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 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.

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Saturday, December 7, 2019

December Sunrise

San Francisco Skyline, Friday Morning

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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.

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Wednesday, December 4, 2019


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:


I pulled the fork and drink lid out of the garden soil on Nov. 25, 2020. Neither seemed any worse for the wear after being buried in the dirt for a year.

Both items could have been re-used in virtually new condition after being rinsed with water. Nice lesson showing that compostable isn't the same as biodegradeable. 

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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.



Friday, November 3, 2017

Sit Spot

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Compare with http://jwallphoto.blogspot.com/2017/09/gone-to-seed.html

I recently found a great little sit-spot on some big rocks in the mostly dry bed of Cataract Creek. It’s close to the trail, within earshot of passing hikers but out of sight behind the woods and walls of the ravine. There’s a small pool of water at the base of the rocks that the local birds know about, and if you sit still enough, a Pacific wren might skitter down for a drink just a few feet below you. Bigleaf maple, Doug fir, and tanoak make up most of the canopy, with hazel and huckleberry filling in some of the gaps on the forest floor. The space in between is fairly open, luminous in the morning sunshine, and the view from the sit spot gives the feeling of being suspended in that space.

Rippling unseen through the space was a placid soundscape of acorn woodpeckers cackling in the distance and an intermittent breeze breathing through the leaves overhead, all of which conspired to make me conscious of the atmosphere itself. If you think about it, the motion of gases in the air around us is as much a part of Earth’s fluid dynamics as the motion of water around fish in the ocean. And like the ocean, the fluid of our atmosphere isn’t composed of just one thing, but actually a myriad of different gas molecules, pollen grains, fungal spores, bacteria, and so on. The air actually has mass, or weight, and even hiking through it creates friction. With a little imagination you can picture yourself practically breast-stroking up the trail.

As you swim, think about the fact that while you are immersed in that sea of gas molecules, pollen grains, fungal spores, volatilized plant resins, and dust motes, that all of it is entering your body with every breath you take. Waves of light strike your skin and impart their warmth. Waves of sound strike into your ears and, like light entering your eyes, initiate a cascade of electro-chemical signals in your central nervous system, much of which rarely, if ever, escapes your subconscious realm. There is no sharp line dividing you from the atmosphere. In fact, there is no sharp line dividing you from everything that is.

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