Places, names, and things in California

Chronicles of Ubo: Private Road, Newport Beach

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA


There’s a road named “Private Road” in my home region of Ubo which, appropriately, I never noticed much or at all until I came back to live there for four months in the fall of 2012. I was in a sleuthing and investigating mode then, à la Nancy Drew. A secret lake, a lost Indian spring, the provenance of my brother’s illness, mysterious culverts that crisscrossed the two cities of Ubo: all of these things pre-occupied me with their unknown origins. And when I thought I could neither discover nor query anything else, I found a street entitled “Private Road”. How stupid, I thought irritably, looking up at it. How prosaic. Who names a road “Private”?

A land developer, working in the frontier of early suburban development in Southern California, that’s who. I don’t know who it was that coined the name, but it’s likely that he (it was probably a he) looked over the bluffs of the neighboring estuary and saw a view, a prized feature. The view was public and thus unprotected from the gaze of many people. It was transformed into a private view, on a private street, something rare and exclusive. (How do you make money from the intangibles of space? Ask any Newport Beach land developer. They’ll tell you.)

The name worked like a charm. I had never known or noticed the road. Had I noticed, I would have obeyed its frowning, finger-wagging admonition to Stay The Hell Out. Private Road stayed off my radar of the many locales, destinations, spaces and sites that, when assembled, created a psychic space I called home.

Private Road, which is on a grade, curves up from Irvine Avenue, the long street that starts in the uplands and ends at the western bluffs of Ubo. Standing at the bottom of Private Road, you’re forced to look up, an aspirational gaze which tallies with the effort it would take to purchase a house there. The view is tantalizing. The street ends in the sky, making it look mythic, heaven-bound and unapproachable for un-monied mortals.

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Private Road is in a wealthy neighborhood, which seems to be the fate of many neighborhoods in Ubo. The median house prices are, of course, stratospheric. They’re huge and getting larger. The pseudo-Eichler houses built after the Second World War with their modest square footages are being ripped down as their original owners die and the property is sold. Bigger house with more square footage and ersatz French Chateau-like exteriors are replacing them.

This is an old complaint and not a very interesting one: I come home and everything has changed, says the adult, who left while they were still young, and so inadvertently imprisoned the place they left in an inflexible memory.

I can’t complain about Private Road (I don’t know, exactly, how a road that was built and maintained with state and county money could be considered legally private…?). It is protected from my memory by the simple expedient of naming it “Private”. Perhaps this name-as-inoculation was the most important magic to be worked by the name-spell. I, like many others, had knowledge of other spaces, some of them very different, like Santa Ana, for instance. It had (and has) small pink and blue houses with many people living in in them and chickens in the front yard. I lived on, and therefore had first-hand knowledge of Croftdon Street, which was the first house my parents owned in Costa Mesa. When I was 7, my parent’s friends brought their children with them on a visit, thinking we would get along nicely and play well together. The kids they brought were total assholes, as it turned out. There was a South East Asian family across the street, and a Mexican family living next to us, and a Japanese family further down. This unsettled them. “What does it feel like to live in a ghetto?” one of them asked us sneeringly.

The namer/developer of Private Road would never have asked this question because he wanted never to know. His query was more complex, his concern different: how could any space in Newport Beach— well on its way to attaining the sort of agonized and self-conscious air of exclusivity it has today— co-exist both in my consciousness and the consciousness of the well-heeled Newport Beach homeowner, given that I played with Raj, the brown-eyed boy whose mother was from Ireland and whose father was from Gujarat? The road was less than half a mile from the Costa Mesa City limits! Privacy accomplished this.

The gap in my memory is a deliberate and purposive act of segregation, forestalling not only my physical presence, but stopping me before I could make and hold in the commons of my memory, an association of Private Road as a part of the place I lived in together with the images of Raj or Mr. Leon, an elderly Mexican man who lived next door to us on Croftdon.

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Today there is a white, slightly rusted sign affixed to the neatly trimmed hedge that marks the entrance to the road. I vant to be alone, the sign seems to sigh in an exhalation of weary ennui. The other streets and roads and avenues that border Private Road don’t have this attitude. They’re open, friendly tree-lined streets that I traversed as a child, going here and there between the beach, or the dentist on Balboa Island, or my grandparent’s house on Aliso…or our bookstore on 17th street. Santiago Drive, 23rd Street and Tustin Avenue: I know them and love them all, especially Tustin where, in the dusky evenings of the nineteen forties cars would speed recklessly and sometimes crash into the swamp at the end of the street.

Anyone with a computer can look at Private Road now. Go ahead. Type in the words “Private Road, Newport Beach, CA” into the Google search field, select the little Google manikin and drop it squarely on the entrance to Private Road. See the cunning little red bridge next to the private pagoda? It’s adorable— a wonderful example of the Orientalist decorating craze so common in Newport Beach back in the fifties. Please notice the stand of bamboo just to the right. Click some more and proceed. At 2317 Private Road, two women stand chatting in the driveway, having what could have been a private conversation, were it not for the omniscient gaze of a Google camera.

Hey! Yeah, we just thought we’d drop in! Where’s your icebox? Where’s the punch?

Moving on, you can see the house next to them, with its cute rose-bedecked bower and small grove of aspen trees. Swing around sharply to your left and look at the kidney-shaped pool. Legions of happy, sun-tanned Newport Beach children grew up in this pool, safely shielded from the public gaze which would surely have burnt their tender skin with avid public curiosity.

Have the inhabitants of Private Road given up the battle to maintain their privacy? The space opposite them, the Upper Newport Bay, sure isn’t private. Through the efforts of Frank and Francis Robinson, the bay was rescued from the same obliterating vision of private development, and was instead restored and opened up to public access. Not so for the historic site called “Cherry Lake”. What used to be a spring — a democratic place, surely— that provided fresh water for the Tongva, the Native American tribe who had been in residence since they sprang into being as a people, is now a private lake.

What were the inhabitants of Private Road rejecting? What did they think was being kept at bay? What did they want to keep hidden, shielded from scrutiny? Was Precious getting bombed?

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

The other day, as my mother and I were out, I told her I had something new to show her, in a familiar neighborhood she once lived in as a young mother. I turned down Irvine and made a left, heading up the road and into the secret cul-de-sac. My mother gaped at the pagoda.

“My god,” she said. “I never knew this was here!”

“You weren’t meant to, “ I replied. “It’s private.”

Diddie’s house

From a 2001 entry in my dream journal: “Diddie died last October. On the weekend that she died, Emily and Anne and I were supposed to spend a weekend together in San Francisco. Anne wasn’t coming ‘til Saturday morning, so Emily and I took off for Orr Hot Springs, and drove back Saturday morning to meet Anne at my house on Alvarado Street. My poor sister had to tell us. She had been told 10 minutes she stepped on the plane before by my mother.”

Diddie in her garden

Diddie in her garden

I dreamt about Diddie’s house two nights ago. She was my Grandmother, and her real name is not Diddie, but that doesn’t matter. The dream was produced under the influence of a few things: a late night conversation with my sister who was describing her house to me –“It reminds me of Diddie’s,” she said excitedly- and also the sort of vivid dreams one has in the early morning, after not sleeping so well during the night. The dream was not a happy return to a beloved place: there was strange man warning me that I might well have to leave California. The house was hard to describe even in the first few minutes of waking consciousness. It was inchoate; mesmerizing. I wondered why and how, if the house was no longer standing, I returned to it so often.
Diddie’s house recurs often in my dreams, usually in a different shape or in a different locale. There are secret rooms that appear, that I didn’t know existed, and these rooms give me hope that the house is has grown; is living. I explore them curiously, tenderly. There’s a backyard, always. The interior of the house- the painting, the large medallion of Shakespeare, the picture of the geraniums, the small watercolor of Charity Farms, the farm in Hogsthorpe, England where her Grandfather grew up- does not appear.

Bunny's desk with painting of Charity Farms

Bunny’s desk with painting of Charity Farms

This inventory of objects makes this entire recollection sound like another version of Goodnight Moon, the items that get noticed everyday, every night: things that your memory catches and snags on. We all have items from the house. They are not lost. But the house is.

Another entry reads: “Last night I walked into Diddie’s bedroom. To the left hand side of the door was a hole from which a rickety staircase descended. There was a basement I’d never seen before. I stared at it, wondering what was down there. It wasn’t dank, dark or scary. It was, instead, illuminated with the light of the mid-afternoon sun. I began to weep, hugely, almost athletically, pulling energy up from my diaphragm and shoving it out the front of my face. I pounded the ground, I hugged my knees and crouched and howled and when there were no more tears, I still tried to cry…”

The house is lost. I watched it go. I watched the insides get taken out and disposed of (a process that was not easy and provoked an scary and unprecedented fight between my beloved Aunt and myself. And my poor Father.)

I knew our family couldn’t keep it. It was too valuable to keep. It was located in Newport Heights in Newport Beach, a sleepy seaside town when my grandparents arrived there in the early forties. Diddie’s house was on Aliso Street, just east of a bluff that overlooked Pacific Coast Highway. When the weather was clear, you could walk down the street and look at Catalina, crisp and clear, and smoky blue in the distance. Developers, looking to monetize the perspective of bluff-ocean-island, built huge homes on the edge of the bluff and privatized the view. The city of Newport beach grew and asserted itself. Ranch style homes and pseudo-Eichlers started to appear alongside the square little bungalows that were built after the war. And then bigger homes got built. Skyscrapers appeared to the south. Fashion Island, the modernist outdoor mall, was built.

The house was screened by a pepper tree and a hedge of toxic and fragrant white oleander. It didn’t call attention to itself. None of the houses on Aliso Street did at that time. They were smaller, low-slung, relaxed. It was Newport Beach. The outdoors was the attention-grabber. Not high-ceilinged houses with vasty interiors and heavy furniture. People didn’t live in Newport Beach because they wanted to be entombed in heavy houses. You lived there because you didn’t need to be protected from the elements. The night didn’t bring bone-crushing cold and the sun set, it seemed, just forty miles away over the long spine of the submerged mountain range that is the Channel Islands. The winds blew calmly over that small white house with the redwood rafters.

From the dream journal later in 2001: “I dreamt that Diddie’s house, with the knowledge and connivance of Diddie, Dad and Cerini, had been blasted to make way for a new structure. ..somebody had cut down the ancient pepper tree in the front yard. That is what sent me over the edge. The tree had been ripped asunder, torn apart. It was a horrible dream. Not only did I rail at Dad and Cerini, I screamed at Diddie…”

The house was torn down. I knew it would happen. My father and I made a last tour of the house, shortly before it went up for sale. I couldn’t believe at the time that it was going away forever. I took pictures of the house and the grounds it sat on. I took pictures of the glassware that still sat on her dining room table, the way the light hit it.

I ran water in the sink and remembered a time when I was an eight year old that I washed dishes next to Diddie. The water flowed over my hands and the sunlight that came in through the window above the sink illuminated it. I looked up at Diddie. “Look at this!” I said to her. I  meant: look at this incredible element in your house. Look at the liquid light that’s running over my hands.

Diddie nodded and said, yes. She saw the light too.

Diddie's house is full of light.

The table in the dining room

The last recorded entry in my journal is this one, and it’s the dream that the other dreams made, the logical end point to the ripped-out pepper tree and the wailing and the snarling rage: My brother Jim and I stood looking at the house, which was pale green. It stood on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. There was a narrow path on the right that bordered a sheer drop – one misstep, and you’d be over the edge, falling to your death. The house was very old and very loved and it was very beautiful. I became aware of a stained glass window- old and ecclesiastically English looking.

I was given to understand that the house was condemned. It was going to be destroyed. Jim and I walked around the house looking at it and noting the visible signs of decay. There was a clear sense of danger. It was structurally unsound. The ground was crumbling under my feet. The sides of the house were slick with moisture. Green vegetation was shooting out of the house, slowly covering the wooden boards. The house was being reclaimed by natural forces, not ripped apart or dismantled by mechanical forces: re-enfolded in verdant green vegetation. I remember crying as the house began to fall.

And then Jim and I pushed the house and helped it fall, right down into the ocean, which was bright blue and sparkling.


It seems that the death of Diddie and the destruction of the house hasn’t foreclosed the possibility of someone still living in it.

I think I go there more often than I know.

Have the people who live in the new, modern house heard the quiet sound of a door being closed? Muffled conversations in a living room that isn’t there any longer? Do they hear the sound of running feet? Are the secret rooms I find in my dreams about Diddie’s house passageways into the new house? Have the current occupants seen a elderly woman with blonde bobbed hair who walks briskly from room to room?
Do they sense my presence? Hers?

The house that used to be there?


Charity Farms, Hogsthorpe, England, circa 1918

Charity Farms, Hogsthorpe, England, circa 1918




Birds call; Dominik Mosur listens

Dominik Mosur stood in the middle of schoolchildren, who were busily running through San Francisco’s Randall Museum wildlife exhibit. A tall, powerfully built man with a mild expression, he wore a tee shirt that read  “Made in Poland”. Mosur was born in Poland and although he has the laid back attitude and accent common to most coastal Californians, he pronounces his surname with a distinctive Eastern European lilt.

Just then he looked tired. “There aren’t usually this many kids at once,” he explained. “I think there are actually two classes here at the same time. Someone’s always gotta be on the floor with all these kids.”

As an animal care attendant for the museum, he’d also dealt with an emergency that morning: a sick Great Horned owl.  The Randall Museum, which functions both as a natural history museum and as a refuge for the city’s wildlife, has had the owl in residence for many years. (Born blind, the owl would have died in the wilderness.) The stress of transporting a sick owl to a wildlife vet showed on Mosur’s face. “I’m pretty behind right now,” he said.

Mosur has the distinction of identifying the most bird species in one year in San Francisco County and has mastered the art of bird identification by listening rather than looking. This is sometimes the only way a bird can be identified. Songbirds like the Pygmy Nuthatch measure three inches in size and roost in the tops of mature conifer stands. “If you’re lucky, you might see one fly by,” observed Mosur, sounding doubtful. Listening for bird calls depends on a sonic atmosphere uncluttered by anthropogenic noise. In San Francisco, this can be a challenge.


A Pygmy Nuthatch

“Up here in Corona Heights, I take a walk at noon and I hear construction noise, like nail guns and jackhammers, pretty much the whole time,” he said, sitting down outside the museum. Behind him, schoolchildren ran around, emitting high pitched squeals of delight. “A lot of times, I need to really listen carefully. Am I hearing a bird or is that a truck backing up? Is that really a woodpecker banging away at a tree or is that someone hammering?”

It follows that if Mosur has a hard time hearing the birds, they probably don’t hear each other, either. “There’s definitely a negative effect specifically on birds from man made noise. Birds communicate visually, but also by sound. Bird song is typically a male bird trying to attract a mate. Having noise can really reduce the chance of the male bird finding a mate and reproducing. In areas where there’s constant noise, a number of birds become less successful in nesting. Some birds have completely abandoned these areas.” A car alarm went off in the distance.

One bird that’s vanished from San Francisco because of noise is the Black-headed grosbeak. This songbird migrates from Mexico and arrives in the Bay Area in late March. Once they’ve recovered from their journey, the male grosbeaks will sing continuously from hidden spots in bushes and coastal scrub. “There hasn’t been a confirmed record of them nesting here in San Francisco since 1918,” said Mosur.  “But if you go over the Golden Gate to Bolinas, to the stands of willows in Pine Gulch, you find the Black-headed grosbeak. Over there, they’re one of the most common birds.”

A black-headed grosbeak

A black-headed grosbeak

“I’ve learned to filter out the sounds of anthropogenic noise but when I do get to bird in places where I don’t hear traffic, it’s almost like I’m on a holiday,” he said. Mosur’s ability to hear the sounds of natural life over the din of machinery started early. He spent his early childhood in Poland, living in a Communist-era apartment block. “I guess you’d call them tenements,” he says now, listening to the song of house sparrows, Passer domesticus, a small sparrow common to most parts of the world. “I would hear their chirping from the moment I stepped outside.” His family applied for political asylum and ended up in Encinitas, a small Southern California beach community north of San Diego, when he was seven. The song of house sparrows remains fresh in his memory. “When I bike or walk around certain neighborhoods in San Francisco where there are a lot of House sparrows, it brings me back to that time as a kid. It’s like, Oh wow, I really know that sound! That is so ingrained in my memory.” A bee buzzed past his head.

Mosur started birding when  he moved to San Francisco. “Initially the first year or two, it was a very visual thing. And then, watching other birders, the realization came to me that the majority of bird detections they were making was through sound. That’s when I really tried to train my ear.” He was working at the VA Hospital on Clement Street in the Outer Richmond District of San Francisco. “Every lunch break I would go out there and for 15 or 20 minutes and I would practice trying to identity every single call that I heard.”  A bird trilled from the middle of a coyote bush. Mosur jerked his head in the direction of the sound “That, right there- that’s a white-crowned sparrow, right behind you.” The sparrow trilled again and flew away.

Corona Heights hosts a centuries-old clan of the white-crowned sparrow, a home-loving bird with a fine, high whistle. “The white-crowned sparrow is the emblematic bird of San Francisco,” explained Mosur. “They rarely go more than 500 yards from where they were hatched. This clan of white-crowned sparrows have lived here for hundreds of years.” As he spoke, ambulances sped up Market Street below us, the wails bouncing and echoing off the cliff walls of Corona Heights.

A White-crowned-Sparrow

A White-crowned-Sparrow

The sparrows might follow the example set by San Francisco songbirds who left their ancestral home because of too much noise: the Black-headed grosbeak, and the Orange-crowned warbler to name just two. Should the noise levels start affecting the quiet hilltops of San Francisco, the sparrows  might leave, too. “Once they leave, it’s not easy to get that diversity back,” observed Mosur.

The song of California is perhaps best understood not by the screech of seagulls or the croaking of corvids, but instead as the trills and warbles of vireos, juncos, finches, sparrows and meadowlarks, small- to medium-sized birds that like grasslands and meadows, not heavily forested areas, like the large-scale tree plantations that now dominate the city’s open spaces like Golden Gate Park, Mount Sutro and the Presidio. The invisible, intangible habitat of air is being occupied by the same city-building forces that ripped out the coastal scrub which once covered San Francisco.

How many native birds still nest in San Francisco? An electric saw roared to life, as Mosur considered the question. He shook his head. “That’s the question. Are we producing the birds around here? Are they being locally grown? You know?” He laughed grimly. “The sad truth is that not that many birds nest in San Francisco anymore.”

-reposted from Paper Tape online magazine

Eel grass

Sedges have edges

Rushes are round

Grasses are jointed

Where willows abound…


 This lovely little mnemonic is scribbled in the fly leaf of An Island Called California, a book written by Elna Bakker that once belonged to my sister Emily. It’s a guide to California’s ecological habitats. California’s native eel grass, Zostera marina, appears in the third chapter which describes salt marshes. Bakker uses an evolutionary perspective to structure the book: she starts describing the state’s 20 or so different habitats from within the ocean and moves upland from there.

Eel grass is picky about its environment. It grows underwater and must be submerged at all times, but it needs access to the sun to photosynthesize and so the water must be shallow and clear for the grass to thrive. Hydraulic mining during the Gold Rush dumped 1.5 billion cubic yards of pulverized Sierra batholith into the bay. Like separated lovers, the grass and the sun couldn’t see each other through the haze of the suspended matter, which ended the relationship. Was there a mass die-off? It certainly wasn’t captured in any scientific observations or surveys (there had only been one survey of the vegetation of the bay done in the 1920s.) The Bay wasn’t scrutinized as a living organism for its health until after 1965. So the historic locations and extent of the eel grass beds aren’t known with any precision until late in the 20th century. 

Eel grassIt’s enough to say that at one time eel grass beds were commonplace and now they are not. There were probably beds that grew around the margins of the bay starting in the San Pablo bay, continuing into the central Bay, and growing down inside the southern end.

Eel grass might not have been around much in the 20th century, but with the advent of the 21st, that changed. In 1987, scientists surveying the bay found 316 acres of eel grass. Before then it was thought to be rare; after this discovery, bay scientists started taking note of what the eel grass was doing (growing mostly) unassisted and unaided. The number of eel grass beds rose with subsequent surveys. Since the plant’s spirit seemed to be willing (and also because the bay is much cleaner) major restoration projects were initiated by a host of public and private agencies with the hopes of bringing back the historic eel grass beds of San Francisco Bay, 23,440 underwater acres if the restoration project works.

Eel grass Eel grass affixes itself to the bay floor by means of a rhizomatous network. The rhizomes produce roots that shoot horizontally through the mud, which anchors the plant. Mud and sediment cluster around the roots.

This rooting is a mighty act of creation, lengthy and— in contrast to the fabled seven-day creation of the earth— distinctly non-impetuous. Eel grass works in long increments of time to build that most basic locale: the bottom of the bay, unseen by most humans. Thousands of geologic years yawned between each other as the eel grass beds grew thickly and pushed back against the current, forcing the water to slow down.

“Water is lazy,” says my sister Emily. When the water slows, it drops what it’s carrying, which is called silt: mud and clay from the eroded granite of Sierra riverbeds to the alluvial soil of the Central Valley. This interaction between the water and the grass builds the bay from the bottom up (an encouraging image for activists of all persuasions, surely). And the bottom is where things live, and where they slowly navigate the terrain that makes their home. The soft bottom of the bay is a place to crawl, or to a make a bed to burrow into, for native and non-native species alike. Both use the mud of the bay floor to crawl, to nest, to siphon and to prey. Eelgrass beds build structure (commonly called habitat) within an otherwise undefined space.

Eel grassHabitat, in turn, builds institutions: cohorts of invertebrates, fish and birds that consort and contend with each other within the structure of blade, bed and water.

The margin of the bay is a popular place for institution-building. The institutions built by eel grass gave way to the small fishing industries of the late 19th century that lined the bay from China Camp to Hunter Point. Trawling, dredging and boating destroyed the beds. And then other major industrial endeavors moved in, namely the wartime shipbuilding industry that brought people and machinery to the Bay Area in WWII in the waters where eel grass grew. Along the shores of Sausalito, and Points Richmond and Molate, 3,000,000 cubic yards of bay mud got ripped out so that Marinship Corporation, owned by the W.A. Bechtel Company, might build 93 enormous ships.

A lengthy aside: union films from this period of fast and furious shipbuilding, wishing to encourage union efforts, were not shy about showing the consequences of non-unionized labor: the traumatized bodies of the shipbuilders. In the film Golden Lands, Working Hands, a shipbuilder flexes his knee, moving the remnant stub of his lower leg as he prepares to be fitted for a prosthetic limb at the doctor’s office. Another man shows the camera his hand. Most of his fingers are missing. Shipbuilding was good for unionized labor, occasionally catastrophic for the human body and absolutely merciless to estuarine habit. The blades of the grass and the fingers, hands and legs of shipbuilders went missing in the same space, the margins of the bay.

Eel grassScientists are fond of comparing estuaries to nurseries, an appropriate metaphor for the quiet, protected waters of an estuary. Adult fish, like the Pacific herring, enter the estuary and make a beeline for the waving blades of eel grass (if any are around.) The females attach their eggs to the grass, the males release milt, and the beds become incubators, literally, as the herring larvae subsist on their yolk sacs and continue to grow. They hatch in two to three weeks.

But the relative protection of the estuary doesn’t create a absolute sanctuary: the young of any avian, mammalian or epifaunal species will always be at risk from something bigger.

The reproductive cycle of the Pacific herring attracts other animals that like to eat the Pacific herring and their young. Gulls, for instance, which are notoriously rapacious birds, feed directly on the tiny eggs. Diving ducks eat them, too. So do Surf scoters. So do some invertebrates like Clapper Hydromedusa. Or crabs. Or sturgeon, smelt, and juvenile salmonids.   Brant Geese eat the grass itself, ripping it up in huge chunks. “Life flows so rapidly into life,” Loren Eisley once observed in astonishment. Death pursues life with the same avidity. Eel grass beds are nurseries for some animals and a game preserve for others. What is the difference between taking shelter and hiding? In an estuary, the line is very thin.

Eel grassThe story of the eel grass’s comeback is the story of the bay.  If you improve water quality and stop industrial and urban development from infringing on the sub-tidal bay lands, history will repeat itself. The eel grass beds came back with little direct support and the project to restore them has, so far, has been promising. “We’re still learning,” said Marilyn Latta, Project manager for the The San Francisco Bay Subtidal Habitat Goals Project, the lead agency involved in the restoration effort. “The project is in the pilot stage, but we’ve seen good success at a variety of sites, particularly at Point Molate. And we’ve just started restoration efforts on the San Rafael shoreline and have seen good results there, too.”

The pastoral image of acres of waving eel grass is echoed in other endangered ecological systems in the state of California. Grass is literally underfoot, always getting in the way of other, bigger things: ships. Or cows. The largest contiguous grassland in the state, the Great Valley Grassland, covers 2,826 acres outside the small town of Gustine. This parcel is a remnant of an ecosystem that stretched throughout the Central Valley before the arrival of Europeans.

Then, native bunchgrasses and fescue grew throughout the Central Valley. This changed with the onset of pasturage economies: the native grass was replaced by pasturage that was more nutritious for cattle, and now only a few parcels of land with any native assemblages remain. Eel grass has one thing in its favor: it isn’t fighting off any non-native variant of itself. The native sister grass of eel grass, Spartina foliosa, must contend with Spartina alterniflora, an introduced grass from the East Coast which has dominated the native Spartina ecology by means of producing a hybridized variant, thus delivering a one-two punch to that system. So far, eel grass has held its own against outsiders.

Eel grass isn’t rare. It is simply absent. If the readers of this blog want to see eel grass, consider visiting Tomales Bay. There, you can rent a kayak and explore one of the most pristine bays in California. Near the rocky edge, the eel grass is visible, its blades flowing sinuously in the water. It isn’t hard to see the current running through the blades as a submerged prairie, with the wind whipping over the plains. The grass is richly green and very lovely.

Mothers and daughters, life and death at the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary

A white egret stalks a fish in Arcata's marsh and wildlife refuge

I spend a lot of time in marshes and wetlands, mostly because I live on the coast of California and always have, and we have ‘em- although only about 20% of what we DID have- and also because I have nurtured a fascination with them. I had to work at this. Mudflats and drainage areas that comprise wetlands systems are, as I noted in my essay “Daire Nua”, stinky. So it’s an acquired taste like single malt scotch. When I was a kid I turned my nose up at the stuff.  Now I love Laphroaig. Same with wetlands.

Wetlands are also easy places to think about death and the cycle of life, as we pagans like to term it. The processes of reproduction, digestion and decomposition are in rapid and constant dialogue with each other in a wetland. (This accounts for its odor.) The cycle is vastly sped up- there are organisms in a wetland that may only live for a few hours before becoming food for another organism. And wetlands are visually striking- long, flat places that reach into the distance; immortality’s portal flung wide, opening for the soul embarking on a long journey, if indeed, you hold dear the notion that the soul travels after death. Californian wetlands almost always have a western orientation: in Celtic mythology, the West is a sort of directional/elemental psycho pomp that guides souls.

Last week, a friend of long standing and most excellent intelligence picked me up in San Francisco. Equipped with backpacks, food and her mother’s ashes, we were headed to Arcata’s Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, which is linked to a waste-water treatment plant- in flows the shit and out flows disinfected waste into the wetland and Humboldt Bay after (hopefully) all of the E.Coli and Enterococcus bacteria have been removed. You can smell the sewage at the marsh, but it’s a familiar enough odor, although a bit (ahem) concentrated. It’s not at all unpleasant as an olfactory backdrop. And it’s yet another prompt to think about death in all its stages.


My friend’s mother had died of acute myeloid leukemia back in October, ten months before we set about laying her to rest. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She lived alone in McKinleyville, a small town 5 minutes north of Arcata named after the nation’s 25th President William McKinley. McKinleyville is not a good place: it seems to  be a small town filled with people who in my friend’s words “never smiled”. I saw a woman walking along a dirt road with a freshly blackened eye and a split lip which just deepened my dislike for the place. McKinleyville did not strike me as cheerfully disposed and seemed, in fact, to be a place that would worsen the condition of someone with mental illness. My friend’s mother had lived in an isolated manner, in an isolated town, where the first sound she heard upon awakening was probably the neighbor’s noisy roosters.  “My mother used to sit in a room and talk to herself,” said my friend later. McKinleyville is the perfect place to do things like that. She had been estranged from my friend and I think most of the rest of her family. She could not get up the short flight of stairs one day; this is when she knew something was terribly wrong. She called a neighbor for help and was ultimately medi-vacced to Stanford hospital in Palo Alto where she died, in stubborn denial of the physical catastrophe that was rapidly sinking her ship.SAM_1068

My friend had (in my opinion) fought long and hard to maintain contact with her mom. This was tough because in the throes of schizophrenia her mother had turned back to the Catholicism of her youth, which didn’t leave much room for understanding my friend’s particular arc; my friend is, in the words of semi-famous sign she held aloft at an anti Gulf War rally, a “transsexual, vegan, lesbian, epidemiologist punk” which is at totally at odds, any way you slice it, with conservative Catholicism.

My friend tried her best to maintain contact, but about two years ago said “you really must stop treating me the way you do” in so many words in an elegant, eloquent letter to her mother, who responded to the letter by calling her and scolding her. It was hard to tell- and I myself had wondered- how long her relationship with her mother would last. I was sorry when it happened but not surprised.

The death of the mother made the future of verbal communication an impossibility, and so my friend’s decision to stop speaking to her mother was given an unexpected and final seal of approval from the tall skinny guy who walks around, carrying a scythe. Her funeral was complicated, too- my friend was dis-invited to spare the feelings of some family members who, for one reason or another, agreed that the inclusion of the mother’s transsexual, vegan, lesbian, epidemiologist punk daughter would introduce an unnecessary note of controversy. “Blood is not thicker than water,” my friend said. I agreed with her.

Her mother had made her wishes clear; scatter my ashes in the north Humboldt coast, she’d told my friend. So off we went, like thistledown on the wind, or Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, free-bootin’ our way up north, achieving a rare blend of focused and goal-driven indolence. We were a bit giddy, mostly because we both like these time-outs from everyday life. My friend is a tenure track academic, who does not live to work (a rarity in that field, I think). She had eulogized her mother expertly two days earlier (“She did a really good job,” I told my mother approvingly), on a hillside in Las Trampas Regional Wilderness in San Ramon. I had read the 23rd psalm. I fell under the spell of this song and its calm certainty: The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. The ash scattering in Arcata was the final act in the process of laying her to rest.


After we passed Ukiah, the smoke from a distant fire in Oregon turned the blue sky white and tinted the ground a faint but distinct shade of pure orange. We stopped at Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area. (That’s “Standish” as in the military adviser for the Plymouth Colony . His descendants ended up in California as land owners and eventually deeded the site to the state.) The South Fork of the Eel River is at low-ebb now, judging by the enormous expanse of bare alluvium that lies exposed to the sun on the broad banks. But there’s still enough water in the river to form spectacular swimming holes in Standish-Hickey SRA. My friend and I walked down to the swimming hole, unsure whether we were going to do much more than stretch our legs and look around. When I walked out onto the small beach that fronts the swimming hole, I knew we’d be there for at least twenty minutes. I ripped my clothes off and jumped in.

“How’s the water?” called my friend. Her face was bright.

“It’s perfect,” I replied. “Get in here!” She got in.

We saw small juvenile fish darting around, probably Steelhead trout. There was no sign of the rivers’ namesake, the monstrous-looking Pacific Lamprey, an anadromous fish with a serpentine body and a mouth part straight out of hell. I saw them once, almost twenty years ago when I first visited Standish-Hickey with my sister. They were dead, having just spawned, belly up, mouths gaping. My sister and I stared in fascinated horror.

My friend and I swam. We jumped off rocks. I dove underwater and pulled her legs. I imitated a lamprey. We pulled ourselves up on a rock next to a small rapid. My friend sat looking up the river, thinking. She looked at me. She was content, and her eyes were calm, but I’d seen weary sadness in them all week. That emotion was there now. “We should hit it,” she said. We waded out, retrieved our clothes and left.SAM_1061

We pulled into the marsh at 3:40. My friend walked to the trunk, unlocked it and pulled the box of ashes out. “Hold this for a sec,” she said, handing it to me. Human ashes are weighty, I thought.  I’d noticed that in astonishment when I scattered my dad’s ashes back in 2007: an entire human body reduced to rubble and grit still had some heft to it. On one the side of the box, someone had used a black sharpie to scrawl the word “fly”. Was this an order to my friend’s dead mother?  We started walking briskly up a narrow path. The smell of crap and organic matter rotting in the marsh hung low in my nostrils. I didn’t know what the plan was, or where we were headed. Neither did my friend.

“I’m looking for a good place,” she told me.

“Be careful of the wind direction,” I said.

“Like the Big Lebowski?” she replied. We cracked up. “I’m thinking we’ll do a little at a time,” she said and she made a gesture, like a person scattering sugar in their coffee.


I got distracted by the Himalayan blackberries bordering the path. They are a nuisance plant, and wildly invasive, but they do have large blackberries, which I began to pick. When I turned around she was opening the box. At her feet was a small pond, fed by the hydrological system but totally enclosed by reeds. Duckweed floated on the surface. What took my breath away was not the shape but the color. Every shade of green was represented in this place; mint, peridot, jade, leaf, lichen: every shade of green was packed tightly into one small spot. Green, as a color, lives or dies according to the material it ‘s composed of. Cotton jersey, for instance, is not kind to green. It doesn’t distribute light at all, which is why green cotton always looks Gumby-green. Green needs light to animate it.

This little pond was absolutely glowing: the woody, herbaceous materials of leaves, reeds and duckweed were translucent and shot with a fierce vibrancy. It was a green chapel in the marsh, ready to receive. “I feel like I’m in the Emerald City,” I said to my friend.

She opened the box and shook the contents of it into the pool carefully. A mist of fine grey dust floated through the air. Light hit the ashes and illuminated them.



From an interpretive sign at the marsh:

“Coastal Mudflats… transition zones between land and sea, are among the most nutrient-rich ecosystems on earth.”

Waste is different than death, I thought, wincing at how obvious this was when I said it out loud to myself. A person may die and be turned to dust, but there’s no real waste involved, is there?

“The essential elements that contribute to this wealth are present in abundance: deep penetrable mud; oxygen; sunlight; and a dependable supply of mineral-laden water from the sea.”

A friend who is famously agnostic about almost everything, said to my friend and I a week before we left that he had arrived at a feeling of certainly about the question of whether there’s life after death. “Of course there is. Everything is food for something. It makes total sense,” he said. We nodded.  It does. The body just gets taken up by something else.

At a glance, the acres of mudflats appear to be a wasteland suitable only for garbage dumps and landfill. However, this oozy mixture of life supporting elements creates an eco-system far from desolate.

It was a good thing that my friend’s mother was here.

“Billions of microscopic plants known as diatoms transform sunlight into literally tons of energy.”

She had lived by herself for a long time, and now she was part of a system that had room for her.

“Since we are part of the food chain it makes sense that we protect what remains of this habitat that feeds us.”

Blood is thicker than water. My friend is a good daughter.

RIP, Catherine Anne Dinno.


Dispatches from the Upper Newport Bay: Ubo and the polymorphic capability of the Back Bay

Polymorphic capability is a term that occurred to me today, kayaking in the Upper Newport Bay. When I’m in Southern California, visiting my mother, I go there a lot. There’s a trail to walk and the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center to visit. Wonderful people work there- helpful docents, O.C. Department of Parks and Recreation staff who will answer all your questions. (They really want you to understand the estuary. I can’t say enough good things about it. Go visit the center.) I also visit the the Newport Aquatic Center in Dover Shores. You can rent a single-person kayak for the unbelievably inexpensive price of 15.00 dollars an hour. In San Francisco if I want to kayak in an interesting estuary, I have to drive two hours and pay 35.00 to kayak in Tomales Bay. The NAC is a steal, as they say. And it’s never crowded. I just love it.

I rented a kayak and paddled due north, heading for the opening of the 23rd street spring, which is my working name for the spring-fed tributary stream that used to exist where Cherry Lake does now. It was the only freshwater source that came from the northwest uplands of the bay. (I’m not counting the Delhi Channel.)

Elizabeth C. Creely paddles north. Those are the bluffs of Dover Shores on the left.

Elizabeth C. Creely paddles north. Those are the bluffs of Dover Shores on the left.

I was feeling mighty chuffed: the sun was out, the Clark’s Grebes were ducking and splashing all around me and I’d made the discoveries I wanted to make at the Langson Library Special Collection and Archives center at the University of California at Irvine. Nicely done, I told myself, as I took off.

I feel weirdly confident in a kayak; I didn’t grow up kayaking, and ‘til the fall of 2012, hadn’t done it more than four times in my life. But I was paddling in my home estuary, and kayaking is pretty damn simple. You paddle on both sides, left, right, left, right, and you use your torso to turn your body so you aren’t asking too much of your shoulders. You have to have a certain amount of fitness to paddle for an hour and a half- and I have that. My trapezoids, rhomboids, deltoids, triceps and latissimus dorsi are all in fine shape and let me do whatever I want without too much complaint. We’re all good friends.

So, gripping the paddle, off I go, for familiar territory that changes every time I encounter it. I’d have to be there every day to see all the life that flyeth, swimmeth and creepeth in the Upper Newport bay. The UNB has a tremendous amount of capability for sustaining lots of different types of life, thus giving me the idea to think of the habitats of this tremendously life-sustaining environment as proof of great polymorphic capability.

Let’s see if I can do this from memory: Mudflat, salt marsh, freshwater marsh, riparian and upland.

Five habitats, and…so many animals and microscopic organisms, it’s just mind blowing. It really is. Check it: “Coastal salt marsh vegetation has been found to be up to twice as productive as corn, three times as productive as wheat and twenty times as productive as ocean vegetation”, meaning that the tremendous amount of habitat diversity supports more life. Bam. Simple. And polymorphic (many-formed, many- bodied) as all hell.

I see new things every time I’m there- which is a really good argument, by the way, for always going back to the same wild/natural area: you will be shown new things often. This is my mantra. Ask Craig Dawson, of Sutro Stewards who has been planting his boots on Mount Sutro for at least ten years while he leads the efforts to re-plant native coastal scrub. He’s seen more wild animals and more native vegetation than most people will ever see. Ever see a trillium on Mount Sutro? No, you haven’t. But Craig has because he’s there all the time. So I feel justified in going to the same place over and over and over again to make observations of the natural world, because the more I go, the more I see. My powers of observation-such an important tool for a witch- grow.

A snowy egret at the Upper Newport Bay

A snowy egret at the Upper Newport Bay

For instance. Egrets. For a long time, I had only seen an egret in one pose: standing still, head up and out, stepping delicately through the water, until last fall when I was kayaking in the estuary with my husband. We saw an egret dancing and hopping around, jumping up on one foot, making quick, jerky movements. We looked at each other and asked each other, simultaneously, what the egret was doing. Why was it making those movements?

My husband said “I think it’s hunting.” It was. The egret was running after the tiny fish that school around the margins of the mudflats and spearing them, one by one, with his beak. We’d never seen an egret move like that, and it’s likely we wouldn’t have noticed this had we not already become accustomed to seeing them at all.

And we wouldn’t have seen the egret had we not paddling around in its habitat. If you want to see stuff, you have to go to where the stuff lives. You know?

Yesterday, the rule that you-will-see-more-stuff-the-more-you-go-to-where-the-stuff-lives totally held true: I saw even more stuff than I’ve ever seen before.

I saw: A large silvery fish, glinting like platinum metal in the sunlight, jump out of the water. And then I saw another. And another. The fish turned out to be the aptly-named silvery mullet. I had no idea that silvery mullet routinely jump out of the water, but, if you go to the Newport Bay Conservancy website, you will read this confirmatory sentence “It is the silvery mullet that is frequently seen jumping from the water into the air.” Throughout the bay I saw evidence of them, large bubbles appearing from below the surface that formed concentric rings that radiated outward.

I saw: a round stingray, finally. Everyone knows that rays live in the bay and I’ve been looking to see one since I was a kid, but never, until then, had I seen one. Here’s how it all went down. I was paddling up the channel that drains the 23rd Street creek. To my right, an egret was hunting. The channel was getting shallow. I scraped to a halt in the shallows and pulled my camera out, intending to take a picture of the mouth of the creek. I snapped away. I put my camera down and looked around, falling into a reverie. Thick mats of algae were floating around. Underneath me, perfectly preserved in the mud, were the paw prints of animals, raccoons I’m guessing.

The delta of the 23rd Street stream as it enters the Upper Newport Bay

The delta of the 23rd Street stream as it enters the Upper Newport Bay

Egret’s spidery claws were there, too, clearly imprinted in the bottom of the channel, preserved by the still water. Something moved. I looked. It was a ray, dun-brown, flapping and rippling its way along the bottom of the channel. I looked at it and thought: I’ve been waiting to see you since I was six.

I saw: lined shore crabs. They are ADORABLE. And they’re beautiful. And they are dinner for many birds-egrets, herons and others. They have very round claws, and their body is blue and their claws are red or… is it the other way around? (Must be more observant next time). I do know they have two distinctly different colors.And they’re cute. I’m sorry: they just are. They were all over the place. I’ve never seen so many. They were under the water right next to the mudflats, and running back and forth between the water and these little muddy overhangs they call home. When they need you to know that you’re too close (I was fighting with the current a bit and so bumped into the margins of the mudflats a few times) they will raise their claws heavenward in a gesture that looks prayerful but is defensive. It  is intended to let you know, the big weird thing in the even bigger, weirder, yellow thing, that they will pinch the shit out of you with their claws if you so much as look at them the wrong way. “Sorry,” I called out to them a few times as I struggled to right my kayak and paddle back to the middle of the bay.

A lined shore crab in the Upper Newport Bay

A lined shore crab on the mudflats in the Upper Newport Bay

I saw more perfectly preserved footprints in the mudflats, tipping me off to the estuary’s polymorphic capability. When the water covers the mudflat, marine animals live and breed there.  When the tide ebbs and the soft, sticky mud is exposed, mammals use it as hunting ground. I saw a mysterious reddish bird in the distance which could easily have been a bittern. I saw alert least terns diving again and again – one flew directly above me over me with its wings folded back in a perfect display of aeronautic power and skill. Further still above the tern, I saw a passenger airplane soaring through the sky, and I thought: I know which one of you came first.

I fought my way back to the beach. The current was coming in and it was strong. The crabs scurried and danced on the shores of the mudflats, warning me off with their rotund claws. The smell of salt and brine was maddening to me. There’s always a point where I want to stop paddling and dive into the bay. The water is clear out there and at a distance it looks blue and clean. Up close you can see the results of freshwater mixing with salt, and what happens in a shallow estuary when the sun beats down on it most days and warms it: photosynthesis and the production of a very long food chain. There is stuff that floats in the water, sometimes fluffy and green, sometimes with finely detailed leaves. Webby-looking plant life. Elegantly slender eel grass. It’s there for a reason.

Estuaries are nurseries, the place of origin for animals who are born there and don’t live within it as adults. I wasn’t born there, but I was raised there. I came to consciousness in the Back Bay. That’s another reason I go back. It is home, and important node in my historic bio-region that stretches from the uplands of the mesa, the mudflats of the estuary, down to the ocean. When people ask me am I from Costa Mesa or Newport Beach, I want to tell them that I am from Uplands-Bay-Ocean.

Ubo. This is my home, a place with no name, aside from imaginary names I invent for it, a place that unfolds naturally and gradually and according to the rules of the ecological system that exists within it.

Bluewater in the Upper Newport Bay

Bluewater in the Upper Newport Bay

I made it back to the beach, with the wind pushing against me the whole way. I pulled my kayak up onto the beach. Several teenage girls were heading out in a kayak, followed by their giggly friends who dove into the bay and followed them. This surprised me a bit. I don’t see many people, let alone self-conscious teenage girls from NB, swimming into the bay. When I was young, the bay was a poor substitute from the ocean, and only tourists swam there.

I looked at the water:  it was blue in the distance and very clear at my feet. The wind was low and the water sparkled.  This bay is much cleaner now, I thought. I waded in and dove under, listening, which is the first thing I do when I take my first swim of the summer. I heard what I always hear: a sound of immensity coming from the territory beyond. The water was cool.

I swam a few yards away from the beach and paddled around for ten minutes. The cold of the water made its way inside my body and I felt my blood become calm and chill, as if salty seawater had replaced it. I turned and swam back, my head just above the surface of the water, which is the perspective I prefer: a creature of the bay looking not down at it, but looking from within it, an animal of the mud, the water and the sky.

Elizabeth C. Creely in UBO

Elizabeth C. Creely in Ubo, her ecological home.


This Dinnshenchas is dedicated to my father, Christopher Culpeper Creely, my first teacher, and to Ursula LeGuin, a wonderful mentor I’ve never met.

Elizabeth C. Creely

June 7, 2013

This is the sea.

When I stand in front of the wave, I bow before it

three times, and then

I jump straight into it.


I am a tentative Brendan,

lunging through salt water and seaweed to an island that is

out there over there under that

down below, in the sea.

The Wedge.

The Wedge. Photo by Alexander Hodges.


This is a picture of the Wedge, as captured by my nephew Alex Hodges in a moment of rare repose.  The Wedge is a south-facing beach, which at times is comparable to narrow shingle, because of the cluttered littoral zone. It is in Newport Beach, at the very end of the Balboa Peninsula.  The Wedge was created by the insertion of a jetty by the Army Corps of Engineers back in the thirties. Before then the Newport Bay snaked its way through the man-made islands of the Newport Harbor, created by the mud of the bay, to the ocean. The relationship between bay and ocean goes back and forth and back and forth: the tide comes in and out it goes again. The confluence of the bay and the ocean used to be a turbulent spot with long snaking waves, that  surfers took advantage of on their longboards back in the forties. (Witness this clip at 1:19 of a man on his board being ushered into the bay.) Then the Jetty was built on the bones of an old groin. Mere turbulence begat total chaos.

Surfer riding a wave into Newport Harbor, 1938

Surfer riding a wave into Newport Harbor, 1938


The Wedge is called the Wedge because of the following conditions: The wave-pattern get amplified by the presence of the jetty. Here’s how I would describe it, based on forty years of direct observation: A wave rolls in – a south-facing swell. If you were to be riding effortlessly on top of that wave, you would look to your right. You would notice that the wave is dragging along the rocky side of the jetty.

This section of the wave must reconcile with itself somehow, and it does, with massive amounts of force, re-enfolding itself with itself, creating a shape I’ve seen so many times I can’t describe it. A wedge. Or sort of a triangle, maybe, a mountain peak of white that caps a glistening blue-green barrel (this is on a sunny summer day: the wave is sullen, turbid and grey at other times and frankly murderous). If I were to land on just one image to describe what happens at the Wedge I would say that a mountain, a veritable Mont Blanc, appears in the water. It is buttressed by the waves rolling in behind it.


The Wedge.

The Wedge.

The wave gets one last assist: there is a sand bar that lies just a few feet from the shore and this causes the wave to rear up again, like a maddened horse. It’s impossible not to refer to other things when you try to describe the waves at the Wedge. A mountain. A horse. A wave.

Are you at the Wedge, watching the waves? Here is an important question. Where are you in relation to this wave? Before you answer that, know that the ground beneath you is steep and unstable. There is a drop-off which the unwary discover after walking a few feet into the little waves. Suddenly the ground drops away from beneath you and you have no traction, no bargaining power a’tall with the tide.

Perhaps you stood on what you thought of as the shore. Perhaps you walked in intending to stand ankle-deep in the water.  The wave has other ideas. As it hits the shore, it slices layers of sand from the bank. The sand slides away under your feet. Ankle deep quickly becomes knee deep. You turn and try to walk up what has suddenly become a steep wall. The sand falls away. You feel as though you’re dragging the weight of the ocean behind you. Knee deep becomes waist deep. Then you feel the undertow.

This is when you know that you are not standing on the shore. You are in the ocean.

he Wedge during a storm.

The Wedge during a storm.

I have always dreamed of waves. I have been watching towering walls of water move toward me since I was a little girl darting in and out of the waves in Balboa on the south-facing beaches from 13th street down to the Wedge. Swimming out and swimming in, I was in constant confluence with the waves. It was totally un-navigated territory, made new each time, because as anyone experienced with wave-dwelling will tell you, no wave is ever the same.  

Elizabeth swimming at Little Corona.

Elizabeth swimming at Little Corona.

I narrowly escaped drowning at the Wedge when I was sixteen. I was caught in the strike zone- the place where the waves cycle in and out so rapidly, you can make no headway, and are reduced to panic-stricken thrashing, which tires you out and increases the odds you’ll never set foot on dry land again. I was in danger, but what I felt most acutely was chagrined shame. How stupid I was to not listen to my Dad who knew the Wedge was not a good place to swim. I finally fought my way out during a lull, and stepped forward shakily, each step a fight against the arms of the ocean that were still clutching my waist, pleading with me to stay. I picked up my towel and left. That was the last time I swam there.

But I have met that wave since then, the most powerful wave in the world, in a dream. A wall of water collects itself to rear up far over my head, up, up into the reaches of the sky, towering, a grey wall of barely contained force. It never moves. Or, if it does, the movement is imminent, almost implied. What matters is that it’s there, demonstrating its power and might as I stare at it, unbelieving.

It is so large that the lights of the known world can be seen twinkling though its watery walls. In my dream I scramble up the quickly eroding bank and escape, clumsy, and fearful, feeling the threat at my back, knowing that the movement of the wave is there waiting. It will always be there.

This is, after all, the sea.

Mai Huli`oe I Kokua o Ke Kai!

"Neptune’s Horses", by Walter Crane, 1893

“Neptune’s Horses”, by Walter Crane, 1893

 Elizabeth C. Creely, San Francisco, June 2013


Last Train to Taylorsville

Sign welcoming visitors to Taylorsville.

The sign welcoming visitors to Taylorsville.

On Saturday February 22, I took the last train to Taylorsville, which had a population of 150 people until February 28, 2013. After that, the number went dropped to 149, because my sister Emily moved back to Anchorage, Alaska which is where she lived for fifteen years until 2009. That’s when she moved to Taylorsville. Her family rejoiced to have her with us in our arid state. And we all fell in love with Taylorsville. Until she lived there, we had never heard of it.

I went to Taylorsville to help Emily move her possessions from her apartment to a packing container which then shipped them to Alaska. Emily has an inflamed sciatic nerve and can’t get around as ably as she usually can.

Earlier that month, I asked “Emily, do you need help moving?”

“NO,” she said. And then, “I don’t know.” And then she sighed deeply. Two weeks later, I got the call. “I need your help!” she said.

I understood. It’s hard to know what you need sometimes. I packed my valise and made my way through the quartet of transit connections you must take if you have no car:  BART, Amtrak bus, actual Amtrak train and then yet another Amtrak bus which dropped me in Oroville, the village of gold where the Feather River leaves her canyon, blowsy and bank-eroded, and makes her weary way to the Yuba River down in Marysville. Emily was waiting for me at a gas station.

Taylorsville in the wintertime

Taylorsville in the wintertime.

Taylorsville is mostly lined up along Arlington Road, a long, straight road which peels off Highway 89, the Feather River Highway. Arlington Road can be treacherous. In 2011, my husband, my cousin and I drove to Taylorsville to spend President’s Day weekend with Emily. The snow was light at lower elevations. We finally put chains on at about 3,000 feet. I thought that’d be it; that would take care of the snow. But ice had formed on Arlington road. The car lost its footing and wandered over the roadbed. Fearful that we were going to crash, I stole a look at my cousin Piet, who was driving. His face was impassive, unconcerned.

I was reminded of the Studio Ghibli character Porco Rosso, a roguish, porcine pilot living in a fictional European county. Piet has a floppy forelock like Porco Rosso and shares his distaste for Fascism, and for the voluminous communication his chatty family enjoys. People tend to flap their hands around Piet in dismay at the unforeseen, the unanticipated, while he stands, silent and imperturbable, an island of thought, as plans unspool in his head. That cold winter night, as our little car meandered helplessly over the dark ice and I gasped in exorbitant fear, Piet, in the manner of the taciturn pig-pilot of Miyazaki’s imagination, exerted his will over the Honda Civic, and brought it under his control, just as Porco Rosso always glides his fighter biplane though a tough landing, emerging battered, maybe, but in control and still… not saying a word.

Indian Creek, which runs through Taylorsville. You can swim in this when it isn't frozen.

An irrigation channel that runs through Indian Valley.

Taylorsville is sunlit, sparkling and hot in the summer, which is when I mostly visited Emily and very, very still in the winter, which is when I always wanted to visit her. During the winter, it has the ghostly black-and-white quality of a silent movie, with long blank fields dotted with barns that have bowed-out sides. Horses with impassive faces turn to look at you as you walk past them. I called Taylorsville Jotunheim once more or less jokingly, but I liked that notion and nurtured it. I meant to refer not just to its icy coldness during the winter, but also to its location: it was so hard to get to without a car that its distance made it mythic. The Indian Valley, which is what Taylorsville is nestled in, is bordered by Mount Hough to the west and the Keddie Ridge to the northeast. It’s easy to think of frost giants inhabiting the nearby mountains, looking just as they appear in Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s “Book of Norse Myths”, with their gap-toothed grins, bulbous noses and untidy hair.

When you look east, the mountain roots taper into each other giving the observer that classic overlapping perspective, each mountain foot crossing the next while the flat pasture-land threads its way through the gap. That’s what I like about the valley: The perspective is always narrowing down and disappearing.

A horse in Taylorsville. I never got to go riding.

A horse in Taylorsville. I never got to go riding.

This loss of perspective may be seen in other ways too: the day before I arrived, a woman drove off a bridge, drunk and heartbroken because she had been cheated on. Also, the general plan for Plumas County had come out. It was setting the conservative community of Plumas County on edge. I got a flyer at Young’s Market, the little store that serves Taylorsville. “Rural Advocates Protesting Plumas County”, it said. “A great idea has turned into a 435-page NIGHTMARE.” This circular carried a whiff of indignation just lying there on the counter at Young’s Market: I looked at it and imagined it as its literary predecessor: the colonial broadside, written on foolscap complete with the elaborate and confusing medial “S”: Rural Advocates Proteſting Plumas County, the headline would read, with a woodcut engraving accompanying it. The flyer mentioned Agenda 21 as the cause of all the problems. That, and the length of the new General Plan (“hundreds of pages”!!)

“What’s Agenda 21?” I asked the proprietor of Young’s Market, a canny older woman in her late seventies. “I’m not sure exactly, but it’s a UN thing,” she said. She wasn’t a fan of the General Plan. Agenda 21 is a UN non-binding “action-plan” which aims to promote that buzziest of centrist/left buzzwords: “sustainability”. The utterance of this word could get you beaten up in Plumas County, or Plumaf County as I had begun to think of it. It was first proposed at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. It has sparked open rebellion among the Tea Party, private property advocates and also some moderate Democrats who are shocked to find themselves agreeing with conservatives.

How is this takeover to be undertaken? Local governments come up with General Plans which are modeled on the language of the UN action plan. Well-heeled “consultants” descend from the metropolitan cores of San Francisco and Sacramento to help local governments adapt Agenda 21 goals. The evidence is all over the general plan, mostly evident by the repetition of key Agenda 21 terminology.  Carol Viscarra, of the group the Indian Valley Citizens for Private Property Rights, pointed out at a Plumas County Planning Commission meeting that the term “sustainability” appears a stunning 77 times. IN THE GENERAL PLAN. Over and over and over again. This is not Plumaf County language.

It’s clear, Viscarra argues, that the general plan is a sort of junior Agenda 21.

But what’s really going to bring the enforced sustainability, in-fill and livability scheme to Plumas County- and hold your breath for this- is bicycles. Bicycles are the vanguard of the “sustainability” movement (suftainability?).

The Plumas County General plan draft contains this language: “The County shall encourage pedestrian and bicycle friendly communities, bicycle parking and pedestrian amenities in site design and facility improvements in all major residential, commercial and industrial development projects or retrofits, (and) encourage the widening of shoulders along county roads and state highways to promote safe bicycle travel”. It’s language like this that has provoked the fear of a total bi-pocalypse: the domination of cars and rural areas by non-motorized vehicles. “This would work out really well for about three months,” says Plumas County resident # 9574 scornfully in the comments section of the General Plan EIR (Please note: local residents have already been assigned numbers. You have been warned, as they say). “And who would pay for it?”

Others see a more dire threat. Democrats Against U.N. Agenda 21 has this to say: “The push is for people to get off of the land, become more dependent, come into the cities.  To get out of the suburbs and into the cities.  Out of their private homes and into condos.  Out of their private cars and onto their bikes… Bike groups are being used as the ‘shock troops’ for this plan.” Can UN-sponsored insignia for my bike helmet be far behind? Who would press it on me? The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition? Were they in on Agenda 21? Good luck with that. I don’t wear my helmet.

An icy bush in Taylorsville.

Animal tracks by an icy bush in Taylorsville.

I told James, an earnest young environmentalist who’s definitely used the word “sustainability” more than once in his life (maybe a bit less these days) that the Sierra Institute, Emily’s now-former employer, should purchase a surrey, like the tourists use in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The roads in and out of Taylorsville are either flat or have only a very mild grade.  The surrey could be used to show the residents of Taylorsville a new way to get around Arlington Road. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? He laughed uneasily. “We’d probably get shot,” he said. (Please note: The homepage of the Sierra Institute uses the word “sustainable” at least 12 times.)

Shock troops. Numbers instead of names. Bikes and bike lanes instead of cars and highways. This is the shadow side to the community of “livability” advocates I so happily associate with here in San Francisco. I think that the root of the anti-Agenda 21 movement is the fear of being herded into a city. I understand that. I don’t blame the residents of Taylorsville, Greenville and Crescent Mills for breaking a sweat at the thought of not being able to live in their sweet-smelling and quiet little hamlet with horses, and apples, and hot springs and the occasional flashing glimpse of a Bald Eagle. (The bike-phobia? They’re going to have to get over that.) It is beautiful up there, quiet and still. The people in Taylorsville live quietly, I think.

There is one thing they do faultlessly: they always greet each other. Living in a small settlement seems to encourage the simple sort of etiquette in which you say hello to someone you don’t know. There was a going-away party for Emily. About fifteen people showed up. She may not have spoken at length with them, or shared a bottle of wine and tipsy heart-to-heart late night confessions with them, but they showed up to say goodbye to Emily simply because she was leaving, they had spoken with her at least a few times, and that’s what you do. The lapse of time between meeting someone for the first time and acknowledging their presence seem to be shorter in Taylorsville.

A fence in Taylorsville

A fence in Taylorsville.

I had several moments of saying “how-do-you-do” to a dozen people and noticed each time that it is relaxing to greet another person with grace and simplicity. Manners maketh not only men, but whole towns, too.

Emily and I drove out of Taylorsville, six days after I arrived, silent and somewhat subdued. Behind us, up on Mount Hough, the frost giants took no notice of our departure- they were likely looking for refuge under the rocks. Spring is coming to Indian Valley, the season of melt. This is not a sustainable environment for frost giants.

I was nursing an injured thumb – in Taylorsville, I drunkenly chipped the top of my thumb with a cleaver which caused my blood to spurt and me to faint – while Emily mulled over her departure. “Did I make the right decision?” she asked me. We listened to REM as the rural landscape of the Indian Valley diminished and shrank in the rear view mirror.

Betsy and Emily Creely in the snow, somewhere...

Betsy and Emily Creely in the snow, somewhere…

The Spring Shows: dispatches from the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge.

Once, many millenia ago,the Central Valley was underwater. It became an inland sea, after being surrounded by the uplift of the Coastal Ranges and the Sierra Nevada. At least 15 Sierran rivers made their way, uninterrupted to it, until they were dammed and diverted. Now it is a very dry. When spring rains fall on its flat surface, it resembles a silver salver, with the water quiveringly balanced on its long flat surface. It’s a wonderful place.  In the eighteen-hundreds, one could navigate by water from the northernmost gold fields in Marysville to Stockton.

The Colusa Wildlife Refuge

The Colusa Wildlife Refuge

In February of this year, I drove to to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, located in the Northern reach of the Central Valley with my eldest sister Anne. The refuge is east of Clear Lake and west of Yuba City.  The lumpy peaks of the Sutter Buttes, are visible on the flat horizon.

From the refuge you cannot see the foothills or the Sierras, unless it is a brilliantly clear day. What you always see is the modest plainness of the Central Valley: the flatness, the impounded wetlands, managed to within inches of their life, the withered riparian trees, and grain silos. It was hot-tish in the refuge, at the beginning of February. I thought of the other times I’d been there, when the air temperature was in the mid-forties and I’d walked around with my hands jammed in my pockets, wishing for gloves. Not that Sunday. The water in the impounded ponds shimmered in the morning sunshine.

Anne and I pulled into the parking lot of the refuge and parked the car. I consulted the whiteboard that other birders use to discuss their findings. “A Kingfisher!” one birder had noted, exultantly adding 4 or 5 exclamation points. I understood the excitement. Ever since I became a birder, the world has been more exciting. There’s always a discovery to be made. What is that small dot wheeling in the sky, furiously flapping? The bird is usually a pigeon, but sometimes… it’s something else. That day, it was a hawk. I blinked. There was a small white hawk sitting in a withered tree. The sun shone on his radiant head. Wow, I thought. Just like that. And so the great show began.

A solitary White-tailed kite

A solitary White-tailed kite.

“Anne!” I yelled. “Harrier!”

This is my superpower: I misidentify birds. I have lots of enthusiasm and very bad eyesight (This superpower extends to all animals. Once I thought a stick was a spawning salmon in Lagunitas Creek.) I am no good identifying birds without a The Sibley Guide to Birds to inform me, and even then it gets dicey- male juvenile? Female juvenile? Adults, perhaps? And then: what gender? Are they molting? What are they doing? So many ways to be classified!

Anne glanced up at the radiant little hawk and said, “That’s a Kite.”

It was a White-tailed Kite, more specifically: Elanus leucurus, a lovely and easily recognizable bird with a snowy white head, a band of black on its shoulder and the large, tragic eyes of the smaller hunting birds in the Accipitridae family.

T.H. White, author of “The Once and Future King” gives a memorable description of Arthur’s hunting hawk. Arthur is changed by Merlin into a series of animals and begins his shape shifting journey within the natural world (“I should like to be a Merlin,” said the Wart very politely) and so Arthur comes to encounter Cully the hawk by visiting him in the mews. He discovers that Cully is insane. “His poor, mad brooding eyes glared in the moonlight, shone against the persecuted darkness of his scowling brow.”

I thought back to a time two years ago, when my friend Nancy had sighted a White-tailed kite sitting calmly on the top of a pole in the Delta and how she had trained her telescope on it and urged me to take the closest look I could ever take, without becoming a merlin myself and flying up and alighting beside it. With a sense of recognition that came as a shock, I saw, instead, the eyes of Natalie Portman in her Oscar-award winning role as The Black Swan: the amber eyes within the black mask, glowing with mad intensity. The hawk’s song in Chapter VIII in The Once and Future King came to my mind:

Natalie Portman is the "Black Swan".

Natalie Portman is the “Black Swan”.

Shame to the slothful/and woe to the weak one
Death to the dreadful who turned to flee
Blood to the tearing, the taloned, the beaked one
Timor Mortis are we.

Death, death, death. Hawk or tormented ballerina: one thing is certain. In both worlds, it’s kill or be killed. The Kite sat calmly on top of the withered tree, pruning his wings and waiting for a small, unwary animal to cross his path. Anne and I walked to the viewing deck.

My Grandmother, who loved birds and all wild things, and who saw many animals destroyed and displaced by Ohio’s urban centers spreading outward, used to tell this story: She and my Uncle were driving in the Ohio countryside. They stopped at Wright’s pond, an area outside of Columbus, and noticed an odd-looking bird. They could not make out what they were looking at.  They asked a by-stander to identify it, a countyman, a Pagani, one not from the city. He looked at the bird with phlegmatic disinterest and said “That am a duck.”

“That am a duck,” I said to Anne, gesturing to the thousands of swimming, fighting, quacking, eating and sleeping ducks. There are Geese, too. One bit me when I was eight, and ever since then, I have felt antipathy towards them. And their feces. Ugh.

But the ducks…the ducks entrance me. There are so many to be seen at the refuge: American Wigeons, Cinnamon Teals, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, Bufflehead, Gadwalls, and memorably, last year, the demm’d elusive (and non-native to North America) Falcated Duck, a stunning duck that sports an iridescent olivine head and frilly feathers that curl around its ass. It is classified as “near threatened” in its native habitat.Perhaps that’s why it had flown all the way from Asia to Colusa. So many ducks, male, female, juvenile, breeding: so many species in so many different stages of their life, clustered together in the refuge under the admiring eyes of the people who love them. It’s a safe place for the ducks.

The demm’d elusive Falcated Duck

The demm’d elusive Falcated Duck!

A man walked briskly onto the viewing deck and immediately assembled a very large telescope. He was followed by a crowd of sluggish young adults (juveniles). It was obvious that he was a teacher, and that the stupefied juveniles straggling after him were his students.  He looked like Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  My sister perked up immediately. “I want to go back to school,” she said in a stage whisper. I insinuated myself among his students and hung on his every word. I had forgotten my copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds, and I felt naked and unprepared to meet nature with all her misleading clues without it. Just then an absolutely beautiful duck swam into view and heaved himself out the water and onto a log. I was sure it was a male. Their feathers are always brighter, more iridescent with colors that ought not to be together but are, and work…somehow.

A note: The females of most duck species are often described by adjectives such as “mottled” and “drab” which makes them sound like beaten-down housewives in a Raymond Carver story. Really, they’re just trying to be inconspicuous, the better to lay eggs and live to raise them. I personally think Female Mallards are gorgeous. Their feathers combine to form a sort of a tweedy pattern in shades of brown and cream. And they have a blue bar on their wing shoulder which is very chic, very understated.

I couldn’t stop goggling at the male duck and his salmon-pink breast, which was fat and plump, or his round head which seemed to end in jowls. He was perfect. The professor was excitedly pointing things out to his dazed students. “Look at that,” he said and trained his telescope on a duck, the Northern Shoveler, a cartoonish-looking dabbling duck (family Anatidae, sub-family Anatinae, so-called because they don’t dive for their food), with the coloring pattern of a Mallard- the familiar interplay of iridescent green head, amber/chestnut side panels and a flash of green and sky blue visible on the wing shoulder when the duck flies. The resemblance ends with their bills, which are huge.

The Northern Shoveler and its enormous schnozz.

The Northern Shoveler and its enormous schnozz.

These ducks have an enormous schnozz, and no mistake about it. They are the Jimmy Durantes of the dabbling ducks. They nose along the surface of the water looking for crustaceans. Northern Shovelers are quiet ducks, almost as if to make up for the attention they draw for their prodigious beaks. They’re also called the “poor man’s Mallard” which is unimaginative. With a bill like that? That’s their nickname?

American Wigeon. Just look at that chest! That iridescence!

American Wigeon. Just look at that chest! That iridescence!

I looked at the male duck that was roosting on the log; its breast was so plump, it looked like a safety bag had exploded from within its chest. I thought it was an American Wigeon. I was sure of it. But without my Sibley’s there was no certainty. I sidled up next to the handsome, distracted Professor and his sleepy students.

“Excuse me,” I said, pitching my voice low. I didn’t want anyone to notice my agitation. “I’m sorry to bother you, but…can you tell me if that duck is a Wigeon?

He looked. “That’s a Shoveler.”

“No, no- not that duck. I know what that is. I’m talking about the one right next to it,” Pay attention, I thought. “That’s a Wigeon. Right?” I was feeling desperate. I needed to be right about something.

“Oh. That one? Sixth from the left?” he asked. “Yeah- that’s an American Wigeon.” Oh thank god, I thought. I’ve learned something. I scribbled a note in my field handbook. “Anne!” I trilled. “Look at this duck.” I pressed my field glasses into her hand. Her energy had been a bit low that morning. Or mine was too high. (So hard to tell the difference, sometimes.) She gazed through the glasses. “Oh.”

Northern Pintail ducks feeding

Northern Pintail ducks feeding.

All around us, Northern Pin-Tailed ducks were gliding around, another handsome species in the dabbling family, and one most often encountered with their butts hoisted high in the air. Their tail feathers, for which they are named, punctuate the air above their backside like two black antennas. They dive for food. Being classified as a “dabbling duck” apparently means nothing to them. The males have an arresting appearance: a brown head, which is just touched with olivine green. The breast is white and the coat is grey and they have a blue beak, and if this description doesn’t excite you, then you need to go and look at the Northern Pin-Tail yourself.

The professor pointed out a Green-winged teal, which he graciously allowed us to view through his very large telescope. It was a gorgeous duck all done up in shades of green and brown. I was annoyed that I hadn’t seen him first. While I was gazing through the telescope, Anne chatted up the professor. “Come here often?” I thought I heard her say. I glanced around the pond: Pin-tailed, check. Shovelers, check. America wigeon, male and female, check, check. There was one more duck that should have been here, with his shoveling, pin-tailed friends: the Cinnamon Teal, the most BEAUTIFUL duck in all the refuge.

The Cinnamon Teal, the most BEAUTIFUL duck in all the refuge.

The Cinnamon Teal, the most BEAUTIFUL duck in all the refuge.

Their coat is described as “reddish” and that’s true, but it isn’t a Diana Vreeland red nor a Valentino Red: more the red of a freshly-hewn yew tree or one of the other conifers. In fact, these ducks, when resting, look like little knots of redwood burl. And they have eyes that are absolutely scarlet. Their habitat was wide: North and South America. They were all over the continent, but not here, not now. Where were they? Anne was consulting her cell phone behind her oversize sunglasses and had checked out of the duck scene. I was ready to move on, but really didn’t want to miss my once-yearly sighting of the little red duck.

Valentino evening gown from his 2002-2003 Fall/Winter collection

Valentino evening gown from his 2002-2003 Fall/Winter collection

Luck struck. A fellow birder I’d confided in (“Do you think there are any here?” I’d asked. “Oh honey, yes. There’s always a Cinnamon Teal in this pond,” she said) said quickly “there’s one!” and pointed. I whipped my field glasses out and trained them intently on the far right-hand corner of the pond. Almost as if in answer to an inaudible cue, a Cinnamon Teal appeared and swam smoothly in front of us. Yes, I thought. That is the most beautiful duck in the whole refuge. “There’s a Cinnamon Teal,” I said to the handsome professor, happy to let him in on my world, happy to let him see the secrets of the best duck pond in Northern California. He was enthused. “Look at this guys! A Cinnamon Teal!” They crowded around his telescope.

A White-faced Ibis showing enviable form and poise.

A White-faced Ibis showing enviable form and poise.

I watched the duck paddle away and then looked at Anne. “Shall we press on?” I asked. There were other shows to attend in the refuge, other gorgeous birds to be peered at through my tiny binoculars. Black-crowned Night-Herons, sulfurous-yellow Western Meadowlarks, White-Faced Ibis, whose stature and dramatic poses would give Isadora Duncan pause, and brooding Red-Tailed Hawks were perched in every tree, bush and mudflat, innocently displaying their iridescent plumage, their curved bills and beaks, their sculpted wings, each one beautiful, each one worthy of our undivided attention.

The show was waiting. We left.

* I want to acknowledge the work of Ducks Unlimited, an international conservation organization of hunters that conserves and protects thousands of acres of precious wetland habitat in California through restoration, land acquisition and lobbying. In the Central Valley, according to their website, Ducks Unlimited have restored 60,000 acres of historic wetland.

The ditch: an excerpt from “The Mystery of Cherry Lake.”


OC Register photo of South Coast Plaza construction the evolution of the Orange County Flood Control District’s (OCFCD) Hydrology Manual.


The Paulerino flood channel is a tributary flood drain to the Delhi Channel, and it drains urban runoff from Costa Mesa. The Paulerino Channel threads its stealthy way through the margins of the residential and commercial districts of Costa Mesa, including the first neighborhood that our family lived in, which was still too new and perhaps too working-class to have a name, unlike the neighborhood to the west that my family moved to in 1973, the glamorously named “Mesa Del Mar.”

Back then, in the slightly downtrodden tract, the Paulerino Channel passed right behind the houses down the street. We’d access it through the schoolyard of St John the Baptist, the private Catholic school two blocks over. We called it “the ditch”. We didn’t understand that it had been put there for our own good. We had never seen the ditch full or even half full. There was only the dark oozy water slowly tricking through the concrete channel, making sullen puddles here and there. It was a terrible place.


Paulerino Channel

We weren’t supposed to go there. “Don’t go to the ditch,” my Mother said, and so we went to the ditch on Saturdays and Sundays when we had exhausted every other diversion available to us. It was such an unlovely noisome place, with its fetid water, which had to be anoxic and incapable of supporting life. Even the lure of our own covert activities faded as soon as we shinnied down the sides of the chain-link fence. It was uninspiring. Shopping carts had been pushed down the sides, landing sideways in the weeds. Cigarette butts littered the ground. There weren’t even any crumpled condoms down there. No one used it for anything. It was a wasteland where no one met, as far as we could tell, to hold hands and rediscover their pasts.

And yet, there was life, as there always is on this earth. There would sometimes be tadpoles wriggling around frenetically, darting through the scant column of water and hiding from us nosey children in the puddles, in the thick cottony algae. I was too young to understand the relationship between the ocean and the engineered system of flood control and didn’t know that the Bay was a pit stop for all water in Orange County on its way to the ocean. The tadpoles knew there was country ahead. They had a destination. The great swamp-city of the Upper Newport Bay awaited them, if they could just stay one step ahead of my harassing hands, the lack of water and the occasional predator. If they were lucky, they would end their lives as full-grown amphibians, foodstuff for great blue herons and cranes or living in peace on their own terms, reproducing and croaking their throaty songs in the salt marshes. It was hopefully a good home for them; their natural home.


Many years later, at my Mother’s house, I thought of the ditch. California had been forecast by NOAA to have an El Nino winter, and then, with its bureaucratic face turned questioningly to sky, NOAA revised the prediction into another prediction which was so conditional, it was hard to remember exactly what they were predicting.  The little boy was nowhere to be seen, said, NOAA. So don’t expect much water. And we might have a warmer winter than was expected.  This was unsettling. Orange County was in its third year of drought and California’s snow pack had been at 40% of its normal capacity the year before.

So, I was thinking about water and where I saw it growing up. Not the water in the ocean, but fresh water, the magic water, the water that was and never was, elusive, sparkling fresh water contained in creeks, streams, ponds lakes. Water that other people in different places saw and felt on their skin when they immersed themselves in these magic places that held water and had not been turned into concrete representations of themselves.

howl@the moon

My brother was in the backyard, chopping down trees and pruning shrubs. The cat was on the roof. I was standing in my old bedroom looking out. I said “Hey, Jim. You know that ditch that runs behind St. Johns?”

“Yeah? What about it?” He threw his pruning saw down and crossed to the window. The sun was setting and the lavender glow of twilight illuminated his face. The close-cropped lawn of St. Augustine grass glowed a feverish green.

I said, almost irritably, “What is that? Is that really a tributary stream of the Santa Ana River? Is it a creek?”

“No,” Jim said. “That’s just a flood channel. But I’ll tell you where a spring-fed lake is, right around the corner.’ And he did.

(with thanks to Paul Weller.)


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