soil and water either. Perhaps if we took the trouble and accepted the inconvenience of carrying our poop out the eleven steep and difficult miles of the Mount Whitney Trail, we’d be willing to do a lot more to make sure our children do not end up drinking lead in their water, eating toxins in their food, or breathing yet other poisons in their air.

It all starts at home, in the privacy of our thoughts. We have all made these mistakes. We have all — I am ready to bet — pooped where we shouldn’t, peed too close to a stream, thrown away plastic we could have recycled. Perhaps it is time not to beat our chests with guilt but to stand up and say: I can do better.

I can reduce, reuse, and recycle.

I can be more conscious with my shopping choices.

I can pick up after my dog and dispose of the poop responsibly.

And I can do the same for my own, when out hiking and backpacking.

While looking for the acronym WAG online, I found out its name is being changed (and trademarked) to “Go Anywhere Toilet Kit.” I wonder if, perhaps, the organization producing these kits should not reconsider the name. Toilet Kit sounds too much to me like something stationary. Perhaps “Carry with you human doodoo bag” would be better. Or, “Dispose responsibly take-along pooper bag?”

What do you think? Can you come up with a better name?

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Early Spring Walk to Frog Lake at Henry Coe State Park

Climbing Monument Trail at the beginning of our hike

Getting to Henry Coe State Park is not for the faint — or lazy — of heart. Seven miles of windy road carry us deep into the Diablo Range, into mountains whose ruggedness baffled and challenged even experienced explorers like the 1776 Anza Expedition. While the land had been impacted by the homesteaders and ranchers who followed Anza, Henry Coe is wilder and more remote than anything you might expect so near the Bay Area. I rarely drive into the park without catching a glimpse of wildlife: deer grazing in a meadow, turkey courting, quail flying away at the sight of the car, or the occasional tarantula crossing the road. As the valley below disappears behind the curves in the road, I release a sigh and step forward on a footpath from which you can see only nature; no cars, no roads, no homes.

Shooting stars

The Loma Prieta Family Explorers began offering hikes for families with children ages six to twelve in November. Our first trip led us to Huddart Park where we learned about the redwoods and counted banana slugs. We loved the redwoods so much that we decided to go back and explore Sam MacDonald Park, where we beat our banana slug record, hugged first-growth redwoods, and had lunch in view of the ocean. Since wildflower season is beginning, our next hike led us to Russian Ridge, where we admired three-hundred-year-old Canyon Live Oaks, a golden coyote, and 360-degree views from the ocean in the west to the bay in the east, with Mount Tam and Mount Diablo dominating the skyline. Now here we are, tackling what can only be described as our toughest hike yet, at Henry Coe.

The young crowd led the way, climbing giddily up the hill on Monument Trail. I am always amazed by the details which children see long before us adults. Called back by hollers, I am shown a patch of snow framed by the roots of a bay tree and different types of delicate mosses and lichen. I inform the kids that though we begin with an uphill, they will be tired of the downhill before we are done, but I am utterly wrong. The children gallop down the sloping trail with the same enthusiasm and geniality with which they tackled the steep hill. The parents and I jog after them, enjoying Indian warriors and shooting stars along the way and stopping to appreciate the curious trunks of big-leaf manzanita.

The climbing tree

Just before arriving at our picnic spot, we pause for the climbing tree. This tree had grown strange bumpy burls around its trunk, tempting us with its climbability. The kids attempt it and only make it a few bumps up, but our solitary dad, unwilling to give up, climbs with agility, using the burls as a step-ladder. He peers at us from the top, calling, “Now how do I get down?” His success encourages the kids to try again, and only the promise of a picnic at the campground drags them away.

Frog Lake

Frog lake proves a wonderful attraction, but we’ve sat too long at lunch and we’re cold. After searching for frogs and discovering one toad, we turn to follow the trail back. We hop over Coyote Creek. Small blue butterflies flutter over yet-to-flower blue-eyed grass. Buttercups and shooting stars sprinkled with dew dot the hillside. We see one cold ladybug and tiny waterfalls, swollen into existence by the rain. Manzanitas and gooseberries grow slowly ripening berries, too few and young to weigh down their branches. We’re full of good cheer, telling tales and jokes, discovering giant mushrooms growing on tall trees. A view opens before us, and we realize our hike is almost over. Just a little bit more uphill, another tale or two, some complaints from the youngest member of our crew, and a last glimpse of the trail which carried us high up into the hills many hours ago.

It is hard to say goodbye. We walk to the barn to take a peek at the stable and the blacksmith shop. We imagine how hot it would have been in there when the blacksmith worked. We answer a riddle: how much money did the state pay for the park in 1958? Guessing anywhere between a dollar and a thousand, the answer, ten dollars, only takes us slightly by surprise. Finally, we all disperse to our homes, driving down the same windy road, this time watching as the road leads us, switchback by switchback, back to the human hub below.

The Loma Prieta Family Explorers offers monthly hikes for children ages six to twelve. Please check our calendar for more information. Short Toddler Explorers discovery walks are offered on Fridays and include a walk, story time, and an art project. Please join us for hikes and contact us if you would like to become a leader with the Family Explorers.

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Lil’ Corner of Joy

In one of my favorite Frog and Toad stories, Frog tells Toad how, as a young frog (or pollywog), he had gone to search for Spring. His father had told him: “Son, this is a cold, gray day, but Spring is just around the corner.” And so Frog had gone to search for that corner and for Spring. He turned several corners in his search: in the woods, a meadow, and along a stream, but he couldn’t find Spring. Finally, he got tired, and it started to rain. As he arrived back home, he saw another corner, the corner to his house, and when he went around that corner, there was Spring: the sun coming out, birds singing, his parents working in the garden, and flowers blooming. “You found it!” Toad calls, “You found Spring.” Turns out Spring was just around the corner, right there, where Frog had started, around a corner of his own house.

When I teach a meditation class, I often speak about the obstacles to mindfulness: dislike, desire, sleepiness, restlessness, and doubt; all of which have a common attribute: a wish for things to be different than they are. How often do we, in fact, wish for Spring when Winter reins (or rains, as my pun-loving boyfriend would point out) outside? Or perhaps we wish for more energy when we’re too tired to deal with the kids? How often do you doubt your choice of a route and wish you had taken another? Or that you were on the beach running instead of stuck at work? We think that if only our house was bigger (or smaller), our job better, our family more compliant, the government this way, and the world that way, then we would be happier, more satisfied, more at peace somehow. And yet most people agree that getting what we want is not the path to happiness. Research, in fact, points to other causes: developing gratitude, kindness, compassion, love and acceptance. And those, so I hear, are not around any corner outside in the world, but right here, inside us, living in a corner of our own soul.

Dharma teacher Ethan Nichtern writes: “Lacking the tools to get comfortable in our own skin and safe in our own mind, we get lost again and again in the existential transitions of life, blindly hoping that a true and permanent home lies around the corner, after just a bit more struggle to prove ourselves, a bit more time figuring out how to belong in our lives.” (The Road Home, 5). Searching for Spring around external corners may seem an innocent enough pursuit, perhaps even adventurous and exciting; but searching for ourselves, our true home, far outside of who we are, in other people’s opinions and reflections of us, needing to prove ourselves legitimate from the outside-in by someone else’s approval, and having our happiness depending on these external causes — is that how we want to live our life?

I admit it, though: I love corners. While hiking, I long to turn the next corner, go up the next hill or round the next tree or rock to see what’s there. I know, of course, that behind most hills are more hills, behind the next tree are more trees, and behind the rocky corner more trees and hills and flowers and lovely views, most likely not too different from those I already saw on the trail. And yet the attraction persists. I gaze soulfully at each trail that branches off the main trail and dream of following it. I plan to come back and visit yet another lake or climb another mountain, perhaps find more beautiful mariposa lilies which I can photograph in quest of the perfect lily photo. My desire to go on and on knows no bounds.

And yet, you might ask, in our latest hike on the Tahoe Rim Trail, what were my favorite parts?

A snack break by Fontanelles Lake, sitting on the rocks, watching the limpid color of the water, admiring the rivers of icy snow that still flow down the northern side of the hill, melting slowly into the lake.

Heart-stopping hues of orange, yellow and red in the meadow. Trees waving their branches in the breeze, some bare, some green. The sky a light blue that stretches on forever.

Sunset, colors deepening as the sun makes its way down through the clouds and below the mountains-behind-mountains-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see. The ground cold and hard, my breath catching as my mind conjures the image of a bear coming to attack me. Staying with it, sitting with it, trusting I am safe.

A rough-hewn picnic area by the river. Baby firs poking their heads up through the ground. The creek singing as it makes it way down little rapids that a woodrat could float on a woodratty raft. Tired. Hungry. Making our last breakfast on the trail and filtering pure water that will nourish my body’s cells. It is warm in the sun, cool in the shade, and I feel grateful for whoever made this beautiful camping and picnic spot, for whoever built this gift of a trail.

I love turning corners, but it’s this moment, the little moment, that counts. Sitting here, making room for myself within my own body, accepting that I belong here, now, in this chair, in front of this computer, with the sound of the boyfriend on the phone talking football to my son, a neighbor’s gardener blowing leaves outside, kids screaming in the pool down the road, the click of my fingers on the keyboard, and the alternating light and shade pattern of oaks shadows on yellow grass on the hillside outside. This is it: my legs falling asleep under the weight of the dog, my back warm, tiredness behind my eyes, ears pulsating with all this noise. This is what happiness is, inhabiting this moment, this little corner of joy.

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Meditation on Eagle’s Wings

Tuesday, in a forward-hurtling metal hunk of a car, I glance through my open window at the sky. Raptors soar overhead, circling in currents of rising air. I fully expect them to be turkey vultures or red-shouldered hawks, but still I scan for my favorite bird. Then, I see it: long straight wings, head so white it reflects the sun, white tail a stark contrast to the dark body. Huge, huge and monarchical and impressive against the blue sky. A bald eagle. Here! In our sky! My heart pounds in my chest as I try to tell Dar that he must stop, that I must get out. My whole body aches with the wish to pump my fist and yell hurray, to jump up and down, to spread my own wings, to fly, to join that eagle, that miracle survivor of humanity’s impact on nature, in the sky. My head and hand out of the window, I stammer and babble until finally I manage to call out, “A bald eagle!” Too late. The forward-hurtling car is so far, I can’t see the eagle anymore, but I know it was there. A bald eagle! In our Bay Area sky!

Red-tailed hawk above Coyote Valley

One of my favorite Buddhist teaching is the idea that enlightenment, or true freedom, comes through the cultivation of two wings: the wing of compassion and the wing of wisdom. Wisdom on its own is not enough, nor is compassion, one too cold, the other too warm. Like the wings of a bird, compassion and wisdom must balance each other for true freedom, true flight, to occur. Perhaps I love this teaching because of my longing for more wisdom and kindness, but perhaps, too, my love for the wings of enlightenment comes from a much simpler dream: the wish to fly.

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I remember moments in my life, feeling like I could fly.

Eighteen years old, at the completion ceremony for the primary army training, waiting to receive the Hebrew Bible with all the other young women, a gift which symbolizes our national heritage and beliefs: strong Jews, capable of protecting ourselves and our country. I feel as though the whole wide world is open before me, vistas innumerable, opportunities galore. I realize I’m becoming, have become in a sense, an independent adult.

Thirty something, at Asilomar during a writers’ conference, I stand by the railing on the beach, waves breaking below me on a rocky shore, water and sky merging in a splash of blue and grey, the wind under my arms whispering: “Let go, let go, and you can fly.”

Emigrant Wilderness, above Buck Lake, my shadow lingering long over the cliffs, above the water. Feeling the solitude, loneliness, the utter desolate, magnificent distance from other human beings. Enjoying the tantalizing fear of death that comes with the knowledge that a leap is possible.

Point Reyes, surrounded by aspiring California Naturalists, watching a juvenile peregrine falcon perched on a jutting rock, its young feathers as fluffy as a bunny’s fur, the ocean invisible below a thick fog. I’m cold but longing for my own peregrine-falcon wings, strong and powerful and fast. I sense the freedom that comes from being in the body, beating those wings, frolicking in the air between ocean and fog and sky.

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I meditate because I wish to be wiser and kinder, because I wish to live from the heart and to act with intention and love. But I live for the connection with nature, for the chance of coming closer to merging with the sky, the ocean and its waves, the birds, animals and bugs. Every day I move closer not just to who I am but to who we all are, creatures of the earth, like spiders, deer, falcon and eagle, hummingbird and giraffe. Our body is made up of the water, soil, gases, and nutrients of which this world is made, of which gorillas are made, or ants. Living in houses, sleeping in beds, covering ourselves with clothes — we forget that. We call them wildlife and ourselves human, we pretend that we don’t belong to this sweating, pooping, burping, slurping, chomping, dirty, messy congregation. But we are. I am. You are.

Today I read that the president has moved forward with his plans to open the Arctic Refuge to drilling. There is something ridiculous about this, the thought of going so far to seek for oil, of how much work and money will have to go into just getting there and then getting the oil out. And there is something horrifying about it, the thought of spoiling this place which so far has remained pristine and wild, the invasive outreach of the human hand, how nothing is sacred, how the greed for more money, more resources is so all-consuming, how we think we have a right to every place, no matter how unique, no matter how lovely, no matter how important to other people and species, to the balance of the fragile ecosystems of our world.

The thought which really shakes me to the core, though, is how far removed we are from our own wild nature, from our belonging to this wild earth. We too, like all other animals, depend on a habitat, no matter how varied or diverse that habitat may be. Instead of appreciating and taking care of our habitat, this living earth, we are slowly destroying it, sucking it dry of water and food and air. We do this because we don’t really believe we need it. We do this because we believe we’re somehow superior to our habitat. After all, surely there are other planets with life, and if we find them (and we’re looking), we could go there. We delude ourselves with thoughts of how smart, inventive, creative, innovative, and technologically advanced we are.

My heart breaks as I think of what we do to this earth. Drilling in the arctic and the oceans, opening up public lands for coal, how we build more and more housing and manufacturing plants and pave more streets. We’re surprised when a sandstorm comes, or the ocean rises in a tsunami to flood our streets. We install another air conditioner if the weather gets too hot. The oceans will rise? We’ll desalinate them and have more water. The soil or ocean will be polluted? We’ll spray it with chemicals to make it right again. The dodo’s extinct? Let’s see if we can genetically recreate it. We think we can do anything, all powerful, masters of the universe. We don’t need nature, because this is humanity’s planet, god-given, provided for our enjoyment and use.

On Tuesday, Dar and I are flying to Alaska, to the Arctic Refuge. I want to see it with my own eyes, feel it under my feet and in my lungs and blood. There is something humbling about this trip, about the amount of gear that we need to prepare in order to survive there, about how many flights we need to take in order to get there, about the fact that we would not have been able to go without a guide. I go to the Arctic Refuge to cultivate my two wings. Compassion and wisdom to me are part of one wing, the wing of our Humanness. The second wing I wish to cultivate is the wing of Wildness, of being Nature. It’s a tough wing to develop, especially with all that human gear that we are carrying. Despite that, I aspire to strengthen my body-and-heart connection to nature in the most intimate of ways, to become not more of myself but more of It, the planet, the universe, the cosmic and microcosmic sharing of breath and cells and waste, a part of all wild things.

Golden eagles fly over the Arctic Refuge. I hope, in a few days, to be sitting in my pack-raft, floating on the Aichilik through the last untamed landscape on earth, meditating on the eagles’ flight.

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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.

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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.

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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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A Year to Live — Day 344 — Flowers at Coe

On Wednesday this week, my friend and I made our way to Henry Coe State Park to see the wildflowers. The rain had pummeled our area for several days, and the morning of March 9th dawned cloudy, misty and drizzly. Despite the bleak weather, we did not lose heart. Instead, bringing with us enough rain gear to make a New Zealand explorer feel sanguine (and leaving dry shoes and socks in the car), we waded out into the water-logged Coe wilderness.

The hills, as Julie Andrews could have sung, were alive with the sound of damp greenness. Light rain fell on us when we passed beneath the sopping leaves of trees. The trail led us up through the clouds, and though I knew the view stretched miles to the south, we could not see farther than a few feet of the slope below us.

In the meadow above Monument Trail, a few irises radiated their gentle purple-blue leaves like a three-pronged compass, looking fragile and battered and wet. A glorious perfume wafted from the just-opening flowers of the madrone; its red trunk, as yet smooth and un-peeling, looked fresh and bloody after the rain. Farther up, shooting stars, lupine and Indian warriors covered the sides of the road, colorful against the fertile brown-green background of the slippery-slopey trail.

Hound's tongue growing at Henry Coe State Park.

Hound’s tongue growing at Henry Coe State Park.

Down below Frog Lake, a fork of Coyote Creek blocked our way, the water flowing clear and cold over the trail. We took off our shoes and waded, barefoot, to the other side. We climbed, exhilarated by damp, muddy feet, the 0.2 miles to the lake. Expanding wave-rings in the water and a “plop” gave the only hint of frogs jumping into the lake one by one, like a tumbling line of invisible dominoes. My friend had brought a birthday picnic: egg and avocado sandwiches, baby bell peppers and cucumber spears, roasted chestnuts, chocolate, bananas and tangerines. A feast. We dug in, hungry already, not minding the cold, wet ground.

The trail back to the visitor center led us up in a gentle slope through meadows of wildflowers, under oak trees, and through a low manzanita forest. On a hillside, I sought out the elusive purple mouse ears. I’d heard this tiny flower grew on Corral Trail on one of the grassy slopes, but I had never seen it. On this trip, however, like a nature birthday gift, we found several of them hiding in between the grasses, all purply and fat, their ears laying wet and heavy close to their heads as they stared at us above their crown of chubby, light-green leaves.

Driving home, now in unforeseen sunshine, I thought of my expectations for this birthday and my hope that I will celebrate, for once, a happy day. I thought about the purple mouse ears, about the frogs diving into the lake, and the other wildflowers, abundant as they came alive, so ephemeral, with the rain. Next February, as our year to live winds down, these flowers will be but a memory, pictures in the mind’s eye, but together with this last birthday they will have left a pleasant, treasured feeling in my heart.

At home, Dar arranged gifts on our dining table. Yet another surprise. A huge bouquet of flowers towered above wrapped boxes for me and the kids. I look at it now and the impermanence of all around me strikes me hard. This bouquet with its bold colors looks so solid and real, but in the next few days the flowers will begin to fade and die. They too, as Stephen Levine says in his book, began to die on the day their seeds were put in the womb of the ground. I long to take a picture of the flowers and restrain myself. Let them be, I whisper to myself, and let them, peacefully, easefully, naturally, die.

Click here to view the picasa photo album for this hike.

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A Year to Live — Day 352

The Last Birthday

Till the last few days, I had never before considered the possibility that every birthday could be my last. Like many people’s, my birthday is a sensitive subject. While I hadn’t really obsessed much about my age since my 19th birthday (when I felt hit by the realization that I was leaving my childhood behind), my birthdays have become for me a symbol of appreciation and love. Or, more often (and whiningly so), the lack thereof.

When the children were younger, and after my divorce, I made up my mind to treat my birthday as an opportunity to show kindness and love to others. I was disgusted by and impatient of what I considered my unhealthy habit of looking for love outside of myself. Instead, I reasoned, I would radiate love out. This brought about several years in which rather than expect gifts for myself, I shopped extensively for gifts that would bring pleasure and love for the kids. Rather than dream about waking up the morning of my birthday to my own surprise table full of gifts and treats, I decorated the house and created a surprise table for the kids.

My famous angel food cake with pink clouds and strawberries, our traditional cake during all birthdays.

My famous angel food cake with pink clouds and strawberries, our traditional cake during all birthdays.

In the last few years, however, a new factor was brought into my tenuous status-quo with this need to be loved. This factor was a new boyfriend, and one, moreover, who showed himself right from the start as considerate, thoughtful, and prone to giving gifts. On our second date (which was on a Christmas Eve), Dar showed up with a ribboned and wrapped box containing a Spot device (a device that helps locate lost hikers), the perfect gift for an avid hiker. For our third date, he showed up with chocolate-covered strawberries which he made himself (I had told him they were my favorites). For Valentine’s Day, he gave me two bouquets of flowers. One was a bouquet of pink tulips, I think. I loved that one. For my 39th birthday, Dar gave me several gifts. One, I remember, was the most elaborate box of chocolates I have ever seen. The chocolates came in a pink ruffled box that I still keep. Can you blame me if my expectations, after this beginning, reached an almost hysterical peak? Add to this my 40th birthday, the next year, which included two birthday cakes (one baked and hand-decorated by a friend’s talented daughter) and a cartoon artist who drew the guests.

I think you will not wonder, then, at hearing that I consider my next three birthdays a gigantic flop. The worst, perhaps, was the birthday we spent with the kids playing badminton (they fought so much, the two of them, that I had to remove myself before I started screaming) and then having lunch at the Cheesecake Factory (the waiter and manager claimed they had nothing either wheat-free or dairy-free they could bring me to eat, and I spent the meal food-less watching the others eat).

My 44th birthday is coming up in a few days, and even before I figured out that it was going to be my last, I’d been thinking what I could do to make this birthday different. I tried to see my patterns of behavior that lead me again and again to be afraid of asking for what I need, instead trying to please the rest of the family with my choices as to how to spend my birthday. If it was really and only up to me, after all, we’d spend my birthday camping out for a night somewhere in the wilderness. (Eden: “NOOOO!” Uri: “No way. Do it on your own time,” and, “Even Dar doesn’t want to go with you”). Every year I try to find something to do which, heaven help us, everyone might enjoy, and every year it looks like my best efforts do not pay off. Not to mention, in addition to this, the small voice in my head which says: “Why are they not planning my birthday? Why are they not trying to please ME for a change?”

I’m not sure this birthday is going to be all that different, except, perhaps, in my own mind. The gifts for my three important people are already piling up in a secret location in the bedroom. I’ve also decided to decorate the house — I deserve it, after all, just as much as they do. I’ve made a reservation for fondue at a restaurant which pretty much we all like. What is different, however, is my acute realization that this birthday might very well be my last.

Of course, any birthday might be our last. The not-knowing the day of our death is built-in, unquestionably present every moment we are alive. For all I know, my last birthday may have been my 43rd — after all, like all of us, I am not really assured of surviving till February 20th, 2017 — I am only committing to live till then as though that day is my last. But if this coming birthday is the last birthday I am going to celebrate, I would like to give myself the gift of at least some of the time celebrating it the way I’d like.

Inside of me, I can just barely touch the well of sadness and anger about the way I’ve let my other birthdays go, the way I never said what I needed, never expressed what I wished, never insisted, never taught the kids that my dreams too deserve to be a factor in our relationship. Instead, I’ve been teaching them quite dramatically that a parent needs to live for his or her children. A part of me, in fact, still believes it. Any deviation from this belief is a huge struggle that I overcome only rarely, and only in bits. But the rational part of me, the part that thinks that, actually, I deserve to exist as a separate human being with her own needs and wishes and dreams, that part keeps saying: “Sigal, this belief is not the truth.” And it says: “You have to teach the kids that. You have to teach them to be free.” And it remarks, ironically: “In the hurry to teach them that they matter, you may have taught them that they won’t matter when they’re adults.”

On Wednesday next week, in honor of my 44th birthday, I have taken the day off, and I am going to head up to my most beloved park to check out the wildflowers. I haven’t been up there in a long time, and I’m eager to revisit my favorite spots. In a five-hour hike, I will not be able to cover all thousands of acres of park, so many of which I know like the back of my hand, but I will be able to get a taste of wilderness. Later that day, we will go to fondue, and it will either be great, or it won’t. But in any case, the success of the dinner will not matter in the way it usually does, because I will have already celebrated my birthday for myself earlier that day in the park I love.

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A Year to Live — 361 Days

Holding Onto Grudges

A deer at Rancho from a few years ago. I thought it appropriate to the idea of freedom and letting go.

A deer at Rancho from a few years ago. I thought it appropriate to the idea of freedom and letting go.

On Tuesday, I went for a hike with a new friend, J-N, who I met that morning for the first time. We were supposed to hike with another woman, a mutual friend, but since she couldn’t come, J-N and I found ourselves in the funny position of meeting for a hike without ever having seen each other before. Despite our lack of familiarity with each other, we quickly dove into the depths of a rather personal conversation. From talking about love of the outdoors, to sharing how we met our life’s partners, we soon progressed to speaking about life itself, and through that, to my year to live and my death in (now) 361 days.

As we talked and walked, I found myself time and again complaining about grievances from my past. “Wow, I am still bearing a grudge,” I commented each time, wondering at myself for my ultra-long memory in keeping resentments. I was carrying my usual, regular backpack, as I always do, but as one grudge after another flickered to life in my memory, it occurred to me that my physical backpack was not the only one I was carrying. There I was, in the greenness and beauty of a gloriously wild place, in the sunny clarity of a California summery winter day, carrying on my back a gaggle of grudges, seemingly without any intention to let them go.

Our walk passed through rolling meadows, low oak forests, and inside the brim of a gorge almost completely overrun by fallen and uprooted trees and shrubs (perhaps the result of the last storm). Still-green trees and shrubs lay in the path of the creek, creating what could almost be a dam, and we wondered what would happen in the creek bed when the rains came again. “Erosion,” J-N said, looking at the destruction around us. We couldn’t help but imagine the violence of the storms that brought about so much collapse, that worked their way by wind and water around the roots of these trees, till finally those mighty beings could hold onto the ground no more, and even they, the giants of the earth, succumbed to the inevitability of the circle of life.

Grudges work the same way, I thought. They insidiously wear away at the foundations, exhausting good will, trust, and peace of mind. Even the tallest tree or the hardiest shrub cannot withstand the repeated corrosive efforts of resentment. I looked in the face of each one of my grudges as they came up, and I was surprised to see how little true emotion was left in them. Rather, these grudges I was holding onto, as though my world depended on them, were like a frayed tale, told so many times that it no longer held any meaning.

“As you hike,” a friend once suggested a meditation, “imagine you are carrying with you a backpack filled with all your sorrows, upsets, ill will, and anger. While hiking up a mountain, pause once in a while, perhaps during switchbacks in the trail, and imagine yourself opening the backpack and taking something out. Leave these by the side of the trail, one at a time. You can always pick them up on your way back, if you need to, but perhaps by the time you hike down you will realize you no longer need those burdens you’ve carried, and you can leave them there to be recycled back into the earth.”

In these last 361 days which I have before I die, I would like to let go of as many grudges and resentments as I can. For a moment there, during my hike with J-N, I could see with utter clarity what it would be like not to carry these grudges anymore, to hike without the backpack of resentment. If you’ve ever gone backpacking before, you know the relief of setting your pack down after a long day of hiking. The backpack, containing everything you need to live in the woods for a while, becomes a part of the body, turning you into a big turtle who is carrying its house. Setting it down is like a revelation, a release, a freedom that can only be experienced, impossible to describe.

I have carried my grudges long. I have brought them with me so far. But now, I think, it is time to set them down, one at a time. Like ultra-light backpacking, or like John Muir hiking only with his tin cup and a blanket, so do I too wish to complete the journey of my life with as little baggage as I can. Whether this means forgiving myself, forgiving others, or begging others for their forgiveness, I am getting ready to step into the creek bed and allow the water and the wind to wear the foundations of my grudge-constructs down. These stories I’ve been telling myself for so long, unlike the trees downed that I saw in my hike with J-N, were never really alive. It is time, as Jack Kornfield says, to let go of all hope of a better past. I like this idea. Wish me luck.

 

The class “A Year to Live” is offered by Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in SF. It is based on the book A Year to Live by Stephen Levine.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109