Saturday, December 3, 2016

Tennessee Valley

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I've been hankering for bobcats for a while, so I drove out to Tennessee Valley this morning to see if I could get lucky. I arrived to find numerous cars and school buses in the parking area and along the sides of the street, even though it was only about 7:45 in the morning. I believe the commotion was all about this race. There was much raucous cheering of encouragement at the parking lot (I believe they started near Rodeo Lagoon). I've never seen so many people running an ultra-marathon before. They all looked extremely fit and most carried backpacks full of water. My first instinct was to turn around and drive up to Mt. Tam instead, but the thought of mushroom-hunting wasn't enough to overpower my lust for bobcats.

I began my hike among the runners, one of whom commiserated about the lack of peace and quiet, but I was scanning for bobcats in the distance north and south and didn't really mind. I'm a bit of an armchair ultramarathoner and could appreciate the feat they were setting out to accomplish. I soon dropped them anyway when I took the cut-off up to the campground, and they were all long gone by the time I came back to the main trail. I saw a very sweet covey of quail next to the campground. They were gathered in a tight group just on the edge of the chaparral, feathers fluffed and standing still to soak up the warm morning sun.

I hiked all the way down to the beach and back without seeing a bobcat, coyote or even a single deer. I saw one marsh hawk gliding slowly over the chaparral as warning chirps from songbirds below popped here and there, and I saw one brush rabbit stretch its body in a brief dash to cover as I approached the tender frosty greens it had been munching, but that was about it.

All the pictures in this post are from the month of December in '07, '09, and 2010. I did a lot of photography in Tennessee Valley back in 2010-11. The place was always busy with people, but there was also lots of wildlife. It was actually a little depressing this morning to find so little wildlife action. Even six years ago I could have a slow day where I didn't see any bobcats, so I don't want to make too much of today's miserly accounting. But I would not be surprised if the years of drought since then have taken a toll on the valley's fecundity.

So I just read Sebastian Junger's book Tribe, and wanted to share some of the tidbits I liked, starting with the following:

"The !Kung were so well adapted to their environment that during times of drought, nearby farmers and cattle herders abandoned their livelihoods to join them in the bush because foraging and hunting were a more reliable source of food. The relatively relaxed pace of !Kung life--even during times of adversity--challenged long-standing ideas that modern society created a surplus of leisure time. It created exactly the opposite: a desperate cycle of work, financial obligation, and more work. The !Kung had far fewer belongings than Westerners, but their lives were under much greater personal control."

A page or so later Junger continues, "As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it."

Just this morning I overheard a couple of women talking on the trail, with one telling the other in an angry or disgusted tone of voice, "I can't believe how many depressed people there are at work!" 

Junger's thesis is that being part of a tribe is so important that soldiers sometimes feel like war was better than peace, and that civilian communities who've pulled together in adversity later recall how good it felt to have banded together in common cause. Of the three books I bought before the Thanksgiving holiday, Tribe was one I finished first.

The second book I finished was Mary Oliver's collection of essays called Upstream. In her essay on Ralph Waldo Emerson, she writes of his first published book, "Nature is a text that is entirely about divinity and first purposes, a book of manners, almost, but for the inner man. It does not demean by diction or implication the life that we are most apt to call 'real,' but it presupposes the heart's spiritual awakening as the true work of our lives. That this might take place in as many ways as there are persons alive did not at all disturb Emerson, and that its occurrence was the beginning of paradise here among the temporal fields was one of his few unassailable certainties."

I'm still working on the third book, Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees. He begins the chapter called "The Mysteries of Moving Water" with a deceptively simple question: "How does water make its way up from the soil into the tree's leaves?" He discusses transpiration, capillary action and cohesion, and comes to an interesting conclusion: no one knows!

I'm also working on another book that recently arrived in the mail: Science, Order and Creativity by the physicists David Bohm and F. David Peat. I've only just begun reading it and was struck by this in the Introduction: " exploring natural resources in a fragmentary manner, society has brought about the destruction of forests and agricultural lands, created deserts, and even threatens the melting of the ice caps." I was struck by that because this book came out 30 years ago. "And how can science lead human beings to control themselves?" it continues. "How do scientists propose to control hatred between nations, religions, and ideologies when science itself is fundamentally limited and controlled by these very things?" They sound a little like Sebastian Junger as they continue: "And what about the growing psychological tension in a society that is so unresponsive to basic human needs that life seems, for many, to have lost its meaning?"

Unfortunately, David Bohm died in 1992, but Peat is still around. He's Canadian, though, which means almost no one in the U.S. has ever heard of him. Anyway, the book feels dated with its paperback pages having lost some of their brightness, but the content is interesting and easy for a nonscientist like myself to understand (unlike the other Bohm title I got, called The Undivided Universe!).

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