Sunday, January 31, 2016

First Light, First Wildflower

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Oak with Fog-filtered Sunlight

It was still dark as I drove past Mountain Home Inn and began winding up through the forest toward Pantoll. The remnants of road flares at one of the bends in the road indicated there'd been an auto accident, or so I thought until I rounded the bend and had to swerve around a large slide of mud and small rocks that had poured all the way across the uphill lane. I was surprised the usual warning signs hadn't been posted but thought no more about it until I was about to go home several hours later and found the road closed at Pantoll. 

At about 10 minutes before 7 a.m., I must have been the first car through the gate after the ranger who opened it up. I'd been hoping to arrive in time for what I thought would be a colorful sunrise. The sky had looked promising when I left San Francisco. I knew from a recent sunrise during the workweek that the color would happen around 7:10, so I sat in my car and waited for it. It was cold and windy outside. The appointed time for color came and went with nothing doing, so I continued up to Rock Spring.

Moss Sporangia and Hypogymnia Lichen

I'd hoped to find the gate open early at Rock Spring so I could drive out to the parking area above Laurel Dell, but it was still shut, so I poked around the Benstein Trail.

It was still fairly dark on the forest floor, but this bright little panther amanita button was easy to spot.

It was also easy to spot this large, pristine fruiting of witch's butter (Tremella aurantia). I didn't have a ruler, but it was probably a good three inches across, maybe more. I tried to find something at hand to give a sense of scale and used a decaying oak leaf, but that didn't get the job done. Besides, who cares how big it is when the beauty of it is in those sinuous folds.

As it neared 9 a.m. I hung around closer to the gate so I'd be ready when it opened. Morning sunlight painted across the ridge, now through fog...

...and moments later with a little blue sky.

The gate opened and I drove out to the parking area above Laurel Dell, surprised to find a work truck already parked there, the buzzing sound of chainsaws rising from the dell. The water district has been thinning the forest all around that area, and it's surprising to see how much work they've done. Hiking down below Laurel Dell, the chainsaws were soon drowned out by the rushing creek.

I admired the big waterfall from behind the fence but decided not to photograph it this trip. Maybe next time. Although I was the first arrival from the top of the trail, it was already after 9 o'clock so I wasn't surprised to see a hiker already arriving from the bottom of the trail. What did surprise me was that the first hiker was followed by another and another, then many more, all African-Americans. They headed out the High Marsh Trail, perhaps to catch the Kent Trail and loop back to Cataract Creek via the Helen Markt Trail. 

As attractive as the waterfalls were, I was actually more interested in the germinating buckeye seeds, especially when I saw how the shoot emerged from the root. You can see a bulge separating the descending root from the emerging leaves.

Physarum polycephalum

I didn't find any other interesting fungi on my way back up the trail, but I did find this interesting slime mold plasmodium on the prowl.

I'd hoped to find the season's first fetid adder's tongue flowers in a certain spot I know, and was not disappointed. The landscaping crew had called it quits for the day and walked past me as I was setting up my camera down low on the ground, asked if I was looking at a snake. "No," I said. "I'm looking at all these wildflowers." They nodded and pressed on, I assume without ever actually seeing the cryptic flowers. Also, although they are called "adder's tongue," the plant is unrelated to snakes. ;)

Back up on Bolinas Ridge I was surprised to encounter so few cars. Even Rock Spring was nearly empty. I'll bet the bicyclists were loving it. It was only when I got down to Pantoll and found the road closed that I understood what was going on. The only way to get to Rock Spring was via Stinson Beach, and that was also my only way out of there. Since I was forced to be in the neighborhood again, I checked out Morse Gulch and found it still flooded. Being at the very bottom of the mountain, I guess it could remain that way for some time, certainly more than a week.

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Changing Plans

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I rolled out of bed early Saturday morning and drove all the way to Stinson Beach and out along Bolinas Lagoon to hike up the little-known, unmaintained Morse Gulch Trail. I was disappointed to find the trail flooded with running water. You'd probably want to be wearing shorts and sandals to go up there. 

I considered heading out to Point Reyes, but it was a bit too windy for that to be appealing, so I drove up Bolinas-Fairfax Road instead and stopped to poke around the redwoods near these little roadside waterfalls. It was a little ominous to see the understory of ferns in such sad shape. They haven't bounced back from the drought as nicely as one might wish. Sword fern is probably the canary in the coal mine for the redwood forest as a whole. 

Hygrocybe punicea
I've been re-reading The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs. Lots of interesting and surprising, beautifully written stories about water in the desert. No one in a desert takes water for granted.

It was quite blustery up on Bolinas Ridge. That weird-looking spot on the ridgeline in this image is a tree, and I thought the tiny spot next to it was a person (until I visited a week later and saw that it was the top of an adjacent Doug fir tree). A few squalls blew through as I explored along the ridge, each time chasing me back to the car to await their passing.

Speaking of passing, this is all that's left of a tall acorn granary and nesting tree that I've photographed a few times. For years I've always slowed down to a crawl to check the bird action here. There's a convenient pull-out in case I'd want to stop to watch the goings-on. High winds and rot finally took their toll. The acorn woodpecker in this image was probably born in that tree.

While I was poking around I found this deer-browsed bay laurel that appeared to have been sculpted by an arborist.

It was difficult to do photography in the space between rain squalls, but I stuck with it for one of my favorite mushrooms, the purple Laccaria, and an enticingly delicate coral mushroom.

I always forget how hard it can be to look up a coral fungus in a mushroom guide. There are several genera that can be called "coral fungus," and even with pictures I can only guess that this one's a particular species of Ramaria. Maybe you can help me. Can you look at the spores and tell if cystidia are absent and clamp connections are present?

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Cataract Canyon

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I took in the view out our back window one night between rain storms and enjoyed seeing stars in a clear sky. There was Orion off to the southeast. As a boy, Orion's Belt was one of the first constellations anyone ever showed me. I can picture myself as a boy looking into the night sky as if I were recalling a movie. I thought what a long way I've come since I was a tow-headed kid in the '60s. But old Orion out there, he was just the same. What's five decades to a constellation that probably looks the same now as it did when the Earth was still just a hodgepodge of dust, not even a planet yet, just a sidekick of the Sun.

Incidentally, that was about 4.5 billion years ago, and the sun's predicted to last another 4.5 billion years, give or take. This little middle part between the beginning of the world and its end is where human beings and waterfalls exist. We also exist between the smallest particles and the very edge of the universe. I like to think of our place in the grand scheme of things as being at the crossroads of the infinities.

I was the first person to park at the bottom of Cataract Gulch on the Martin Luther King holiday, but I was soon followed by many others with the same great idea. The Alpine Lake reservoir was filled to the brim, and all of Mt. Tam's ravines were running full steam ahead.

Here's a short, roaring clip of Lower Cataract Falls.

This is the falls and pool at the junction of the Helen Markt Trail. Do you remember that big log that used to be jammed at an angle in the falls? That log got blown out of the waterfall in the big atmospheric river event of February 2014, but the big log remained in the pool. Not any more. It's gone! (See the before and after about half-way through this post.)

I met a guy at Junction Falls who was hiking down from Rock Spring and told me there was a gorgeous waterfall higher up that reminded him of Hawaii. I don't know if this is the falls he was talking about, but it looked good enough to me to call it Hawaiian Falls.

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Monday, January 18, 2016

Communing with Rev. King

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“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.... We aren't going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality....

“If there is to be peace on earth and good will toward men, we must finally believe in the ultimate morality of the universe, and believe that all reality hinges on moral foundations.”

--Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., from his Christmas Eve Speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, 1967

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Looking for nature-related inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr., the "interrelated" quotation seems to be one of the most often cited online by nature folks. I was interested to see how close his thinking was to one of John Muir's most famous lines: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

King and Muir shared that insight about interrelatedness, but of course King's inspiration came out of work toward social justice. When the challenge to white privilege via bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, was met with diabolical hatred, King did not seek inspiration in the mountains or anywhere else in nature, but in the kitchen of his own home, in the middle of the night, while his wife and daughter slept. He had just received yet another terrorizing phone call from a man who threatened to kill him, and it pushed him to the edge of endurance. "I am at the end of my powers," he wrote. "I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone."

But even in that moment of extremity he sought a way forward, and a veil was pierced: "I tell you I've seen the lightning flash," he wrote. "I've heard the thunder roar....  At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything."

Intellectually, it may be hard to conceive a moral universe, the fundamental belief of King's philosophy. The evidence of our own eyes would seem to go against it. Water falls from the sky and seeks repose, making beautiful waterfalls: a play of physical forces, neither right nor wrong. But in such moments of grace as related by Dr. King, perhaps reached only when we refuse to stop or retreat in our march toward whatever truth beckons to us, but instead to venture forward, might we experience the flashing lightning, the roaring thunder, the evidence of things not seen.

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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Rain in the Redwoods

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When I started up the trail into Muir Woods this morning, the forest floor was nearly dark. I figured the early hour, plus the rain, would give me a couple hours to enjoy the place in solitude. For one reason or another -- most recently a run of sore throats and coughing fits -- I haven't been able to get out to the woods for a while. I chose a Muir Woods hike because it's an easy enough walk to manage even on the tail end of a bad cold.

I'd hoped to hear salmon splashing in Redwood Creek, but I was too late. A ranger later told me the run happened around Christmas. In the old stories about this area, back in the early 1900s when its conservation fate was not yet assured, Redwood Creek was a well-known salmon stream. Saved from loggers in 1902 and a water company that wanted to flood the whole valley in 1907, the salmon run today is nevertheless on the brink of extinction. 

There's a bit of an art to doing photography in the rain. You've got to hold an umbrella against the rain while maneuvering your camera out of the backpack, getting the right lens attached, and plugging in the cable release. Then you've got to zip the pack closed and get it on your back while protecting the camera until you can attach it to the tripod and remove the lens cap. Even a small droplet on the lens can be a disaster. At first I tried to do things too fast which turned out to be more conducive to frustration than efficiency of movement. I was much happier when I slowed down accomplish the string of tasks one at a time.

I didn't take my camera out for the first time until I was all the way back to Bridge 4, near the border of Mt. Tamalpais State Park. What I liked about that area was how the view opened up. Rain still fell, but so did the light of morning. While I found myself awake in the middle of the night last week I got to thinking about light's 93 million mile journey from the sun to our planet. How that light strikes an object like a leaf which reflects certain wavelengths into our eyes where it generates an electrical signal to some part of our brain where we consciously become aware of it. "Green," with think. Not even aware of the whole Rube Goldberg chain of events that led up to our brilliant insight since it all happened at the speed of light. We open our eyes and POOF! the world lays out before us. But of course the world doesn't come and go, and there is no separation between us and it. We all rewind back to the same singularity.

Anyway, that's the kind of stuff I think about at 2 in the morning sometimes. As you can see in this image, I tried a couple of unusual compositions. I might be alone in enjoying this one, but I find it kind of amazing that such a chaotic scene can be pleasurable to my eye.

I left the park and drove toward Muir Beach, passing a flock of wild turkeys that included many young birds, and pulled over at one point to admire the leafless, lichen-jacketed, alder trees along Redwood Creek. I'd planned to photograph songbirds along the trail, but there was some kind of footrace going on, with individual runners passing by every half-minute or so, making any quiet stalking impossible.

I left Frank's Valley to go home, but as I drove past Muir Beach it looked like the sky was clearing, so I drove on up to Rock Spring. Unfortunately, the sky did not clear, and visibility was quite limited. Cataract Creek was truly flowing, though. This little cascade is actually along a side stream that joins Cataract Creek a few feet downstream.

I'd noticed earlier in the season that this jumble of roots had been covered by numerous sticks. I figured kids had been building a fort, or maybe just tossing branches for the fun of it. I really like this root jumble, though, and I wanted to photograph it. Just as I got down there, I saw a group of people coming down the trail, so I waited for them to pass. Instead of passing, however, they walked over to the edge of the embankment and looked down to admire the mossy jumble and see what I was doing. They were four or five young women and a guy with a small dog at the end of a leash, all staring at me. We exchanged a pleasantry or two, but they took their time before finally moving on. After they were gone, I climbed into the jumble to remove the unsightly sticks and branches. This mossy jumble is actually tree roots that were underground before the stream washed the soil away.

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Saturday, January 2, 2016


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Northern Flicker at Nest Cavity, Tennessee Valley

"You walk into a forest, you're not in quest of something. Suddenly you are struck by the wonder of this place. A woodpecker flies past; this tells you something about the wonder of the whole world of birds, of nature and so forth. And if you are a poet, you will attempt to render the quality of that experience insofar as it pushes right through to the ultimate mystery of being and life itself. That such a creature should be there! That the universe should be here! That's something that excites you to wonder."

--Joseph Campbell from An Open Life  

Friday, January 1, 2016

O, Chanterelle

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             In the beginning I was just like you, didn't know chanterelles from tam-o'-shanters. But once upon a time, long before you could buy fancy mushrooms in the store, my twin brother, Thor, proposed we drive up to Mt. Tamalpais to collect a special kind of mushroom called chanterelles by most people, "pfifferlings" by Bavarians, and Cantharellus by the early 19th Century Swedish child prodigy of fungi, Elias Magnus Fries, author of the Systema Mycologicum.

            Thor told me that chanterelles were baseball-sized orange fungi that hid beneath the leaf litter around the base of oak trees and were good to eat, so we should go get some. I wasn't doing anything special at the time, so I said okay. We headed out to Frank’s Valley along Redwood Creek, parked at what Thor said was a likely looking spot, and in a very short time he had collected enough of the prized fungi to make a meal. We drove them back to my place, sliced them thin, and cooked them for dinner.

            Now I'm no fancy epicurean with a lot of words to describe nuances of flavor, nor am I a scientist who can explain the chemistry of organic compounds on the biological surface of my tongue, and the electrical impulses firing excitement into webs of neurons in some tiny part of my brain. And I’m not even all that fond of mushrooms in general, but I’ll tell you what. Those chanterelles were a revelation.

            You might think I should try to describe the flavor to you, but the fact is, if you ask a dozen people to describe what chanterelles taste like, you'll get a dozen different answers. Some will probably even say “yuck.” If you really want to know what a thing is like, you need to experience it for yourself.

            So Thor gave me my first taste, but shortly thereafter he married his sweetheart and lit out for Coyote Springs, Wyoming. I searched for chanterelles on my own over the next few months and found not a single one. The wet season ended, and the dry season came and I sort of forgot about chanterelles. But I'll tell you what you already know. If you ever experience anything as sweet as a chanterelle, you're going to do everything you can to have that experience again.

            It seemed an easy enough thing to do, to learn how to find chanterelles. At first I did a little research, a little reading, and found out there was such a thing as false chanterelles (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca), whose bland flavor will leave you wondering what the fuss was all about -- and that's just for starters. If you were to eat a chanterelle-looking ‘shroom called Jack-O-Lantern (Omphalotus olivascens), you could find yourself hooked up to a stomach pump at the local hospital and meeting some fella called a “mycologist” who would have been called in for the unenviable job of trying to identify what you ate.

            Nope, as alluring as chanterelles are, a few hours of intimacy with a stomach pump could turn just about anyone off the quest for finding them. Funny thing is, lots of folks who've gotten sick from false chanterelles curse all chanterelles. Even funnier is that some folks have actually taken a liking to false chanterelles and mock anyone who tries to tell ‘em the real thing is better. I don't know what to think about such people.

            Anyway, when the wet season came around again I spent several weeks going over a lot of ground up around Mt. Tam, and what a time did I have. At first I'd drop by on my way back from work, but darkness often chased me home empty-handed. Occasionally, though, I did manage to find a few of the evanescent little beauties on those brief forays. Each time I found some I felt like I was being drawn toward to a deeper undstanding of chanterelles, maybe even to an understanding of their source, deep in the ground. Things only a true mycophile would know. So I decided to take a little vacation time -- OK, I won't lie; I took three weeks -- to get into some serious, full-time chanterelle-hunting.

            My tools were simple -- a few wax paper bags, a pocket knife, and my favorite field guide, a musty old thing I found in a second-hand bookstore.

            Although I didn't find much the first couple of days, I felt I was on the right trail and sure enough, I began to find a few, and then a few more. Eventually I found a motherlode -- a patch that seemed to have as many chanterelles as there are stars in the sky. Right there in a small clearing, far away from any of the trails, the earth sparkled with dozens of golden eruptions. I collected great quantities of the mushrooms for three full days. I ate so many chanterelles that I dreamed of flamingoes and wondered if my skin was going to change color. I sauteed my chanterelles in wine, and I sauteed them in butter. I sauteed them in teriyaki sauce, and I sauteed them in peach syrup.

            I sauteed them in ecstasy, in rapture, blissed to the core of my being.

            But my bliss was short-lived. During the next several days I found not so much as a single chanterelle. I had become obsessed with them by then, however, and I made the mistake of trying to describe chanterelles, and my quest to find their source, with my wife and with friends. None of them had tasted chanterelles. They had laughed at me for being so avid about a mere fungus! A worthless object, quite possibly poisonous, fit only for scorn. And now I couldn't find any to prove how good they were.

            I continued to read about them, especially accounts from others who experienced them as I did. I was able to find such stories going back to the dawn of civilization. Once I thought I overheard a group of strangers talking about chanterelles, but when I listened more closely I realized they were talking about store-bought button mushrooms.

            No matter how hard I looked, though, I couldn't find any more chanterelles, and I began to feel resentment toward them. I even ate button mushrooms for a while, figuring there must be some wisdom in following the herd.

            But that didn’t work. My life came to seem empty and vain. I took to sleeping in the woods on weekends so I could seek my quarry at first light and continue until dark. I crawled through merciless chaparral, my body slashed by multitudes of branches. Rattlesnakes buzzed me, a primordial sound, a call of death. I came down with a nasty cold and broke out with a furious rash of poison oak. Wood rats and field mice and millipedes and banana slugs and Jersusalem crickets and God-only-knows-what-else crawled over me while I slept on beds of leaves. I didn’t care. What were mere creature comforts next to a basket full of golden chanterelles?

            By and by I finally found a couple of the beauties way up a no-name canyon, on a slope covered with poison oak. I took them home and cooked them up, savoring each bite like it was my first.

            For the remainder of the wet season I found many chanterelles, but now instead of picking them, I would just sit with them. If I found a few under some leaves I'd just replace the leaves, lie down and keep company with them. Some nights I couldn't find any, but I didn't let it bother me. Almost as soon as I gave up trying to find them I'd sit down right next to one. Sometimes I'd stay there all night, curled up with my prize, and awake refreshed, cold dewdrops dappling my flesh.

            Halfway through one night, while a full moon was directly overhead, I awoke with a start to the yipping of a lone coyote. On the ground next to me I could see the golden hue of a freshly emerged chanterelle reflecting the moonlight. I moved closer to it and put my nose down near its base and inhaled its sweet aroma. I carefully brushed away some of the topsoil around it and uncovered the glistening mycelium. In that moment, everything lay revealed before me.

            I finally was able to settle back into the mundane world of home and work. I still love chanterelles, but I keep my enthusiasms to myself. When I do talk about them, I speak in metaphor, like a poet. I don’t need to sleep in the woods anymore to find my fill of chanterelles, either. Now I notice them pretty much anywhere. I’ve found them on scree slopes in the High Sierra and on sand dunes in the Mojave Desert. I’ve found them in downtown San Francisco and even under my desk where I work.

            May your world also be filled with chanterelles.

            Happy New Year.

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