Archive | Wildlife

I’d Rather Be Monkeywrenching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, yes, I guess.

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

Yes, monkeywrenching can send you to jail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, ask yourself, where do you stand?

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California Naturalist Class, Part 5: David Plays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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California Naturalist Class, Part 4: The Perseid Meteor Shower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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California Naturalist Class, Part 3: Barf Car Vignettes

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

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.”

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

“A bobcat,” Chris says later in class.

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

*********

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

“My God, My God,

May it never end,

The sand and the sea,

The rustle of water,

Lightning in the sky,

The prayer of Man.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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California Naturalist Class, Part 1: Blissful Discovery

Lesley and I were still strangers when we parked our cars side by side in the Chimney Rock Parking lot, at the very edge of the continent in Point Reyes National Seashore. Lesley had a big, friendly smile and long, blond hair. She’d arrived slightly late to our first session of the California Naturalist Immersion Class, and I couldn’t remember what she’d said was her favorite natural phenomena. Octopus, maybe? I made a mental note to remember that she must like intelligent marine life.

During our ice-breaker circle earlier, I had chosen the ibex to represent me. An animal like a cross between mountain goat and big-horned sheep, the ibex lives in Israel’s Negev Desert. I loved seeing them hang out, like over-sized, tan, misshapen birds on the low desert trees, munching thoughtfully on leaves and branches as though they belonged up there. They represented the essential me, I felt, desert-loving and freedom-seeking at my essence, rock-climber and route finder, Israeli despite living here in the United States.

I returned Lesley’s smile, allowing myself to feel happy being there despite my trepidation about the California Naturalist class. The rooms at the Lifeboat Station, where we were to stay, were so crowded. The bathrooms uncomfortable and lacking in privacy. The entire building we were going to stay in seemed cramped, and the area where we were going to be eating a frightening potential abode of dust mites. I knew I could find hundreds of reasons to be worried about the week — they all were knocking on the inside edge of my consciousness. Instead, I tried to concentrate on Lesley’s wide smile.

We walked companionably down the hill, each step bringing us closer toward the on-the-edge-of-consciousness dreaded Lifeboat Station. Drake’s Bay stretched to the left, unflappable and blue, surrounded by yellow cliffs (the same rocky shores, according to legend, which made Sir Francis Drake think of the Dover Cliffs when he first landed). Elephant seals roared in the background, and here and there the desolate cry of a seagull flying overhead pierced the air. It was evening, and yet the sun still shone bright above the hills, and only the slowly lengthening shadows of the Monterey Cypresses hinted that night might come before long.

As we passed by the Chief’s house, where the Coast Guard captain had once resided with his family, an owl hooted, and then another. We paused, listening. The air quivered with the scent of the cypresses and the sound of the waves rushing onto the rocks below. The owl hooted again from our right. Looking up, my breath stopped, for we could see it, framed by the cypress as clear as the Point Reyes sun-setting daylight. My first Great Horned owl, right there. As though to confirm our discovery, the owl hooted again, its unseen mate echoing the call.

Others from our class appeared, coming up the hill toward us, curious faces I didn’t yet know attached to name tags which soon, a day or two later, I would not need. Binoculars were pulled out of bags, trained at the owl. The owl was silent, perhaps unsure of what the commotion was about, wondering if it was safe to advertise its location. Too late. We already knew exactly where it was, could see it on the bare branch, discovered its pellets on the ground below. Secret no more, the owl and its partner were ours for the watching and remained ours for most of our week’s stay.

“I lead you to make your own discoveries,” our teacher Chris said during one of his talks. “I could have led you to the owl, but I wanted you to find it yourselves.” My subconscious knew, of course, that the owl had been on that tree before Lesley and I discovered it. I knew, too, that other people had seen Great Horned owls before me, had seen this one more than once. I was neither the first to see it on that particular cypress tree, nor the first to discover the species. And yet the discovery was precious to me. I had heard the owl call, raised my eye in hope of seeing it, and met with success for the very first time. Seeing it was magic, surprise and miracle combined. For me, my owl sighting was unique, and the owl was the first, primordial owl, a wonderful beginning to a week still mysteriously looming before me and on which I placed so many hopes and expectations and innocent trust.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109