Dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free*

Marin Headlands on the Pacific Ocean. Created by Robin L. Chandler. Copyright 2010 National Park Service.

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

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.”

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

In the shadow of the ancients

The Topatopa bluffs are part of the Condor Sanctuary in the Sespe Wilderness; the sanctuary is a space where the Condors can mate, breed and raise their chicks undisturbed by humans.  At sunset seen from the Ojai Valley, the bluffs glow “pink” from the last rays of the setting sun.

Topatopa Bluffs near Ojai. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler

With their nine foot wingspan, Condors glide at fifty-five miles per hour ranging three hundred miles a day on the look for expired creatures that will sustain them.  Bradley John Monsma in The Sespe Wild writes “attempting to see the lay of the land through the eye of the condor quickly turns a wide-angle wilderness into a lesson in the limitations that we impose on other species.”  The Sespe is a crucial link in the foraging habitat used by the Condor for thousands of years ranging from the the Ventana Wilderness through the Sespe and Tejon Ranch to the Sierra Nevadas. Humankind continues to encroach upon the condor’s “home” as rolling oak grasslands situated along I-5 north of Los Angeles too often become real estate development opportunities.  But sometimes people do get it right.  In May 2008, a coalition of conservation groups – the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society of California negotiated a conservation easement to preserve 178,000 acres in Fort Tejon that will supplement the public lands forming the condor habitat.  There are approximately seventy condors in the wild and space and water are key to their survival.  I marvel at the condor’s ability to daily traverse a “u-shaped” area from Big Sur to the Range of Light.

Mt. Whitney and the Range of Light. Copyright 2008 Robin L. Chandler

Their need for habitat, fires my imagination contributing to my personal geography.  As Stephen S. Hall writes in his essay I Mercator in the book You Are Here, “I have roamed across state lines and oceans and continents, backwards in time, each thought colored according to a personal legend, corresponding to the elevation and depressions of my private humors: pride, wonder, sadness, remorse.”  We are here, now, navigating our personal maps, facing the emptiness of our  intelligence in a space and time where nature balances precariously between our greed and our benevolence.

waves of glass

Fall is here.  There is a little chill in the air and the sun’s journey southward gives forth a particular quality of light.  This week has found me cycling as much as possible, and I naturally gravitate to the coast to ride the 101 as it meanders through the communities of La Jolla, Del Mar, Cardiff, Encinitas and Leucadia. Every few miles I get a spectacular view of crystalline blue waves peaking and crashing into torrents of white foam and see the surfers catch a wave and joyously ride the crest balanced precariously somewhere between chaos and nirvana. “Clear and sweet is my soul, clear and sweet is all that is not my soul,” wrote Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass.

Swamis_encinitas
Sunset North County San Diego: Swami’s Beach. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

A few weeks ago, I visited Cape Cod and I was thrilled to see a group of surfers anglin’ on ankle busters, but I think they imagined the waves as a bonsai pipeline.

Truro_CapeCod
Near Truro on Cape Cod. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

The view of the ocean from the saddle of my bike is where my soul opens up, and my spirit returns to balance.  On the bike, I scout out places to paint and observe the world at a pace that allows for interaction, reflection and a laugh or two.  Yesterday it was great fun to see  Surfrider Foundation members  on street corners  in Cardiff  for their “Hold onto Your Butts” campaign.  They were spending their Saturday morning reminding us that cigarette butts do not belong on the beach.  It is another of Surfrider Foundation’s good causes  part of their beach clean-up efforts  and their larger campaigns like “Save Trestles”  which kept a  toll road out of San Onofre State Park. They do good work.  They teach us to be responsible for our beaches and oceans as we should be for any good friend.   These are two watercolors that I’ve recently painted of late afternoons  in North County San Diego and Truro on Cape Cod.  Both pristine and soul redeeming spaces.

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.”