Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Category: Ecology

Chronicles of Ubo: the Osprey of the Upper Newport Bay

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

The Witch sees the Tail of Newt and knows that it is Spring.

Yesterday was the first day of spring, and after a cold hard winter, I welcomed it. The wildflowers of California are out-performing themselves in terms of bloom. Pictures from California’s 58 counties show streaks of pure poppy orange coloring the hills and plains, and mountain meadows, punctuated by purple, pink, blue, white, and red. Every color and every flower I’ve ever seen is punching its way to the surface, encouraged by the water that’s been pouring from the sky and the heat of the sun. It works, this relationship between sun, seed and rain. It’s amazing to see a system do the work, like clockwork, of seasonal production.

I went hiking with my best friend Elyse in Tennessee Valley, one of the many glens—I counted at least 51 on a map between the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes station—that run from the ridges of the Marin hills down to the sea. These long narrow spaces usually have water running through them that forms a lagoon which drains into a pocket beach.  You could almost describe this system in a pictograph.

As you can see, dear reader, I did exactly that and while it wouldn’t be the simplest pictograph to hammer into a rock, it gets the job done of describing what a person could reasonably expect to find in terms of landforms at the bottom of the ridge line of a coastal range. My pictogram has the added benefit of some totally accidental symbolism: the lines depicting the creek, the lagoon and the lagoon’s outlet to the ocean look like a snake. Which you could reasonably expect to find in a natural system like this.

Of course, reasonable expectations get thwarted all the time. The natural system of a glen/creek/lagoon/ocean outlet are often waylaid by the non-natural system of urban development. People just love building houses in beautiful natural spaces, and Marin for all its love of environmental 501 © 3’s is no different. The hills above Muir Beach are thick with expensively designed homes, modest and sleek, all of which depend on urban systems, like sewers and power lines, to house their owners in comfort.

The lagoon that drains into Muir Beach is but one part of the Redwood Creek Watershed. The total system is composed of the creek, the wetland, the lagoon and the tidal dunes, and ultimately, the ocean. It’s all one piece and as such responds to disruption and connection systemically, which is to say that if the water is stymied in its flow, there will be floods, fish will be blocked from building their redds and depositing their cache of eggs, and native plants and animals will lose habitat. If the water has the room it needs, it will run over and through undeveloped land, and create a floodplain, which gives the water that space it needs to spread and meander.

That’s what water does. It also creates topography, which is great for animals that need water to reproduce but also dry land from time to time. The water has the added responsibility of disseminating and germinating native seeds which—at this location anyway—don’t have to compete with invasives for the land and the water they need to grow.

This refreshing lack of competition comes courtesy of some volunteer, or volunteers, more likely, who worked tirelessly to clear it of nasty things like Himlayan blackberry and its whip-like canes, which will take over an area in no time at all. Land management is a critical element in habitat restoration.

Thus it was that a ceanothus bush greeted me and my friend Elyse as we descended from the trail. It might have been planted, but it’s more likely that the seed bed in the soil yielded it up naturally and it survived because of the management practices described above.

“A ceanothus!” I yelled when I saw it. I see them in the city all the time. There’s one blooming right now just down the street from me, a ceanothus foliosus, from the looks of it. But I never see them in the wild. I was so was excited to see it because of where I was seeing it. It was a Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, a thrilling name for its Dionysian connotations. It made me momentarily ecstatic, anyway. My friend, Elyse also recognized it, but had to wait for my rapture to die down in order to tell me that.

“I know this plant because someone called it a see-you-know-us,” she informed me. We laughed at her silly friend.
“You never see this plant here. But this is exactly where you should expect to see it,” I said, proving that it takes more than a rainy two-mile walk uphill to knock value judgements out of me.

We walked across the small bridge that spans Redwood Creek and its floodplain. I heard the croaking of frogs almost immediately. The interpretive signs advised me that these were probably, hopefully, the endangered California Red Legged frog (Rana draytonii)which, again, you would —should—expect to hear in this location, because of this creek, this lagoon and the wetland. Where else would frogs be?

Almost immediately, I saw something large moving through the bushes in the wetland, something big enough for its silvery grey-brown fur to be visible above the low-lying shrubbery. There were some other hikers on the other side of the bridge looking at the animal intently. I walked across the bridge with the chorus of frogs croaking away, and asked one of the hikers what he was looking at.

“A coyote,” he replied. The coyote, as if on cue, stepped out of the scrub and into a small clearing. It was a big one, probably a young adult, with a thick bushy tail and the narrow muzzle that coyotes have.

What you could reasonably expect to see and hear was exactly what we saw and heard all within twenty minutes: a ceanothus, one of the most common plants of coastal scrub, a red-legged frog once incredibly populous and now federally listed as an endangered species and a coyote. I reacted to all these with delight, but surprise.

I say “but surprise” to acknowledge how bereft California’s natural history is of the “history” part. The frog, the coyote and the ceanothus bush were common elements in places like Tennessee Valley before 1849. The frog’s habitat contracted and worse, people developed a taste for its legs.

I don’t have the evolutionary history of any of these animals or plants to hand, but it’s safe to assume thousands of years of habitation in the bay area. The bay itself is 9,000 years old and its baylands developed about 3,000 to 2,000 years ago. It took less than 200 years to make the bush, the frog and the coyote strangers in their own land and novelties for hikers like me to encounter. It’s taken about seven years for the staff and scientists of the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to put the pieces of the Redwood creek ecology back together. And guess what? It’s working. The moral of the story…well, there’s more than one, but one of them is this: restoration works and it can be a mighty work.

We left the lagoon and walked a trail that edged the cliffs and then dropped down into another glen. And that was the final surprise, final proof of a ancient system working to produce life. I started seeing newts, many newts, all with knobbly skin and bright orange undersides. They scrambled off the path at our approach, away from the peril of our heavy feet. I squealed. I’ve only ever seen newts (a type of salamander) once on a hike. And that was a long time ago (and I wasn’t walking. I was swimming) Again, the question danced in my head. What do you expect to see? I took a picture of the first few little beasts I saw, assuming I wouldn’t see any more, and then continued to see them at such a rate that I knew I would find at least one dead. (I did.)

By the time we walked out of Tennessee Valley, I’d seen at least 40 salamanders. They were endearing, the way they moved: they threw their short stumpy limbs up and out, as they left the path and clambered into the damp underbrush. The salamanders with their glistening, toxic skin seemed inseparable from the environment that they started life in. It was as if the water flowing in Redwood creek had changed into thousands of watery little gods, running like rivulets down the muddy path.

I was surprised by my surprise the entire time I was walking by the things that were there. After all, the “there” that I’m thinking of is made of them. The animals and plants of Tennessee Valley, as they blink in and out of existence, and as scientists and land managers struggle to rebuild ecologies from scratch in order to give amphibians like the Rough-skinned and California newt a home, are the valley as much as the crumpled chert formations that give it form or the water that flows through it.

I do want to be surprised, though. I don’t want to tour natural spaces with animals and birds and insects and all the rest appearing at punctual intervals to assure me I’m outside.

I want to continue to be surprised by everything I see everytime I venture out: the uncontained, the rebounded, the natural, the wild.

Written in the muddy muddy month o’ March, the greenest month we have. These newts are out now and about….

This little guy made right for me and walked steadily between my feet….

They are so dear. And they don’t have much space. So if you go walking the Marin Hills, step lightly and look out for them. 

San Francisco,March 21st, 2017

Meeting the Empress, part 3: Return to Manzanita Mountain

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Arctostaphylos, common name Manzanita, is a shrub (or a small tree—more on that in a moment) with at least sixty known species, several sub-species and an ability to crossbreed in the wild, which produces still more subspecies. Manzanita means “little apples” when translated into Spanish. It’s a euphonious and affectionate word. I invite you: take a moment and sing out the quartet of syllables. You will find that the third syllable naturally stretches out into an operatic warble. If you are in a place with excellent acoustics, the EEeeeee vocable will be snatched up eagerly by the ether and will float away, blending into all the other sounds of this earth.

Last week, I sang the name of the manzanita species I found four years ago on the grounds of the Four Springs Retreat Center, outside of Middletown. Here is some science that will ground this ethereal essay in stolid Saturnine science: the name of the manzanita of Four Springs is Arctostaphylos manzanita, ssp. konocti, named for the nearby volcano. It grows in “closed pygmy forests” in the mountain ranges above Napa and Lake Counties according to the Forest Service. Lacking the conclusive agreement of a field biologist, I believe it does just this on the Lindquist ridge, which is the south-east-facing ridge that encircles the retreat grounds. This USGS topographical map details the area. I gotta say: All hail the USGS and their indefatigable surveyors and map makers! This is the great thing about the witchy gaze: with the right tools to hand— memory, personal mythos, gut understanding and science-based information— all modes of knowledge may be reconciled.

The pygmy manzanita forest of Four Springs begins on a trail which leads to the top of Lindquist Ridge, which is about 1,500 feet above sea level. It’s one of the lower ridges of all the volcanically constructed ridgelines of the Mayacamas, but a beautiful one with a view to the southwest. It’s hard to tell how old the trees are. One of the manzanitas had a 29-inch diameter trunk, which indicates age. The retreat was founded in 1955. So maybe the trees are sixty years old? Or maybe some of the trees have lived a solid century.

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Measured in urban development years, a century-old manzanita, whatever the species, is a very old and very venerable plant indeed. Many manzanitas have gone missing in the last 100 years, as development has increased. Lester Rowntree, a female botanist who disguised her gender to assure the publication of her field work, lamented the almost certain fate of A. franciscana, the sole native manzanita of San Francisco which used to grow plentifully among the San Miguel range in the middle of San Francisco. “Almost in the heart of San Francisco grows another creeping Arctostaphylos,” she noted in her 1938 book Flowering Shrubs of California. A rare serpentine endemic, A. franciscana grew on Mount Davidson and in the Laurel Hill cemetery, the site she chose to document its existence, which at that point was tenuous.

“The manzanita has been there longer than the buildings and longer probably than the oldest graves. None of it grows on the graves (which are unmarked, neglected, and usually encircled by rickety old wooden palings) though nothing,” she averred, “could be more suitable and enduring.” She knew she was looking at one individual plant where there had been many. The old cemetery had been slated for destruction. The human bodies were disinterred and shipped to Colma and the bodies of the plants had been scraped from their rocky beds and tossed, probably, on a pile of brush. Rowntree said of the ghost plant that “…the manzanita and the dead belong to another era…Now it is being regarded impatiently by the folk to whom any land is just so many building lots. If they can, they will eradicate it as a cemetery and that will be the last of an old San Francisco record and certainly the last of Arctostaphylos franciscana.”

This story has a happy ending. A lone A. franciscana was re-discovered marooned on a median strip on Doyle Drive during a construction project in 2010. It was subsequently listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and moved to the Presidio. It’s a great story, the finding and rescuing of this plant, and one that I think demonstrates the tenacity of the native plant seedbank in San Francisco. (It also demonstrates the willingness of the Republican party to spiral into a pearl-clutching tizzy at the slightest provocation—always so gratifying to watch, I feel.) I urge you, gentle reader, to watch this video and discover the true story of A. franciscana.

Within the precincts of Four Springs, there has been no development, other than the construction of the small wooden cabins that dot the meadow and ravine. Enormous trees ring the retreat buildings, which made the grounds “indefensible” in the opinion of Cal Fire, but very defended indeed for the manzanita groves, the madrones, oaks, conifers and probably many more trees I took no notice of. I imagine that in the early spring, the grounds and ridgeline are probably incredibly fragrant, with that beautiful warm, leathery-lemony smell of coastal range chaparral and maybe the smell of the fruit of the manzanita. I once walked among patches of Greenleaf manzanita (A. patula), a species Rowntree would include in the “the low-growing” manzanita of California. I noticed it swarming over the granite, but had not associated the plant with the ripe odor of berries that seemed to be everywhere. After absently mindedly sniffing the rich smell of fruit—raspberry? Strawberry? Someone’s highly scented lip-gloss? —I finally asked my friend Cypress what it was. “You’re smelling manzanita berries,’ she replied.

Manzanita is a tree of fire, especially as it occurs in Lake County. A. konocti is growing in the pulverized igneous rock of Lake County, rocks that were formed in the Great Magma Chamber of the Clear Lake Volcanic Region and spat out during the eruptions that ended 200,000 years ago. The fires of the earth, made manifest in these rocks, became friable under the softening influence of water and air. The formerly inhospitable became positively welcoming under the influence of the sibling elements, becoming soil first and later a whole environment, in which many hundreds of plants species, including manzanita, rooted themselves and began to grow, synchronistically and symphonically (the sonic quality of the trees under the influence of wind waving and moving all the branches is absolutely mesmerizing.)

It is because of California’s fiery belly that an environment for manzanitas exists and the design and look of the manzanita seem to acknowledge this fiery DNA. Manzanitas are famous for their ruddy suppleness. Their supple,  burgundy-red branches wave away from the main bole of the plant to make branch formations that, because of their color, could easily be understood as flames emanating from a fire. Manzanita treasures its beauty and ensures that no one can take advantage of it by means of losing its vivid color and smooth skin when the plant dies. The red branches become rough and as grey as fire ash. Acquisitive hoarders looking to collect beautiful objects from nature must look elsewhere for their trophies. “People used to cut manzanitas down to make furniture,” my dad told me on one of our walks in the Santa Ana mountains, probably in response to my own covetous response to the plant (I would have been about seven or eight when we had this conversation.) “But they learned the hard way that it wasn’t suitable.” I looked at manzanitas ever after, knowing that to maintain their beauty, they must be left alone. It’s interesting how the mundane gets transformed into the magical. I glanced at a plant once as a child and my father’s words made it into something visible but unobtainable, untouchable.

Fire destroys most manzanitas. (Those with burls can re-sprout, but most manzanitas don’t have burls.) But fire breaks seed dormancy, and allows the native seedbanks, California’s landscape-in-waiting, often buried under invasives, to re-establish plant communities. Fire may make seventy-five year old manzanitas rare for a year or so, but ideally, the grove will reemerge as seedlings after a fire, often in greater numbers than before. But this re-growth depends on time. The interval between fires must be long enough for the seedlings to grow. Californian’s who care about the native landscape will often nod their heads knowingly when fire is mentioned and talk about fire’s role in creating the conditions necessary for the California’s floristic province to thrive in. But for that to happen and for the old-growth manzanita groves to thrive, fire must be, if not exactly rare, certainly not everyday, (or every week, or every month.) The question facing us might not be can we contain fire, but more can we manage time?

Because time, that scarce resource, is what the manzanita (and the oak, and the madrone and all other plants of coastal and montane chaparral) needs the most. The manzanitas of the Four Springs Retreat Center are old-growth manzanitas. And we should term them as such; give them this distinctive endowment, this charismatic identity. The ongoing destruction of California’s chaparral—of which manzanita is a indicator species—is further justified by characterizing California’s chaparral as fire-prone and dangerous to urban development, an inversion of logic painful to hear and depends, in part, on the dismissive words “brush” or “scrub”, used to describe this endangered landscape. California used to be covered in a lot of old-growth chaparral, a term usually reserved for the big trees of the North Coast and the interior. It surprises people to hear the term “old-growth” applied to a system described, rather brusquely as “brush”. Even those parts of California where chaparral is protected, such as the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego county, the inaccurate term “forest” is used to describe a landscape that is dominated by old-growth chaparral. That probably isn’t semantic laziness: just try getting the public to fund the conservation of a bush or a shrub. I have never seen a bush beloved as a tree.

We all have some catching up to do—Californians and their understanding of how fire creates and destroys the landscapes of our state, and what plants we prize as memorable, charismatic and worth conserving. And especially the trees and shrubs that were undoubtedly lost in the great triad of Lake County fires: the Jerusalem, Rocky and Valley fires, all likely to make repeat appearances in the years to come. The seeds of future Great Manzanita Forests lie in the ancient fiery soil of Lake and Napa county, having been released from their stiff jackets by fire. Now they are waiting for the rains to come and, once wetted, will try to catch up to the venerable elders lining the ridges of Four Springs.

With love to the California Chaparral Institute. They deserve your funding. Written while Mars works with Uranus and dedicated with love to journeying Fools everywhere.

Step quick, step light.

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Elizabeth C. Creely in an old-growth manzanita grove at the Four Springs Retreat center in Middletown, CA.

Meeting the Empress: The Valley Fire

Yesterday, September 12th, was the first day in that week that was not blanketed by oppressive heat. From Monday to Thursday, the heat hung in the air, edging towards 91 and 92 in some parts of SOMA and the Mission. Naturally I fled and spent three days hanging out at the Dolphin Club, diving into the cold bay again and again, marveling at the admixture of dry heat and perfect 59-60 degree watery cold that, to me, characterizes late summer in California: you may jump into a body of water, pop your head out and consider the ‘sere’ and golden hills even as your body is held by the sincere and lovely cold of the sea. (“Sere” is a word that pops up in frequently in late-19th century descriptions written by people from back east who had problems with California’s dry landscape. They’re usually the same people that planted eucalyptus trees.)

On September 9th, the air blew in hot gusts just like a convection oven. I sat on a dock in the bay in my bathing suit, with my face tilted toward it. I felt like a kitten being licked by the rough, but loving tongue of my mother. Unbeknownst to me, another fire had just started.

The fire was burning in California’s mid-section, in the Stanislaus National Forest. I looked at the Cal Fire map—I have it bookmarked now— and checked it out. They were calling it the Butte Fire and already it was sprawling, a sloppy out-of-control fire. Cal Fire indicates the sprawl of fire perimeters by drawing a red area around the flame icon, the center of the fire, making it look as though the forest has developed a rash, like contact dermatitis. I grabbed a screen shot of what I thought was going to be the problem fire du jour (or du mois—our fires have been burning for longer than normal this year). The fire forced the evacuation of all the little towns along Highways Forty Nine and Four: San Andreas, Murphys, and Camp Connell, which is where some my friends of mine happened to be.

They had gone up to their cabin before the fire started. One of them wrote: “We have had the official advisory to evacuate. Because of smoke/air quality. – not imminent danger. However, if the fire burned like it has for 4 more days it would be on top of our house. We’re taking some stuff with us.

I posted a picture of the Butte Fire. A friend wrote: “The Eye of Sauron?”

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I also looked at Lake County on the fire map. It had been troubled by literally a rash of fires most notably the Rocky and Jerusalem firesthroughout the spring, burning for weeks before being finally being subdued. I should explain why Lake County was holding my attention. I have been helping to plan a tarot-themed ritual retreat at a lovely site called The Four Springs retreat center for a few month. I wrote of Four Springs—a place that was founded by four female Jungian scholars (the wild ritual eclecticism of Northern California cannot be more perfectly captured than in that last sentence, I believe)—enthusiastically this week in a welcoming letter to retreat participants. “Four Springs is the perfect place to gather together to use magic, ritual, and art to provoke and support restorative reflection.” It was, I noted, situated in the foothills of Lake County amidst acres of oak- and manzanita-dominated woodlands.

A sister of mine wrote: “I love this part of California. It is where the pine meets the oak. Where the wine country peters out. Where retreat centers live next to small town America.” (I should have mentioned pine as well.) On Friday, September 11th, a day noted for its inflammatory history, there was no active fire shown on the map. I felt relief that fire had left Lake County.

My relief was short-lived. A friend messaged me last night at 9 p.m. “They have closed the Hwy between Calistoga and Middletown. I’m thinking of Four Springs…Those hills between there and Cobb are ablaze. Prayers.

 

The fire had returned to Lake County at 1:24 p.m. that day. It jumped to 40,000 acres in a couple of hours, growing effortlessly, feeding on the Ponderosa, Knob Cone and Grey pine trees which have been sucked dry by the drought and further “stressed” from the miniscule but mighty 5-spined Ips bark beetle, a native insect. As of this writing, the Valley Fire has burned roughly 50,000 acres, is not contained and has displaced more than 10,000 people from Lake County. The fire burnt down the small town of Cobb and Harbin Hot Springs and went on the destroy Middletown. Four Springs was evacuated.

During the mad dash out of Middletown, Tim, the manager of the retreat center, turned like Lot’s wife to see the devastation. He took a picture of the scene behind him. There was the fire, crowning the trees, and illuminating the Twin Pine casino. He wrote (in an understated, I-gotta-get-the-hell-outta-here way): “Forest fire Is threatening Four Springs.”

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In Southern California, where I grew up, fire would make an obligatory appearance in October: the orange flames turned the foothills of the Santa Ana mountains black. The fire would break out in the foothills, burn a few hills, freak people out for a couple days, and scent the air with the pleasant odor of burning chaparral. The fire would hang out the hill like a punky adolescent out for a good time before being vanquished by California’s firefighters, sp. Ignis Pugnator ssp. Californicus. It was like our own seasonal monster movie with a totally predictable ending. Godzilla, you know?

Now it’s Jason. Last night I wrote of the fire: “It’s like the psycho killer. You think he’s dead. BUT HE’S NOT.”

There was no reason I could think of that the fire would be anything but huge. There are currently no natural predators of fire in this state. It’s turning into an invasive; a colonizer. Which brings me to the purpose of our upcoming retreat: We were supposed to “meet” the Empress.

The Empress, the third Major Arcana in the tarot deck is depicted by the Rider-Waite deck as a crowned woman, seated on a throne and holding a scepter. She has always appeared—to me, anyway— to be alert and watchful. (Would an Empress ever be anything other than watchful?) The background color of the card is usually yellow. Sometimes the yellow around her head is emphasized, almost like a corona, while the atmosphere around her is depicted in deep glowing shades of flaming orange.

empress

Last night, I texted this observation to a friend: “I think we’ve met the Empress.” It wasn’t the meeting we’d been expecting, but then, in dealing with an imperatrix whose very title is based on the notion of taking, commanding and arranging, should we really be surprised?

It strikes me now that fire is an imperialist element, especially in California’s sere woodlands. Fire, like every Emperor and Empress at the head of an imperial state, only ever takes land and never yields it willingly. Fire is running amok in our state like a crazed Napoleonic despot. And people are running in panic from their homes while the imperial fire throws its firebrands after them, which serve in this obviously tortured metaphor (yeah, whatever.) almost as an elite infantry. Once this infantry lands on a bush, or a desiccated pine tree, or a blade of brown grass, it runs, too, straight through canyons and ravines and the tops of hillsides and small mountains, right on the heels of the animals and the humans. Sometimes, the imperial infantry run a lot faster.

It has been a changeable year with unquiet all around me. I don’t know where to look anymore—the bodies and health charts of my beloveds have been troubled and the landscape of California seems only to be interested in shrugging all of us off its body.

How do you cry for a land—or, really why cry for a land that is continually remaking itself in an unpredictable I’ll-do-what-I fucking-well-want ways? How many times did the Santa Ana river change course like a giant snake lashing through little settlements, inundating them before it was captured in a straitjacket and barred from entering its domain by a series of dams? (and how do we feel about its imprisonment and the impoverishment of all its tributary ecologies? ) How about our famed earthquake faults that buckle and bump in the extremely early hours of the morning (this is a highly personal observation and not supported by science). How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Or how about this musical reference: I won’t cry for you, California. You can’t help it. It’s your nature. But I will cry for the hundreds and thousands of creatures of the earth, water and air who have been flushed from their homes, humans included. (as of this writing, there are people missing and people who love them who are looking for them.)

A friend writes: “Beginning to wonder if we’ll ever smell fresh air again. If apocalyptic fires, ash, and smoke are becoming so commonplace that we no longer live in the ‘what if’, but in the ‘when is it our turn?’” Welcome to California, our flaming, flooding, friable state.

welcometoMiddletown

A friend asks: “Can the fire turn around and burn what it already passed?” My prediction? We’ll find out.

At 12:15 a.m., after an hour of reading very bad news, I decided to call it quits and try to sleep. As I turned off the lights, I heard a gentle rattling sound and looked out the window. A breeze had fetched up and a light rain was falling. I went to sleep wondering when I should rain, too. I didn’t feel huge wailing clouds of grief, but I could feel some gentle pressure from my soul and I knew that I was feeling something like true sorrow. So I cried in my dreams: I expressed my sorrow like a mother expresses milk from her breasts. I squeezed tears from my eyes until rain poured out from them: water from my eyes, water on the ground. The tears flowed and overflowed and I became water and wept.

 

Written on the day of the new moon in Virgo, and the day of a partial solar eclipse. Yesterday, the taskmaster and the destroyer, Saturn and Scorpio, parted ways. Fair play, you two. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Also, check out the excellent blog,  Tales of a Sierra Madre here:http://taleasofasierramadre.com/2015/09/13/the-year-we-got-used-to-burning/

 

Talk of the Mission Town: Dolores Park’s rehab.

Tuesday, April 28th was hot and clear in San Francisco. Day trippers and sunbathers lolled on the sunny slopes and battered grass of Dolores Park while, a block away, people streamed through the doors of 18 Reasons to talk about the park’s party problem. San Francisco Recreation and Parks was hosting a Dolores Park Action Plan and the room was filling quickly. “Should we utilize another bench?” asked a woman nervously, while the meeting participants signed in and eyed the food: salami, prosciutto, toasted bread, grilled chicken, and a salad of what looked like poached eggs bedded on arugula, all provided by Delfina and Bi-Rite and arranged on a narrow bar inside. “Don’t be shy. Eat the food!” said Shakirah Simley, Community Programs Manager with Bi-Rite. There wasn’t much shyness among the roughly 35 attendees, but there was an air of seriousness, which suited the matter under discussion. The park is nearing the end of a three-year, 20-million dollar upgrade. But the park’s stint in rehab hasn’t stopped the non-stop party: there was an unplanned upgrade in park attendance, too. At least ten thousand people visit the park every weekend, weather permitting. With the amped-up ebullience has come more of everything else, too, including trash which, according to city estimates, costs San Francisco taxpayers 750,000 to clean up.

A now near-iconic image of Dolores Park Trash

A near-iconic image of Dolores Park Trash

A PowerPoint presentation played in a loop on a screen in the front of the room. Images of the trashed park alternated with examples of heedless park visitors: there was a shot of someone’s Instagram showing a drained coconut shell lying on the battered green grass of the park. “Rum coconut and mimosas in Dolores Park! We love this place!” read the caption. Another Facebook picture showed four friends, smiling in the sunshine. “We are avid trash collectors. We don’t want the man up our bum,” it said. The “man”- presumably SF Recreation and Parks staff, was being represented that day by a woman, Sarah Ballard, Director of Policy and Public Affairs. “We let you all down,” she said earnestly thus clarifying the heart of the matter. “We got caught flat-footed. We were really confounded by the park’s popularity.” She was, of course, talking about litter.

Dolores Park midday. Photo courtesy of Andrew Rogers, ‎Friends of Dolores Park

Dolores Park midday. Photo taken by Andrew Rogers, ‎Friends of Dolores Park.

These days, the park’s popularity is measured by the huge amount of trash left behind by its visitors: 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of trash is scattered among the 14-acre park every weekend by park visitors each weekend day. By comparison, Alamo Square, a city park of similar size, is encumbered with only 2% of the trash that accumulates in Dolores Park. “We feel like this closure has created some opportunities to shift the culture of what’s appropriate at the park,” Ballard said intently. “Our challenge is to keep the good stuff and get rid of the bad stuff.” The problem goes beyond trash cans she said. “More and more and more trash cans can’t solve this.” The SFRP assessed the nature of the trash dumped each weekend and discovered that 65% of the litter could be diverted to landfill. “Right now, that’s not happening,” she said. “But we know that finger-pointing”– she wagged her finger demonstratively at the room- “doesn’t change anything. We need for this to be an organic process. The question is: how do we change the culture of usage at the park?” People nodded their heads vigorously, chewed their bruschetta and took notes.

Two weeks ago, SFRP and Recology launched an “Eco pop up” station, two large recycling and composting dumpsters to Dolores Park to solve the easiest problem first: where to put the coconut shells, beer bottles, plastic cups and other detritus. This is all intended as a prelude to the gradual re-opening of Dolores Park, slated to start sometime in June in two steps. The north side of the park will open in min-June with an ADA-compliant entryway, new lawns, paths and lighting, newly revamped tennis and basketball courts, and new park furniture: benches, picnic tables and bathrooms. “And in case you haven’t heard, Dolores Park will have the first open-air pissoir in San Francisco,” said Ballard. A woman raised her hand with an air of urgency.
“Will there be new bathrooms for woman?” she asked. (The answer was yes).
“And maybe some attendants,” called out a SF Parks and Rec staffer from the back of the room.
“With perfume and stuff?” Patti Lord, a resident, asked skeptically. (The question was left unanswered.) The south side of the park will then close. “But the playground will remain open the entire time,” said Ballard emphatically.

 

Use the Dolores Park Eco pop-up

Use the Dolores Park Eco pop-up.

Velina Brown of the San Francisco Mime Troop put her hand up. “I’m here to find out if the Mime Troop will be able to open on July 4th, as we have done for many years,” she said.

“Let’s talk offline after the meeting,” proposed Ballard. She then introduced Ben Lawhon, Education Director from the Colorado-based organization Leave No Trace: Center for Outdoor Ethics, which has contracted with San Francisco Parks and Rec as a consulting organization. “It’s great to see so many of you,” he said. Lawhon, a square-jawed man, wearing an orange corduroy shirt, added: “Clearly this is a park people love.” His slide show also included pictures of Dolores Park’s thick layer of people and litter. “I think you probably recognize these pictures,” he said jokingly. He cleared his throat. Eighty-five percent of the “litter issues” is about behavior, Lawhon said. Peer-to-peer outreach and self-policing by other park visitors is critical to making change happen. “Changing culture is about helping people understand, that, hey. It’s not cool to trash the park,” Lawhon concluded.

“Has this worked in other places?” inquired someone skeptically.

“Yes. But it’s about changing culture,” Lawhon replied. “We gotta take the long view.” Rob Lord raised his hand. “We’ve been hearing about strategies,” he said. “But not about tactics. I want to hear the five things that are gonna be accomplished by the time the park opens. Can we hear some specifics, please?”

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The long view: Use the Can campaign flyer

Flyers were quickly handed out detailing the specifics; a campaign launching in May called “Use the Can”, which combines public outreach, added service and rules enforcement to “keep Dolores clean and beautiful.” There are three participation levels the community can choose: Park Visitor, Friend or Champion, each with it own level of participation. Visitors can use social media—”our goal is to create content you can share,” said Ballard— and campaign posters to boost the campaign’s visibility. Friends can add the step of using stickers to place on merchandise that are being brought to the park, and Champions can choose to take the bold step of volunteering in the park on the weekend to “actively meet with, inform and urge park goers” to use the added trash receptacles and abide by the principles outlined by Leave No Trace which are, according to their website “To protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly while enjoying the park.”

“We are asking organizations and groups to pick Saturday or Sunday to go into the park and urge people to use the can,” said Ballard. The meeting broke up after viewing a CAN-paign public service announcement, featuring the Knights of Revery.

Afterward, the Lords seemed doubtful. “I’ll do it,” said Rob, speaking about the campaign. “But I didn’t hear about a service commitment that’s going to be commensurate with increased usage. We’re sixty days from the launch of a major renovation. Park maintenance could have increased before the renovations started.” His wife agreed. “I see a lot more people with tour books. I think it’s a by-product of tourism. More people. And we’re Leave No Trace’s first city partner! I think they’re cutting their teeth on us. Why hasn’t the city spoken with someone from a city where they’ve already dealt with density?” Rob shook his head. “I think we’re in for a bumpy ride,” he said.

Inside, Velina Brown was waiting for her offline conversation with Ballard. “I still don’t know if we’re going to be opening on July 4th,” she said. “Our audience is a usually about 3,000 people. They’re completely dwarfed by the other people who are usually drunk and belligerent. And they’re not paying attention because they have their own sound system without permits! As a permitted event, we get there at 8 am in the morning to set up, to take care of that space. So how does being a permitted event benefit us?”

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 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”.

 

Never leave

waveNever leave.

Ah, the beach dream, the oldest and most frequently recurring dream I have. I had it last night after a long week of disorienting sadness. The dream involves a tossing grey ocean, and a steep, sandy bank.

Am I in the ocean? Sometimes.
Am I trying to get away from/out of the ocean?  Yes. That’s where the steep sandy bank comes in.

What’s interesting about this dream is that it’s based in reality. The south-facing beaches of the city of Newport Beach are built up; highly engineered. Back in the day, by which I mean anywhere from 10 BCE on, the ancestor of the Santa Ana River ran all over the Tustin Plain, in that wavery way water has, but with force because of the tremendous amount of water in its riverine column. By and by, it incised its bank so deeply that it couldn’t wander the way it used to. The river built its own prison, in a manner of speaking and, until it was disturbed again by men from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and entombed in a box culvert, stuck, more or less, to one route. After a flood in 1825, the river carved a water gap through the chalky, wave-cut bluffs of what would become Newport Beach, and began work on its last creation: an estuary, and a peninsular structure. The former was later called the Newport Harbor, after the estuary was dredged and turned into a commercial, deep-water harbor. The latter structure became the Balboa Peninsula. The water shouldered its way through the estuary, took a right-ish turn under a rock formation, now called Pirate Cove, and flowed out to sea.

I mention all this geological history because forceful nature, and later civil engineering, made my dream vocabulary. The meandering river, shaped by its own forces and later by the busy hands of men, gave me a symbol, a picture with which to express to myself the very image of anticipation, fascination, immersion and abject fear. When I dream about the tossing grey sea and the steep bank, they are so perfectly posed next to each other that I see them in my waking hours almost as a woodcut image of curvilinear shapes and a straight lines. I could, perhaps, make a pictograph of this and hang it on my wall to remind me of what I always seem to do in that dream (and probably in my waking life): confronting a force which is much bigger and more powerful than I.

Newport storm eroison

Photo Courtesy of Newport Mesa

 

The peninsula was later augmented and built up by the dredged mud and sand of the estuary which was dumped on the sand-spit beaches, making them wider and longer. Buttressed by a jetty at the harbor mouth and a few fishing piers, the beaches held onto their allotment of sand, and, with a few exceptions, did not erode. But the engineers of the beach left their signature: a steeply graded, littoral zone. The grade of the beaches is wholly artificial and the ocean has never reconciled itself to this new arrangement. How steep these zones are depends on how roughly the sea is thrashing. Closer to the Newport Pier, the approach is moderate. But in front of Newport Elementary, the step you take from the dry sand onto the wet shore, can be 2 to 3 feet down.

The waves on these south-facing beaches are typically 3 to 5 feet. The waves form in deep water and then break against that engineered shore line, cutting and slapping away the sand. This makes for a shore-break that is tough to contend with. The waves smack you down when you enter the water, as if in outrage at your trespass. When you leave the water, the grasping suck of the undertow grabs you by the waist. With the full weight of the ocean pulling on you, you walk out of the water only to encounter a wall of sand. The ground underfoot is treacherous and shifts. You sink, ever so slightly, into the sand.

All sorts of dreams combine in this charged moment: the dream of the ocean that the river followed, as it murmured and sank ever deeper into its banks and the dreams of the 20th century’s big-minded civil engineers who tunneled under mountains and built cities on sand-spits. Standing in the grey water of the dream-ocean, the greedy water pleads with you to never leave. Never Leave.

This is the dream.

wave

If you inquire into the nature of a thing, your consciousness will change.

In the Mendocino Woodlands lived a spider: this is how a children’s version of my story might start. She was big and black, it would continue, and she had many children.

Here is the adult version: In the Mendocino Woodlands lived a big black insect. It was huge and scary. It did not like the sun, and so clung to walls and other dark places in the woods. The shift in pronoun— from unidentified object to beloved subject— is the fulcrum, the hinge, upon which this story turns. From it to She: this is the start of a query into the nature of the spider, her doings and her fate. The pronoun is the consciousness.

It’s hard to have to insert another pronoun at this point (the maddeningly self-centered “I”) but I have to. I was at the Mendocino Woodlands for a ritual retreat. It was my muddied consciousness and gaze that entered the woodland, beheld the spider as an “insect” and mis-saw things.

This is very un-witchlike, in my opinion. Witches should have gazes that are soft and wide, and sharp and discerning. The gaze is all. The molecular frenzy of all objects, the clash and collision of the smallest material particles of making can been sensed, if not with seen, by the eyes. Even my impoverished gaze cannot avoid seeing the systemic failure of rotting fruit, the overly fermented & rapidly liquefying cells collapsing into mold minute by minute, hour by hour.

I first sensed the presence of the spider as an elongated extension of the dark gloom inside the canvass walls of the tent I and my tent-mates slept in. And then the darkness moved, gingerly, in that precise, angular way that insects move. My consciousness leapt forth to meet it. But unwillingly. I didn’t want to greet the angular shadow, didn’t want to see the finicky, practiced movement of one of its (many) legs. I put my glasses on.

She was big and black, with eight elegant legs, and a powerful ovipositor.

It was impossible to miss seeing the largest insect I’d ever seen. Its thin black legs were thrice-jointed and impossibly long. The “body” was enormous and deeply black, so black that it was hard to tell where the shadow ended and the body began. My head reared up; a general feeling of revulsion coursed through my body. Dear reader, does this sound like the start of a bad H.P. Lovecraft parody? No surprise there- the thoughts and feelings I experienced at that dismayed moment were parodic, a cognitive gesture towards knowing without knowing.

“Oh my god, you guys, there is the biggest fucking insect EVER,” I announced, like a callow Valley Girl, to my tent-mates, who promptly shrieked.

I did not know what I was seeing.

Pimoa cthulhu

She was the oldest creature in the woodland, and the most powerful. Her power went beyond the length of her body: she had power because she knew things. It was said by beaver, salmon, and even raven that she knew everything there was to know about the woodlands. She had crawled inside the deepest holes. She had lived in every branch of every tree. Every leaf was a well-known room. And She was understood to mean not just one spider, but all spiders of her kind that had come before and would come after: the countless generations of spiders; too many to count, all with the same knowledge, the same wisdom that floated above them like a cloud. They shared it and passed it between themselves and anyone who cared to listen. Where She had not gone, her children had and would go. When it was time for a woodmoot, to discuss the woods and what happened there, they would end the long meetings by asking her for stories. She would speak at length and they would listen, far into the dark night.

Later, there were two of the insect-beasts splayed out on the frame of the cabin tent; seeing them, I’d instantly thought of slim San Francisco women, dressed in their best black Lulamon schmatta, striking yoga poses. No urban yogini I’d ever seen could have achieved this insect version of downward dog, so perfectly balanced on the long legs, so sinister in its perfect articulation. My tent mates and I decided to displace the insects (I really didn’t know what it was. The legs suggested a spider, but it was so big that my mind reeled at the thought.) I went looking for George, the camp organizer, a patient man with brown eyes, who was known to be helpful.

“George,” I said tentatively “There’s an enormous insect in our tent and it’s making us nervous.” George looked at me warily. He knew what I wanted.

“Remember that scene from Annie Hall?” he replied. “The one where Woody Allen is trying to kill a spider? That’s me.”

“Yes, I remember that scene, but…” I felt bad asking him. He works hard on behalf of the Reclaiming community. I also felt bad because the ethics of displacing a woodland creature were (even in my deeply phobic state) clear to me. This is wrong, my consciousness whispered. You’re being an asshole. I ignored it.

“Please?” I pleaded. This insect was as big as a Buick. I just couldn’t go near it. I didn’t know what it was. Later, at dinner, I asked him how the insect displacement had gone.

“It jumped around a lot,” he said.

Oh, Christ, I thought. It hadn’t been a neutral experience for the insect-thing-monster, not a clean, surgical operation. It obviously didn’t want to leave the tent.

Pimoa cthulhu

The woods were big and there were many animals, but there were humans too, and the humans came into the wood. They walked carelessly, picking things up and taking them away; rocks, branches, sometimes even animals. Sometimes they took the trees away, by cutting them apart with long sticks and sharp shiny heads. Later, the men came back with things that roared and belched through the cool woods. It seemed that the whole wood would be taken. The insects, birds and spiders lost the dark holes, or warm nests they’d built, sometimes with their eggs still laying soft and warm in the small private places of the great dark wood. Of these events, the spider sang in her shivering voice.

 “Moth’s wings and thistledown.
Twigs and rocks and stones.
Beetles shells and river rocks,
These places are our homes

 And when the branch is broken
Or when the stone is turned
When the water runs no longer
Or when the woods are burned

 Then we will build our homes again
I spin my web from beginning to end
From the end to the beginning, I go back again.
From start to finish. There is no end.

“You must return to the place you were, even if it is no longer there,” She told the animals. “There will always be Somewhere.”

I returned to my tent that night and saw that the insect was gone. But a shadow along the board suggested a poised black body which was … still there. A small vibration seemed to shiver from the precise spot the insect had been; a finger of black shadow stretched along the length of the wooden beam, marking the spot where the spider had been resting. Why did you turn me out? The utter silence of the evening was absolute. But the question, a quivery whisper, echoed in my head.

 Why did you turn me out?

I felt many eyes on the back of my head as I turned over and down into sleep.

Pimoa cthulhu

The next morning, Nature flexed her muscles and showed me the strength of her persistence. I discovered a spider, a different species from the creature I banished, hanging in a crack above my head. This spider was immediately recognizable as such:  it had the classic arachnid profile of a stout-ish round body, again with those wicked, wicked legs ranged round it and the aura of quiet, menacing complacency that spiders at rest so often have. A black widow? I wondered and then rounded on myself sharply: what the fuck, Elizabeth? Why are you acting like this? Knock it off! Where was this fearful antagonism coming from? Was it real? Why did I feel compelled to act against beings that were no threat?

They weren’t a threat. I knew that: had the Buick-sized monster in my tent been a threat, the tent wouldn’t be there, or I wouldn’t, or the insect wouldn’t. The state of California likely would have posted signage, or the non-profit that ran the Mendocino Woodlands would have. Anyone who’s hiked or camped on California’s coast or in the mountains or along the foothills has seen all the warning signs: mountain lions here. Bears here. Guard your trash! Watch out for Scorpions. For rattlesnakes. (For toxic waste). Watch out for all the animals that creepeth and crawleth on this earth. (are we are all so tragically unreconciled to each other?) Ye shall know the animal by its picture on the warning sign. Anything that might harm us in California’s formalized recreational/rural/natural spaces tends to be acknowledged.

That’s the issue with healthy ecological spaces. They are inherently equal. We’re all in the same place at the same time with any numbers of different beings and any number of different outcomes. Usually, of course, it’s the animals that pay the price.

***

At lunch, I saw a man wearing a broad-brimmed ranger’s hat and uniform. He’ll know, I thought. He’ll tell me what that thing is. Curiosity had been working on me all morning; curiosity over what the insect was and curiosity over my own passive aggressive reaction. I made bold to walk over to the man.

“Excuse me,” I said. “There’s a large, leggy insect in my tent.” I sketched out the dimensions with my hands. “It’s freaking me out. It’s got a large structure on its abdomen. What is it?”

The man looked at me. “Oh, ya got one in your tent? That’s a spider. It’s an arachnid. We call ‘em cave spiders. They’re all over. She won’t hurt you,” he said and grinned. It was a female, he told me, and the large structure was an ovipositor. “The females carry their eggs with that, and drop ‘em down to hatch. It’s funny,” he said, warming to his story (he could see he had my full attention), “I’ve seen cave spiders hold onto their eggs longer than most. Usually spiders just drop their eggs, but the cave spider, I’ve seen her hold onto her egg, like she didn’t want to let go,” he said. “When they’re threatened, they lay a gazillion eggs- they just push ‘em out, even if they’re dying.”

Like she doesn’t want to let go, I heard the man say. She doesn’t, I thought. She has something to guard, to care for. She’s a Mother, the Great She, flushed out of her tent by fear.

***

It was no longer a question of what I had been thinking. I hadn’t been. I was just phobic, a pitiable state which feeds on a lack of knowledge. My champion, Curiosity, came charging to my rescue and, putting paid to feeble fear, directed me to right action: asking a simple question. What is it? And its equally simple answer (it is a female spider ) changed the world inside me. I changed my consciousness. This is what is meant by the saying. I had changed from fear to compassion because of a quick conversation that recast the unknown as something more known. And it changed me. This is how it works.

The best moment of near-instantaneous comprehension is the gape of one’s wide-open astonished mind and spirit (and sometimes, mouth). O, the simplicity of enlightenment, I thought. I am so happy to move from ignorance to comprehension. It really is a sublime feeling.

“Glad you asked,” said the man, wrapping up the conversation. “A lot of people don’t.”

Pimoa cthulhu

Later that evening, we walked into the woods for the first part of the last ritual of the retreat. The second part was to take place around the campfire. This part had been called A Wild Requiem, which, I thought, could mean so many things. Mournful chanting? Frenzied debauchery? Were we to act as crazed maenads, ripping meat apart with our teeth and hands? Was there a vegan option? Would we scream out animal sounds to the wild gods? (You see here how easy it is to summon the spirit of Lovecraft.)

Someone had been dispatched to build the fire; it was leaping by the time we got there and the heat was intense after the cool dampness of the woods. We were handed small instruments, rattles, maracas, drums. The drumming started. People began to sway back and forth, summoning their energy, wakening their bodies

Ah, shit. The wild requiem is a dance, I thought. They want me to dance. Why does it always have to be a dance? I hate dancing. The people moved hesitantly at first, pushing out from the shoals of self-consciousness, of weariness, pushing away the routinized movements of daily routines, long immiserating commutes, the dulling stupidity of the workday world. The flames gained strength. Slowly, slowly, the swaying people became dancers.

I sat wrapped in my energy which had become still, quiescent after the ritual. I liked it that way. The prospect of change (Again? my outraged consciousness yelled) seemed onerous; hard work for an uncertain outcome. Why change? I thought. I’m fine the way I am. Why do these people always want me to be ecstatic? All around me the dancers shook their instruments, leapt and yelped. The orange column of flame shot up into the night sky. I sat feeling mulish.

A Kentish man named Gwion, one of the dancers, came swooping past those of us who still sat stolid in our chairs, frozen at the prospect of change. He sailed swiftly over to me. With one fluid motion, he pulled me to my feet.

I saw the fire leap behind him and thought of something a teacher told me once: Elizabeth. Sometimes ya gotta dance with what brung ya.

And that was the last conscious thought I had for awhile.

***

Much later, I returned to my cabin. I shone my headlamp on the wooden beam. Two cave spiders, both female, were at rest. I took off my clothes and turned down and into sleep.

We were all very quiet that night.

Pimoa cthulhu

I spin my web from the beginning to end,
From the end to the beginning, I go back again.

This is the song the spider sings, I am convinced of it. There are likely more stanzas and many more stories, but I cannot recite all of them here. One thing, though, that I think She’d tell me, were I in the woodmoot, is this: If you inquire into the nature of a thing, your consciousness will change.

The spider is likely a species named Pimoa Cthulhu. I have tentatively identified it as such; its known habitat is restricted to the woodlands of Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

A note on the Spider’s song: The theology of Nature’s persistence and the possibility of eternal return does not work out so neatly in real life. If there is no water, a North American beaver (Castor Canadensis) cannot build a dam. That’s just reality. Other animals may come in its place and slowly, given the time, space and active support (meaning non-interference and respect) from homo sapiens, may build an entirely new ecology in which many animals, vertebrates and invertebrates relate to each other mutually, amensally or parasitically. Harm, help, or total neutrality: all of these are possible outcomes. But there are limits.

Finally: in the matter of the Great Cave Spider, I believe my consciousness had what it needed to shift because (of all things) a Star Trek episode entitled “Devil in the Dark”, which was written by the wonderful Gene L. Coon. In this episode, Spock telepathically communicates with a fearsome creature, the Horta, only to find out that it is a female— a mother— trying to protect her remaining clutch of eggs/children from the predations of miners who. Agonized at the loss of her brood, and a phaser wound, she cries out her anguish and anger into Spock’s porous and receptive mind. “PAIN. PAIN!” says Spock. It is a wonderful episode and should be required viewing for would-be ecologists.

(And I don’t hate dancing. I was just having a fit.)

 

San Francisco, November 20th, 2014

Dedicated to Flame, a Great She indeed, who tells most wonderful stories