Field notes: rain and the coming of spring

The promise of spring. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler.

Three times in the night I woke to the sound of driving rain: hard and loud on the rooftop. Now with the first light of morning I see the dark gray clouds of the cold front streak across the sky moving southeast.  Some of the apple-blossoms on the tree outside my window did not survive the night, but most held on, somehow. I was worried. January has been glorious in Santa Cruz, teasing us with warm days, glorious sunlight and little rain; gone were the drenching storms that defined California’s December.

The fruit trees have responded to the spring-like days, colors of white and pink delicately dancing in the breeze; there is always that fear that blossoms will open too early and a hard rain will end their story before it begins. Difficult to imagine a spring without ripening fruit and the canning that gives us apricot, peach and plum preserves – the taste of summer in winter. We are approaching Imbolc, the cross-quarter days when the sun in its celestial travels is midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox; in the Northern Hemisphere the sun in its journey has reached the precise point of fifteen degrees in the constellation of Aquarius. Occurring between February 2 – 7 on our Gregorian calendar, it is the middle of astronomical winter, and the beginning of spring.  It is a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring; known as the Festival of St. Brigid in Ireland, we know it as Groundhog Day, the day the groundhog emerges from its burrow to signify that winter will soon end.  But thankfully winter seeks to stay awhile yet, and truthfully we are not ready to say goodbye to the rain and snow either. If we are lucky our fruit trees will sleep a little longer before awakening to their life purpose. Pacific storms – bringing rain to the coast and Central Valley and the resulting snowpack and snowmelt in the Sierra-Nevada mountains – bring life to all of the inhabitants of California: you, me, fruit trees and Salmon.

In the late 17th century, the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho – the great haiku master – wrote “each day is a journey, and the journey itself home.”  During his life Basho made many pilgrimages throughout Japan with only a knapsack and writing implements, determined to become a hyohaksua “one who moves without direction.” On his last pilgrimage in 1689, Basho travelled through the villages and mountains north of Edo (today’s Tokyo) and along the shores of the Sea of Japan.  During his journey he wrote his masterpiece the Narrow Road to the Interior which features verse and haiku including this one describing the first signs of spring:

Kesa no yuki

nebuka o sono no

shiori kana


After morning snow

onion shoots rise in the garden

like little signposts

Field notes: rain and watersheds

Salmon returning to Redwood Creek. Created by Robin L. Chandler. Copyright 2010 National Park Service.

In early January 2011, we participated in what is becoming a beloved annual ritual: naturalist guided creek walks in the Lagunitas watershed seeking glimpses of Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout who have come home to spawn.  The Marin County based Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN) is committed to restoring habitat, building community partnerships, and passing legislation supporting the survival of endangered Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout in California and the Pacific Basin. Thankfully SPAWN is not alone; all along the Northern California coast educational, research and non-profit organizations are engaged in activities to save endangered fish species. In Marin county, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy is engaged in restoring salmon habitat along Redwood Creek and the river’s mouth at Muir Beach. While in Santa Cruz, increasing numbers of steelhead smolts are making their way along the San Lorenzo River back to the sea. Scientists attribute these rising numbers of Steelhead to increased rainfall and the efforts of citizens to reduce urban runoff and improve habitat.  These inroads are so important because some efforts in Southern California are foundering; recently the California Coastal Conservancy’s was forced to abandon’s its work to restore the Steelhead to San Mateo Creek in San Diego County.

For the past few years, we have been blessed with observing a pair or two of Salmon – their bodies touched with crimson – swimming upstream and building nests — called Redds – in preparation for laying eggs. But seeing these beautiful creatures is a rarity. Typically annual counts on the Lagunitas and San Geronimo creeks number only in the 60s.  Writing about Steelhead in The Sespe Wild, Bradley John Monsma described California a few centuries ago when “thousands of fish, fattened from the ocean, pool near the mouths of rivers…before dashing upstream to gravel spawning beds in the mountains.” Rain and healthy watersheds are essential for the survival of Salmon and Steelhead; rain provides easy passage for the journey upstream to lay eggs, and give birth to fry. Rain emboldens rivers and creeks to break the sand barriers to the sea permitting smolt to begin the ocean phase of their life.

People make a huge difference in building healthy watersheds. We need to care, we need to understand that our lives are better because these animals are part of our world. We need to grasp that we are living in a biodiversity crisis that can only be resolved by our understanding the power of our different interdependent lives.  Monsma quoting the human ecologist Paul Shepard writes “with the loss of species, we may be losing something essential to our humanity. It may be that we can approach the depth of ourselves only in relation to a diverse and healthy ecosystem” suggesting that mature societies are those that are “characterized by a view broad and forgiving involving a sense of the larger gift of life, a realistic sense of the self and other, a sense of the talents of generosity and circumspection.”

part of something greater

Between the Dark and the Light. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler

The Rabbi’s words from Psalm 23 hang in the stillness of the First Congregational Church.  Her clear strong soprano sings “yeah that I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.”  Some two hundred voices join her singing the prayer; my voice cracks a little, overcome with feelings I didn’t realize were buried.  On January 13, I attended the “American Unity Town Hall” in Santa Cruz hosted by the Honorable Sam Farr seventeen term Member of Congress from 17th Congressional District of California.  The church’s pastor opened the meeting with the words “I need to be with a group of people tonight for healing and growth.”  Congressman Farr followed reflecting on Congresswoman Gabriele Giffords “for all the wrong reasons, the world is now aware of how special you are” and “our children are being raised on hate talk…..a democracy based on negative talk cannot survive.”

A community gathered that night in an ecumenical setting to seek meaning from tragedy and reaffirm belief in our republic’s democratic process.  Wendell Berry wrote in The Way of Ignorance “our religious principles are justice, mercy, peaceableness, and loving kindness toward fellow humans and the gifts of nature, as our political principles are freedom confirmed in law, honesty, and public accountability.  These are not the principles of a party. These are our free inheritance as human beings and citizens living under the Constitution of the United States.”

The senseless shooting of Congreswoman Giffords and the deaths of six others in Tucson are a tragedy;  the impact of that moment resonates in Santa Cruz in many ways.  We lost Gabe Zimmerman, Director of Community Outreach for Congresswoman Giffords; he was a University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) 2002 graduate in Sociology.  UCSC Professor Paul Lubek said “Gabe fulfilled the ideals of the University….he engaged in public service to perform social justice.” A few days after we absorbed the events in Tucson,  campus administration announced the threat of a possible active shooter at UCSC on January 18.  Living with guns and acquiring the skills to survive an active shooter attack are sadly becoming the norm, and I ask: was this the intended outcome of our Constitution’s Second Amendment the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed?  Sometimes it feels like Frederick Jackson Turner ‘s historical thesis has been revised:  the American Frontier was closed, but now it’s officially reopened! Life is mimicking the final scenes from Gunfight at the OK Corralthe great vendetta myth of the American West. Yeah, that was in Tombstone….Arizona. Irony or foreshadowing?

In the last week my healing has begun, but as January – the gateway to the new year —  closes I wonder what the rest of the year will bring.  Ever hopeful, I walk through the doorway inspired to climb the mountains ahead and committed to being a better listener  and more attuned to sufferings around me.  Speaking at the Memorial Service in Tucson, President Obama quoted from the Book of Job “I looked for light and found darkness” and he asked us all  “to expand our moral imaginations” and “to talk with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” Because “how we treat one another is entirely up to us” and  “the forces that divide us are not as strong as the forces that unite us.”  And in his State of the Union address, he said “amid all the noise and passion and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we came from, each of us is part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference…..we are still bound together as a people [and] what we can do  – what America does better than anyone else – is spark the creativity and imagination of our people…..we do big things.” We can climb the mountains ahead of us.

The Jewel of Turtle Island – Part Two

Another winter day at Lake Merritt. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

Last week we began the new chapter in our community history, Jean Quan was inaugurated as the first Asian and first woman Mayor of Oakland!  Quan brings over twenty years of experience on Oakland’s School Boards and City Council as well as the strong belief that communities and neighborhoods can work together to face the city’s challenges.  We find ourselves in challenging economic times: a deep gap exists between our expectations of government and society and the funding resources to realize these expectations.   We face tough choices in the years ahead, but we must trust and work together as a community to find the right balance. With the shooting of U.S. Congressman Gabrielle Giffords yesterday in Arizona, our society has received a startling wake-up call, and the dawn appears bleak, fueling trepidation about our abilities to discuss painful choices and work together to bring about non-violent change.  We must continue to engage each other in civil discourse to resolve our societal challenges. Our rallying cry will be a recommitment to our community, to our Turtle Island, because the alternative would be a geography of no-hope, and that simply is not an option.

Gary Snyder wrote in his book A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics and Watersheds “Bioregionalism calls for commitment to this continent place by place in terms of biographical regions and watersheds.  It calls us to see our country in terms of its landforms, plant life, weather patterns, and seasonal changes….before the net of political jurisdictions was cast over it….it doesn’t mean some return to a primitive lifestyle or utopian provincialism; it simply implies an engagement with community…..some of the best bioregional work is being done in cities as people try to restore both human and ecological neighborhoods……such people are becoming natives of Turtle Island.”

The Jewel of Turtle Island – Part One

Winter day at Lake Merritt. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

Glen Echo Creek flows through Oakland’s Rockridge and Piedmont neighborhoods meandering from the East Bay Hills into Lake Merritt.  We first discovered this creek on a December Sunday afternoon after an IPA and a good game of scrabble at Catos our local pub. Glen Echo Creek daylights briefly paralleling Broadway and Piedmont for a mile before being channeled through underground culverts resurfacing to flow into Lake Merritt near the Veterans Memorial Building on Grand Avenue.   Walking home we traced the creek’s path and final destination, enjoying the reflection of Oakland’s twilight skyline and the “necklace of lights” in the water.   It was beautiful.

Walking on this cold January morning, the fresh water creeks and salty tidal flow create a flux where brown pelicans, snowy egrets, herons and cormorants seek fish and seagulls dive for mussels amongst the creek and sewer runoff, and stream of trash – a beer can, a plastic water bottle, a tennis shoe, a Christmas wreath, oil residue and the carcass of a possum – deposited after the heavy rains of December. Passing a homeless gentleman just beginning his day’s journey, I imagine this space two centuries ago when coho salmon and steelhead trout entered the estuary on their journey to spawn in one of the watershed’s four creeks** then sheltered among the redwood trees but now largely hidden, paved over with asphalt.

Ishmael Reed in his book Blues City: A Walk in Oakland describes Lake Merritt as the “largest saltwater lake in the United States….and before it was dammed it was part of the larger San Francisco Bay.”  In his discussions with Malcolm Margolin author of The  Ohlone Way and with naturalist and historian Stephanie Benevides, Reed learned the lake was originally an estuary and part of one of the largest marshlands on the Pacific Coast, a major stop of the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds coming south from Canada and Alaska for the winter. The marshlands were part of the larger ecosystem of grasslands and oak trees rising to hillsides with crevices cradling creeks and redwood trees.  Wildlife included grizzly bears, mountain lions, condors, bald eagles, deer and wolves.  In 1869, Dr. Samuel Merritt worked with the California State Legislature to make Lake Merritt the first wildlife refuge in North America.

Many an early morning, I have circumnavigated this body of water andcontemplated what an amalgam the estuary is and how this mixture serves as a metaphor for the City of Oakland.   Literally the lake is a mixture of fresh and salt water, their balances dictated by tidal influx and watershed creek runoff; and it is an urban park which merges the sublime natural beauty of  migrating winter birds, such as canvasbacks, goldeneyes and scaups, with the urban discharge of trash and waste.   Figuratively, Oakland’s jewel is a dynamic public space – a cultural estuary – where mingle peoples of many cultures, races, creeds, gender identity and sexual preference: rich and poor, young and old, the fortunate and desperate, those with homes and those heartbreakingly homeless.  They come seeking a safe harbor in which to play, exercise, rest, and draw inspiration from the tranquil beauty of the lake and its surroundings.   As Wallace Stegner wrote in his Wilderness Letter “we simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.  For it can be a means of measuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope. “  Lake Merritt is Oakland’s geography of hope.

In November 2002, more than  80 % of Oakland voters passed measure DD, a $ 198.25 million bond measure to improve and restore Lake Merritt including reducing traffic, improving pedestrian and bicycle access to the park, renovating historic buildings such as the Boat House, landscaping and improving water quality through the upgrading of creek culverts and opening of the channel to the Oakland estuary.  Work has been proceeding the last several years, and we are benefitting from the fruits of these labors. New life is breathing into the lake and it’s surroundings.    But the story doesn’t end with the completion of the project — it is just the beginning of a new chapter of our community responsibility for this jewel of Turtle Island.

*for many months this homeless gentleman employed a car battery to power his television and a hotplate, setting-up camp near the Alameda County Courthouse

**the four creeks are Glen Echo, Pleasant Valley, Trestle Glen and Park Boulevard

puede ir más allá en el año nuevo

May you go Furthur in the New Year. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler

Thirty minutes after the doors opened, I walk off BART and onto the dance floor of the Bill Graham Auditorium, the party in full swing.  Cannabis clouds envelope me, crowds of swirling dervishes surround me, the lights paint me surreally and the band welcomes me, the words of an Estimated Prophet hang in the air “I’m in no hurry, no no no. I know where to go….California, preaching on the burning shore…..California, I’ll be knocking on the golden door… an angel, standing in a shaft of light. Rising up to paradise, I know I’m gonna shine.”  Synchronicity.  I am here.

Hours before I’d burned the two thousand miles from Austin to San Francisco; a western pilgrimage branded by rain, snow and wind. Somehow synched, the band breaks into Cold Rain and Snow “run me out in the cold rain and snow….and I’m going where those chilly winds don’t blow.“   Our road home through Abilene, San Angelo, Midlands, Van Horn, El Paso, Lordsburg, Tucson, Blythe and Los Angeles shared most of the 2,765-mile route of the Butterfield Overland Mail Trail.  The stagecoach operated from 1857- 1861 traversing the Great Plains, the Sonoran Desert and the San Joaquin Valley connecting St. Louis to San Francisco.  Evidence of ruts left by Butterfield stagecoach wheels, formed more than one hundred and fifty years ago, remains visible to hikers in the Anza Borrego Desert (East of San Diego).  Sobering is the power of mankind to create lasting change, or in the desert wilderness, permanent damage.  Leave no trace.  Good advice in the wilderness, but judging from the energy around me, the Grateful Dead left an important lasting impression.

The band breaks into Tennessee Jed singing “there ain’t no place I’d rather be, baby won’t you carry me.”  My mind flashes back to John Ford’s masterpiece Stagecoach the first film with a soundtrack scored entirely on American folksongs combining traditional Texas and  ballads, Stephen Foster compositions, hymns, tin-pan alley tunes and minstrel songs. Stagecoach’s theme contain the lyrics “O bury me not on the lone prairie…..
Where coyotes howl and the wind blows free…..By my father’s grave, there let me be….
O bury me not on the lone prairie.”  Roots of the Dead.  Synchronicity yet again.  
As if a messenger sent, my dear friend  emerges from the seven-thousand year-end revelers while the band sings Scarlett Begonias “once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if you look at it right.”  Synched once more.  My friend leans over and whispers “the jam builds with Phil and Bobby at the core, the keyboard and lead guitar forming the outer rings of sound….all echoed in the movements of the dancers.”   May we all be blessed in this New Year with such joyous synchronicity.