Monday, October 31, 2016

Mt. Tam O'Shanter

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The wind blew as if it had blown its last;
The rattling showers rose on the blast;
The speedy gleams the darkness swallowed,
Loud, deep and long the thunder bellowed:
That night, a child might understand,
The Devil had business on his hand.

Before him the river Doon pours all his floods;
The doubling storm roars throught the woods;
The lightning flashes from pole to pole;
Nearer and more near the thunder rolls;
When, glimmering through the groaning trees,
Alloway’s Church seemed in a blaze,
Through every gap , light beams were glancing,
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.

Warlocks and witches in a dance:
No cotillion, brand new from France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
In a window alcove in the east,
There sat Old Nick, in shape of beast;
A shaggy dog, black, grim, and large,
To give them music was his charge.

(excerpted from the Robert Burns poem)

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Cataract Falls

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The water's flowing nicely in Cataract Creek. It was raining when I set out down the trail, and I took a leisurely stroll along the creek, taking in the refreshing sights and sounds of the rainy season's arrival.

With nothing to hinder me, I flowed with the water.

Every now and then something would catch my eye. I took a lot of photographs that didn't make the cut. I just liked being out there so much I didn't want to rush.

Unfortunately I forgot to bring any food or water. I drank from the creek a couple of times, but I sure wished I'd remembered to bring a snack bar or something. I decided to go no further than Upper Cataract Falls. I'd somehow spent about three hours getting there. It took about a half hour to return to my car.

Quite a few people were on the trail, trailing kids and dogs and friends and family members. Everybody head-to-toe in rain gear. I should say almost everybody. One young man was hiking with no shirt on, feeling his oats. A couple young ladies had me take their picture with a phone camera down here at the base of the falls, then they leaped across the creek and scrambled up the slick rocks to the top of the falls. The season is autumn, but the rain brings everyone back to life. Standing at the fence near the base of the falls, the scent of bay laurel was sweet in the air.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016


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Back in my Navy days, when I was 18-22 years old, my best friend and I read a lot of Hemingway. We wanted to be world travelers and great lovers and suck the marrow of life. Our nemesis: contentment. To be content was to be marrow-less and inert. Fast-forward to middle age, and one day I realize I am content. Dammit.

I was content--but not really. I still had a hankering for adventure. Not climbing Mt. Everest or anything. Maybe get married. Take vows and keep them. Get a more meaningful job and stick with it through thick and thin. Enforce a modicum of physical toughness by getting regular exercise and eating right. Start a blog and keep at it even when you think you're running out of steam. Stuff like that.

Sometimes you have to put energy into the system to break out of the rut of contentment. Sometimes energy comes into the system from the outside, from the demands of work or marriage or what have you. Either way, life has a way of kicking contentment's ass, and when that happens, when we insist on keeping our contentment, the result is depression and other nasty afflictions of one's spirit.

So I was thinking about this stuff as I was biking home from work last night, and I realized I had a photo from last Sunday's outing to Mt. Tam that I could turn into a kind of kid's story about contentment. It all starts with a seed.

The seed drops out of the bay laurel tree and bounces when it hits the ground. It bounces into a little depression on a big rock. It thinks how nice this little bed is, and it lives like that for a couple of months before it feels a stirring within. WTF? it asks. (Hey, I said "kind of" a kid's story!) The little peppernut likes things just the way they are, so nice and comfy. But then the winter rains come, and the peppernut thinks it's going crazy for a minute. Something weird is happening! Over the next couple of days, a little root comes out and burrows into the little bed of dirt. The peppernut stands up on its root and says woohoo! It likes the view. A couple of cotyledons pop out, and of course as time goes on, the peppernut goes from seedling, to sapling, to full-grown tree making flowers and peppernuts of its own.

By this time it has given up on contentment. For one thing, it lives on a rock! All those bay laurels in their thick juicy soil have it so easy! Okay, they have problems of their own, but none of them had to make it while living on a rock. Living on a rock made growing up a lot harder, and it took a lot longer. Sadly, many peppernuts that land on a rock don't get to grow up into a flowering tree at all.

So tip your hat the next time you walk past a bay laurel growing out of a rock. We're in this wild world together, after all. It's fine to rest on your laurels, but you don't want to rot there.

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Sunday, October 23, 2016


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They used to say humans are the only animals who use tools. Then someone noticed monkeys using tools and even ravens using tools. I haven’t kept up with all the animals that have been discovered to use tools, but I often think about the underlying question of what basic attributes set us apart as human beings. Until recently, everything that occurred to me fell short. Other animals think and learn and remember, and they feel pain and pleasure and emotion, and so on.

Then I wondered if humans are the only creature that can be honorable or dishonorable. Many animals can be cunning, but it seems to me their cunning is in the service of their true nature. A wolf doesn’t wear sheep’s clothing, but it probably would if it ever became as clever as a human. You’d never need to ask an animal what its code of honor is. I’d like to ask our presidential candidates what their code of honor is. What are the top three to five ideals they have lived by? Do they have a history of working for public benefit or private gain? Can they make a joke at their own expense or do they make jokes about others? Do they take responsibility for their mistakes or do they make excuses and rationalizations?

At around 7:45 this morning I heard a sudden loud holler come from the woods across the way. I was on Bolinas Ridge at the Serpentine Power Point and looked north to see where the noise had come from. The shout was so loud that I thought there must be a rambunctious hiker on the Cataract Trail. But as the sound sank into my brain cogs for further processing I realized the sound had come from a coyote. A couple minutes later the coyote howled again—and yes, I mean howled! It was soon answered by other coyotes with howls, barks, yips and whatever other sounds coyotes make. Icing on the cake of a gorgeous morning.

I thought of another potentially distinct human trait. Humans feel shame. Many years ago, I took an emergency medical technician class where one of the EMT instructors told us that sometimes people who choke on their food, even in a crowded restaurant, are found to have wandered off and quietly choked to death. The EMT said some people feel ashamed to have food stuck in their craw, so they go off by themselves to try to cough up the offending chunk, only to asphyxiate and die alone in a stairwell or restroom stall.

I suspect there is no such thing as a wild coyote that feels shame. I’ve seen dogs that appeared to feel shame, but I figure it was humans who did that to the dog. So, perhaps humans aren’t the only animals that feel shame. But they might be the only animals that inflict it.

Being honorable and dishonorable, bestowing praise and inflicting shame—these are probably uniquely human traits. Part of our true nature. But maybe at an even more fundamental level, humans are the only animals that face such dichotomies in their lives, and are therefore the only animals with the power to choose to act one way or the other.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Invitation to Salmon

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The season's first rains are sending invitations to all the salmon waiting in the deeps off Muir Beach. Redwood Creek has cut through the sandbar and is riffling into the sea. I didn't see any salmon trying to make a dash for it on Sunday morning, but the tide was still too low to fully connect creek to ocean. When it gets higher, who knows? 

I seem to miss the brief spawning season almost every year, but I'll never forget one crazy morning, probably 25 years ago, when I saw several salmon heading upstream to spawn in Redwood Creek, way up in the back where Muir Woods and Mt. Tam State Park share a boundary. At one point the salmon had to jump up out of the creek and into the mouth of a metal conduit pipe where the water was shooting out like a fire hose, then go-go-go to get through to the other side and back into the less insane, but still fast-moving creek.

Right here is where Redwood Creek meets the Pacific Ocean. Many hundreds of years ago, long before Sir Francis Drake sailed the Golden Hind past these shrouded shores, young Coast Miwok probably stood right here, or at least very close to here, during the season's first rains, knowing that bounty from the sea was on its way. Of course, the sands of time have no doubt shifted over the years--and there aren't any more grizzlies lurking in the willow thickets--but Redwood Creek has for centuries poured down from Mt. Tamalpais and flowed through Muir Woods and Frank's Valley out to Muir Beach. In the dry season the creek would disappear into the sand before it reached the ocean, just as it does today, and anyone today can still see that it must have been a time for celebration when that sandy dam was breached by the season's first rains.

I drove a short way up Frank's Valley to check the creek where it flows under this old wooden bridge. The railings are covered with lichen, and when a lady jogged across it, the whole thing bounced and swayed. The creek was slowly gurgling along, still quite shallow and clear, not yet singing the song of migrating fish: the splashing of coho as they muscle their red and silver bodies past all obstacles to an apotheosis deep in the forest among towering redwoods, bright ferns and scarlet waxy caps.

An ultramarathon was being run that morning, with the finish line at Muir Beach. Years ago I was out doing photography in the rain, high on a ridge above Tennessee Valley, thinking I had the place completely to myself, when this guy with huge, muscular thighs came bounding up the trail, hardly even breathing hard, running a 50K.

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Saturday, October 15, 2016


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"Many people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with the simulation hypothesis, the argument that what we experience as reality is in fact fabricated in a computer; two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation."

--Tad Friend, from the article Adding a Zero in the 10/10/16 issue of The New Yorker

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In my opinion as a non-billionaire nature guy, the "simulation hypothesis" mentioned above is a good sign. It means the hyper-rational, hyper-materialistic worldview that's been building for three hundred years or so is about to implode in a glorious reductio ad absurdum. On the other hand, perhaps the four river otters I saw feeding and playing in this stretch of Lagunitas Creek, where it empties into Tomales Bay, were secretly engaged in espionage for the great programmer in the sky.

Not that I think the tech billionaires are entirely wrong, mind you. I think it's more a matter of perspective, or even language. If a young man who eats, drinks and defecates code senses that his life is a simulation, it could seem reasonable in his mind that a computer is behind that sensation. In a sense, he is right. The computer that's behind the simulation he senses is implanted in his own brain. In alchemy, they call that the uroboros, the snake that swallows its own tail.  

I wonder if I could get some kind of reward for straightening them out. At least one of those guys is bound to figure it out sooner or later, assuming they don't just leave the thinking to someone else. I mean, in that case, forget it. How would they know the hired scientists aren't just working for The Man?

I would recommend those two tech billionaires take the red pill, like the ones all over this rose bush. You can't hire scientists to plumb the depths of The Matrix for you. You have to go yourself.

In the end, we're not just bits of computer code. We are objects bathed in light.

I believe we are born with a tendency toward expanding our awareness, our consciousness. Most take the blue pill and live in the simulation. A few take the red pill, or are given it without their knowledge, only to end up getting hacked before they reach the bottom of the rabbit hole. 

Meanwhile, a California bay laurel holds the world together with its roots and its branches.

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Saturday, October 8, 2016


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I haven't been around the north side of Mt. Tam in a long time. Fairfax-Bolinas Road remains closed and gated just past Azalea Hill. I was told by a lady driving out of the closed area that Caltrans hopes to be able to reopen the road in a month. Apparently there was a big washout, and lots of new retaining walls are going in.

It was still dark, just before dawn when I got out there. As the night turned to day I enjoyed all the birds coming to life: a golden-crowned sparrow down from the Sierra was whistling "ho hum" from an oak tree, with a California towhee kicking around in the leaves underneath it and flickers squeaking to each other from the tree tops. A covey of quail was companion-calling along the trail, and resident white-crowned sparrows chipped back-and-forth in the coyote brush.

I'd planned to go to the Lily Pond, but since I couldn't drive there I just wandered around Azalea Hill. I was mulling over the topic of "awareness" -- in part because I got doored for the first time in my life while I was biking home from work last Tuesday. Riding along Market Street near Civic Center there was a guy who appeared to be obliviously standing on the edge of the curb to my right, with something slung over his back that was protruding into the bike lane. Just as I nudged left to give him room I was instantly faced with a car door being swung open right in my path, impossible to avoid.

I usually see the bad Uber drivers (who don't pull over to the curb) and their knuckle-headed fares (who blindly open doors into bike lanes, often while spacing out on their phones), but this time my attention had been drawn to the guy on the right, so I didn't see the car stop to my left. 

Awareness is always important, whether on the streets of San Francisco or out in nature, and of course when doing nature photography. I don't know who said it first, but I love Gary Crabbe's teaching that goes something like this: don't include anything in your picture that you don't want. It basically means to compose very carefully, to look closely at the entire frame, from the middle bits where your attention is mainly focused, to the edges that often escape our attention until we view the image at home.

The French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes wrote that all we are is awareness: "I think, therefore I am."

To me, the next question is, "What is the nature of that awareness?" Why does it love life? Why does it dream? What if so-called inanimate objects experience awareness? How can I increase my own awareness, and how can increased awareness improve not just my photography but my life? Awareness is paying attention. If we always direct our attention toward a small circle of objects or ideas, we will miss all the action going on outside that circle. If we see the world only as objects we can touch, we miss all the action going on in our inner lives.

It's always good to get out and make some photographs, even if I'm not feeling particularly inspired, even if I have no idea what I want to shoot. To state the obvious, if I want to be a photographer, I have to go out and take pictures! I need to stay in shape, keep my hands familiar with my camera, my mind familiar with the technical know-how to execute the images I want to make. Also, I find that just being out in nature is its own reward--the scent of the grass, the open spaces, working my legs up a dirt trail, listening to the birds, spotting a mandala of coyotes (I like to think of groupings of four as mandalas)--even if I don't get a particularly good image out of it.

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