Saturday, November 6, 2021

Change of Season

On the one hand, it's great to finally be getting some rain. On the other hand, I had to postpone my dental check-up this Tuesday because I didn't want to show up like a soggy dog after biking downtown.

I took the day off to drive out to Pt. Reyes yesterday to beat the weekend crowds. I drove up through Lucas Valley where there's still a traffic light where they're doing roadwork on a tight bend in the road. I drove home on Hwy. 1, the Shoreline Highway. I'd planned to climb up the northwest side of Mt. Tam via Bolinas Fairfax Road, but the gate was closed, so I enjoyed the drive along Bolinas Lagoon instead. It was pretty much high tide at the time, something like +6 feet. Definitely no dry land for basking harbor seals or foraging shorebirds.

I shot these three scenes along West Ridgecrest Road, near the intersection with Bolinas-Fairfax. It kind of looks like I could have made these shots yesterday, but they were made back in early July, when ferns and redwoods live off the sometimes prodigious summer fog drip.

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Friday, October 29, 2021

Spartan Accommodations


October Sunrise with Mt. Diablo

“Man is a creature who can get used to anything, and I believe that is the very best way of defining him.”—Fyodor Dostoevsky

The quotation comes from a book about life as a prisoner in a Siberian prison camp, but I read it in a book about wilderness survival, in the context of a story about a couple of people lost at sea (Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales).

It’s a sentiment I’ve shared for a long time, ever since I heard about crowded Japanese subway systems where people are pushed into packed cars. The pusher’s job title was oshiya, and as Wikipedia reports, “In 1975, oshiya packed commuters into rush-hour trains that were filled to an average of 221 percent of designed capacity.”

Apparently it’s gotten somewhat better since then, and the pandemic’s effect on mass transit has been, and will likely continue to be, considerable. Nevertheless, the image of people being crammed into sardine cans remains indelible in my mind, and has long stood for the humorous, sad, and inspiring fact that we always adapt to the various impoverishments we experience in our lives, from environmental degradation to urban blight, from price inflation to wage deflation, and from calling money “speech” and corporations “people” to the gaslighting of common sense.

Sunrise from Mt. Tamalpais

When I began this blog in 2007 as a motivator and creative outlet for travels and explorations around natural California, I’d been working for environmental non-profits for nearly ten years. Despite my daily exposure to the myriad ways in which civilization degrades wild nature and human health, I still felt upbeat about our chances to fight back, and I felt lucky to have such an interesting and biodiverse state to explore. I put thousands of miles on my Jeep Cherokee with no thought of my "carbon footprint," a term rarely used at the time.

Half-way into 2013 I decided to “wipe the slate” on all that travel (including the blog posts) and concentrate instead on making a deeper exploration of Mt. Tamalpais, which is fairly close to my home in San Francisco. (I can see East Peak from my living room window, although someone’s trees down the block have been growing and obscuring the view over the years.)

I’ve been visiting Mt. Tam for thirty years now. In the beginning there was an off-trail area I used to explore, a place I called Bobcat Hill. It offered an emotional salve, even salvation, to a nature-loving guy who lived and worked in the city. I recently hiked back up to Bobcat Hill for the first time in well over a decade and was surprised to see that all my old landmarks had been overgrown. The meadows and animal trails had been smothered by coyote brush. Even the forest understory was dark and sterile-looking.

Turkey vultures warm their wings at Vulture Rock, up on Bobcat Hill, in 1996. On a recent visit I couldn't even find Vulture Rock, now completely obscured by chaparral.

In the Bobcat Hill days I often felt like I had the mountain to myself. Then came Twitter's arrival in downtown San Francisco to usher in the latest tech boom, a boom that would eventually draw many other people like myself to the mountain, people who needed salvation from the city. 

In 2013-14 I would often show up at the Pantoll gate on Mt. Tam before the park ranger arrived to open it at 7 a.m. I would park in front of the gate to wait, roll down the windows, turn off the motor, and listen to birds singing the new day into life. When the ranger opened the gate I would have the mountain to myself for quite a while. I called that blog project A Circumannuation of Mt. Tamalpais and brought my photography gear up to the mountain to explore pretty much every weekend for a year. After the year was over in May 2014, I took an intermission from the blog for a year or two (with very few posts in 2015) and allowed myself to arrive for hikes or photography well after the gate-opening.

The next time I showed up before 7 a.m., I was surprised to have so much company. I actually had to pull in behind a line of cars already waiting. To this day it remains that way. Lots of new Mt. Tamophiles. (It would be another few years before  crowded conditions led to reservations being required at Muir Woods.) I was recently first in line at the gate and thought the pandemic might have shifted visitation back to before the latest wave of tech workers, but several more arrivals soon disabused me that notion. Anyway, it’s not like Mt. Tam has become too crowded, at least not in the manner of Japanese subway trains.

Sunrise with San Francisco Skyline

After the Mt. Tam project was over I decided to do the same kind of thing out at Pt. Reyes. I traded the 17-mpg Cherokee for a Mazda 3, doubling my gas mileage, but even then I was probably concerned more about the price of gas to me, personally, than I was to the price of gas to our climate. Like the parable of the slowly cooking frog, I’ve been getting used to things heating up so slowly that I just accommodate it.

Back in 2007 I didn’t really think about the term “carbon footprint” which, according to Wikipedia, “was popularized by a large advertising campaign of the fossil fuel company BP in 2005…. The campaign was intended to divert attention from the fossil fuel industry onto individual consumers.”

Occasionally I will ride my e-bike up to Mt. Tam, but I do still drive there in a car from time to time. And although I’m a little bit proud of the fact that after more than seven years I only have 40,000 miles on the Mazda, I do look forward to soon using it to re-explore the world of natural California, which means lots more gallons of gas to burn. (An electric car is only as clean as the powerplant you charge it from, and I can't afford one anyway.)

I can only wonder what I’ll find as I re-discover natural California. Will it become a place of drought-stricken and impoverished landscapes, burnt forests and dry riverbeds, smoke-filled air and blazing summer heat? Has the California I explored in the 2000s already disappeared forever? 

If so, I guess I'll just have to get used to it. Like those Siberian prisoners and shipwrecked castaways.

Sunrise with Ridge Silhouettes

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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Bird Bath

Here's a little bird action showing some of the diversity of species that have been visiting the little water pool. I was surprised no wild turkeys showed up on the cam. When I went down to the pool recently to collect the SD card and swap in some fresh batteries, I spooked up several turkeys who immediately but casually mosied out of the area. Probably the most frequently captured bird has been the screech-owl. The owl visits often and tends to stick around awhile. In contrast, the band-tailed pigeons, who are also frequent visitors, are usually in-and-out during the span of a 12-second video clip. 

Acorn Woodpecker

Black-headed Grosbeaks

Band-tailed Pigeon

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Downy Woodpecker and Western Tanager


Flycatcher (?) (It didn't land.)

Great-horned Owl

Pacific Wren

Pacific Slope Flycatcher



Spotted Towhee

Steller's Jay

Townsend's Warbler

Varied Thrush

Western Tanager

Wilson's Warbler

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Monday, October 25, 2021

Saturday Snaps

Took a few phone snaps while I was on Mt. Tam to check my camera traps on Saturday. I climbed a nearby hill where the sun was trying to break through the clouds in what promised to be a stunning display of backlighting, crepuscular rays, glories, and brocken specter, but the fog rose too high and the sun was blotted out. A raven joined me, glad for a little company. In recent weeks the bay laurels have been bustling with ravens feeding on peppernuts, but the frenzy seemed to have died down.

There was lovely fall color in patches of poison oak, and in just the past week, all the dry, stony creekbeds with their shrinking pools had filled with the rush of singing water. I hadn't really expected to find fungi just yet, but a large dyer's polypore (Phaeolus schweinitzii) surprised me, and some young oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) promised edibles to come.

Happy Halloween Tree

Fall Color in the Poison Oak

The Twin Snag at Rock Spring

Climbing Poison Oak Vines & Creek Dogwood

Dyer's Polypore

More Spooky Stuff

Oyster Babies on Mossy Log

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Friday, October 22, 2021

Building Blocks


Sand Tufa at Mono Lake

They thought physics was dead more than a hundred years ago. Before Max Planck postulated the quantum. Before Einstein explained the photoelectric effect. Long before dark energy and dark matter. And way, way before double-charm tetraquarks!

From Quanta Magazine: “The unexpected discovery of the double-charm tetraquark highlights an uncomfortable truth. While physicists know the exact equation that defines the strong force … they can rarely solve this strange, endlessly iterative equation, so they struggle to predict the strong force’s effects.”

I love it that physicists are stuck with an equation they can rarely solve, that physics is not dead, and that nature is still bending minds, thank you very much. The writer goes on to explain that the tetraquark they discovered was surprisingly stable—because it lasted 12 sextillionths of a second!

And here I am thinking a flash sync of 1/250th of a second is blink-of-an-eye fast. Of course in the context of atomic physics it would be ridiculous to even call a blinking eye “fast.” Anything that took as long as an eye-blink to happen would probably put a particle physicist to sleep!

A tempting internal hyperlink in the above article took me to a page about protons, which reminded me of a Star Trek: Next Generation episode that I recently watched on Amazon Prime (“When the Bough Breaks”). When this kid who’s maybe 12 years old was scolded by his dad for ditching his calculus homework, I hoped that they would eventually show the kid why calculus is useful. Alas, they missed their chance. Maybe the writers themselves didn’t know either.

Not only did we not learn calculus when I was in 7th grade (the year after Apollo 11 landed on the moon), we didn’t learn about quarks either, much less tetraquarks. An atom was a neutron, plus protons and electrons, and that was that. So I thought it was funny when the linked article started out saying, “We learn in school that a proton is a bundle of three elementary particles called quarks—two ‘up’ quarks and a ‘down’ quark, whose electric charges (+2/3 and -1/3, respectively) combine to give the proton its charge of +1. But that simplistic picture glosses over a far stranger, as-yet-unresolved story.”

I love that the proton story I learned about has become passé, but you’ll have to read the article to see how mind-blowing the “as-yet-unresolved story” is. How intricate and mysterious this beautiful world is.

October Sunrise, Mono Lake

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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Town & Country

I've been getting lots of raccoon activity out back recently. I believe this is a family group, and that it is the same group whose younger, smaller members I saw trooping around maybe a month or so ago. I keep a bowl of water out for the local wildlife, birdlife and neighborhood cats, and I can always tell in the morning when the raccoons have been around the night before because the bowl will be empty of water and full of sand (from putting their paws in the water).


Town Raccoons

Country Raccoon

Town Skunk

Country Skunk

It's not unusual at certain times of the year to see a hermit thrush poking around out back, and they frequently show up on the Tam Cams also.

Town Hermit Thrush

Country Hermit Thrush

Okay, it's not exactly comparing apples to apples since the town and country rats are different species. In fact, the Old World and New World rats are even in different families. I had to go way back to February to find a rat picture, partly because I don't retain all the rat captures, but also, I suspect, because my next-door neighbor recently hired a rat-exterminator.

Town (Norway) Rat

Country (Wood) Rat

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Friday, October 15, 2021

Phrase Shift

Monarch on Toyon

Maybe Doris Day popped into my head this morning, although I can no longer trace the line of thought that would have led to such a thing. But the French phrase, “Que sera, sera” (“Whatever will be, will be”) popped into my head, followed directly by the American phrase, “It is what it is.” I asked myself what those two phrases might say about the respective national characters that produced them.

The French phrase seems to put the emphasis on the future, and the American phrase seems to put the emphasis on the present. In fact, though, the French phrase is actually suggesting that we enjoy the present and shrug our shoulders about the future. The American phrase suggests that we accept the present (because we’re too taciturn to “enjoy” it) and shrug our shoulders about the past.

I guess that’s the “national character” difference in a nutshell. The French remind themselves to enjoy the present, and the Americans simply accept that they’re stuck with all the bad decisions they’ve made. The French ideal is to drink champagne in the face of, for example, a changing climate and its portents of catastrophe, while the American ideal is to say, in the aftermath of the latest flood, drought, heat-wave, or wildfire, “No use crying over spilt milk; deal with it.”

The future will take care of itself, and the past is past. Nothing to do about the former, and nothing to learn from the latter.

Or, as Annie Hall would say, “La-dee-da, la-dee-da.”

And that, my friends, is why we call ourselves Homo sapiens, “the wise people.”

Pipevine Swallowtail

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Friday, October 8, 2021

Phased Out

About this time a year ago I was out for my morning walk around the neighborhood when I saw the crescent moon rising behind Twin Peaks. The gorgeous silver sliver was positioned so that the moon appeared to be at rest just above the cupped peaks, almost like a sacrament held above open hands. After I got home I took a picture even though the moon had moved out of position, in part to help remind myself to try again the following year.

So the year passed and I was ready for that last thin sliver before the new moon to make its appearance on Monday. I was also thankful for a clear sky. I skipped my morning walk so I could be in place with my camera for the repeat event.

I first saw the crescent when it appeared just south of the base of Sutro Tower. It was a beautiful sight, but I could already sense that something wasn’t quite right.

From the position of the moon at that point, it didn’t seem like its trajectory was going to be exactly the same as the moon phase that occurred last year on October 15When I looked through the viewfinder I could tell right away that the 300mm lens I used for last year’s shot was going to be too tight. This year I had to use a 105mm to get the moon and the peaks in the same frame. 

If I had waited until Tuesday to try the shot (which would have been in keeping with last year's sighting, being the day before the new moon), I'd have been skunked by fog. In any event, the crescent moon doesn't rise along the same angle or even at the same time from year to year, although the Photographer's Ephemeris had Tuesday's moonrise far enough south of Monday's to have probably made all the difference in the world; foiled by Carl the Fog again). Maybe next year....

As I watched the moonrise it was interesting to recall that there weren't so many airplanes flying across the frame last year, and sightseers weren't allowed to drive up to Twin Peaks.

Last October I was already amazed that the pandemic had continued to keep me working from home over the summer. Now another whole year has gone by, and my office isn’t scheduled to reopen until January 2022. That’s despite the fact that almost everyone has been vaccinated since last spring.

I do wonder if we’re being over-cautious, but it’s even more wondrous to me that so many people seem to believe it’s more risky to get the vaccine than the disease. I recently saw a comment on NextDoor by an anti-vax person who claimed to have several friends who contracted myocarditis, but she neglected to mention that you’re six-times more likely to get myocarditis after a Covid-19 infection than you are after an mRNA vaccination.

Speaking of playing the odds, I wonder if the moon will ever repeat the trajectory I saw last year. I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled, just in case.

Waning Crescent Over Twin Peaks
October 4, 2021

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Friday, October 1, 2021

Circular Reasoning


Brocken Specter

I pushed the shower door open this morning and played with the arc of water droplets falling off the far edge of the door onto my bath mat. By pushing with a steady, even pressure I took pleasure in controlling the uniformity of the arc that drew itself on the mat. That’s probably the same pleasure that Jackson Pollock felt when he dripped paint onto canvas. There’s something pleasurable about creating a design on a surface without coming into direct contact with it. In a way, photography is like that. If I photograph a landscape, the subject is the dripping water, and the light sensor is the bath mat.

But I digress. Once I saw the arc forming, the pivot point of the door reminded me of a compass, which got me thinking about the arc in terms of degrees. A circle is an arc of 360 degrees, but what is the minimum degree of arc you need to know in order to calculate the circle’s radius and, by extension, its circumference?

Glory with Brocken Specter

Although I love questions like that, I have very little patience for finding their answers. I searched the internet in the hope of finding an easy answer, and I guess I did, because I found out it’s not possible. You can’t calculate the radius with the degree of arc alone because you also need what they call the sector angle.

The sector angle is formed by two radii extending from the center of the circle to each end of the arc, like a slice of pizza. The arc length is equal to the radius times the sector angle. I was trying hard to remain patient as I encountered these mathematical terms until I saw that you have to convert degrees of arc into radians, a term I was not familiar with despite the fact that I used to ride a Yamaha Radian motorcycle.

I almost stopped my line of inquiry at this point, but I found the conversion of degrees to radians as easily online as I could have found the conversion of dollars into yen. Enter “convert degrees to radians” into a Google search bar if you don’t believe me.

As you’ll see, each degree of arc is “worth” 0.0174533 radians (a radian equals pi divided by 180; not so tough after all).

But we’re still stuck with the fact that you need two of three numbers to calculate the third number. So I thought of a new question: Couldn’t you draw straight lines that just touch the ends of each side of the arc and converge in what would be the center of the circle?

I couldn’t do it in my head, and I feared I was treading close to calculus or something, so I set a nickel down on a piece of paper and used a pen to draw part of a circle. I looked at the arc and used a bookmark to draw a straight line past both ends of the arc. Sure enough, the lines converged on a point and created a slice of pizza, but was the point of intersection actually the center of my circle?

To find out, I set the nickel back down and drew the rest of the circle.

Long story short, the point was not in the center. Not even close.

Glory Photographed With Polarizing Filter

By this time I realized I had spent an awful lot of time following my curiosity into a mathematical dead-end. But at least it was time enjoyably spent.

Similarly, I recently went to see the Joan Mitchell show at SFMOMA. I do not consider myself a fan of abstract art, and my artist wife was braced for the possibility that I might not like the show. One of the cool things about art, though, is that it can affect you in a way that leaves you speechless.

Sandhill Cranes & Waning Crescent Moon

You could walk past a Joan Mitchell painting, or even a whole room full of them, glancing at them one by one before moving on to the next, and be confirmed in your suspicion that abstract art was useless. But the minute you stop wandering and actually plant yourself in front of one of these paintings, you get sucked in by its power.

Waves of light reflect off the paint and enter your eyes, triggering a cascade of neuronal impulses that converge on the point in your brain where your soul resides, producing more electrochemical cascades that release an emotion that spreads through your being like a drop of ink dispersing in a glass of water. What that emotion is, I can’t exactly say. I guess it’s a kind of awe. Whatever it was, it was deep and powerful, and I felt amazed and grateful for having experienced it.

The show continues until January 17, 2022.

Crane With Rising Sun

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