From Limantour Beach at Point Reyes you can see the edge of San Francisco and all the sea between. Some hundred years ago steam schooners, barkentines, and four- masted ships would have plied the waters beyond the Golden Gate. I think of Ishmael leaving Nantucket in search of the great white whale….
“At last the anchor was up, the sails were set, and off we glided. It was a sharp, cold Christmas; and as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor. The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curving icicles depended from the bows….as the old craft deep dived into the green seas and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled and the cordage rang, [Lank Bildad, as pilot] his steady notes were heard
“Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood,
Stand dressed in living green.
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
While Jordon rolled between.”
Some thirty-five years ago, while I worked as a Photo Archivist at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, I solo bicycled part of the Pacific Coast. On that ride, I made a point of visiting the legendary Captain Frederick Klebingat (see his fine biography on the Online Archive of California finding aid for his photography collection). It was a great honor to meet the ninety-five year-young gentleman, who voiced great concern for my safety cycling the Pacific Coast. Expressing my deep admiration for the man who at sixteen (in 1905) rounded Cape Horn as a deckhand on a full-rigged ship, I reassured him that his risks had been much greater than mine. Imagine the strength, skill and courage it would take to furl the sails a’top the masts in the wind and rain ‘round the Horn all the while diving deeply into Ishmael’s great green seas! Talk about taking risks! Captain Klebingat was a person forged by nature’s forces; a rarity in a time when now most are shaped by a reality more virtual. During his lifetime, Captain Klebingat sailed barks, schooners, Liberty Ships and tankers, and served as a key figure in the restoration and preservation of historic sailing ships, particularly Honolulu’s Falls of Clyde. Captain Klebingat’s research papers about restoring the Falls of Clyde can be found at the University of Glasgow (the vessel was built in Glasgow’s shipyards). During our visit, Captain Klebingat autographed and gifted me his book Christmas at Seainscribing To Robin, May All Your Christmases be Merry. Frederick Klebingat. I keep the book remembering my visit with the great sailor. About six months later in March 1985, Captain Klebingat passed away; but our visit that fall day in 1984, remains a treasured memory. In fond remembrance, for Captain Klebingat at Christmas, I share an excerpt from his book.
On a Christmas Eve a few years after the 1906 Earthquake, young deckhand Fred Klebingat, his friend Tommy, and first mate Hagen are on watch aboard the barkentine the S.N. Castle, anchored in San Francisco Bay. The sailors are grateful to have a job and thankful for the turkey roasting in the ship’s galley for their Christmas dinner. On deck they watched as
“the great beam [of lighthouse on Alcatraz Island]…searched out the hills of Richmond as it turned; momentarily it glanced by the brightly lighted windows of the houses in Berkeley…and blinked at the ferry boats…the searchlight also winked at those Bohemians who lived on Telegraph Hill, and for a second it peered into the windows of Nob Hill. It flashed by and lit up the spars of the ships anchored off Meiggs Wharf. On it turned, to beacon those mariners bound through the Golden Gate…[and Hagen said] “to me that light seems to be a beacon of liberty, to guide you to freedom – to all of us who first came here through the Golden Gate…there may not be all the freedom we may want, but it is much more than what we left behind.”
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York, New York: The New American Library, 1961. p.113
Darkness punctuated only by the light emitted by stars hundreds of thousands of miles distant and the embers of our fire; and a quiet stillness, broken only by the sounds of waves crashing upon the beach and my wife’s slumbered breathing, measured exhales. The sound of the infinite, slow and steady. We came to Mendocino to slow life’s rapid pace and savor special moments, but, we were unexpectedly blessed to briefly experience the infinite.
Caspar is situated on coastal prairie between the communities of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. An active lumber company town in the 19thand 20thcenturies, it is now a quiet village whose headlands, once the location of a lumber mill, are now conserved as the Caspar Headlands State Reserve. The terrace grasslands are home to meadowlarks, white crowned sparrows and harrier hawks and the beach and estuary below host cormorants, gulls and oystercatchers and the endangered Coho salmon and steelhead trout.
From the balcony of our lodgings, we have a good view of the headlands and the Pacific and on Saturday we were rewarded with a sighting of a pod of gray whales migrating north. The whales were surfacing, exhaling and spouting warm, moist air before diving, their flukes breaking the surface as they plunged. Now as I lay in my bed after midnight, listening to the sounds of the surf, I imagined the gray whales swimming through a deep blue sea, and the sounds of their breathing as they steadily continued north to Alaska, guided by an ancient knowledge passed from cetacean to cetacean. The infinite.
“Close your eyes, prick your ears, and from the softest sound to the wildest noise…it is by Nature who speaks, revealing her being, her power, her life, and her relatedness so that a blind person, to whom the infinitely visible world is denied, can grasp an infinite vitality in what can be heard. ” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The break between storms brought me to the beach. Oh the rain! Such a much needed gift. But I am glad for this day to enjoy the hazy winter sunshine. Meeting my friend, we set up our easels and started sketching in oil, the sun at our backs and the wind in our faces, capturing the coming storm moving eastward over the Pacific. It was a beautiful day – cool and grey – and I lost myself in its splendor while trying to capture it on canvas. On my way home, I stopped in Pescadero purchasing some hot chocolate and fresh baked artichoke bread to warm my body and soul and celebrate this precious life after growing cold and warn by hours of plein air painting.
The wonderful novel I am reading is called War and Turpentine; Stefan Hertman’s homage to his grandfather, awarded the 2014 AKO Literature prize, is the story of a man “tossed back and forth between the soldier he had to be and the artist he wished to become.” War and turpentine. Painting the seascape, this passage from the book came to mind:
“There is a great deal on this planet to arouse an enduring sense of wonder, especially when seen in the light of one’s impending departure. The way molecules move in the water, for instance, yielding the subtlest play of shifting light as evening falls over the sea in a southern bay – say, on the rocky beach of the Italian coastal town of Rapallo, when the wind has dropped and the pink of the evening clouds performs endless variations with the deepening blue or the sky mirrored in the sea – and how living beings with eyes and consciousness, two incomprehensibly complex adaptations to this whole wondrous biosphere, can take it all for granted and go on breathing, flawlessly designed for just this sort of system.”
The salty taste of a brisk wind and the bright midday sun welcomed we plein air painters fleeing the sweltering inland heat. Time suspended, we set-up our easels and laid out our paints and brushes intent on capturing the moment. Painting the seascape, onsite, is a meditation, a chance to lose self, and by the act, find self again. The sea, sky and land fill the gaps, and the renewed soul sees the wonder of life everywhere.
Driving to the coast, the radio waves burst with information about the sea change in Britain, Brexit. A campaign of fear coaxed many to mortgage their future to recapture a time past. Examine wisely the evidence of history; think critically of the stories told by those who seek power. Myths are one interpretation of the past. Identify the evidential source, and ask for what purpose was it created, and for what goal it is used now. William Carlos Williams wrote In the American Grain “to try to find out for myself what the land of my more or less accidental birth might signify.” It is a very good book, a poet’s interpretation of my country’s history. William writes “History, history! We fools, what do we know or care? History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery.”
The floating wreckage of a ship’s cargo, flotsam skims the surface of the sea, readily found and easily rescued. Perhaps jettisoned, with the hope of saving the ship, in time, the flotsam becomes derelict, sinking beneath the waves to the bottom of the sea, with little hope of reclaim.
In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Father Mapple preaches his sermon at the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford about Jonah and the Whale:
”A dreadful storm comes on, the ship is like to break. But now the boatswain calls all hands to lighten her; when boxes, bales and jars are clattering overboard…for when Jonah not yet supplicating God for mercy, since he but too well knew the darkness of his deserts – when wretched Jonah cries out to them to take him and cast him forth into the sea, for he knew that for his sake the great tempest was upon them; they mercifully turn from him, and seek by other means to save the ship. But all is in vain; the indignant gale howls louder…and now behold Jonah taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea; when instantly an oily calmness floats out from the east and the sea is still, as Jonah carries the gale with him, leaving smooth water behind…he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him.”
Delve to the depths of the sea, in the belly of the whale, Jonah does not cry and wail, he keeps his faith, continuing to strive, to stay committed to the path, even when all around seemed dark and in shadows. By his continual striving, he will be reclaimed.
Reached from our hilltop campus by a swift bike descent, UCSC’s Long Marine Laboratory rests on the cliffs overlooking the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Today I cycled part of the Empire Grade and then spun quickly back down to the sea to visit the lab’s Seymour Marine Discovery Center. A research and teaching center, “Long “is renowned for innovative marine mammal research. Walking along the cliffs searching for a spot to paint, I was greeted by the sounds of the ebbing tide and the snowy plovers dancing along the water’s edge. Hard at work in search of nourishment, sea otters and bottlenose dolphins swim in the silver-white waves below me and pelicans glide searching for fish just above the whitecaps. It was late in the afternoon and mostly overcast but from time-to-time the clouds broke and the cerulean blue sky peaked through allowing sunlight to stream from above infusing distant cliff sides with a glow seemingly from within.
My visual experience is beautifully expressed by Santa Cruz resident, writer James D. Houston, who wrote Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea, a series of essays about place inspired by the California landscape. In an essay titled “The View from Santa Cruz” Houston wrote “in later afternoon the light turns the bay white…the sea, as much as the light, gives this curve of coast its flavor. The light takes its color from the sea, sometimes seems to be emerging from it. And the sea here is ever-present. On clear days it coats the air with a transparent tinge of palest blue that salts and sharpens every detail…the slow process of erosion has left many colored cliffs – yellow, buff, brown and ochre. Each striated layer reveals the pressed sand of beaches eons old. Sometimes in the low sun of an autumn afternoon they turn orange and glow like the horizon itself.” With his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki, Houston co-authored the memoir Farewell to Manzanar. The Japanese Internment Camp Manzanar, located in the Eastern Sierras, resides in the shadow of my majestic friend Mt. Whitney.
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is so precious; we must ensure its continued existence through direct stewardship and consciousness raising actions. On Sunday September 21, 2014 citizens from over 150 countries took part in a consciousness raising action for the environment and social justice, participating in a global People’s Climate March. Largely ignored by the mainstream press, Ben Wikler host of MoveOn.org ‘s “The Good Fight” has chronicled the march in his podcast which can be listened to in iTunes or through the web at “inside the ginormous, huge-tastic climate march.”
Wind and wave carved the barrel vault through which the tides pass. Frieze-like, cormorants and pelicans adorn the rock’s surface. Just offshore Santa Cruz, this nature-made arch stands proudly like a monument to stewardship of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary. A bridge for centuries, the 1989 earthquake took only seconds to sculpt the arch from a span called Natural Bridges. Out in the bay waters, humpback whales feast on schools of anchovies. Early evening, living on the edge of the Pacific plate, my friend and I paint quickly attempting to capture this fleeting perfection with our brush marks. Thousands of miles away, seismic politics bring violence and death to innocents in Gaza and Ukraine airspace. All is suffering. A few lines from Robert Hass’ poem Bush’s War published in his book Time and Materials capture my sadness at this suffering:
“Someone will always want to mobilize
Death on a massive scale for economic
Domination or revenge…
Why do we do it? Certainly there’s a rage
To injure what’s injured us. Wars
Are always pitched to us that way…
The violence, it’s a taste for power
That amounts to contempt for the body…”
The history of all conflagrations ultimately includes the tallying of the dead, the wounded and the maimed. But they never tally the loss for the living. The black fonts on the white page cleanly mask the suffering. Colm Toibin’s closes The Testament of Mary with a conversation between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a disciple, unidentified but likely John, one of the four evangelists. Mary spoke, her words brimming with her son’s suffering on the cross “I was there, I said. I fled before it was all over, but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”
Sometimes we paint to stave off despair. Chiura Obata the great Japanese American painter of Yosemite and the Sierras was interned at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah during WWII. Obata painted and wrote about the power of nature to absorb the scars of war. Writing about his series of Hiroshima inspired watercolors, Obata said “there is always harmony in nature, a balance between the dead and the living, between destruction and resurgence.” And so I rechristen Natural Bridges as Natural Arch, a monument to the cycle of life and to harmony, seeking balance between conquest and stewardship.
My training for the 2014 AIDS Life Cycle continues! It is the end of March, and just last week I achieved this month’s goal to cycle more than ninety miles in one day. It was an amazing day beginning in heavy fog and ending in bright sunshine and strong winds blowing in from the Pacific; a beautiful ride, the kind of ride that clears your head and helps put everything in perspective, well at least for a few moments! My journey took me from Santa Cruz where I cycled past surfers at Pleasure Point, through redwood trees in Aptos, along the nature reserve at Elkhorn Slough, and through Fort Ord Dunes State Park and on to fisherman’s wharf at Monterey. My good friend Connie joined me for the Castroville to Monterey loop; it was wonderful to have the company and conversation. After lunch, I got back on my bike and rode the fifty miles home to Santa Cruz. It can be done!
It’s spring on Orcas, in the San Juan Islands, and we are hiking from Cascade Falls via Mountain Lake to Mount Constitution; at the summit, the view of Mt. Baker across the sound is glorious. It is a day so hot and clear, that even Mt. Rainier, nearly 100 miles to the south, sheds the hazy cloak, granting a glimpse of inspiring wonder. The Pacific Northwest has a quality reminiscent yet distinct from the Grand Canyon. Looking across the vast expanse of Puget Sound, we are flotsam in time, humbled by the knowledge that our lives are defined by tides, wind and volcanism; at the Grand Canyon, we witness the passage of time humbled by the expanse of history portrayed by the simple act of water coursing the land. In these moments, when we glimpse our place in the scheme of things, we honor the greater forces at work on our planet.
On the trail, my feet seem to find every small cone shed by the Western Red Cedars populating this coastal forest;* the crunch seems deafening in the stillness. The air tastes salty, tinged by the scent of wood smoke, and the forest is quiet except for birdsong and the infrequent hiker or mountain biker. Rounding the turn, we discover a bald eagle perched on a partially submerged log near the shoreline, fishing. My friend whispers, “amazing to think that the removal of one chemical <DDT> from the environment made seeing this bald eagle possible.”
Today is Mother’s Day, a fitting day to honor women. According to Rebecca Solnit, in the early 1960s three women writers changed our thinking about the nature of authority and tradition in the world into which I was born: Jane Jacobs with The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Betty Friedan with The Feminine Mystique and Rachel Carson with Silent Spring. Jacobs assailed the postwar restructuring of cities resulting in suburbia; Friedan questioned the patriarchy of middle-class suburbia and the assigned gender roles of women; and Carson argued on behalf of ecosystems exposing fatal flaws in Big Science and industry’s broad stroke solutions. As Solnit describes in her essay Other Daughters, Other American Revolutions published in Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, Carson was “the first to describe the scope of the sinister consequences of a chemical society, the possibility that herbicides, pesticides and the like were poisoning not just pests – or pests, and some songbirds and farmworkers – but everyone and everything for a long time forward.”
Rachel Carson was able to communicate very technical information and inspire the general public to care about the environment. According to Solnit, Carson’s “book had a colossal impact from the beginning and is often credited with inspiring the DDT ban that went into effect nationwide in 1972. Though some now challenge the relationship between DDT and eggshell-thinning in species, wild birds from brown pelicans to bald eagles and peregrine falcons have rebounded from the brink of extinction since the ban.” Rachel Carson’s closing words say it best “the ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man…it is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.” Thank you Rachel Carson; your “words are deeds.”** We honor your greater feminine force that gave us this bald eagle today.
* The San Juan Islands forest typically includes Western Red Cedars, Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Big Leaf Maples and Pacific Madrone.
** Lord Risley speaking to Maurice Hall from E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice.