in every grain of sand there is a story

Otters at Elkhorn Slough. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler

The thirty-eight miles from Santa Cruz to Monterey can be a very busy road to navigate.  Route One is a major corridor with trucks carrying produce from the fields, and cars transporting farm workers, fishermen, tourists, recreation seekers of every stripe, and people like me who live and work at least part of their lives in this region.  Hurtling through space, my eye catches glimpses of life’s daily epic poem acted-out by the inhabitants – people, plants and animals – of this region.

Our Elkhorn Slough epic begins near Moss Landing, now a man-made harbor, but once an estuary, part of the Pajaro-Salinas river system that historically shared a common entrance to the Pacific Ocean.  Launching kayaks recently on a cold gray Sunday morning, we were treated to a new chapter in this epic story.  An important component of the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds, the harbor and slough are populated with many species. This day we spotted Bandt’s, Double-crested, and Pelagic Cormorants; Brown and White Pelicans; Common Loons; Clark’s, Western and Horned Grebes; Forester’s Terns,  and shorebirds including Curlews, Dowitchers and Godwits.  Elkhorn is also home to many marine mammals.  Hauled out on the beaches and mud banks, harbor seals and pups nap after a busy night seeking nourishment in the waters of the Pacific.  Sea Lions rest comfortably piled-up on man-made docks. At low-tide, we spot Sea Anenome’s anchored to pilings and there secure amongst the now visible Eel Grass and occasional wayward kelp strand, we find mother Otters and their pups.  The epic story of one such Otter pup is told in the movie Otter 501, a visual poem to stewardship.  Paradoxically, Elkhorn Slough  –  a safety net to many animals and plants –  is situated amongst a complex and encroaching human ecosystem including a  vibrant agricultural economy, a regional power plant, an active fisherman’s harbor, recreational area for birders, hikers and kayakers, and a major north-south highway transporting people and goods.   It is through tireless stewardship that these animals and plants survive in this amazing place.

To the uninitiated speeding by in their cars, Elkhorn Slough is just a flash of light reflecting off water, punctuated mostly by the two power-plant towers dominating the skyline.  But for the animals and plants it is a sanctuary part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS).  In 1992, MBNMS became a Federally protected marine area offshore California’s Central Coast. Stretching from Marin County to Cambria near Hearst’s Castle San Simeon, the sanctuary encompasses some 276 miles of shoreline and over 6,000 square miles of ocean.  MBNMS is the home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with more than 33 species of marine mammals, 94 species of birds and 345 species of fish.  MBNMS partners with organizations and institutions such as the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and research universities including the University of California and Stanford to preserve, perform research, and educate citizens about co-existing as members of this ecosystem on the central coast.

Elkhorn Slough is a fragile marine ecosystem.  Most of us quickly drive by the Slough, preoccupied with getting to our next destination. Most of us don’t grasp the Slough’s role as a sanctuary in an epic poem, and fewer grasp that we are actors in the story and that have responsibilities to co-exist with the animals and plants as members of this ecosystem.  We can actively choose to act as stewards; we can choose to oversee and protect places like Elkhorn Slough, places worth caring for and preserving because they provide sanctuary to living creatures  that enrich our lives and ensure our survival both spiritually and physically. Anyone can be a steward; it can be as simple as recycling plastic bottles and composting vegetable waste or casting a vote to raise tax revenue to keep California State Parks open and education affordable for students at the University of California.  Stewardship is becoming a member of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation to help create conservation easements or becoming a volunteer naturalist with the MBNMS or taking a child to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to teach them about the wonders of the ocean.

Stewardship is a story that must be shared with others, repeatedly.  Saddened, I fear that for every story told, there are thousands of people who will never hear the story, therefore never be educated to learn about and understand their role as stewards.  With education, we build empowerment, foster discussion, enable understanding, and  realize just actions through compromise.  These are noble aspirations, and evidence abounds that it is always an uphill battle.   However, as the church of baseball teaches and Yogi Berra preaches, “it ain’t over till its over.”   At the bottom of the ninth with two outs and down by five runs, the Sisyphus at the plate knows heaven is found in the uphill struggle (described in the The Great Wave blog entry).   And so we must continue the hard work to learn and to teach each other about our responsibilities as stewards of ecosystems, no matter how great the odds.  As Rachel Carson wrote in her 1958 article Our Ever Changing Shore republished the book Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, “in every out thrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.”

Feliz ano Nuevo

Early morning and first day of the New Year, dinner was already in the bag.  The black-eyed peas were cooked and we still had a little smoked turkey from “Tejas”  – my Dad’s annual holiday gift.  We were ready for our traditional new years pilgrimage to the ocean.  The truck easily covered the fifty-mile distance seamlessly crossing the once Spanish and Mexican ranchos — remembered now mostly as streets, colleges, landmarks or towns named for land grants – Peralta, San Pedro, Nicasio, Tomales and de Los Reyes.  Sir Francis Drake Boulevard holds some thirty years of memories: the old white horse in the corral just west of Lagunitas (a toy horse perched on the fence has sadly replaced the original); seeing my first Steelhead with Jane in Lagunitas Creek on our bike-camping trip from Santa Rosa to San Francisco; watching the Salmon with Wave as they lay their eggs in redds just below Kent Lake; and the journey to Bolinas in the old VW bug for my first kayaking adventure with Glo, John and Carol.

Before reaching the beach, two mandatory stops are necessary.  Ginger & Chocolate-Chocolate-Cherry cookies from the Bovine Bakery are a must: necessary fuel for the hike ahead.   Stocking up on our reading materials was another must at the Point Reyes Books.  We are members of their Community Supported Bookstore Program a cool new idea inspired by community supported agriculture to help sustain independent book sellers.  Supporters make a deposit with the bookstore and draw upon that amount for future purchases.  Brilliant! I hope other bookstores start this program!  A lover of browsing, I bought my first book of 2012, a volume by the roots music guitarist Ry Cooder: Los Angeles Stories.  Looks like my kind of book.  Fiction, but the kind of stories you might gather by sitting down with the everyday folks in your community over a cup of coffee and listening to their life; learning about their part in our shared history.  Revived both gastronomically and intellectually, we headed on down the road to Limantour Beach to let the ocean ions do their purifying thang.  We walked the beach length in the bright sunshine, the waves gently lapping at our feet and the sweet ocean air wafting through us.  Later, alone in the truck for a few minutes while Wave lingered to capture a last image of a beautiful day, I queued Mary Gautier’s Mercy Now.  As I look to the year ahead may everyone have “ a little mercy now.”

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.”

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.”