Friday, June 23, 2017

Coyote Story

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Coyote gobbled down the last bit of his morning gopher, then stepped briskly up the steep slope through tall brown grass until he came to the top of Bolinas Ridge near Serpentine Power Point. He looked out over the forest and the blanket of fog and said, "This is a good day to change my bones."

So Coyote stripped off his beautiful golden skin and laid it down fur-side up. "I strip away everything I have, Creator," said Coyote. "I strip away my past and my future, my fears and my desires. I strip away my skin and my muscles and my organs and even my bones. My thoughts that flutter like leaves in a swirl of wind, I strip away. The leaves fall to earth. I stand here as nothing before you, Creator, with no substance and no thought. Empty."

Creator saw Coyote thus emptied out and felt kinship with him. He decided to give Coyote new life, and said, "Coyote, it is time to put yourself back together. I will give you new bones, but you must put back on the rest of your organs and skin and fur. Otherwise no one will recognize you."

"Aho," said Coyote. "Thank you for these brand new bones. I am renewed." Refreshed, Coyote trotted north toward the woods with the new bones Creator gave him, feeling strong. Crossing a flat meadow he looked to the east and noticed a human being watching him. "I wonder if that human being is here to get new bones," Coyote thought as he slipped into the woods.

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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Jungle Lore

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"This forest road was little used by human beings and as there was an abundance of game in the forest through which it ran, an early morning walk along it was of great interest, for on the road ... was a record of all the animals that had used or crossed it during the night.... For instance, the porcupine that had come out on to the road ... had evidently taken fright at something in the jungle on the right of the road and had scurried back. The reason for his fright was apparent a few yards farther on, where a bear had crossed the road.... On entering the jungle ... the bear had disturbed a sounder of pig and a small herd of cheetal, for they had dashed across the the road into the jungle.... A little farther on, a sambhar stag had come out ... and after browsing on a bush had walked along the road for fifty yards, rubbed his antlers against a young sapling, and then gone back into the jungle. Near this spot a four-horned antelope, with a fawn at foot, had come on the road. The fawn, whose hoofprints were no bigger than the finger nails of a child, had skipped about the road until the mother had taken fright, and after dashing down the road for a few yards mother and fawn had gone into the jungle. Here there was a bend in the road, and at the bend were the footprints of a hyena who had come as far as this, and then turned and gone back the way it had come."
--Jim Corbett, from "Jungle Lore"

Although I'm not much of a tracker myself, I love stories of experts who read track and sign on the landscape, seeing wildlife stories that entirely escape the notice of most people today, including even long-time hikers. 

In addition to tracking, Corbett also writes about listening to birds to get an idea of what's going on beyond your field of view. Reading his stories reminded me of a time when some joker was standing under a small tree with his dog, watching the Eel River flow by. He was blissfully oblivious of the scolding being directed at him from the branches above him. A bird was anxious about the safety of its nest and was making quite a racket. It went on and on, and a friend who'd finally had enough yelled across the river to tell the guy he was disturbing the bird. Sure enough, as soon as the guy took his dog away from the tree, the bird stopped scolding and returned to her nest.

You've probably never heard of Jim Corbett, even though he's got a national park named after him. That's because the national park is in the state of Uttarakhand, in India, where he was born and lived most of his life before retiring to Kenya where he died in 1955. I learned about Corbett by way of Jon Young, one of the few who keeps the study of bird language alive in these modern times.

The recent rains gave a January feel to the June woods this morning. I brought my camera gear down to Potrero Meadow to see if I would feel inspired to do any photography. I wandered through a large patch of native wild onion (Allium unifolium) without any lightning striking, then followed deer trails through a variety of tall grasses with patches of tall meadow rue (including one plant decorated with a small group of orange insect eggs) and short pennyroyal, finally making my way to the still-blooming western azalea bushes. I fully expected to pick up a few ticks brushing up against all of that, but when I reached the picnic tables to check myself I was almost disappointed that I didn't snag a single one.

It was another beautiful morning, so even though I wasn't feeling much inspiration to do photography, it was still great to have the earth underfoot, forest all about, and blue sky above. I looped out to Rifle Camp again, then returned along the fire road to my car at the Mountain Theater's dirt parking lot. 

I was surprised to see so many people heading to the theater since the Mountain Play is on Sundays, not Saturdays. I thought they changed the day since the Dipsea Race is tomorrow, but today's show was actually the Magic Mountain Play Music Festival whose headline act was Jefferson Starship, followed by a concert version of the play Hair, a nice celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love.

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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Real Things

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I'm surprised it's been so long since I posted anything. I've been feeling like the blog has been winding itself down, and maybe it has. I can't tell yet if I just need to wait for the batteries to recharge, or if it's time to move on to some other weekend activity. I brought my camera up to Mt. Tam last week and photographed this flower spider on a yellow mariposa lily, and I set a camera trap in a spot where I plan to leave it all summer. Otherwise I've hardly touched a camera in weeks.

This morning I did a short hike with no camera at all, carrying nothing but a bottle of water. Down the Cataract Trail to the Mickey O'Brien Trail and Barth's Retreat. Onward to Potrero Meadow and Rifle Camp and back along the fire road and the Benstein Trail to Rock Spring. A quick two-hour stroll to experience a kind of beauty and divinity that can't be acquired or shared in a picture: the smell of plant resins in the air, the sound of wind blowing through the forest, trickling creekwater, clouds sailing across a blue sky, the soft surprise of new tanoak leaves, a lizard darting across dry leaves, the weight of a grappletail bending a stalk of grass, the orange and black symmetry of feathers on a northern flicker, the joy of hiking over earth strewn with rocks and roots. Real things, not just pictures that remind me of real things.

I didn't really miss not having a camera with me, but I did have the impression throughout my hike that I was moving too fast, covering terrain like a hiker instead of a photographer, practicing an unfamiliar art.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth Day

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In honor of the special day I decided to visit the planet Earth, and an especially lovely corner of it situated on the outskirts of the town of Larkspur near the base of Mt. Tamalpais. The place is called Baltimore Canyon. 

When my family moved away from Hawaii the first time, I was about seven years old, and we went from Honolulu to Towson, just outside Baltimore, Maryland. It was the year of the "blizzard of '66" for this Island boy, and I still remember two years later worrying about my father as he drove off to work in Baltimore during the riots that broke out after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 .

So how, you might ask, did the name of Baltimore end up in this pretty little canyon at the base of Mt. Tam? According to a Wikipedia entry on Larkspur Creek, a sawmill was transported down the east coast of North and South America, around Cape Horn, then up along the west coasts of those two continents -- all the way from Baltimore to Larkspur -- in 1849:

Secretary Daniel Taylor of the Baltimore and Frederick Trading and Mining Company recalled in a 1914 newspaper article, “When we arrived at Larkspur, there was no one to meet us. The country was a wilderness, with wild geese in abundance." The sawyers denuded Mt. Tamalpais of old-growth redwoods in short order. Said Taylor in 1914, "I can picture the majestic redwoods that covered the flat where Larkspur stands today. Some of the trees were eight feet in diameter and lifted their immense bulk 300 feet upward.” 

You can still find a few redwoods along Larkspur Creek. In the photo above that shows multiple trunks rising in a kind of circle together, my guess is that they are all sprouting from the same burl, or underground fruiting structure, that once supported a single giant redwood. Larkspur is no longer a wilderness, but it seemed like a cute little town as I drove through it. 

I got a stiff neck looking for California spotted owls but didn't have any luck. I photographed this semi-snoozing owl about this time two years ago.

I was surprised to see a fruiting of Panus conchatus on a decaying bay laurel that had fallen across the creek. I didn't even notice the slug gnoshing on the old specimen until I viewed the image back at home.

I drove out of Larkspur along Magnolia Avenue to Sir Francis Drake, then out to Fairfax-Bolinas Road which finally reopened earlier this month. This velvet-antlered buck was grazing on the edge of the road across from the Meadow Club Golf Course.

This might have been his younger brother, kicking back. It was great to see so many deer out and about again. Seems like it's been a while. 

Up near Azalea Hill, a California poppy emerged from its tissue-like calyx.

Several cream cups (Platystemon californicus), bloomed around their orange brothers in the Papaveraceae.

Due to the road being closed most of the winter, I hadn't been to the Lily Pond in ages. The non-native lilies were in bloom, but I was more interested in these slime mold fruiting bodies, which I presume to be wolf's milk (Lycogala epidendrum). There were a few bright red spots nearby which apparently is what the slime mold looks like in its plasmodial stage. Now I'm sorry I didn't photograph them.

A little farther down the trail I found a nice fruiting of spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), a plant that doesn't produce chlorophyll. Instead of photosynthesizing, this member of the orchid family parasitizes the mycelium of fungi in the Russulaceae. Now that I think about it, there were quite a few black-spotted banana slugs in the same vicinity. One of the slugs was feeding on a very old, entirely black and decayed mushroom that was probably among the last of the above-ground fruitings of a russula.

As I walked back toward the car, this little Pacific chorus frog hopped across the trail and landed on a log that seemed a perfect match for its camouflage. I fired off two frames before it hopped off and scuttled into a nearby pool of water where it disappeared.

Once again, another happy day on planet Earth.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Blue and Gold

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Sometimes it feels like it's getting harder to enjoy nature, to get close enough to it that our senses and aesthetic consciousness become engaged, close enough to experience that magical loss of boundary between us and the world. To find a virgin patch of wildflowers that hasn't been trampled confers a responsibility to try to  leave it that way for the next person to discover, to say nothing of the specific needs of insects and the general interdependence of the ecological web as a whole. A patch of wildflowers can take only so much of that up-close-and-personal love. 

Meanwhile, the more we turn the planet over to cities and suburbs and food production, the more we impoverish our heritage of wild nature. You know the end is near when nature becomes akin to a museum diorama--look but don't touch--instead of something intrinsic to our lives, part of who we are.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sky's the Limit

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Eight cars at the gate and the ranger was late. I think instead of squeezing in front of the gate with the one or two smoggers who don't turn their cars off I might just pull into the Pantoll parking lot when I arrive on the early side. Better yet, just leave home a few minutes later.

I guess it must be spring break because there were tons of early arrivals this morning.

Everyone seemed interested in watching the rising sun, but I had a hunch the photography would be better out the other way.

I'm not sure I was right about that, but it was probably a pretty great morning no matter where you were. Way out in the distance in this view, you can just make out where my home is buried under a blanket of fog. Even in the wind, it was shorts-and-t-shirt weather in the mountain sun.

So the sky lupine are out. Among the lupine I also saw lots of individual ladybird beetles, a flower spider, and numerous plant bugs. It's kind of humorous to try to get your camera close to a flower spider or a plant bug and have them see you and run around to the other side of the stalk or flower. Like that will save them.

The wind came up very fast this morning, making it impossible to photograph most of the wildflowers around the Serpentine Power Point.

Instead of doing focus stacks I just went old school, firing off single frames.

Along with the sky lupine, the lizards are back out.

This tail-less one might already have had a run-in with a predator.

I wish I could have found a bobcat that was as cooperative with a photographer as these fence lizards.

I didn't have a lot of time to hike around, so I just poked around near a couple of pull-outs. It was kind of a random morning.

Back in San Francisco I was just a block from home when I drove past this guy smoking a cigarette. I thought his dog had gotten away from him and was cantering down Ortega Street in front of my car. It took about one second to realize the dog was actually a coyote! It headed downhill on 11th Avenue, creating a bit of excitement for me and a neighbor who was out walking his dog. The coyote headed down the sidewalk toward a small boy who was pushing his scooter up the hill, but crossed the street long before the boy even noticed. I think the coyote took a right at Noriega Street, perhaps trying to get back to the other side of Laguna Honda.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Tenacity Required

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I figured the walk up to Morse Falls would be tricky after a stormy season that brought so many mud slides and toppled trees--even closing access to parts of the mountain--and I was not wrong. The waterfall is a short hike from Highway 1 north of Stinson Beach, but there's no maintained trail. The usual trailhead was still flooded by the creek, so I took an alternate route. A faint trail through the spring grass told me someone had chosen the same route before me, and not just people, as I surmised when I came upon a bedding area with three obvious deer lays pushed down in the grass. I walked through, hoping I wasn't picking up any ticks.

I went up in February last year. The route was much easier to follow then, but it was nowhere near as green.


I hadn't gone very far up the trail before I encountered this fallen canyon maple tree. Note the new green leaves and dangling flower catkins. Tenacious tree. Judging by the weathered look of the wood where branches had been sawed off, I believe the tree was probably there last year. I'm sure it had no leaves though, so I guess I didn't pay much attention to it.

Hiking up the canyon, I placed my feet as carefully as I could to avoid brushing up against poison oak and poison hemlock, but my tingling legs told me I'd tangled with some unseen stinging nettle. They are still tingling as I type up this blog post five hours later. The route had taken me through lots of wet grass and other low plants, over fallen logs and under fallen trees, and even up the middle of the creek at a point where the old route had been wiped out. The very last section of the trail had also slid away and become a maze of branches from a fallen tree, hard to wrangle through with a backpack and tripod.

I was glad to see when I reached the falls that my tenacity had paid off. Lots of water was flowing over the falls, and the bigleaf maple that keeps the waterfall company was nicely covered with moss and ferns. I had been disappointed last year because the moss was sparse due to the prolonged drought. 

I shot a few photos, only 37 frames, about the limit of a roll of film, before hiking back out to the car. I'd planned to drive north and go up the mountain via Bolinas-Fairfax Road, but the gate was locked. I turned around and soon turned into a pull-out to look at an osprey that was perched on the top of a telephone pole. I wanted to observe the osprey as the tide came in, but I felt extremely antsy--itchy, actually--so I reluctantly got back on the road. Then I noticed another odd sensation. My face felt like it had been shot full of novocaine. I tried to whistle but couldn't do it. My face looked very red in the rearview mirror. The chest congestion I'd been feeling due to a cold got worse. 

I realized I was having some kind of allergic reaction, and I thought back to my hike. Could bare legs brushing up against poison hemlock do this? I wanted to do more photography, but I was too uncomfortable. By the time I got home I realized my torso was covered with scarlet patches and hives. A hot shower felt great, and as I was toweling off I felt the telltale bump of a tick on the back of my leg, just below my right butt cheek. I pulled off the tick, and my wife gave me some Benadryl which seems to have relieved most of the redness and itching. I do tend to get bad reactions to tick bites, but a couple of these symptoms--a numb face and mild respiratory distress--were a first. Now my wife thinks I should carry an EpiPen in my camera bag. Maybe she's right.

All during the hike I was thinking about my friend David Sumner, who passed away yesterday afternoon after tenaciously battling leukemia for nearly ten years. Dave once worked for Galen Rowell, but he wasn't a nature photographer. He was once an anthropologist who studied signs left by indigenous people who lived in the desert, but I could never convince him to create a book of his photography for the sake of posterity. I'm lucky to have a few of his prints hanging in my home. He collected a little art and photography himself, but what he loved to collect more than anything, I believe, was friends. He had a million of 'em, and we all miss him terribly.

I've been reading about and seeing pictures of this year's brilliant wildflower blooms in the southern deserts near where Dave grew up, but I haven't felt like driving all the way down there to see them, feeling content to ramble around Mt. Tam and Pt. Reyes. I've always been inspired by Dave's love of photography--he used digital cameras at times but was devoted to film--especially as the leukemia made him less able to go out and explore the visual possibilities of places away from home. If he was unable to get out and about, he found brilliant images in his own home, always aware of the way the light filtered through the windows, the way a simple piece of furniture, a fork on the counter top, or even half-filled cup of coffee could evoke a transcendent emotion.

Dave was an erudite man, a storehouse of knowledge on many subjects beyond his love of photography, and he was charismatic and outgoing, always eager to bandy ideas with people. But he took a different approach to his photography and once told me he was attracted to the quiet places of the world. I always appreciated that subtlety, that ability to compose an image the way a poet composes a haiku, making art from the quotidian, from the magical realms of ordinary life.

I miss you, Dave. 

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"Beer & Gear" Gathering at Dave and Anna's Place

Dave with his wife, Anna, on the Ocean Beach Esplanade

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Crested Woodpecker

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I spent the early part of the morning, while it was still too dark to hike down the Cataract Trail, poking around Serpentine Power Point (see Tamalpais Walking for the origin of that name). I didn't see anything new to photograph, but I noted lots of  (silverleaf?) lupine plants getting started (but still no sign of sky lupine), and lots of cobweb thistle (though only one of the dozens of plants had a flower on it already). Later in the day a bit of warm sunshine opened the closed petals of a few scattered California poppies, but overall the wildflower show, to whatever extent we will have one, is still probably a couple of weeks off. 

Returning to my car in the Rock Spring parking lot, I was questioned by a young man who might have been from Brazil (says my gestalt). He pointed the way I'd just come from and asked, "Is that the trail to the beach?" I cocked my head, unsure if I'd heard him correctly. I figured he'd meant to start at Pantoll and hike out the Matt Davis Trail down to Stinson. He had no map, so I couldn't show him that or any other plausible route. I told him there was no trail to the beach from there, but he gave me a kind of jaunty, defiant look that said, "I will find my way just fine, old man." I pointed him in the right direction as best I could, thinking he had an interesting day ahead of him.

The Rock Spring water tank is still dripping from a loose valve fitting at the top of the tank. As I stood next to the huge thing and thought about the water pressure against those weathered old barrel staves and rusty hoops, I had a brief but scintillating moment of panic. I don't know if I faced my fear or just ignored it, but I threw caution to the wind and made a couple of photographs.

I was well down the Cataract Trail before I realized I'd left my water bottle back in the car. I didn't have a particular hike planned, but I figured I might need it if I got ambitious. After photographing this irresistible group of shooting stars (five flowers and a bud on the stalk, instead of the usual two or three flowers), I got all the way to the Mickey O'Brien Trail without taking my camera out of the bag again. 

My throat felt a little scratchy, maybe due to an incipient cold, so I decided to hike back up to the car. I figured I'd do some poking around up on Bolinas Ridge, but as I hiked back up the trail I thought that if the water tank and the shooting stars were my only photos of the day, I wouldn't have a blog post for today. With very few exceptions, that's always the way I approach an outing on the mountain. I rarely have anything in mind. I rely on inspiration and luck, and sometimes I go home empty-handed.

I've been hearing pileated woodpeckers quite a bit on recent trips, and this morning was no exception. These large woodpeckers often sound tantalizingly close but can nevertheless be difficult to see. I was terrifically excited when this guy swooped over my head, crossed Cataract Creek, and came to rest on a jumble of logs just a hop, skip and creek-dipped-shoe away. My longest lens was a 105mm, but I couldn't resist trying my luck. 

The first bird's mate soon swooped by but was much more skittish about me and hid behind trees until finally fluttering into the woods across the meadow. She was soon followed by the other one. I foolishly followed them despite having no chance whatsoever of being able to photograph them with my puny 105mm. I had binoculars, though, and figured I might enjoy just watching them.

To make a long story short, the more brazen of the two birds, presumably the male, ended up pecking so diligently on a large downed Douglas fir that I was able to waltz right up to him. In truth I approached incrementally, grateful for the bird's forbearance each time I moved a bit closer. 

At no time did Pileated Pete seem the least bit perturbed by my proximity, even when he finally prized out his prize, a big fat grub.

I shot a little bit of hand-held video showing Pete working the wood, then gnoshing on bits of Mr. Grubs before he decided to go for broke. Unfortunately, he couldn't quite fit Mr. Grubs down his gullet and sort of spit him back out. He held one end of the grub in his beak and snapped his head to and fro to try to snap the grub into smaller pieces, but he lost his grip and sent the grub into some nearby brush. I felt bad for him for losing his meal after all that work, but he did not seem bothered in the least. After Pete flew away I managed to find the remains of Mr. Grubs on the ground under some bushes. Not a pretty sight.

I got back to the car and drove out along Bolinas Ridge to walk the same short loop I followed last week. This land snail, perhaps a redwood sideband snail (Monadenia infumata), was crossing the path. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the calypso orchid I replanted (after photographing it from bulb to crown) was still alive. Dozens more have sprouted flowers in just the last week, and spotted coral root is already getting started in a few places. I hung out with the shrieking robins, screaching steller's jays, whistling mourning doves, band-tailed pigeons making very weird noises, and mountain bluebirds sounding as pretty as they look. I think I spooked up a poorwill at one point and was disappointed that I hadn't noticed it before it flushed.


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