Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Winter Wonderland




Thanks, Mt. Tam



I think in the last ten years I have never seen this kind of red coloration in acorns before. I believe the heart-shaped chunks were munched by a deer. I wish I knew what was up with the red color. Is it oxidized tannin? My old 1992 edition of Oaks of California (pre-sudden oak death; it's not mentioned once in the whole book) says indigenous people would remove the reddish papery skin when preparing acorn meal, so I guess it isn't that unusual, although I don't believe I came across any such skin the one time I processed acorns myself. Anyway, I was also interested to see that some of the acorns were beginning to sprout while they were still attached to the tree.



Acorn, Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)



Passing Cloud



Madrone Berry & White Feather



Half-Eaten Madrone Berry 

(I could hear a flock of band-tailed pigeons rustling around in the overstory). 

* * *
Thank-you Mt. Tamalpais for a great decade of exploration, inspiration, and refuge.

* * *

Soak Up The Sun



I was about to drive home when I spotted a clump of grass down the way that I was pretty sure hadn't been there before. It's nearly 2020 and my eyesight is 20/Crappy, so I spied the clump through 10X binoculars and resolved it into a Blacktailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus). Here the hare is soaking up the warm rays of a late-morning's winter sunshine along Bolinas Ridge. 



That's quite a tear in your fabulous listening appendage, my friend. I guess I'll wish you a Happy New Ear!

* * *

Monday, December 30, 2019

Still Lifes With Christmasberry



Oak Leaf, Acorn Shell & Christmasberry



Shelf Fungus with Christmasberries, Lichen & Moss

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Sunday, December 29, 2019

Oyster Gills



I'd just set out four trail cameras in a new area when I lucked into a small flush of Oyster Mushrooms on a decaying, but still standing, oak trunk. As I photographed their gills I was impressed by how fresh and debris-free they looked. (Click on any image to view it larger.)



But when I got the images home and viewed them on my monitor I cursed the stray strand of miscellaneous nature fragment that I hadn't noticed in the field.



I thought it was a superfine monofilament of lichen until I zoomed in and saw that it was a dewy strand of spider silk.



I also failed to notice the fungus crawlies. I'm going to guess this is a mite since it appears to have six legs and something like palps, but I poked around Google and Google Scholar a little bit without finding another picture like this guy. How does such a tiny creature ever find its way to the gills of a mushroom?!



Pleurotus ostreatus

One thing I learned as I was poking around for information on the crawlies is that oyster mushrooms don't just feed on wood. They also parasitize, i.e., eat, nematodes. To paraphrase The Big Lebowski: Sometimes the nematode eats the fungus. Sometimes the fungus eats the nematode. 

Although some fungi use constricting loops of hyphae to trap nematodes, and others use adhesive hyphae, the oyster mushroom poisons its prey. As we read here

"When grown in a nitrogen-poor environment like wood, P. ostreatus will produce a toxin on aerial hyphae. Instead of diffusing into the environment, the toxin remains as a droplet on the hyphae. In this manner, the toxin remains undetected by the unfortunate nematode until contact is made; the nematode is promptly paralyzed by the toxin. Hyphae will then colonize the nematode, and eventually digest it."

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Friday, December 27, 2019

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Nature's Gifts


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I like a well-ordered, even minimalist image as much as the next guy, but I also like the rumble-tumble of the bumble-scrumble—nature in all her random mathematical chaos. Especially when the image includes flowing water and rocks being colonized by moss.  



I also liked the jaggy emerald forest of the moss and ferns contrasted with the smooth softness of supple water and solid stone.



Back in the dry months I used to enjoy sitting as still as possible on these rocks where I'd face downstream into a spacious glade created by the high canopy of trees. There was a small pool of water that survived at the base of the dry rocks, and birds would land practically at my feet to drink and bathe. 


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Once again I wasn't finding any large fleshy fungi, just little fellas like this weather-worn trio of (I believe) Mycena maculata. After taking a series of photos to be stitched into this single image later on, I reflected on the fact that the forest is my hunting ground, but the quarry is aesthetic sustenance. I get virtually all my food, clothing and shelter through our system of worldwide industrial trade, and I spend almost all my time in a man-made landscape. The aesthetic sustenance I get from my too-brief excursions into nature is much more substantial than simply acquiring a photograph.

Which reminds me that shinrin-yoku, or Japanese forest bathing, is having a moment. I even saw a book about it on the "new non-fiction" shelves at Green Apple the other day. It's hypothesized that the molecules floating in the forest atmosphere have a beneficial effect on us, and savvy marketers will gladly sell us a bottle of essential oils to bring some of forest bathing's benefits into our own home.

Shinrin-yoku is another "ecosystem service" provided freely by nature. Gifts such as clean air and fresh water literally make our lives possible, and our lives are degraded in proportion to how much we degrade those gifts.

Nature is the gift-giver par excellence, the substrate of everything we are and the original giver of life to our small blue planet, our twirling mote in the immensity of space. Nature says Merry Christmas to us every day. 

Here's hoping we learn, very soon, to take better care of what she gives us.



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Saturday, December 21, 2019

Solstice Sunrise


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You know you're spoiled rotten when you call a sunrise like this ... a dud! As I looked out the bedroom window this morning I could just make out the waning crescent moon, nearly half-way across the sky, shining dimly through a layer of cloud. I sensed that a colorful sunrise might not be in the cards, or in the clouds, but I was already out from under the covers, maybe twenty-seven-percent awake, and it was just after 6 a.m. Which meant I had about 20 minutes to get dressed, get my gear together, make some coffee, toast a bagel, and get going in time to reach the Mt. Tam gate when it would open at 7 a.m.

I decided to go for it, but I didn't have my hopes up. I was on the road by 6:23 and had great traffic karma all the way up, which made me a tad early. I was actually first in line at about 6:55, and by the time the slightly tardy ranger opened the gate a little past 7, there were four cars behind me. 

I'd seen a deep crimson bar on the horizon earlier which had gotten my hopes up a little bit, but instead of blossoming into a Mt. Tam Winter Wonder Spectacle of a sunrise, the color had likely faded even before the gate opened.

Nevertheless, I am lucky and blessed to have a place like this to enjoy on a Saturday morning. A pair of red-tailed hawks called to each other as they sewed flight lines across the sky, surfing the strong, chilly winds with nary a wingbeat. I needed a jacket as I started down the Cataract Trail, but I had to take it off soon after I entered the woods and got out of the wind. The creek was flowing clear and with authority, but not rushing. The day is short. I'll savor it while it lasts.

* * *

Friday, December 20, 2019

Roots




Trace your roots back far enough and you finally reach... fungi. It's said that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. Though to be fair, not by much. But if you were worried that you might be descended from apes, you can relax. You are actually descended from some kind of proto-fungal flagellate. And of course, before that you were descended from a broad scattering of elements formed in exploding stars.

Scientists have even traced the unfolding of our universe pretty much back to its birth, even to before light came into existence. Somehow, the kernel of what we are today existed even way back then.

As for the mother that birthed that magic kernel, I'm sorry but that is not just unknown but unknowable. I'd like to invent a story to fill in the gaps of how the universe came into being and how a bunch of elements formed in exploding stars came to life, but if I did, it would involve bobcats and coyotes and toyon berries because those are things I kind of understand. So instead of inventing a story like I did in my last post, I'm just going to go along with Iris DeMent and let the mystery be.

I'd hoped to find some nice fruitings of large fungi last weekend, but all I could find were variously sized troops of little Mycena species. But with any luck, Santa will soon bring the Sleeping Maiden a nice variety of chanterelles and things.

* * *

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Three-Toed Trunkasaurus



I'd just clomped across a small wooden footbridge after consulting with a bobcat about the proper way to dispose of gopher guts when out of the corner of my eye I saw a sextet of elves marching to the beat of a clapping newt. 

"Watch out! Watch out!" they cried from beneath a flap of flossy moss. "The three-toed trunkasaurus heard your noisy clomping and is coming to eat you up!" 

"Nonsense," I retorted as I snorted in derisive nomenclature. "I have it on good authority—from Granny Gray Fox herself—that in the month of December, T3 eats nothing but chocolate-covered rose hips, and nothing or anything else!"

"Fargenswargen!" said the elves with one voice.

A chill went down my spine.

A creaking of wood did I hear overhead, and a swaying of branch so large that my heartbeat fell into rhythm with the newts: a-CLUMP-a-thumpa, CLUMP-aBOOP-awhumpa. And so on, for what seemed like a few seconds or a few days. I can't be sure. All my certitudes have turned to platitudes, and moss grows upon my knees.

Said I, "I see thee, T3," and a toothy grin did I shine. "Would you like to try my chocolate-covered rose hips? They are fresh from South Lonesome Pine!"

A scarier moment I've never had, not in wood, nor dell, nor hydrothermal vent. But once again, as again and before, I stood on my ground, shouted "Fargenswargen!" with the elves, and made myself  everlasting beneath green Yggdrasil, the Axis of the World—the friend of elves, spelunkers, and footbridge clunkers, of bobcats and foxes, of mosses and lichens—and even of three-toed trunkasauruses.

* * *

Monday, December 16, 2019

Canyon Maple



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As I was absorbed with looking through the viewfinder while making small adjustments to focus the camera and get the ballhead into place in order to compose the scene to taste I suddenly heard a twig snap behind me. It was one of those times where your body is already turning to look before the sound has completely registered in your consciousness, and I kind of jumped a little when a bearded, gnome-like man appeared seemingly out of nowhere on the trail a few feet away. The man pulled up short, perhaps as startled to see me as I was to see him. Not more than a second elapsed before our minds registered the "all clear" and we both said hello and continued about our business. 

I was wondering, where does the yellow go? I placed a mostly yellow hazel leaf on the ground next to "compostable" plastic stuff in my yard, as a sort of benchmark. I poked a tent stake through the leaf so it wouldn't blow away. The very next day the leaf had turned brown, whereas other leaves that had been on the ground much longer were still yellow. I did it again with another leaf and the same thing happened. Poking a hole in the leaf made it turn brown much faster.

I was also wondering, where does the green go? And while I'm at it, how do the green and yellow get in there in the first place? 

It turns out the tree, in this case Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum), has to make the chlorophyll (and the xanthophylls and carotenoids). The fact that a "lowly" plant knows how to put together all the chemical steps necessary to do that is quite impressive, to say the least. "Biosynthesis" is a great word for a magical process. 

I was just checking out online how plants make chlorophyll molecules and was interested to learn that the chemical steps are the same, up to a point, as that needed to make heme. Add magnesium and you get green chlorophyll. Add iron and you get red heme. Both occur in plants, and if you try a web search of plant heme, you will get a jillion hits related to a certain company that makes veggie burgers. Which might annoy you if you just want to know what the difference is between plant heme and animal heme. Because if they are the same molecule, that's pretty interesting. And even if they aren't identical, it's still pretty interesting.

According to Wikipedia, "The enzymatic process that produces heme ... is highly conserved across biology."

Part of the way trees work is the same as part of the way people work. I like to just let that sink in and circulate in a nice bath of neurotransmitters for a minute. Ahh, yes. So relaxing.

* * *

Sunday, December 15, 2019

On Time



There was surprisingly little fungi fruiting in the forest today. I roamed down Cataract Creek to see if I could find the same patch of Lipstick Powderhorn lichens I shot last week, expecting that a week's worth of rain would have plumped them up and put a lot more lipstick on. Reality was just the reverse. Time had made the patch look sparse and faded, kinda the way I felt a few mornings last week as I got up for work despite a nagging cold.

Otherwise the forest is greening up nicely, especially the moss. The moss is in a very happy place, in some places almost too green to believe. The Giant Chain Fern above (with an undergrowth of sword fern) reminded me of a line I came across last night as I was reading Nick Neely's Alta California. Neely has been hiking up the coast from San Diego, sort of retracing Gaspar de Portola's 1769 expedition. He wanders around the Ventura County Fair, past funnel cake and deep-fried watermelon, and catches a stray conversation or two: "I also overheard a man say, 'What the fuck's a fern?' walking past some potted greenery. His girlfriend replied, 'It's a little tree.'"

Which reminded me of the time I was down along the Embarcadero, standing at the railing and watching a cormorant paddling around the pilings, when a couple of young women who'd just arrived went OMG excited when they saw the cormorant suddenly arch and dive under the water. "What the heck is that?!" said one. "I think it's a fish!" said the other.

Anyway, I liked the scene above with the gentle riffles on the creek, the grey, olive and ochre cobbles still visible under shallow, clear water, and greenery coming all the way to the water's edge. There are lots of similarly meditative spots along the creek, and I usually take a moment to appreciate a few of them, even if I'm heading for the more attention-grabbing waterfalls (which, today, I was not).

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Friday, December 13, 2019

Lipstick Powderhorn



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I wish I could have set up a timelapse camera on this patch of lichen (which I'm guessing is Cladonia macilenta, or Lipstick Powderhorn) before it rained. I'd love to have seen the progression of growth as desiccated tissues took on water and the bright red spore-producing structures (similar to cup fungi) emerged from the tips of the stalks. 

The Foxelli trail cams actually do have a timelapse function, and last week I looked for a likely placement to capture an eruption of mushrooms. After poking around in the woods awhile I got a better appreciation for how difficult it was going to be to find a good spot! I'll have to try again another time.

I was just refreshing my memory of lichen biology when I read of a discovery in 2016 that the symbiosis of fungus and alga is more complex than previously thought. Instead of a single fungus paired with a single alga, a second fungus was found. And then in 2019, a third fungus was found. I love that we're learning more about these incredible life forms all the time.

The newly found fungi might not be part of the symbiotic relationship, although they don't seem to be harming anything either. It reminds me of our human gut flora, the several pounds of organisms that live inside us yet have their own genomes. We feel like individual creatures, but in fact we're all colonies of organisms. The interloper that recently crashed the gates of my immune system and made me sick was just doing what life does. It pokes around, settling here and there or just passing through as it looks for a connection that makes it safer, more resilient, and part of something larger than its individual self.

If science ever finds the motivating factor that convinces molecules to stop just sitting there, and instead to get off their butts and find something useful to do, such as become a living organism, that will be a mind-blowing day. I wonder if such a motivating factor would be considered a fifth fundamental force of nature, and whether its discovery would make a grand unification theory fall into place so elegantly that we would wonder why it took so long to figure it out.

* * *

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Fossil




When I saw the wet bracken fern frond plastered to a rock in a small side-creek it reminded me of a fossil, like something I'd associate with dinosaurs. Although ferns are believed to have first appeared 390 to 430 million years ago, the 10,500 or so modern fern species have only been around for about 70 million years, and the earliest bracken fossils are about 55 million year old. In other words, unless they are at least 10 million years older than their earliest fossils, bracken fern may be too young to have tickled the fancy of dinosaurs.

In all that time, there is still basically just one species of bracken worldwide, Pteridium aquilinum. As a Forest Service description puts it, its long evolutionary heritage has given it time to develop excellent defenses against disease and being eaten by animals.

Bracken was so valuable in the Middle Ages that it could be used to pay rent. It made a nice hot fire, and the ash was used as a source of potash by the soap and glass industry until 1860. The rhizomes were used to dye wool yellow and to tan leather.

There is also some impressive cognitive dissonance about bracken. Continuing with the Forest Service treatment linked above, we read that:

“Western brackenfern is most commonly used today as a food for humans. The newly emerging croziers or fiddleheads are picked in spring and may be consumed fresh or preserved by salting, pickling, or sun drying. Both fronds and rhizomes have been used in brewing beer, and rhizome starch has been used as a substitute for arrowroot. Bread can be made out of dried and powdered rhizomes alone or with other flour. American Indians cooked the rhizomes, then peeled and ate them or pounded the starchy fiber into flour. In Japan starch from the rhizomes is used to make confections. Western brackenfern is grown commercially for use as a food and herbal remedy in Canada, the United States, Siberia, China, Japan, and Brazil and is often listed as an edible wild plant. Powdered rhizome has been considered particularly effective against parasitic worms. American Indians ate raw rhizomes as a remedy for bronchitis” [internal citations (and double-spaces after periods) omitted].

The dissonance is that, despite being used as food, bracken is also likely carcinogenic: “All parts of the plant, including the spores, are carcinogenic,” the Forest Service writes, “and face masks are recommended for people working in dense bracken.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, bracken is “one of the few vascular plants known to induce cancer naturally in animals…. Some human populations also eat young bracken shoots and epidemiological studies in Japan and Brazil have shown a close association between bracken consumption and cancers of the upper alimentary tract. In addition, other studies reveal that the mere presence of bracken swards represents a greater risk to die of gastric adenocarcinoma for people who live more than 20 years in such areas or are exposed in childhood.”

I've been told by wild-food foragers that it's okay to eat them in small quantities, but I don't actually find the mucilaginous consistency of bracken fiddleheads all that enjoyable anyway. Apparently the choice edible species of fiddleheads are ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), which according to Wikipedia “have antioxidant activity, are a source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and are high in iron and fiber,” but alas do not grow wild in California.

* * *

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Connected Pools




I was glad to see on last Friday's visit to Mt. Tam that the Cataract Creek drainage was no longer just a collection of small, still pools separated by long expanses of dry cobble. As I poked around to try to find new locations for a couple of my trail cameras I noticed that the leaves of several kinds of creekside plants that deer like to eat were heavily browsed. Judging by the un-munched sword ferns shown in the picture above, they don't care to eat it, and indeed sword ferns are listed by this nursery as deer resistant plants.

According to the University of Washingon Botanic Gardens, “Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) growing in the wild is seldom browsed by herbivorous animals because the rough foliage is fairly repellent. That specific epithet 'munitum' in the scientific name means 'armed.' You may have seen information about Native Americans roasting the rhizomes and eating them, but this was a famine food resorted to when other resources were scarce.”

I guess it's possible that deer might also eventually resort to eating these ferns in tough times. On a related note, I was also thinking about my trail cam footage showing raccoons commonly foraging in the same dispersed creekbed pools and wondering how that sustained hunting pressure was affecting the life of whatever small animals live in those pools and hide beneath their rocks. I would think those pools would eventually be hunted out, but thanks to the recent rains, the pools are being replenished and re-connected by a continuous flow of life-bringing water.

There's a popular notion of nature being in balance and harmony, and all that. But it's only in balance and harmony until it isn't, and then the famine comes. Many years ago my sister asked me, because I'd been working for an environmental organization for a few years, what I thought the biggest environmental threat was -- whether air pollution, water pollution, pesticides, habitat destruction, soil loss, industrial fishing and whaling, microplastics and oceanic garbage patches, nuclear waste, illicit trade in rare plants and wildlife, and so on. All of which are grave threats, to be sure, but what trumps them all is climate change.

I recalled a geography class where I learned that Ukraine was Russia's "bread basket." I told my sister that our own bread baskets, here in the United States and around the world, are dependent on a particular climate. They became our bread baskets during a particular regime of temperature, season, and precipitation patterns, and putting that regime at risk could be disastrous in a way that First World people with fresh water on demand and abundant food in every supermarket can't really imagine.

Adaptation isn't always easy either. Even if suitable growing temperatures and rainfall moved north out of a future dried-up mid-western bread basket (not to mention California's fruit and vegetable basket) and the permafrost thawed, melted tundra will not provide the abundant, rich soils required to feed a nation of 327 million Americans (and counting).

* * *

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Sacred Geometry




The bark that needs no introduction. 

I first heard of madrone in a botany class at Santa Barbara City College, where Arbutus menziesii was spoken of with the kind of reverence reserved for exotic treasure. Even both parts of the Latin name are fun to say: Ar-byoo-tus and men-zeezy-eye. (I can imagine "B-Yootus" or "Zeezy-eye" being good names for a rapper.) 

Madrone was exotic treasure from my vantage point in Santa Barbara. Its southern limit is on Mt. Palomar in San Diego County, but I don't recall seeing them in Santa Barbara (although a range map does show them there), and I associated madrone with mysterious Northern California which I looked forward to exploring someday. Now I live within a block or two of ornamental madrones called strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) and see Pacific madrones any weekend on Mt. Tamalpais, but their special aura remains.

I like how moss tries to colonize the bark of madrone, but can only get so far before the bark peels off in curls. Right now the exposed trunk is a smooth golden brown, but I've seen it become a beautiful shade of green in the summer. I also associate madrone berries with a favorite bird, the band-tailed pigeon (the beautiful wild cousins of smaller urban pigeons), which my recent trail cams frequently caught bathing, and which I first noticed years ago when I spooked a large flock out of the canopy of a madrone on Mt. Tam where they'd been feeding on its dense clusters of bright red berries.

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Monday, December 9, 2019

The Moss Abides



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Recent rains have brought the moss back into furry exuberance. Here it cloaks a canyon live oak, or maul oak (Quercus chrysolepis), on the little hill near Sunset Point (which I almost invariably visit around sunrise). According to the Forest Service, "The hard dense wood is shock resistant and was formerly used for wood-splitting mauls. It is an excellent fuel wood and makes attractive paneling. Canyon live oak is also a handsome landscape tree."

The same web site says the tree can live for 300 years. If so, the oldest canyon live oak recorded on Monumental Trees, which was planted at the State Capitol Museum Park in about 1870, is only middle-aged at 150 years. This one on Mt. Tam has a companion of similarly impressive size, both of which have endured on this very exposed and windy ridge.

Countless bits of acorn rubble were scattered over the ground beneath the two oaks, the remnants of nuts foraged by deer, turkeys, squirrels, acorn woodpeckers, steller's jays, jackrabbits, raccoons, gray fox, and coyotes. And, I suspect, many had simply been squashed beneath human shoes, as this is a popular location with an adjacent parking lot. 

I recently found a discarded or forgotten bridal veil here, remnant of someone's photo shoot, strewn in the tall grass. How long beyond the Instagram moment will the bride's marriage last? Maybe less than five years. The median age at first marriage for women in California is 25.3; the median age for first divorce is 29. Like The Dude (who recently turned 70), the moss and the oaks abide.






Sunday, December 8, 2019

Two Oak Leaves


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Lignin, baby. That's what separates the moss from the oaks.

What's more, not all lignin is created equally. The lignin in a blade of grass is more complex than that in the an oak: the chemistry of lignin is evolving. I was taught in a botany class a million years ago that monocots like grasses are evolutionarily more advanced than dicots like oaks, but I believe such talk implying that plants such as grasses and orchids are "more evolved" has since gone by the wayside. More complex doesn't mean more advanced, nor does having evolved more recently imply superiority. Successful is as successful does.

I read an interesting interview with an astrobiologist who pointed out a slight problem with the theory of evolution: the advent of life itself remains shrouded in mystery:

“Why does life even occur?" he asks. "The dynamics of evolution should be able to address that question. Remarkably, we don’t have an idea even in principle of how to address that question — which, given that life started as something physical and not biological, is fundamentally a physics question.”

So the Laws of Physics + the Elements of the Periodic Table + Something Mysterious! = Human Beings. We've drawn a line between inanimate matter and animate life, but we have no idea how the line was crossed. An utterly mysterious force of nature has been at work for the last 13.8 billion years, converting quark-gluon plasma into Albert Einstein....

...and moss, and oak trees, and evolving biochemistry, and sprouting leaves that build fantastically complex mechanisms for converting sunlight into food, and a system that has worked flawlessly for billions of years in which everything cycles and re-cycles from animate to inanimate and back again. It's part of the beauty of dead oak leaves, golden-brown, veins gone silent, fungi and microorganisms feeding their metamorphosis back into soil.

Two dead oak leaves in a forest. Hardly worth noticing. And yet, in their simplicity they have much to teach in a world where a whale with a hundred kilos of man-made plastic in its stomach washes up on a beach.

* * *

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Friday, December 6, 2019

Moss Survival


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I was hanging out with my wife who'd chosen a comfortable vantage point to break out her watercolors and immerse her imagination in the very dry woodland of Doug fir, live oak, and madrone that we were still experiencing despite it being very near the end of November. Every footfall was a crunchy reminder of the threat of drought, the sound of inspiration running dry.

With some effort, I managed to put aside my disappointment with the fact that my favorite time of year on Mt. Tam -- the rainy season -- had yet to begin. I stood before a furry oak and admired the stoic bryophytes cloaking its trunk. I sensed right off that my feeling of disappointment was a luxury not shared by the wild, and that if I wanted to hear the voice of the wild I would have to put myself in the shoes of the moss, the trees, and the ferns; the gray foxes, bobcats, and opossums; the red-shafted flickers, acorn woodpeckers, and varied thrushes. 

It's dry, buddy. Deal with it.

Which brings me back to our moss, Dendroalsia abietina, or Plumed Moss, which like all mosses lacks the water-storage cells adopted by flowering plants such as the oaks upon which they grow. Moss tends to be about as wet or dry as the air around it, and here on Mt. Tam it has to be able to deal with being dry for months before suddenly becoming wet again. When it gets very dry, highly intricate and complex chemistry and genetics come into play to protect the plant from being damaged by one of the main products of its own photosynthesis: oxygen.

I'm surprised that I never learned in school that oxygen almost wiped out life on Earth around 2.4 billion years ago, when life was still just the simplest kind of single-celled critter. Without the Great Oxygen Catastrophe, life might have continued in that way to this day. Maybe life had to get squeezed through a bottleneck (kicking and screaming, no doubt) to evolve. In a very early case of "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," that cell-burning oxygen was eventually harnessed (for good instead of evil!), sending evolution into overdrive. Okay, maybe not overdrive. It would take another 2 billion years for life to work its magic of sending our aquatic forebears to colonize the land and finally to fabricate the first mosses (and in just another 50 million years -- the blink of an eye -- along would come the first flowering plants).

The first moss: 475 million years ago. The first humans: 2 million years ago. How do I even form a concept of time that my mind can grasp, where mosses were proliferating upon the Earth for some 470 million years before Homo erectus came along? There are more than 10,000 species of moss, but only one species of Homo.

When I first crunched through dry oak leaves to observe the curled, dry tendrils of the Plumed Moss shown above, a lot of the disappointment I'd been feeling about the possibility of a drought year was tied in with the fact that humans, with our self-induced climate crisis, are making things tougher for life forms such as moss. But if I think about everything mosses have been through over the last nearly half-billion years, like surviving several mass extinctions, my knot of stress about the harm we're doing loosens quite a bit.

But only as far as moss is concerned.

It's kind of fascinating (as Spock might observe on some strange planet) that life has evolved into a form that threatens its own and other forms of itself with extinction. Don't worry though. "Life will find a way," as they say. Unfortunately, getting through whatever course-changing bottleneck we're setting up will probably not be a joy ride.

In the meantime I'll take joy in closely observing a photograph of ordinary moss, of allowing my mind's eye to roam among its lines, shapes, colors, and cellulosic textures. To ponder without forming thoughts, to meditate, to grok.

* * *

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Swell


If you're looking for some good winter reading (for yourself or as gifts!), check out The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019. So many interesting articles! Your local bookstore is sure to have it, giving you a nice excuse to browse for other great stuff while you're there.

We spent Thanksgiving week at a nice Airbnb in Caspar (on the Mendocino coast next to Jughandle State Natural Reserve), and I devoured this book (along with an Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout or two) by Liz Clark called Swell: A Sailing Surfer's Voyage of Awakening

Liz wrote the book on a laptop, as you might expect, but the laptop was placed on a homemade table of branches set in the shade of a mango tree in Tahiti. It's published by Patagonia, and if their other titles are as fun, interesting, and wise as this one, I'm going to be a very happy camper.

The story spans a dozen years, starting with Liz's days as a young Environmental Studies major at U.C. Santa Barbara and ending when she's a salty, seasoned sea captain who's logged 20,000 miles of solo sailing -- first down the California and Mexico coast, then onward to the Galapagos, and finally across the Pacific Ocean. (It reminded me of another excellent read called Paddling My Own Canoe by Audrey Sutherland.)

It's a "hero" story in the sense of Joseph Campbell's book The Hero With A Thousand Faces: there's Departure, Initiation, and Return. She's been getting to know her old Cal 40 sailboat for three years, and now, poised on a razor's edge, the call to adventure beckons: "I blink with fatigue as I try to convince myself to feel excited and proud after the seemingly endless preparation. But my fear and anxiety don't want to negotiate. My inner turmoil seems written in the sky. To the north: light, familiarity, comfort, safety, family. To the south: dark, unknown, doubt."

Needless to say, she pushes through the veil of self-doubt to undertake the adventure of her life. She'll sail through calm seas and stormy ones. She'll encounter drudgery and bliss, the mundane and the magical. She'll outmaneuver, Odysseus-like, the "gods" who toss one potential calamity after another at her. 

Eventually, she wins an apotheosis: "Suddenly thousands of raindrops fall before me. The movement of the expanding rings through the rosy water triggers some kind of trance. I watch the droplets transform into mini-swells of energy--varying wave amplitudes crossing over each other from all directions. Dynamic, chaotic, brilliant. Both infinite and finite at once. Time freezes and it feels as if my consciousness is floating. I am the raindrop, and the cloud, and the sky, and the setting sun. On this unusual frequency, I feel the connectedness of all things, a sensation of deep belonging. All one and simultaneously separate. Feeling becomes understanding--this great dichotomy dissolves. In this strange, brief moment, I am expansive like the Milky Way, minute like plankton, powerful like the tides, as solid as the volcanic crater, fragile like a spider's web, patient like the trees, and empty as a cloudless sky."

Having won the boon (and the book contract!), she goes on with her life, an inspiring example we could all emulate to our benefit.

"I've fallen countless times," she writes, "only to rise again, cloaked in new strength, and determined to find my way to a mental horizon of unlimited potential again. I have wrinkles around my eyes and sunspots splotch my skin, but I feel beautiful. I still have little money in the bank. I only own three pairs of shoes, all of my clothing can fit in one duffel bag, and I still flush my toilet with a hand pump--but I feel rich. I have spent the most energetic years of my life testing my physical, mental, and emotional capacities in pursuit of a dream.... 

"I have proven, at least to myself, that with plenty of hard work, choosing love will never lead to lack. It takes courage, but once the decision is made, doors open that seemed forever shut. Walking through them feels hopeful, exhilarating, and full of purpose. I am not the best sailor or the best surfer, or the most credentialed at anything, but chasing my dream has taught me that fulfillment and self-love don't come from being 'the best.' They come from pursuing our passions and connecting to our own spirits, communities, and world."

As one year comes to a close and a new one awaits just below the eastern horizon, Liz Clark's book makes for great company as we step into the coming transition.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Tam Cam November 2019




We finally got some rain the last week of November. I knew I'd be out of town during that week of Thanksgiving, and I knew rain was in the forecast. Nevertheless, I risked leaving one of the trail cameras near a pool of water, figuring no amount of rain was going to raise the creek enough to cause any problems. And when I went to retrieve the camera, both the pool and camera looked pretty much as they had the week before, except that now there was a little mat of soaked bay laurel leaves on top of the camera. Did they fall from above? I removed the leaves and opened the camera to find that water had gotten inside the battery compartment, and the cam would not power up.

My first thought was that these inexpensive Foxelli trail cams had failed their first real test of exposure to a drenching rain, but when I checked the other two cams that had been out in the same area, they were fine. What I think happened is the level of the pool rose just enough during the night of the big rain that the camera went underwater. Maybe the mat of bay laurel leaves didn't fall from above, but actually settled on the camera after floating above it. The microSD card was pretty much toast, but did record several very short video clips. Although the camera is set to run video for 20 seconds after snapping two still photos, each clip only recorded for about 3 seconds. No stills were recorded at all.

The only other snag is that somehow the datestamp in one of the cams changed to July! Something I'll have to double-check when I swap batteries in the future....

Early in the month I placed two cams down by Redwood Creek between Muir Woods and Muir Beach, and finally caught my first possum. The possum has a brief tussle with a raccoon at one point. A large tree branch falls into the middle of the frame without tripping the camera, and a gray fox scampers through the frame with what appears to be a brush rabbit in its mouth. The other location turned up raccoons, a fox, a coyote, and a bobcat that clawed the base of a tree. I had set that cam on what I thought was a game trail that crosses a seasonal creek, but all the animals were caught using the dry creekbed itself as their preferred route.

I pulled the Redwood Creek cam about halfway through the month since I wasn't sure I'd still be able to reach it if it rained enough to get the creek going.

My favorite footage comes at the beginning and the end of this month's video. After seeing the route a bobcat took in October, I set up two cams in the hope of catching closer views of it ambling up the creek bed, then jumping up on the fallen tree that spans the creek. I ended up capturing a fox with the two-cam set-up instead. The bobcat did finally appear near the end of the month, but it took a slightly different route up the creekbed, and after it jumped up onto the fallen tree it turned in the opposite direction that I'd planned for, so still no bobcat close-up.

Thankfully the wet season has finally arrived. Walking in the woods finally feels and sounds right. The loamy forest floor is spongy again, and footfalls can be silent. Out on Bolinas Ridge, though, the hills are still as brown as can be. I made a smartphone snap on the last day of the month, after checking on the trail cams:


After checking on the cams earlier in the month, my wife and I did a little hike that took us past a swing that someone has roped to a bay laurel on Bolinas Ridge. The bonus was finding a trio of musicians playing into the wind:





And finally, on the way back from our Thanksgiving stay in Mendocino, we stopped for veggie burgers at Amy's Drive Thru in Rohnert Park. I snagged a cup lid and a fork that are stamped as "compostable" and have set them in my little urban garden beneath my native hazelnut tree (I put the deer antlers in the ground when I planted the then-tiny hazel several years ago; it's now taller than I am). I'll be interested to see how the plastics fare over the winter, especially compared with a hazel leaf:



Monday, November 11, 2019

Reading Nature


October Tam Cam

I was kind of surprised when I realized I'd gone a whole year without posting anything. I didn't know I had that much self-restraint! Ha ha. And now that two years have passed, I'm kind of champing at the bit again, although I have no clear idea of what I want to say or what I want to photograph, especially within the time restraints of work and trying to rationalize the carbon footprint of driving a motor vehicle to chase new inspiration, the same things that brought me to a halt two years ago.

What is a nature photographer to do when the human world has become a pot of frogs slowly bringing itself to a boil of environmental catastrophe?

I work for an environmental organization and am immersed in the bad news every day. The solace of photography used to help me cope with it all, but then the solace came to feel like futility. I figure that's just depression talking, but I haven't quite figured out the counter-argument.

Although I've been doing very little "serious" photography the last couple of years, I've been immersed in a great deal of inspiration through other means, sometimes nearly to overflowing. What I haven't been able to do is dye my photography in that basin of joy. The images always fall short of what I want to convey, even though nature herself always delivers.

One thing I've learned in the last couple of years is that if I want to lighten the load, I don't just need a smaller camera. I need to go into nature with no camera at all and enjoy even what can't be photographed, capturing images that only I will ever see, and which last only in my own brief memory. I accept that the images will fade. Fading away is just part of the beautiful sadness of being alive in this world, and renewal is always just around the next bend.

As photographers we venture forth into the vast and wild realm of potential to extract a single image, an essence. Maybe the image isn't even important as long as we capture the essence. Like the alchemists of old, we come to realize that the gold we seek is not the ordinary gold, but something of much greater value.

And I guess I'll just leave it at that.

A few months ago I was thinking about replacing a trail camera that had gone belly-up a year or so ago, at first just to see what the critters were up to these days when they'd come around my back yard here in San Francisco. I've long wanted to put more than one camera out there since no single placement could give me the angles I wanted, but even the cheapest trail cameras have run a couple hundred bucks.

Until now!

Now you can get a Foxelli trail camera (and maybe other brands), outfit it with rechargeable batteries (I use Panasonic high-capacity eneloop pros) and micro-SD card, for under a hundred bucks. All of a sudden I had four of these things, and I soon satisfied my curiosity about the back yard critters. My main gripe about these cameras is that the audio is completely useless since the microphone is muffled up against the battery compartment. I know from previous cameras that audio, while usually not important, can sometimes add significant interest to a trail cam's video capture. (The other gripe is micro-SD cards. Because they're too small to easily remove and grip with my fingers, I keep forceps in my kit bag when I go to swap cards.)

I got the cameras back in August and although I still like to put one in the back yard now and then, I mainly like to put them out in the wild. The trick is to put the camera somewhere unlikely to capture or be seen by humans, yet still in a place that will capture wild animals. In all the years I've used camera traps, I've accidentally caught people several times, but of the minority of those people who actually noticed the camera, only one has actually stolen it (I suspect it was too near someone's dope-growing site). Luckily it was one of these inexpensive Foxelli cameras. I was almost as disappointed to lose the pricey rechargeable batteries as the camera itself.

One of the things I've always liked about doing regular photography is just slowly poking around and looking for subjects and compositions to spark my interest. With trail cameras I slowly poke around looking for good placement spots. Either way, I get to enjoy stealthily skulking around in the woods, reading nature. And after a week or two have gone by I'm eager to get back up there to find my cameras (grateful they're still there), and to get the SD cards home so I can see what I captured.

I don't know if I'll feel drawn to get back into regular photography anytime soon, but until I am I'll settle for the vicarious enjoyment of being in the wild through my camera traps despite having to be at work all week.

One thing I've already noticed is how attached I've become to the places I've been setting the cams despite their not-very-photogenic ordinariness. When I'm up there in person I've spooked a great horned owl from an oak tree and realized it was probably the same owl that showed up in my camera trap. A deer that came out of the woods to check me out one morning is probably the same one that knocked over one of my cameras. I'm reminded to appreciate the fact that the mountain isn't just a place to see animals, but a place those animals call home, and somehow the camera traps let me share in that sense of belonging-with-the-land.



September



August