Tag Archives: nature

In Praise of What’s Real

I noticed this morning that the top story on Medium is basically a poor man’s version of Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.” Thousands of people read this adaptation thinking it was a true story and a real person telling his thoughts as he acknowledged he was dying. It was just a 27 year old guy who may or may not have thought he was “being original” and who may or may not have realized he was paraphrasing a famous end of life message from a fully-realized person.

eastern sierras

So I went out yesterday on an adventure.

It was real.

Me, too.

amy january 2016 I’d rather have 5 people read my work for real than 500,000 read something I ripped off. I’d rather be me, than someone with tons of cosmetic surgery. If I am dying, I want to die at home with my family and friends.

If you are my friend, you are truly my friend. If you are my student, you are truly my student.

I wish for everyone to know who they really are, to be grateful for the immense gifts we are given each and every day of genuine life, of this beautiful world we live in, and of our true friends and those we love, and who love us.

Elephant Seals and the Circle of Life

At 7:00, I tell Bruce that if we want to see Big Sur, we had better get going. My plan is to drive north out of the fog and into the sun. We leave Moonstone Beach and about ten minutes later we have entered Hearst’s Maxfield Parrish fairy tale domain and I spot a sign that, for all my years in California, I had never noticed.

baby elephant sealIt’s the California Elephant Seal Rookery. “Should we stop?” I ask. I needn’t have, but we were just getting to know each other.

We walk toward the rocky, low beach. Below us is a small cove rough with black volcanic rocks circling smooth, tawny sand. Lying in the sand is a hideous, grunting, scarred behemoth. A 5,000 pound male elephant seal. His snorts and exhalations are gruesome yet wondrous.

The surf ebbs and flows, the water glittering bright green-blue in the early morning light. Out of the surf emerges a creature with a lovely face and large, soft brown eyes. This is followed by a sleek-furred, round body. She is the mate to the grunting, farting elephant-snouted monster breathing raggedly by the rocks at the edge of the cove.

Bruce looks at me and I at him. We’ve known couples like this. A beautiful delicate female mated to a brutish beast.

“It looks like he’s about to tell her, ‘bring me a sammich, bitch,'” I say.

Bruce agrees, and we start a tete-a-tete about this mismatched pair. The female elephant seal works her way slowly up the beach to the side of her massive mate, heaving her body from side to side in the wet sand. The word “rookery” echoes in my mind. I wonder if she’s pregnant, but I say nothing.

We decide to walk farther south down the boardwalk, and soon realize, this single pair is by far the outlier. On the beach are hundreds of elephant seals, from a distance appearing like gray and brown beach umbrellas scattered along the shore. Here and there are small dark forms squirming in the sand like tiny leeches: the pups.

Up close, the faces of the pups appear exactly like pit bull puppies. The females are a vast array of shapes, sea colors and sizes. Most of the males are scarred fur-covered torpedoes like the massive beast from the small cove.

We see just one other couple, a serious-appearing pair with a tripod and massive camera with a telephoto lens focused on the beach. We pass them and watch a large group of females and pups, with the males arrayed closer to us along the beach, sunning their vast bulk and lying in a row like hideous fat cigars.

At once, about twenty seagulls converge on the beach, shrieking and jabbing their wicked beaks at something. I think that perhaps one of the seals has some fish and they’re grabbing for it, but say nothing. It’s cool and Bruce has his hand around my waist, the newness of this a shivering pleasure.

The moment is snapped like celery by the sudden appearance of a fifty-five-ish blonde woman with a severe haircut, wearing khakis and a dorky blue windbreaker, who rises behind Bruce’s shoulder. “They’re after the afterbirth,” she says, grinning.

Bruce’s eyes flash, but he merely smiles.

“I’m a volunteer docent,” she says. “You’ve just witnessed something people come here for years to see. Usually they give birth at night.”

“Oh,” I say, “Wonderful.” Bruce’s eyes say something very different.

On the beach, the mother seal is circling her darling black pup desperately. I see a spot of blood on her flank, but no sign of afterbirth. A perfect sand circle has emerged and she’s energetically digging it deeper amid the flock of shrieking, fiendish gulls.

“They’ll peck at anything bright,” Volunteer Docent Woman says. “They want to peck the pup’s eyes. She’s protecting him.”

Her eyes shine like bright pale blue crazy pennies. I remember the mismatched couple from the cove we’d seen before, and tell her about them.

“Oh that cove floods. They can’t be there,” she said.

“Well, we did see them,” I say. She’s as certain of her facts as Dr. Quest in a Jonny Quest episode. She mutters a few more things, then directs her attention to the couple with the telephoto lens: they’re the experts. On the beach, the elephant seal mother continues to circle round her beautiful sleek black pup while the males grunt and fart in the sun.

As we continue down the boardwalk, we talk about Volunteer Docent. She had appeared out of nowhere, a frenetic jack-in-the-box stuffed with natural history and expertise, wedded not to human life, but to these massive animals by the shore.

Bruce says, “I thought she was going to demand that I leap down on the beach and bag and tag the afterbirth.”

I laugh.

“She liked you better than me,” he says. Likely; however the seals, she liked best of all and moreso, perhaps a massive orca waited offshore to take her true love.

We get back in the Jeep and head up the coast to Big Sur. While we sun ourselves on a high patio overlooking God’s country, a burned-out hippie asks Bruce, who is wearing a Longhorns t-shirt, “Are you from Texas?”

Of course he is. Philly, Texas.

In quiet moments, I remember the exquisite face of the female elephant seal, about to give birth. She’s far too lovely to bring that monster a sammich.

What to Do With That Giant Bag of Greens?

You’re at the market and you think, “That looks healthy!” but the bag is so huge!

Earthbound Farms Organic Deep Green Blends

Earthbound Farms Organic Deep Green Blends

Indeed, it is huge. The largest triple-washed bag of organic goodness from Earthbound Farm weighs in at one pound.

Remember when you were a kid, and eating plain spinach was “eeewwww!”

No longer … there’s a big difference between old-fashioned cooked-to-death spinach and delicious baby greens. Earthbound Farm sells several different green mixes that are good for salads and cooking. The Power Mix has baby kale, chard and spinach. Between baby and big kale, there’s quite the difference as well. Baby kale is tender … grown-up kale? Not so much.

Using half the bag (1/2 pound) for simple sauteed greens will serve two healthy green-eating adults. For four servings, double the recipe.

Sauteed Power Greens

  • 1/2 pound Deep Green Blend Organic Power Greens (baby kale, chard, spinach)
  • 2 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 3 cloves garlic – minced
  • 1/4 white or yellow onion, chopped fine
  • Sea salt and fresh pepper to taste

Mince the garlic and chop the onion. Set aside. In a large, heavy covered pot (I use my Mexican rice cooker – this would also work in a dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot with secure lid), heat the olive oil. Put onion in and saute until softened (only a couple of minutes). Add the garlic, saute a few seconds to mix.

Dump in the greens, straight out of the bag. Saute briefly in the olive oil. Cover with lid for 1-2 minutes. Lift the lid and continue to saute until greens are the desired degree of softened to your taste. The giant amount of greens will miraculously shrink to two serving-size. Salt and pepper at the end, also to your taste. Different flavors of salt and pepper will add interest (lemon, garlic, etc).

sauteed power greens

 

Super easy, super tasty, super healthy. And voila! The greens are eaten and won’t spoil.

 

I’ll Teach You Your Animals (Sequoia National Forest)

bear at sequoia national park          It’s early in the Sierra foothills, with a pale sun blinking over tall ragged hills. Three Rivers is a tiny town strung along the Kaweah River. In any other place this would be a stream or a creek, but in dry California it’s a raging river.

Bruce and I pull into a two-pump Chevron station. My window is rolled down and the chill damp raises goose pimples all along my arms. A rangy black and white cat emerges from the station yard and calls out a greeting.

As we get out of the Jeep, Bruce says, “Big Tommy likes you.”

Big Tommy does indeed. I kneel and he immediately approaches, rubbing his cheek on my calves and ankles. I pet his hard black head as he purrs and my hand comes away greasy. He has white socks and a white tuxedo chest, but these are not white I see up close. They are the same color as the early morning clouds over the river.

“He’s greasy as hell,” I say.

“He’s been out all night,” Bruce says. “He’s got a lot of business to do.”

“He’s got girls up and down the river,” I say. “Caught a fish last night.”

“He’s running numbers,” says Bruce.

Big Tommy does have a rakish look. His green-gold eyes are narrow and cockeyed. I scratch his greasy head a few more times and we get back in the Jeep. On the way out, I see his lair – stack after stack of used tires back of the station. Big Tommy sleeps in oil and tire dust. The fishes sleep with him.

On the way up to the giant forest Bruce spins yarns about Big Tommy. His cousin is Big Ollie, the crime boss. Ollie’s vice isn’t girls, it’s food. They’ve corrupted Gambit, the sweet young dog. Now he’s their wheel man. Soon, they’ll introduce him to the numbers trade and girls and dope.

The gray ribbon of pavement winds up and up through thick, impossibly beautiful forest. Amid the pines are slender red trunks of young sequoias. Two or three are giants, burned deep at the roots, still growing outward and upward, miraculous survivors. The sun is a bit higher now, but the cold morning air knifes through me. My heart is tapping steadily inside, faster and faster.

We round a curve and in front of us is a young bear, ambling across the road. His fur is thick and black, sunlight glinting off his back and shoulders. He looks straight at us with his shiny black eyes as if to say, “What are you going to do about it?” and continues to the turnout on the opposite side of the road. We watch for a few moments. The Mini Cooper behind us stays longer. We continue on.

At this hour, the prime parking spot at the forest museum is easily gotten. I get Bruce’s poles out and my tool. With little discussion we set out on the Moro Rock trail. My memory says it’s a two-mile hike to the rock, but of course I’m not sure.

It’s a classic scout-type trail, well-cleared and easy, a narrow path of soft red earth and sand cushioned by decaying pine needles. The giants are scattered within the pines. At our feet are tiny, perfect flowers, pink and white.

We have gone no more than ten minutes when I sense something and turn.

“Whitetail,” I say – wrong.

It’s a heavy muledeer buck chasing a doe not ten feet from us, strong hooves pounding the forest earth, raising small clouds of dust.

“There’s something up ahead,” I say. Bruce’s green eyes flash.

general sherman          The forest deepens. I pick some miner’s lettuce and give a piece to Bruce. He’s no longer innocently trusting of things I might put in his mouth and I see the doubt in his eyes. But this is not bad, just a leaf with a slight crunch and lemony tang. Oh to be such an authority, able to survive at least two or three days in the wild.

The trail turns and rises ahead. Atop the rise are a lovely doe and delicate fawn. The doe is feeding in the grass beside the trail. The fawn looks expectantly at us, then back to its mother.

My heart stops. I raise my hand. Bruce stops and steps quietly beside me. We watch the pair for a few moments. They pass along and we continue. I want to tell him how this made me feel, that he knew exactly what I was doing and what was happening without words. But of course I haven’t the right words to say.

Beside us, a hillock rises, with patches of smooth granite between the trees. This may be too high for the giant trees; there are only pines and cedar on this side of the trail. We climb upward, up onto the rocks.

We stand in the sun, the only place there is warmth at this early time. All around are the smells of the forest. The loamy earth, pine sap and red-furred big trees. Big flat gray-white granite rocks dusted with lichen and pine needles.

His arm slips around my waist. His lips find mine. Time stops. I cannot feel my pack, my boots, none of it. It is just the sun’s warmth, the earth turning beneath our feet, his lips on mine, my hands on his strong back, his strong hands supporting me.

We part. His eyes are warm and brown and green, flashing in the sun.

There is a near-black suncast shadow against the broad gray rock. It is an outline of passion, searing and perfect.

Then comes the feeling again, as when the buck was chasing the doe. Steps behind his shoulder. We both turn, and a doe is stepping toward us, her eyes soft and curious. She stops no more than three yards away. Our eyes meet hers. Her body is strong and elegant, long neck curved, sleek legs cream and brown and white.

Afterward, we continue on and the forest deepens again. Because we have kissed, we are less observant. A young Marine passes us and asks if we saw the bear sleeping on the rock. No – we hadn’t. We double back and I try to get a picture. Another bear of about the same size as the one we’d seen crossing the road is sunning himself on a small boulder in the shadow of the pines, sleeping and stretching.

We go farther, winding through thick glades of fern and pine and sequoia, interspersed with small alpine meadows. Then I hear a sound like a tree falling.

It’s no tree – it’s Bruce, complete with bloody nose and cut lip. The Marine returns and asks if we need help. No – I’ve got my pack.

This is poetic justice of a sort, as I had tripped and fallen on my face two nights before, chasing Big Ollie the crime boss. So now we have matching swollen noses and fat lips.

We reach Moro Rock and climb halfway up the stairs, far enough to stand at the edge and look across to the edge of the world and the great Western Divide. It takes our breath.

“You were looking at my ass when you fell,” I say.

Bruce admits this is true.

“Let that be a lesson to you,” I want to say. But I do not. He has suffered enough for his transgressions. There isn’t even any water in the bathrooms, and the drinking fountain is dry. We must ride all the way back to the forest museum to deal with the blood and dirt.

We see many more things that day. On another bus, the others are crying out because there is a doe in the forest near the road.

I smile over at Bruce. His dimple is very deep.

Oh, the places we’ve been. The things we’ve seen.

God is talking.

I hear, but his words are to me, unsayable. At least, just yet.

We have stripped ourselves bare and with silent minds listened at His breathing place, felt His presence and seen His face. Heard his eternal voice and know.

The first name of an animal is us.

This is About Natural History

anza borregoWe drive over the mountains through manzanita and scrub brush. Soon the land turns to hard Mojave, with scattered cholla and endless sand and the painted badlands wrinkled like an old seaman’s weathered face. A few miles on a narrow, state-maintained road winding through red and brown shattered volcanic cliffs, and we enter the hamlet of Borrego Springs. In this desert town, everyone has an ample yard filled with small white stones, sand, cactuses, and for the extravagant, palm trees and a chain-link fence.

After more driving we are finally at the state park at the foot of the mountains. These appear tall because they are so rugged, but in reality, they are not very tall. Indian Head peak is less than 4,000 feet in height though it towers above the low, sloping valley with the visitor center and the campground.

We park and are grateful for the water and shade of the buildings, though it is only March and nothing like the heat that comes to this place in high summer. The visitor center grounds have been manicured into a Disney desert, with examples of desert plants carefully arranged. Smoke trees, tall ocotillo and cactus. The small cactus that grows like crooked thumbs and fingers I had always thought was all the same, called cholla. There are many types of cholla marked by the gravel trail, including one with fatter fingers than usual called Teddy Bear cholla. A massive barrel cactus taller than a man stands near the entrance to the low-slung visitor center. It is proudly phallic, bending slightly to the left, the top ringed with reddish thorns.

This handsome building does not change. It is exactly as I remember it. The bronze doors have handles worked in the shape of bighorn sheep antlers, which are the namesakes of this place. In Spanish, borrego means bighorn sheep. They are beautiful animals but we will not see living ones today. They are wise to live in the mountains and do not come down on the flats.

I am excited to see the pupfish, which I remember as swimming happily in a small, reedy pool.

The pool is still there, but it has changed. Now it is brackish and filled with thick mats of ghostly gray algae and foamy yellow scum. Hordes of fat bees buzz about the fetid pool; where there are no bees, there are tadpoles and flies. The pupfish are invisible. They are either dead or hiding from the bees.

“Poor pupfish,” Bruce says. “I feel sorry for them. They have to hide or the bees will sting them.”

We sit for a time on a bench overlooking the valley. In the distance, some 30 miles, are the Laguna Mountains. It is so clear they appear much closer. Farther still are the much higher peaks of the Santa Rosa mountains near Palm Springs. This bench is sturdy and well-made. It has been donated to the center in memory of a handsome couple dressed in 40’s clothing, smiling out at the camera.

Behind us, people from the Nature Center are laying out a desert feast. We are sheltered beneath a paloverde. Somewhere in the tree or ground below is a dove which cries and moans like a grieving woman – a mourning dove. I look for it, but cannot see it.

We kiss as the dove cries.

After a while, we go into the Nature Center, and squeeze between narrow, lumpy concrete walls made to duplicate a box canyon in the badlands. After displays of fossils and geology and a massive plaster tortoise shell which strikes me as ideal to ride, though it’s clearly indicated as a “fossil,” we come to a display of stuffed desert animals. There’s a handsome, long-legged jackrabbit and a delicate little kit fox with a fluffy, ringed tail. A mother, father and baby bighorn sheep are the center of the display.

A small, loud boy with a black walking stick taller than himself approaches, leaning on the rail that protects the display. His father stumbles behind him, arriving just in time for the boy to announce, “Are these extinct animals?”

The father mumbles something about them being real animals. Bruce’s eyes flash with humor.

The boy says, “Are these animals dead?” He is braying with stone-cold certainty that he knows all there is to know or ever will be.

The boy’s younger brother arrives with a similar large walking stick. He mimics his brother’s manner but clearly cannot compete in this sweepstakes for the depths of vacuity and ill manners. The father, dressed in vintage Sears Nerd, seems helpless as the two jostle madly back and forth for the best position overlooking the small display.

“See those sticks?” I say quietly to Bruce, looking toward the boys. “I’ll use them on them.” His eyes twinkle.

The center is closing and the elderly volunteer must release us with the handicapped button which opens the beautifully-cast bighorn sheep doors. We are outside only moments when the idiot boys and their father exit.

“Give me that fuckin’ stick,” Bruce says in his low Philly accent. “I’ll show you your animals.”

The boys do not hear; despite being about ten and seven years of age, it’s doubtful either has heard much besides television or video games for their entire lives.

But the father does hear. His eyes widen behind his thick-framed glasses.

“Haven’t you ever seen a fuckin’ stuffed animal?” Bruce continues. “It’s a fuckin’ stuffed animal.” His voice lowers still. “Are they alive or dead,” he adds in lazy contempt.

We know the father can hear, but he needs to hear. His children are monsters in training, soon to be extinct.

This is a stark, beautiful, hard country. We drive away to the village of the mad at the shores of the brackish Salton Sea, where nothing can live. It is not hot but the air presses down on us. We are traveling along the small of the world’s back, which feels as though it bears all of its weight, tired, ancient and brutal.

Yet even in this place, there is life, burrowing under the desert sand, nestled in a paloverde, driving in a Jeep. Like the blind, buzzing bees besetting the poor pupfish, these monstrous boys will rampage on.

If things were otherwise, I think, as we drive along the gray ribbon of desert road. If things were otherwise, I would have put a bit of the stick about and made them jump like kangaroo rats on hot rocks in August.