Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Category: Wetlands

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.

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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

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.

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Chronicles of Ubo: Private Road, Newport Beach

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

 

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

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

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

Private Road, which is on a grade, curves up from Irvine Avenue, the long street that starts in the uplands and ends at the western bluffs of Ubo. Standing at the bottom of Private Road, you’re forced to look up, an aspirational gaze which tallies with the effort it would take to purchase a house there. The view is tantalizing. The street ends in the sky, making it look mythic, heaven-bound and unapproachable for those of us with no money.

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

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

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

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

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

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

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My friend’s mother had died of acute myeloid leukemia back in October, ten months before we set about laying her to rest. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She lived alone in McKinleyville, a small town 5 minutes north of Arcata named after the nation’s 25th President William McKinley. McKinleyville is not a good place: it seems to  be a small town filled with people who in my friend’s words “never smiled”. I saw a woman walking along a dirt road with a freshly blackened eye and a split lip which just deepened my dislike for the place. McKinleyville did not strike me as cheerfully disposed and seemed, in fact, to be a place that would worsen the condition of someone with mental illness.

“My mother used to sit in a room and talk to herself,” said my friend later. McKinleyville is the perfect place to do things like that. She had been estranged from my friend and I think most of the rest of her family. She could not get up the short flight of stairs one day; this is when she knew something was terribly wrong. She called a neighbor for help and was ultimately medi-vacced to Stanford hospital in Palo Alto where she died, in stubborn denial of the physical catastrophe that was rapidly sinking her ship.SAM_1068

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

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

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

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

SAM_1067

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I got distracted by the Himalayan blackberries bordering the path. They are a nuisance plant, and wildly invasive, but they do have large blackberries, which I began to pick. When I turned around she was opening the box. At her feet was a small pond, fed by the hydrological system but totally enclosed by reeds. Duckweed floated on the surface.

What took my breath away was not the shape but the color: mint, peridot, jade, leaf, lichen- every tint, color and hue of green was packed tightly into one small spot. Green, as a color, lives or dies according to the material it’s composed of. Cotton jersey, for instance, is not kind to green. It doesn’t distribute light at all, which is why green cotton always looks Gumby-green. Green needs light to animate it.

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

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

******

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From an interpretive sign at the marsh:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP, Catherine Anne Dinno.

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