Lying in bed, reading softly aloud from Afloat, one of Gary Snyder’s poems from his epic Mountain’s and Rivers Without End “…like a cricket husk – like an empty spider egg case, like dried kelp fronds, like a dry cast skin of a snake, like froth on the lip of a wave, trembles on the membrane, paddling forward, paddling backward…there is no place we are but maybe here,” the sound of birdsong and the rain scent drifted through the window. Later, we launched the paddleboards and made our way out of the harbor, and through the river’s mouth to drift among the kelp beds on Monterey Bay. So close, so near, a pair of dolphins broke the surface, exhaling through their blowholes, a magical sound. The water was still and the sky a showcase of rainclouds, dark gray sky reflecting in the sea. “Floating on a tiny boat, lightly on the water, rock[ing] with every ripple…where land meets water meets the sky.” The Greek etymological root of metaphor is meta (across) and pherein (to carry). Cautiously, one stroke at a time, I left my troubles on the shore behind, carrying only my hopes and dreams, stormy skies surrounding me, steadily crossing, stroke by stroke, on my path to the other side.
Saturday morning we woke to rain. It was a happy shock, given California’s drought. Dropping off the car for an oil change, I asked the mechanics to install new wiper blades. Overreaction? Overly optimistic? Only time will tell. Regardless, the skies put on a tremendous show as the front pushed across the region. It was an opportunity to paint a special place where sky, sea and scape meet with spectacular results. Shoreline Park operated by the Port of Oakland offered a grand stand to capture the atmospheric show: cumulous clouds towering over the San Francisco skyline situated on a bay reflecting the sun’s blinding light. It is a rare gift to live near a city blessed with the drama of sea and sky providing artists an opportunity to capture light reflective and translucent.
J. M. W. Turner lived along the London’s river Thames and visited Venice with its Grand Canal. This summer the De Young Museum hosted an exhibit “Painting Set Free” sharing Turner’s landscapes drawn from the last fifteen years of his career. It is a show not to be missed. Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Turner explains the artist’s first encounter with Venice in 1819: “his first thoughts on seeing the floating city are not recorded but we may imagine the response of one who was so deeply attuned to the movement of water, to the passage of light, and the intermingling of the sun among the waves…..he stayed for only five days on this occasion but the city seized his imagination; he filled some 160 pages of his sketchbooks with drawings and groups of drawings. He also executed some wonderful watercolors of the Venetian morning, where the translucent and ethereal light of the city is evoked in washes of yellow and blue. That sense of light never left him. It irradiates much of the rest of his work.”
Santa Cruz ahead and Monterey behind, we cycled through coastal farmland on yet another rainless winter day a couple of weekends ago. Here in drought stricken California, the Monterey Bay shimmers beside us and the air is sweet, replenishing my body with every breath. It is nearing the end of a sunny day, high clouds above us, but distant hills are taking on a hazy quality and we are glad it’s only a few more miles to retrieve our cars. I feel a strange guilt and paradox. It is beautiful, but it should be raining. We are training for the Strawberry Fields Forever ride, a fundraising event sponsored by Cyclists for Cultural Exchange dedicated to the “express purpose of furthering peace and international understanding through exchanges between people with a common interest in cycling.” An unusual and wonderful goal! As happy as riding makes me, I am nagged by the lack of rain. We need a strong steady downpour to quench this parched land. My mind jumps months on the calendar knowing I’ll be cycling some of these same roads in June when more than two thousand of us ride in the AIDS/Lifecycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Excited about the long journey in June and that my fundraising is helping people with HIV/AIDS, I know the route to Los Angeles will take me through my beloved golden brown California landscape. Oh, but how I hope we get more rain and soon.
Putting those thoughts aside, I reach the crest of a small hill. About a mile ahead, a man, dressed in black, is pulling a shopping cart; a mystery considering there is no grocery store in sight for miles…no strip malls, box stores, houses or anything of the kind remotely close. The rich farming fields of Monterey County envelope us, a land where artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, and strawberries grow readily. Reaching his side, I note his tiredness and resignation, but I grasp this young man in his dirty Superman t-shirt is on an epic journey. He is not homeless, he is without home. Hoping my last Clif Bar will ease some of his sadness, he tells me his name is Lawrence. He describes leaving San Diego some weeks ago, “Life got messed up. It was time to walk…walk a long time…leave it all behind me…I’m going to Washington State. The walk will make it better. But Big Sur was rough. I barely survived.” Reaching into my pocket, I pull out a twenty, giving it to him as I shake his hand hoping the gesture will get him a little farther down the road and a few steps closer to finding home. I wish you well Lawrence wherever the road takes you.
It was time to return to my own odyssey. As my bike put space between us, I began to sing Bob Dylan’s Farewell, a tune lingering with me since seeing the Coen brother’s Inside Llewelyn Davis. I hope Lawrence strikes it lucky on the highway goin’ west.
“Oh it’s fare thee well my darlin’ true,
I’m leavin’ in the first hour of the morn.
I’m bound off for the bay of Mexico
Or maybe the coast of Californ.
So it’s fare thee well my own true love,
We’ll meet another day, another time.
It ain’t the leavin’
That’s a-grievin’ me
But my darlin’ who’s bound to stay behind.
Oh the weather is against me and the wind blows hard
And the rain she’s a-turnin’ into hail.
I still might strike it lucky on a highway goin’ west,
Though I’m travelin’ on a path beaten trail.
So it’s fare thee well my own true love,
We’ll meet another day, another time.
It ain’t the leavin’
That’s a-grievin’ me
But my darlin’ who’s bound to stay behind.
“The Rivers of Texas” is an old cowboy song that mentions fourteen rivers in the Lone Star state; Lyle Lovett recorded his version – The Texas River Song – on the album Step Inside This House. My good friend Bill tells me Townes Van Zandt also recorded this classic. This excerpt of lyrics comes courtesy of Verne Huser’s book Rivers of Texas:
“We crossed the broad Pecos and we crossed the Nueces, Swam the Guadalupe and followed the Brazos; Red River runs rusty; the Wichita clear. Down by the Brazos I courted my dear…The sweet Angelina runs glossy and glidey; The crooked Colorado flows weaving and winding. The slow San Antonio courses the plain. I will never walk by the Brazos again.”
Nomadic by circumstance, or maybe I just like driving, I am on the road again, speeding northward into the oncoming night from San Antonio towards Austin and Waco. I laugh out loud recalling an essay in High Country News by John Daniel; in A Word In Favor of Rootlessness he wrote “marriage to place is something we all need to realize in our culture, but not all of us are the marrying kind…it makes me very happy to drive the highways and back roads of the American West, exchanging talk with people who live where I don’t, pulling off somewhere to sleep in the truck and wake to a place I’ve never seen.” Out my side window, I search for the “Old Yellow Moon,” Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell croon about on my CD player. Running north – south, I-35 intersects a series of rivers crisscrossing Texas roughly north-west to south-east; I catalog them in my mind: San Antonio, Guadalupe, Colorado and as I get closer to my destination the tributaries to the Brazos including the Leon, San Gabriel and Little Rivers and of course Salado Creek.
This year, Texas like many places in the Western and Midwest United States is suffering from drought. Not enough rain is falling to soak into and heal the land, fill the reservoirs and aquifers and bless the riparian areas providing a respite to migratory birds and a home for wildlife along the streambeds. At the same time the demand for the life-giving water grows for agriculture, industry, and the expanding suburbs. In the thirty-some odd years I’ve been coming to Central Texas the population keeps increasing; more houses, more malls and with this expansion the burgeoning need for water. But this is not a new story. In San Antonio, I travelled parts of the San Antonio River Walk heading south to the Historic Missions National Park. Built in the early 18th century, close to rivers, the mission communities constructed dams and aqueducts to guide water for irrigating crops and powering flourmills. The Belton Lake Dam on the Leon River is a 20th century version of the mission acequias; Belton just provides a lot more water for a lot more people. The grandfather of Texas conservation, John Graves, wrote a book Goodbye to A River, published in 1959, now considered a classic about his late 1950s canoe trip down the Brazos River. The book is often cited as a major reason only a limited number of dams were built on the Brazos. The current drought places a strain on stored water supplies. But what can we do to make sure that there is enough water for all those who need it, including the native plants and animals? In the 13th Century, it is believed the Anazasi left the Colorado Plateau for the Rio Grande valley of New Mexico when extreme drought caused these peoples to abandon their homes. Where could we go?
Nomad that I appear to be, place and community do obsess me. Wherever I land, I want to understand the context of the place – the land and its people. I do not feel geographic detachment, but I realize this ability to move quickly from place to place comes at an expense. In Teaching About Place Hal Crimmel published the article “Teaching About Place in an Era of Geographical Detachment.” Crimmel states “technology enables escape from any particular locale, accelerating the process of geographical detachment. In fact, living in place may have more to do with restraint than passion these days. Unprecedented access to distant energy sources, such as natural gas piped across the continent, and to mechanical or electrical technologies means people need not live within the ecological limits imposed by climate and topography.” I feel the contradiction deep in my bones; I hope my Prius buys me some credit when my judgement comes.
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville described the Pacific Ocean as the “tide-beating heart of the earth that makes all coasts a bay in it.” Describing the interconnectedness of the lands ringing the Pacific Rim he wrote “the same waves wash the moles of the new-built Californian towns, but yesterday…..lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of the Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans.” On Friday March 11, 2011, mankind was humbled by a 9.0 magnitude quake striking the northeastern coast of Japan and triggering a Tsunami whose force quickly silenced thousands of voices near Sendai and damaged harbors – including Crescent City and Santa Cruz – 5,000 miles to the east along the North American coastline. Nature will always bind what man’s competitive psyche seeks to distance. Hokusai’s woodblock print “The Great Wave” part of his series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji has long been a favorite of mine; mesmerized by the beauty of the wave, it is only now, newly humbled, that I truly grasp the precarious position of the fishing boats depicted in the print.
Last weekend I attended the Point Reyes Book’s third Geography of Hope conference bringing together people, place and literature to discuss water as both a life-giving and a life-taking force. As rain poured outside in biblical proportions, the Japanese people were never far from our consciousness in this community located on the San Andreas Fault so near the Pacific Ocean. An inspiring gathering, we listened rapturously to poets, writers and scientists – including Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, William Least Heat Moon, Tim Palmer, Philip Fradkin, Eddy Harris, Peter Gleick, Evelyn Reilly and Julia Whitty — speak about rivers, lakes and oceans and their hopes and fears for the health of our planet. The desire to teach children – through art, literature and science – about the connections between humans and nature was a major theme, but concerns about the potential of social media and hand-held technology to disconnect society from the natural world was an undercurrent of the gathering.
My work as a digital archivist working in academic libraries fosters my belief that social media can be leveraged to enhance our connections with and understanding of the natural world. If any good can be drawn from the tragedy of the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami, it is the knowledge that this is likely the best documented disaster in recent history, and this information will be repurposed for constructive use. Numerous digital images and video recordings of the Tsunami’s destructive power were captured by survivors of these events and uploaded for sharing on social media sites. This week a BBC article published on March 21, 2011 “Japan Tsunami to Help Predict Future Waves” reported how scientists will use this data to study Tsunamis. At the 2011 Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Webwise conference, Dr. Francine Berman, Vice President for Research at the Rennslaer Polytechnic and Dr. Joshua Greenberg, Director of Digital Information Technology and Dissemination of Knowledge Program at the Sloan Foundation delivered keynote addresses making several complimentary points: the role of the “crowd and the social network” in the generation of observational research data; the need for a macroscopic approach to gather comprehensive data sets and analyze and visualize data at scale; and the need for archivists, librarians and museum professionals to be central players in data curation workflows to appraise, manage, preserve and provide access to data supporting ongoing research. Its important to note that this kind of work is underway. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded DataONE a multi-institutional and cross-discipline collaboration of universities and organizations including the California Digital Library to lay the foundation for a distributed framework and sustainable cyberinfrastructure that meets the needs of science and society for open, persistent, robust, and secure access to well-described and easily discovered Earth observational data.
Webwise also featured workshops and sessions on Libraries and Museums engaged in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Learning. STEM is part of President Obama’s program “Educate to Innovate,” a campaign to improve the participation and performance of America’s students in these disciplines. Teachers, librarians and museum staff are developing many fun and engaging learning modules using social media and technology. One particular module — Habit Tracker – caught my eye; I saw a demo of the prototype at the conference. Using the Apps developed for iPhone and iPad2 technology, Habitat Tracker will help students learn about the nature of science by learning to ask their own questions about the natural world, recording observations, performing analysis and participating in peer review with fellow students.
A humble respect, enjoyment and love of the natural world and a belief in the utility of social media technology and services are not mutually exclusive. They can be symbiotic and when so joined the resulting analysis can support greater understanding of the natural world and our place in the cycle of life. It is my hope that technology advancements – like social media – will bring individuals greater engagement with nature and help humankind shoulder the stewardship responsibilities required to ensure the natural world survives for future generations.
*From the poem At the Fish Houses by Elizabeth Bishop read by Eric Karpeles at the Geography of Hope Conference
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
After morning snow
onion shoots rise in the garden
like little signposts
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.”