The Great Wave

On Labor Day I kayaked on Tomales Bay.  2PM and it was high tide when I launched near the town of Marshall and the wind was dancing across the water leaving whitecaps in its wake. It was the first time I would be taking my new single kayak on the water. Wave and I have safely captained a two-person kayack on many trips on Tomales Bay  where the center of gravity is low and the craft moves very deliberately through water.  In my watercolors, I’ve documented kayackers  in singles paddling across this water and now it would be my turn.  Wave ably helped me launch the craft, and just after my paddle cut through the water,  I heard a voice from the shore  asking if I had a plan should I capsize out on the Bay. Well, the truth was, no, I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t think I needed a plan. I felt I had the experience to handle any situation that might come up. I just wanted to get out and enjoy the last few hours of sunshine on a laborless day.

Kayaking near Hog Island, Tomales Bay
Kayaking near Hog Island, Tomales Bay. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

I was eager to feel  the joy of moving across the water, and  have the wind and spray on my face and see the sun dappling the water. I imagined the feel of my arms working hard to create forward movement against the wind blown waves breaking across the bow. I imagined the moment, when one turns and  with the wind at your back, experience the joy of being rocked forward momentarily airborne on the back of a breaking wave. But the voice spoke a truth that suggested listening.  One of the staff for onsite operations  for Blue Water kayaks on Tomales Bay took a few minutes out of her busy life and reviewed  with me how to manage the unimaginable. A little later I was on the water and the wind was strong and the waves presented a fun challenge. I was deeply grateful that a person previously unknown to me spontaneously showed concern, and I was able to hear the truth of the concern, put my eagerness in check and gently accept the gift.

Later that day driving home, I thought of learning life lessons aknew. While one gleans much knowledge over the years, one must embrace daily life with the openness of a beginner. Christopher Benfey in his book The Great Wave describes an essay by Shuzo Kuki called “Considerations on Time.” Written in 1928, the essay describes two Japanese responses to the theme “man and time.” These are the  Buddhist annihilation of the will, i.e. extinction of desire,  and the Samurai’s bushido, i.e.  affirmation of the will. Kuki saw the myth of Sisyphus as the very embodiment of the moral ideal of bushido. “Sisyphus rolls a rock almost to the summit of a hill, only to see it tumble back down again. And he is, thus, set to perpetually beginning anew. Is there misfortune, is there punishment in this fact?….Everything depends of the subjective attitude of Sisyphus. His good will, a will firm and sure in ever beginning anew, in ever rolling the rock, finds in this very repetition an entire system of morals and consequently, all is happiness…..he is a man impassioned by moral sentiment…..he is not in hell, he is in heaven.” Camus, describing Sisyphus, would write some years later “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

Toeing potshards

Monument Valley. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

In the late Spring, when we vacationed on the Colorado Plateau, I discovered a book by Patricia Limerick called Desert Passages.  Dr. Limerick describes the American encounter with deserts in terms of three attitudes towards nature “as a biological reality in human life…hunger, thirst, injury, disease and death….as an economic resource…a container of treasures awaiting extraction…or as an aesthetic spectacle. “  We affectionately called our trip the archaeology tour as we visited the ruins of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples at Wupatki, Monument  Valley, Mesa Verde, and Canyon de Chelly. Wave and I spent many hours at the ruins in quiet meditation while I attempted to capture the  essence of these amazing cultural resources on watercolor paper.

White House ruin, Canyon de Chelly
White House ruin, Canyon de Chelly. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

One of the great mysteries is what happened to the ancient peoples?  Archaeological evidence reveals that sometime in the late 13th century these peoples abandoned their homes amongst the mesas and canyon walls and it is theorized that environmental changes —  possibly extreme drought — caused these peoples to abandon their homes.  One feels a certain twinge given the current state of  drought in San Diego, Los Angeles and the rest of California, and of course the fire still burning in the San Gabriel mountains.   It is believed that they left the Colorado Plateau and migrated to join other pueblos along the Rio Grande river in New Mexico.   How would we best characterize the Ancient Pueblo peoples encounters with the desert?  As a biological reality?  Probably yes.  As an economic resource?  Probably yes.  As an aesthetic spectacle?  Probably yes.  We  preserve the artifacts they left us and look for answers in the patterns as we piece the pot shards together.   Ann Weiler Walka’s poem  “Other Dreams: Grand Gulch”  in Waterlines: Journeys on a Desert River gives us something to ponder.  “My thumb polishes the fragment of a bowl, its shallow curve delicately cross hatched with black…some woman dug this clay from a slip of mud…she kneaded the clay with sand and spun a ball into coils….she painted the bowl with a yucca leaf…and dreamed the design from her fingers…she blessed the bowl…that night in her sleep she saw clouds piling over a mesa, spirits coming home. She dreamed of the clay along the creek cool and slippery as a freshly opened heart.”

Smokey the Bear

When I moved to San Diego last year, I did two wonderful things. First I joined the Sierra Club San Diego Chapter and enrolled in the Wilderness Basics Course.  Second I started hiking with my brother-in-law Doug. We chose hikes in the San Bernadino and San Gabriel mountains because of their proximity to Doug’s home and since I had spent thirty some years in Northern California any trail in Southern California would be an adventure for me. Our first explorations in the San Bernadinos included a hike through Jeffrey Pines on the snow covered Siberia Creek Trail, documented in this watercolor,

Hiking on the Siberia Creek trail
Hiking on the Siberia Creek trail. Copyright 2008 Robin L. Chandler

and a trek to the Pacific Coast Trail where it brushes by Big Bear Lake.   Our final adventure of last year was in the San Gabriels  hiking  Mt. San Antonio (known affectionately as Old Baldy) with my friend Dan.   Baldy is some twenty-two miles to the east of Mt. Wilson and Big Tujunga Canyon where the fires continue to burn now in their sixth day.  I keep thinking about those mountains — a challenge for  the north-south driver — but also a strong range charged with protecting the Los Angeles basin from the harsh temperatures of the Mojave desert and capturing moisture during the winter for the times of drought.   I keep thinking about the wildlife and people uprooted by such a massive fire and the lives lost, some heroically and others needlessly.  This evening I opened Gary Snyder’s essays Back on the Fire and thumbed to the “Regarding the Smokey the Bear Sutra” and this brief excerpt reads “a handsome smokey-colored brown bear standing on his hind legs showing that he is aroused and watchful, bearing in his right paw the Shovel that digs to the truth beneath appearances….his left paw in the Mudra of Comradely Display  indicating that all creatures have the full right to live to their limits…wearing the blue work overalls symbolic of slaves and laborers, the countless men oppressed by a civilization that claims to save but only destroys…wearing the broad-brimmed hat of the West, symbolic of the forces that guard the Wilderness….round-bellied to show his kind nature and that the great Earth has food enough for everyone who loves her and trusts her….”  Thank you Smokey.

On the fireline

Sunday afternoon I swam on campus at the Canyonview pool. The cool water was delicious as I did my laps, a good way to exercise on a hot day! Built on a mesa, the pool provides a great view down the canyon to the northeastern section of San Diego County.  On a typical Summer’s day the view from this part of UC San Diego extends across the Carmel Valley to the foothills southwest of Escondido.   I’ve tried to capture this summertime view in my ink and watercolor drawing.

Canyon view
Canyon view. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

On a crisp clear day in Winter after a cold rain, one can see a dusting of snow on the hills — sometimes catching a glimpse of a snow capped Palomar Mountain (some 5300 feet above sea level) in the Agua Tibia mountain range. In August, however, snow is a distant promise, and on this day the sky was a very hazy and thick gray-pink color, a result I believe of the fires burning in the San Gabriel mountains north of Los Angeles.  Crossing the Tehacapi and the San Gabriel mountains is the final driving test before Northern Californians  —  tired from slogging through the endless miles of Interstate 5 —  are permitted to enter the City of Angels.  It is dramatic country.  The San Andreas rift zone lies on the San Gabriel ridgeline  neatly separating the Mojave Desert from the Los Angeles Basin.   The San Gabriels are also the majestic backdrop to the craftsman bungalows of Pasadena.  In the autumn of 1888, Mary Austin — future author of  The Land of Little Rain —  journeyed from Pasadena to the San Joaquin valley.  The journey  — described in her book One Hundred Miles on Horseback —  took her across the San Gabriels via the towns of San Fernando and Newhall and up the San Francisquito Canyon to the ridgeline and finally Tejon Pass.  On her way to San Fernando she ambled past orchards and vineyards alternating with stony stretches “marking the wash of some mountain stream and covered with brown tangled chapparal, bristling with the dried stalks of that species of yucca known as the Spanish Bayonet…these stony places are the favorite haunts of the prickly pear.” Once she began to climb the walls of the San Francisquito canyon she encountered the “dark red satin smooth stems, and olive green foliage of the manzanita;  sometimes bare and ragged cliffs with strata turned and twisted, and folded back upon itself, bearing on its face the marks of primeval fire and flood.” California has a summer drought followed by a risky fire season and native plants many of which have adapted so well to this climate that they don’t reproduce until after a fire.  As Californians we all know that flood, fire and earthquake are part of living in this beautiful place, and many of us prepare as best we can, but their significance as life changing events cannot be overstated.

I go among trees and sit still

Sunday morning and I wake up hot. Again.  For the last few days,  Southern California has been dominated by a High Pressure system  and we won’t see relief until later this week. After moving part of my life to San Diego last year, I came to understand there are only three seasons  in the southland: rain, hot and fire.  The season of fire has come and several fires are tragically raging now in the Los Angeles Basin.  Still horizontal I begin to dream of shade trees and my mind wonders again to cooler climes of the Spring and my visits to Tomales Bay just north of San Francisco.  On Inverness Ridge, the west side of Tomales Bay and the gateway to Point Reyes National Seashore, there are coast woodlands of  Bishop pine and Douglas Fir. On the eastern side of  Tomales Bay are the open oak woodlands and grasslands with dairy and beef ranches — often visited by families of deer.  Much of this land on the eastern side has thankfully become conservation easements  protected by the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT).

On this side we  also find the non-native Blue Gum Eucalyptus and the  Monterey Cypress planted by early settlers in this community to provide shelter from the winds.

Monterey Cypress
Monterey Cypress. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

On my visits to Tomales Bay, I’ve tried to quickly capture the trees and grasslands of the eastern side in watercolor and ink with a bamboo pen.

Blue-Gum Eucalyptus
Blue-Gum Eucalyptus. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

Daydreaming still, the words come from several Wendall Berry poems I’ve read in his book A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979 – 1997.  “I go among the trees and sit still. All my stirring becomes quiet around me like circles on water. My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle.”   Then as a hot breeze comes through my open window I think “of deep root and wide shadow, of bright, hot August calm, on the small, tree-ringed meadow.”   At the end of a long, hot day last Thursday, I cycled to Leucadia and then returned home.  It was a beautiful evening, and the air was still warm even as the sun set in the West.  As I started up the Torrey Pines hill on the coast highway suddenly the temperature changed drastically.  The pines nestled among the canyons of the park create  a blessed coolness  — the air felt like cool water lapping against my skin as I swam up the hill.  I was thankful for the trees whose kindness helped me ride that hill.  Rooted in the earth but reaching towards the heavens,  trees give us life.

To feel the earth beneath my feet….

Grazing near Tomales Bay
Grazing near Tomales Bay. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

In the Spring of 2009, we returned to Marin County  just north of San Francisco to visit what I consider to be one of the most heavenly places on earth — the region near and around Tomales Bay — a land preserved by a mixture of sustainable agriculture and state and national parks.  A place of peace where thoughtfulness comes as easily as breathing.  It is always a homecoming of sorts for me.  It has been the site of many adventures  over the years: the kayak trips to Hog Island, the hikes through Bear Valley to Mt. Wittenberg, the cycling past Nicasio and hours spent painting and sketching the area from many vantage points.  The watercolors posted here are two of my attempts to capture the beauty of the place. It also brings to mind for me Wallace Stegner,  a writer who always opens my mind to the landscape through which I travel.  In 2008 the Point Reyes Books sponsored the “Geography of Hope”  conference focusing on the environmental writings of Stegner.

In his “Wilderness Letter” dated December 3, 1960,  Stegner wrote  “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 reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”