Archive | Wildlife

Mindfulness Among the Redwoods in Thich Nhat Hanh Phrases

“Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.”

When first I came to live in California, the redwood forest seemed to me a dark, depressing place where few organisms lived. The tall, dark woods hid away the sunshine, and below all was muted, musty, moist. For a long while, I preferred the oak woodlands, the open spaces of Henry Coe State Park, where the horizon widens to include even the faraway Sierra Nevada’s snowy caps. Oaks and pines and the frequent sighting of wildlife in air and water and on land captured my imagination, providing me with a nostalgic connection to the Israeli landscape in which I had grown up.

“Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I am aware of my body.”

Over these past seventeen years — somehow, as though by magic — the redwood forest grew on me. I began to see it as a place of mystery and enchantment, holding its secrets close, so much of it existing far away from our human eyes. Up in the canopy, diversity thrives of mosses, lichen, trees, ferns, brush, and wildlife. Douglas firs have been known to grow on redwoods. Bay trees. Tanoaks. Berry-bearing brush, such as salal, huckleberry and gooseberry. Birds, like the marbled murrelet who only nests in the canopy of redwoods, Northern spotted owls, falcons and bald eagles. Salamanders, chipmunks, earthworms, crickets. But more than simply admiring the diversity of the forest, I learned to sense and love the trees themselves.

“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile.”

Tall. So tall they touch the sky, dripping down a gentle rain of fog onto a ground feathery with duff. A lone banana slug meanders by, its slime pushing forest detritus down. I stand below a redwood and feel the strength of its roots in the ground. A redwood’s roots go only about a foot down, but they can stretch as far as a hundred feet away from the trunk. Kurt, my guide a few days ago at Big Basin State Park, tells me redwood roots of different trees fuse together to form one web. I close my eyes and imagine them communicating through the soil, holding onto-and-resting-in each other’s stretching arms, shooting up safe and tall to reach the sun. If their roots are entwined, are they one tree or many? Do the roots make the tree or do the number of trunks? And do they know, these trees, if a bay tree’s roots plunge into the earth through their web of life, that the bay is an “other,” and that they should not meld their roots with hers or a tanoak’s, or a pine’s?

“Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment.”

I chatter circles around Kurt as we walk. I can’t help it. Telling stories, asking questions, repeating information I had heard about redwoods, wanting to know more and more and more. Kurt seems patient, content. We visit the two tallest trees in the park. Funny enough, they are young ones who had sprouted farther up to the sky than older trees because of a spring seeping at their roots. The forest fills with the sounds of birds. Some we know: pileated woodpeckers laugh their mad laugh and drill into trees. Acorn woodpeckers waka waka out of sight, their methodical hammering lighter, less frantic. Jays caw and hop, and little juncos chirp. We see one banana slug, and then… I miss another and step on it. I am heartbroken, leaning down to find the slug writhing in redwood duff. A direct hit, Kurt says. How can such a magical day include such a devastating turn?

“Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out I am home.”

Three days later, I sit at the foot of a redwood tree at Wunderlich County Park. We are meditating to Thich Nhat Hanh phrases which I have adapted into a guided meditation. Across the creek, young redwoods grow close together on a hill which had been logged and logged again in the last one-hundred-and-sixty years, as had most of the land around us. But this lovely park is now protected and safe. The ground is cold, the air is colder, and dawn is but breaking over the top of the trees. Beside me, Anne-Marie and Adelaide are quiet. We are feeling the connection to the earth. Suddenly, crushing through the vegetation, someone approaches our peaceful spot. As the meditation wounds to a stop, we open our eyes to find a young deer tiptoeing down the hill, her eyes a deep brown in her honey head, stretched wide at the sight of the humans she had not noticed before. She sees us seeing her and hurries away. A pileated woodpecker madly laughs high above, and my heart is at peace. It’s time for our mindful walk.

“Breathing in, I know Mother Earth is in me. Breathing out, I belong.”

I go to nature to find connection, to remember that I am nought but a collection of bits and pieces of earth. The biblical God, anticipating science, had fashioned Adam out of  dust, creating him from the very earth where he belongs. Whether walking or sitting, chattering away or so quiet that a deer misses seeing me nearby, I hold on to this sacred connection to all of life. Sometimes, I joke that being eaten by a mountain lion is the way to go, a way to ensure that I will not be embalmed and entombed or enshrined in a way that would prevent my returning to the earth. But in the coolness of morning, the redwoods permitting me to braid my human roots with theirs, death does not seem so bad, allowing me a glimpse of rejoining this land where every speck of soil is alive.

“Breath of Life” by poet Danna Faulds

I breathe in All That Is-
Awareness expanding
to take everything in,
as if my heart beats
the world into being.
From the unnamed vastness beneath the
mind, I breathe my way to wholeness and healing.
Inhalation. Exhalation.
Each Breath a “yes,”
and a letting go, a journey, and a coming home.

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Beach Hopping at Wilder Ranch with the Family Explorers

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

The beach holds a special, unmatched fascination for kids. Perhaps it is the lack of structure: no trail or poison oak, the inviting and warm expanse of yellow sand, and the thrill of waves breaking over bare feet.

Wilder Ranch is rich in coves that hide behind tangles of willow and coyote brush, and to which we descended through thick carpets of blackberry, silverweed and water cresses. The swell of the ocean thundered up white sand, while slippery seals slept on marine terraces, awaiting low tide. The sand, I had read in the Wilder Ranch guide book, had originated up in the Sierra Nevada, eroded over eons and carried down by creeks and rivers through the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. Ocean currents then bore the sand south till it was deposited in Wilder Ranch’s coves.

The parents perched on the sand, sifting it through their fingers, talking of the pelicans who seemed to fly always north, perhaps to a pelican convention. We watched — could it be with envy? — as the energetic young ones rushed in and out of the swirling tendrils of foam, teasing the reach of the ocean beyond.

We scrambled down to Strawberry Beach, where we enjoyed the sight of dudleya and coastal plantains growing straight out of the rock face. Next, we hopped to Sand Plant Beach where the kids ran and jumped in the sand. We then explored Fern Grotto Beach, tempted by sea caves into whose dripping depths the young ones dared wriggle much farther than I. Finally, on our way back, tired, sun-kissed, and happy, we peeked at the much larger Wilder Beach from the bluff.

Wilder Beach is closed to humans, kept for the plovers who lay there their eggs there in small depressions in the sand, and for the many other sea birds, both residents and migrants who pause for a rest on their way down the great flyway in the sky. After our morning of beach hopping in coves, we were more than content to watch from the bluff a seal dipping in and out of the current and to follow two egrets with binoculars from afar.

Wilder Ranch is a magical place, and it is hard to believe that it was once headed for development. Ten thousand units and a golf course were planned, an expansion which would have doubled the size of Santa Cruz. Fortunately, the town’s citizens mobilized, among them Sierra Club members, to protest the plan. Operation Wilder was successful, to our immense gratitude, and the land was purchased by the State and turned into a state park.

The Loma Prieta Family Explorers offers one or more hikes a month for families with kids ages 6-12 as well as monthly toddler walks. It is our mission to cultivate and nourish a sense of wonder and curiosity in families, with the intention of raising a new generation of stewards for our public lands. Please check our calendar or meetup page for upcoming hikes.

The Loma Prieta Family Explorers are always looking for new hike leaders, 18 years old or over, or aspiring hike leaders, for those under 18. Please email us for more details.

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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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Sunny Tracking Hike at Coyote Valley

Rachel Carson once wrote, “It is possible to compile extensive lists of creatures seen and identified without once having caught a breath-taking glimpse of the wonder of life.” The Loma Prieta Family Explorers’s mission is to cultivate and embrace our innate sense of wonder, our appreciation of the miracle of life. We love knowing the names of things, but even more, we love to experience them and learn the stories behind them.

Elegant clarkia is endemic to California and grows in oak woodlands. Though it looks so unlike other clarkias, it is still in the same family!

On Sunday, May 27th, the Family Explorers set out in quest of wildlife scat and tracks in sunny Coyote Valley. Undeterred by the warm weather, our group of young story-tellers, bug-and-snake enthusiasts and avid adventurers identified deer tracks and learned which direction the tracks point and whether they were of a hind or front hoof (do you know how to tell?). As proof, we caught sight of two deer crossing the trail, and immediately rushed to check if we can find the tracks they made. We were excited to watch a woodpecker flying overhead, darting here and there, perhaps catching and eating flies in the air, and watched where she went in case her cavity nest was nearby. We examined multiple beetles, spiders and ants, poking through holes and shining a flashlight in to see if we can see inside. We even got to discuss the likelihood of particular scat being dog, coyote or bobcat.

Hopping and skipping downhill, we made our way back, all the while telling stories. The young explorers came up with a tale of three hikers who encounter high adventure at the park climbing trees with poison oak, falling in raging creeks, getting attacked by a mutant shark, and nearly drowning in a whirlpool. A future visitor to the park need not worry, however. We are almost certain mutant sharks are not to be found at Coyote Valley. At least, we found no tracks of them. Other wildlife, however, is abundant, even if often all we see are signs.

Mariposa lilies are one of my favorite flowers to find. I look forward to May, barely concealing my impatience for these glorious flowers to bloom. This one also features lovely bugs inside who are probably enjoying its pollen.

The rolling hills  of Coyote Valley Preserve may seem similar to many others in the Bay Area. The park is so teeming with wildlife, however, because it is uniquely situated not only at the narrow “neck” of the valley but also next to the only undeveloped section of valley floor remaining in the Bay Area. Mountain lions, bobcat, turkey, deer and other wildlife routinely cross through this narrow “neck” between the Santa Cruz mountains and the Diablo Range, helping diversify their genetic pool and connecting habitats. Even the seething traffic of 101 does not stop them — they often cross in culverts under the freeway.

We love visiting Coyote Valley, and this visit was no different, with its promise of wildlife and mariposa lilies, harvest brodiaea, and sticky monkeyflower dotting the hills, the air drenched with the spell-binding scent of buckeyes. Thank you to Justyna for leading us!

Join us on a future hike to experience the miraculous forests and meadows of the Bay Area and reconnect with your own wonder of life. The Loma Prieta Family Explorers offer monthly hikes to nearby parks as well as a Toddler Explorers program. For more information, please visit our calendar.

See you on the trails!

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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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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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Bearing Witness

I always thought that El Capitan and Half Dome will long survive me. I took comfort in thinking that, even if us humans die off, the redwoods, most likely, will survive and continue to thrive, their trunks thickening and their canopy reaching high to a sky that will look more or less the way it does now. I believed some life will go on, even if it is different from what we know today, and some things, some features of this world we love so much, will linger on: perhaps the San Francisco Bay, or the Pacific Ocean, or Mount Rainier. The world will live on, in some shape or form. Life will go on.

Joanna Macy said to walk the razor-edge line between hope and despair. I try, but it is tough advice to follow, sometimes, when so much of what I hold dear is being threatened, and so few people around me seem to care. I care about people, but if it’s us or the world, it’s clear to me who is the one who needs to make way. As long as the world continues, I repeat as a mantra. As long as there’s El Capitan, or Mount Starr King, or Shasta, Mount Olympus, Rainier. In my attempt to hang onto any little bush on top of that razor-edge line, I forget that rocks and mountains, oceans and trees (no matter how long-lived they can be) are also subject to the rules of impermanence. Nothing stays the same. Not even the razor-edge line underfoot.

An Israeli professor, I read in the newspaper, predicts that the earth will turn into Mars or Venus in 200 years (unless we follow the Paris agreement, he says). Edward O. Wilson, the famous myrmecologist, predicts that by 2050 50% of all the species in the world will be gone. I have read accounts that claim that 8 years from now the Central Valley in California will be so hot humans would no longer be able to live there. There’s other, similarly dire theories, but why repeat them all? Joanna Macy said not to believe any of these prophecies. She said to continue to do our work. To walk that razor-edge line. It’s not that we fight for as long as there’s hope, We fight for as long as there’s a cause for which to fight. As long as there are pandas, hummingbirds, ants. As long as there’s Bears Ears. As long as the Colorado River still runs.

A year ago, a young friend was diagnosed with cancer. He began treatment, encountering set-backs one after another, but not losing hope. At least not for long, at least not for a while. A few weeks ago, his mother let us know that he was now in hospice care. To me, heart sinking, heaviness in the chest, contraction all over the body, brain shouting no, it meant that life is almost gone. But it turns out my understanding was inaccurate. Hospice care means living as well as possible and with compassionate care the life we have left. Instead of planning for a faraway future, it means living this moment fully. It doesn’t mean we stop treatment or lose hope. It means opening up to the love — and the life — that’s here.

Joanna Macy said to walk the razor-edge line, but I can’t. I teeter-totter between hope and despair, between sadness and joy, between anger and acceptance. Only one constant stays: I love this world. I love the hummingbirds which come buzzing around my flowering abutilon plant. I love the deer and the rabbits who eat the plants which I plant for them in my garden. I love the flowers cascading down a madrone and the spritz of perfume that accompanies the flowery bouquets of the buckeye. I love this beautiful light blue sky and all the weather that comes with it. I love the sticky sand on the beach, the breaking waves, and the gorgeous pod of dolphins which rode them today to the horizon. My heart, little, fluttering, fearful, opens up to touch these miracles, to hug them, to bear witness that they are here. And I think to myself: we all live with impermanence. We all, the world included (and whether we realize it or not), have the life-limiting condition which is life itself.

A mother, diagnosed with lung cancer, wrote about the irony if she died of a car accident instead of her cancer. I think to myself: our young friend may be sick. He may not live to be 80. But neither might I. We none of us know the day of our death, and neither does the earth. In some ways, we all ought to live with the compassion and love of hospice care, bearing witness to our time here in this life and to the life all around us — to the beauty which surrounds us, the miracle of life which is here. Opening up to the fragility of this world.

My partner said last night: I am sure life exists on other planets. It might, I wanted to say, and it might not. Instead of turning our thoughts once again outwards, why not focus on what is here right under our noses, under our feet, beneath our hands, and to this earthy air breathing in and our of our lungs. This touch, this smell, this sound. This beautiful earth whose day of death may be near or far. We don’t know. We walk the razor-edge line. We fall into despair, and we desperately hope. We sign petitions. We go to vote. We write a blog. And maybe one of these treatments will work, and the earth and its creatures and all the life on it will live on for another day. Maybe the cancer that we have inflicted upon the earth will heal, and maybe it won’t. For now, there is life. That’s all I know for sure. There is this flower and this bit of ground, this humid air, this birdsong, this crush of a wave on the beach, and the laugh of a human child as she runs from the wave along the shore.

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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.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109