Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Category: Chronicles of Ubo

Chronicles of Ubo: the Osprey of the Upper Newport Bay

marshplain

Looking east from the Shellmound Island Science Center

I went kayaking yesterday with my cousin Elizabeth and her small, lovely daughter Becca. “How’s the bay?” she asked innocently and was saved from my natural long-windedness by the appearance an osprey, one half of a mated pair, now living and loving in the Upper Newport Bay.

The considerate folks at California Department of Fish and Wildlife built a roosting platform for the raptors and their growing family, and the osprey are using it: one fledgling is in the nest.

I first saw the osprey three or four years ago, sitting in the middle of a mud flat. I never saw these birds, these mythic sea eagles, growing up. Now, I am. The osprey tells you what you need to know about how the bay is, I think I finally said.

ospery1_

Looking at the osprey nest from the path.

Two ospreys living–they mate for life– and reproducing in the Back Bay means that the bay is doing better. Seeing them, I explained, means some assumptions can be made.

You can assume things about the water. The water quality is better than it used to be back when half of the bay was diked off for salt production and the other half was water laced with petrochemicals that leaked from the ostentatious yachts parked around Linda, Harbor and Bay Islands. I remember the rainbow sheen of the water very clearly, as a child in the late sixties  back in the seventies.

The snazzy motor boats and jet skis that used to race around the bay are now forbidden to do so. Consequently, there is less disturbance, and probably more fish to catch. And importantly, the fish they catch and eat don’t have as much DDT bio-accumulated in their oily flesh, and therefore do not compromise the osprey’s reproductive system.

You can assume things about noise. The airplanes that take off from John Wayne airport were forced by angry people living under the runway to take off at a steep angle so as to gain altitude quickly. This diminished the roar of the airplane. I can all but guarantee that the good people of Santa Ana Heights were not thinking about ospreys but managed to do them a good turn anyhow. Anthropocentric noise ruins avian habitat, plain and simple: the sweet song of the sparrow as it quests for a mate cannot compete with the roar of a chainsaw (this is a sentence I’ve written before). Neither can the high, thin cry of the osprey compete with the huge sound of an airplane. A bird’s habitat is the atmosphere, as much as the bush or the twig, and that aether should be as free as possible of manmade noise.

ospery2_

Papa Osprey keeping an eye on his fledgling.

You can assume things about predators. Raccoons are going to have a tough time getting up the platform. Other raptors–bald eagles, golden eagles and some owls which prey on eggs, fledglings and sometimes adult ospreys– are not in evidence. Yet. Corvids are a problem: they love to eat chicks and eggs. I watched the parent osprey chase three ravens away, very efficiently. But there is an explosion of corvids because they are efficient generalists and will eat anything from an egg in a nest to garbage lying on the ground. Corvids claim lots of attention for their guest appearances in various mythic tales. I love their appearance in the Táin Bó Cúailnge or in the Poetic Edda. But in the state of California, they are ubiquitous, rapacious and I have lost my fascination with their mythic origins. They don’t mean as much to me. They do not indicate balance.   

The osprey mean everything. They are an apex predator, at the top of their food chain, and as such, increase my understanding of ecology and life, a phenomenon best understood in the aggregate, not the singular. (That’s an idea that belongs to theocrats.) My understanding becomes both tightly concentrated and widely diffused when I see ospreys. I don’t just see them: I see all the systems under, adjacent and above. I see the web.

A last word on assumptions: some things you can know, like this fact: the Upper Newport Bay was saved because of action by individuals, institutions and flat-out governmental fiat. In the late sixties and early seventies, hard-working scientists wedded their work to human wonder to save the bay. The bay was left undeveloped and some ecological balance was restored because of the intervention of Fish and Wildlife, and the EPA. When I was a seven-year old, the EPA banned DDT in 1972, clearing the way for raptors like the osprey to begin their comeback, which was helped along by the passage of the Endangered Species Act. All of this protection transformed the bay into a refuge. 

osperychickopenwings

The fledgling tests its wings.

I kayak every chance I get. As I do, I think about the bay ecology that supports the ospreys and the fact that this tiny little circle of life is situated in an old river delta, the bit where the end of the river meets the beginnings of the sea.

This river, an antecedent river of the Santa Ana river, rose and ran west during the last glacial period of the Pleistocene, a rainy, fluvial/pluvial epoch that made Orange County look more like the Pacific Northwest (think big wet trees). It made a gap in the Santa Ana mountain range, ran over the Tustin Plain and emptied into the Upper Newport Bay.

When I paddle my kayak upstream into the wildlife refuge, I move backward in time, into a space made by that old, old river. Somewhere below the muddy bottom of the bay is a still older passage.  It’s the world beneath ours, the one you see in a puddle on a stormy day, when the small, silvery pool of wet dissolves into pure transparency and you are invited to jump in and through. (I saw these puddle worlds often when I was a kid.)

I would jump, if I could. I assume things are better there; no revanchist government; no theocrats, no supremacist, belligerent patriarchs with their handmaids. I don’t know this. I shouldn’t assume. It’s not wise. Ask the questions–Is the bay better? Will it continue to gain in health? Will the ospreys stay put? Will the fledgling fly?–stay put and remember to consider the osprey in its hybrid habitat made by ancient rivers and human intervention.

It’s at rest in its world, the one next to ours.

msospery


This is Mama Osprey who landed carrying a silver mullet in her talons, which she proceeded to eat there, on the marsh plain. Wish I had a better camera.

Advertisements

Chronicles of Ubo: Diddie’s garden

Here is a quick early morning dream I had under the influence of the waning moon: My grandmother Diddie (that’s Virginia Culpeper Wellendorf Creely to the rest of you) was a major influence in my life, a trite phrase that does nothing to capture the importance of our relationship. If I was Harry Potter shivering under the stairs, she was Hedwig. If I was Taran, swinging a sword stupidly while making brash statements about who I was and who I thought I could be, she was Dalben, looking up from her book and offering dry and precise utterances about the truth of the matter. If I was— excuse me,  when I was— lost, confused, frightened, unaware, self-hating, doubting and imperfect, she was there inside my personal ecology, which was characterized by a horrible isolation from myself that I barely survived.

She was the golden woman in the center of my darkness, stern but very human, ameliorative, authoritative and loving. Betsy dear, she would say, have you considered, are you thinking about, have you seen….Betsy dear, she would say, do you know? Usually I did not know.

Virginia C. Creely in her garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990 When Diddie died in 2001 I had a dream about her, a common dream for people to have about a beloved who has died. You may know the one: they appear looking well, healthy, whole and happy. Perhaps they have a bit of a glow to them. If your mind whispers to you, this is not possible. This person is dead, you may still comprehend that they are, somehow, extant.

Diddie showed up a week after her death. She was leaning against my parent’s kitchen counter, clad in a crisply ironed white shirt dress, the type she favored (Betsy dear, she told me once, trousers do not suit women. She meant short-waisted women like she and I. And she was right. I look better in a dress.) I noted that she was carefully groomed: she was wearing Estee Lauder frosted apricot lipstick, and her blonde hair was waved. Her face was relaxed and radiant with happiness and good humor. Although I knew she was dead, I also knew that she lived, that she still was. Death is not the enemy, my dad told me.

Diddie contented herself with that one glowing appearance and then took off for parts unknown, until two nights ago when she re-appeared. In the dream, I was wandering around aimlessly in a garden bordered by mucky, swampy mud and filled in the center by two small pools. They were configured like a figure 8 laid down flat. The first pool had some water in it; the second pool had almost none at all. The water was quickly percolating out of it, causing the mud to quiver and shimmer. I didn’t like being in the mucky garden: the mud felt unclean, too organic, too busy with small insects. Putrefaction was afoot in this garden and although I felt I was there on some mission, I was— of course— completely confused about what the mission was, exactly. And then in the middle of my puzzled disgust, Diddie showed up.

Virginia C. Creely in her garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990

It was a dramatic appearance: she stood before me, visible against a dark background with her hands extended toward me. Do you remember the upper garden, she asked and suddenly I saw pink gladiolus, and other flowers bright and blooming and colorful: pink, orange, all illuminated by the sun and as vivid as life itself. Do you remember, she asked again, insistently. I said yes, Diddie I do. I remember! I remember the upper garden! And then I did remember, in one quick moment: there was a garden I had known once and then forgotten.

Get the bulbs, she said. You have to get the bulbs of the, and the words she used to describe the bulb of the flower were words of deep meaning with no equivalent in English or any spoken language on this earth. I repeated the unreal word in hopes of understanding more. Get the bulbs, she said again with some agitation, her hands in front of her, palms up, in the manner of an urgent plea. Get the bulbs. You have to….

It went on from there in much the same manner. She told me more, but I was engrossed in my conversation with her and didn’t remember to remember her directions. I fall into lucid dreaming very easily, but find that when I do, the mythic content of the dream becomes compromised. It’s your consciousness or the dream’s consciousness, I find. The two don’t co-exist.

The next morning I told my friend Tarin about the dream, and she asked, what did she want you to do with the bulbs? I couldn’t answer. I didn’t remember what she said; I only remembered Diddie’s entreaty: the position of her body against the dark and her hands held out that way urging me to get the bulbs and…

Virginia C. Creely in the upper garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990

Virginia C. Creely in the upper garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990

What did she want me to do with the bulbs? Plant them in the muck and mire of the Lower Garden? What happens when you take vibrant life and put it in relationship with putrefying death? Death is not the enemy, my dad told me as he choked back tears while his father — my beloved grandfather and Diddie’s husband, Bunny— was loaded into an ambulance after suffering a Transient Ischemic Attack in my parent’s backyard, one sunny Christmas day.

Death is not the enemy: these are plain English words spoken on this earth, words that have been spoken to me urgently in waking life. This sentence, this communication is also gestural and Diddie showed me what that gesture was: hands outstretched, and the urgent repetition of the name of a unknown flower. Maybe I’ll somehow discern and say the name of this flower— correctly and often— and find and plant its bulb. And then I’ll start asking this question: What is this ecology?

Written under the influence of the Waning Piscean moon.
Great for dream-work; not so great for work-work or business communications about non-existent MOU’s and contracts.
By the by, Gladiolus symbolize remembrance and are associated with August according an entirely non-scientific Google search.
 
Diddie and I around 1993, Newport Beach, CA. I am wearing trousers.

Diddie and I around 1993, Newport Beach, CA. I am wearing trousers.

 

Chronicles of Ubo: Pirate Cove, Big Corona, Newport Beach, California

Looking west/northwest at Pirate Cove

Looking west/northwest at Pirate Cove

Today, I biked across the Newport mesa to Pirate Cove. I go there like a homing pigeon now that I’m older and more cautious about waves and the ocean’s temperament. The ocean is usually pretty mellow at Big Corona. This is by design, of course. The Army Corps of Engineers did a lot of work to calm her down back in the thirties. Still, the ocean always has a temperament, and today, it was a bit feisty.

The first thing I saw as I stepped onto the sand was a used plastic tampon. I see, I thought. The ocean is having female problems today. I walked down to the shoreline.

A used plastic tampon left on Big Corona's beach

A used plastic tampon left on Big Corona’s beach

A grey whale was nosing around looking for food a few yards away from the end of the south jetty. People were standing with their hands on their hips, looking entranced but concerned. (Their body language seemed to suggest they were worried the whale didn’t know what it was doing.)

Seagulls fought over the litter left on the sand. I walked towards the water. My first inkling that maybe this wasn’t the day for a swim was the layer of rocky detritus lining the littoral zone. Rocks and shells banged around my ankles, forming a dark line along the zone: it was as if the ocean was daring me to step into it. The waves were glassy green tubes with faces of just about 4 to maybe 5 feet, breaking in steady intervals. The waves weren’t huge, but they had a decisiveness to them that unnerved me. How you doing, mama? I murmured like Barry White to the ocean. I’m just here to have fun. Nothing big. It’s your party. I just want in for a while. I went in and instantly felt the hard suck of the undertow. I got it. It wasn’t in the mood. It wasn’t screaming get out of my room, but neither was it inviting me in. The tide was coming in and the ocean was just doing its own thing. I got my stuff, and proceeded to Pirate’s Cove. I should have just gone there first, I thought.

Pirate Cove is starboard as you enter the Newport Harbor, and is notable for its sandstone cliffs, or bluffs which I assume gave the beach its name. The crown of sandstone and a line of rocks creates a curvy little cove, that has a small beach which totally disappears during very high tides or storms. Pirate Cove became a fixed point in a shifting marine environment sometime in the 30’s because of human engineering: there is a south jetty and a north jetty, both of which were put into place during the Roosevelt administration. The Public Works Administration accomplished what all the private money in Newport couldn’t, namely, building jetties that were stable and stayed put through fierce winter storms. (Yes, Newport has fierce winter storms.) The jetties formalized the harbor entrance: how the entrance was determined way back before the jetties were built is kind of unclear. I think it was a moving target. The bay, left to its own devices, periodically developed sandbars. Some of that topography still feels present, even after years of dredging. The small beach is shallow with a really changeable floor with waves and dips that demonstrate its dynamic response to the tide. I instinctively feel that some of the sandbars must have extended from where the small beach was.

Annotated map of the Newport bay river delta, circa 1915? Photo courtesy of Douglas Westfall

Pirate Cove was derided when I was growing up as a beach for losers or babies or both. Cool kids didn’t swim in the bay in the sixties or seventies. There were some good reasons for this: the bay, even near the mouth, was nasty. The water quality sucked. Too many boats, too many damn houses, too much urban runoff with too much crap in it: too much of everything really, conspired to give Pirate Cove a dubious reputation. That was then. It is now, and has been for some time, an absolutely beautiful little beach, a little gem with smooth sand and mostly beautiful water. Sometimes, though, it get a little bay-y. Often there is plastic crap that floats in the water. And it has more litter than it did when I was growing up.

And it has a cave.

A still from DW Griffith's silent film 'Macbeth", which was filmed on location at Pirate Cove.  Photo from "Corona Del Mar - My Kind of Town", written by Douglas Westfall.

A still from D.W. Griffith’s silent film ‘Macbeth”, which was filmed on location at Pirate Cove. Photo from “Corona Del Mar – My Kind of Town”, written by Douglas Westfall.

The cave looms large in my memory because of an offhanded remark by my dad. It’s located under a shelf of overhanging sandstone and is no more than a slit, like a downturned mouth. There are impressively old-looking rusted iron bars that block the entrance. I have no idea where the cave goes, if it goes anywhere. Does it burrow underground, through a secret passage and out to sea? Does it deepen and widen into a beautiful grotto, where opal green anemones and purple sea urchins cluster? All I’ve ever been able to see behind the rusted iron bars is an impressive collection of beer bottles and litter that gets pushed in with every high tide. I think the bars only keep people out, not litter (which is a pity.)

SAM_4538

Dad, I asked when I was very small, maybe 4 or 5 years old. What is that? I pointed to the dark slit in the rock.
It’s a cave, he replied.
Why are there bars on it?
To keep people out. It’s dangerous.

And then he told me in words unremembered by me, but with an emphasis that carried the message explicitly, that teenagers used to party in the cave and then one day the tide came in and they all drowned. I gaped. I looked at the cave and imagined the long blonde hair, the smell of Coppertone, the flashing white teeth, the puka shells encircling the tanned necks of the heedless teenagers WHO WERE PARTYING. AND WHO DROWNED. Did they know what was happening? OR WERE THEY ON DRUGS? In any case, I believed my dad. Weird things were happening to teenagers in the late sixties and early seventies. The beach was sunny and so was the rest of Southern California, but there was darkness, too, if you knew where to look. The cave was dark, and The Teenagers ( I could never think of them any other way) had crawled into its darkness to do bad things. The lesson I took from this ghosty story was: Don’t party, especially in beach caves and you’ll be fine. This didn’t stop me from partying and doing drugs in beach caves when I was a heedless teenager, but I was responsible. I chose Little Corona because those caves were not flush with the waterline. None of my friends ever drowned. SAM_4539

The wonderful thing about Pirate Cove is the rock, that pliable, friable sandstone and sedimentary rock made of thousands of geologic years of compressed sand, clay and the chitinous exoskeletons of tiny sea creatures.  The bluffs are gorgeous— golden yellow in the late afternoon sun— and fragile. The tawny sandstone has been carved and whittled down by the ocean, the wind and the rain over thousands of years. It’s easy to gain a toehold in the round hollows of the stone crown of Pirates Cove because of years and years of beach goers swarming up and down it. It’s also easy to fall off of it.

I fell, once. I was there with my Girl Scout troop. In my recollection, I was up very high and then suddenly I was down on the sand with the wind knocked out of me. My pain was equal to the chagrin I felt. There’s no dignity to falling, especially when you’re wearing a green Girl Scout sash with no badges sewn onto it. (I was a unambitious girl scout who didn’t understand the whole badge thing. I was supposed to want one, but getting one involved doing things with people. I liked to read.)

SAM_4536

The cliffs of Pirate Cove.

Today I scramble up and down the cliffs (cautiously) and wonder how much longer they’ll be around. The bluffs must be the barest nub of what they once were. It’s now listed on climbing sites as a place with “juggy” and “greasy” cliffs: I have no idea what this terminology means, but I assume that climbers clambering up the sides is going to be a factor in its eventual erosion. SAM_4535

The city of Newport Beach, ever concerned with the quality of life in Newport, keeps an eagle eye out for the potential dangers of living along the coast of Newport. The report “Safety Element” which is part of the city’s general plan, takes pains to detail exactly how the shit might hit the fan in the serene and sunny city of Newport Beach. There’s an assortment of big waves that could erode beaches and ocean bluffs: tsunamis, rogue waves and storm surges are all mentioned as actors in the future of Pirate Cove and other ocean bluffs. Local tsunamis, are apparently enough of a potential reality to be discussed in this document. “Modeling off the Santa Barbara coast suggests that locally generated tsunamis can cause waves between 2 and 20 meters (6to 60 feet) high…” That could do it; that would wash some of that beautiful sandstone away. You’ll be comforted to know, by the way, that foreign tsunamis coming in from the south— say, Chile— take at least 12 hours to arrive in Newport Beach, which is plenty to get the hell out. If I’m at Pirate Cove when the call comes to flee a Chilean Tsunami, I plan on taking the Tsunami evacuation zone on Dover. I think Jamboree will be really crowded. And who wants to be in a panic on Jamboree Road? Pas moi.

Given the concern over super storms that climate change is expected to trigger and the fact that the Balboa Peninsula and Big Corona get really big surf every summer because of storms in the southern hemisphere, it’s anyone’s guess what will erode the cliffs the most, or first. Rodentia, burrowing away in bluffs? Maybe. Seismically induced slope failure caused by a strong earthquake on the Newport Inglewood fault? Back in the nineties, a mild earthquake on this fault shattered my grandmother’s china in Newport Heights. Just think of what it would do to Pirate Cove.

SAM_4531

Today, it was untroubled, except by climbers dusting their hands with chalk and looking speculatively at the sheer wall. Someone had left an open can of pickled jalapeno peppers (really?) for someone else to throw away. I saw the can as I was taking a picture of the Haunted Cave of The Teenagers. I snapped my picture and then prissily picked up the can and carried it to the trashcan up the stairs, making sure that everyone on the beach could see me do this. (I hate litter and I go into rages when I find it.) Boastful men stood on the rock that’s just to the left of the now unused lifeguard’s chair; in silhouette, they looked like Douglas Tilden bronze statues until they jumped, with clownish bravado, into the clear green water of the bay.

SAM_4529

This is actually looking west out the harbor mouth.

Sometimes the wealthy residents of Corona del Mar complain about the popularity of Big Corona and Pirate Cove, and I understand some (but, for sure, only some)of their discomfort. The litter— I can’t say this enough—is bad and seems to have gotten worse. I think because of this and the increased density in general, the fire rings suddenly became suspect three years ago and almost got completely banned. The fire rings are public resources. That is, I believe, their actual classification. Banning them was a step towards making the beach less accessible, less desirable to the masses. There are more people in Orange County now, and hence there are more people at the beach. I’ve never trusted the wealth in Newport Beach, nor have I ever liked the drive to privatize. What would it take for homeowners to try to shut down Pirate Cove? I doubt it will happen- it’s a city beach- but if it could happen anywhere in California, with its old tradition of public access for all beaches, it could happen in Newport Beach.

SAM_4542

I’m okay with the bars over the cave. I don’t need access to it. But I would be destroyed if there was no access to Pirate Cove. I’m not sure why I thought about that, looking at the cave and the garish red can of pickled peppers sitting in the sand next to it. The beach is loved and used and littered and battered over and over again with people, with wind, with rain and possibly in the future by ARKstorms, great mega-storms which will bear down on the little beach and its proud crown of sedimentary rock. There are always forces at work (I guess) to limit, to bar, to change. I hope this part of my world and the California coast survives most of them.

SAM_4534

 Many thanks to Douglas Westfall, the author of two books I plan on reading: “Corona Del Mar – My Kind of Town” and “The Costa Mesa Bluffs”.