About WoodswomanWrites.com

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m in love with life and eager to learn from it. I’m a naturalist and professional do-gooder, committed to making the world a better place and savoring the joy along the way. I welcome your comments and you can reach me at woodswomancalifornia@gmail.com. Thanks for visiting my blog. This is my place to share stories and photos of my travels, indulge in creative expression and musings, ponder how I can help create a just world for others, and share my sense of wonder at being alive. I welcome your feedback about my blog. I’m a professional writer and available for editing projects as well as individual writing coaching. Contact me at woodswomancalifornia@gmail.com.

Wintering Waterfowl and Wading Birds in the Central Valley

rosss-geese-and-pintails-12-2016-smallRoss’s geese and northern pintails

As I’ve shared here before, I follow the migratory waterfowl and other birds—my own personal migration on winter weekends. Here are some portraits from recent trips to California’s Central Valley. These are highlights from this season’s trips to several national wildlife refuges—Colusa, Merced, Sacramento, San Luis—as well as the as well as the Llano Seco Unit of the North Central Valley Wildlife Management Area and various agricultural fields.

I feel such joy being around these birds, who bring so much life during the cold, dark months of the year. More photos to come.

geese-flying-above-sutter-buttes-12-2016-smallGeese silhouetted against the Sutter Buttes

white-faced-ibis-merced-nwr-12-2016-smallWhite-faced ibis

gadwalls-sacramento-nwr-11-2106-smallGadwalls

northern-shoveler-12-2016-smallNorthern shoveler

black-necked-stilt-san-luis-nwr-1-12-2016-small
Black-necked stilt

black-necked-stilt-san-luis-nwr-2-12-2016-smallAnother view of the black-necked stilt

snow-and-white-fronted-geese-12-2016-smallGreater white-fronted geese (foreground) and snow geese

snow-geese-at-sunset-sac-nwr-11-2016-smallSnow geese

white-fronted-geese-11-2016-smallGreater white-fronted geese

turtle-and-cinnamon-teal-11-2016-smallThe odd couple – western pond turtle and cinnamon teal

pintail-swimming-1-12-2016-smallNorthern pintail

wigeon-pair-11-2016-smallAmerican wigeons

tundra-swans-11-2016-smallTundra swans

egret-and-mallards-12-2016-smallGreat egret and mallards

great-blue-heron-silhouette-sac-nwr-11-2016-small
Great blue heron

Why I’m Going to Arizona for the Election

flag-lapel-in-hand-10-2016-cropped-smallIt was in July that I made my decision about what I needed to do.

I had already watched the Supreme Court decimate the Voting Rights Act. I’d been appalled at how state after state subsequently passed laws to restrict which Americans could vote. And when the Republican Party named their candidate for president with his hateful rhetoric, I resolved to act.

With no issues in my home state, I’m volunteering for the presidential election in Arizona. I’ll be joining the efforts of the Arizona Advocacy Network’s Election Protection team in the Phoenix area, where the Maricopa County sheriff is nationally infamous for violating civil rights.

I’m going because I’m patriotic.

With so much at stake, I am compelled to counter those who reference American values in the most perverse language possible—citing freedom as a basis for hate and promoting violence against those who don’t meet their standards of whom their fellow Americans should be. I’m reclaiming their adjectives and slogans to promote the best of American values. Liberty for all. Regardless of what we look like, what language we speak, what country we were born in, what religion we believe in or not. And so many other freedoms.

I cannot let the fear-mongering go unchallenged. The America I believe in doesn’t discriminate. My America opens the door for every voter.

On election day, I will be there with my flag lapel on. For liberty and justice for all.

Seabirds and 100 Years of National Parks


100 years ago today, the Organic Act became law: 

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that there is hereby created … the National Park Service… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

I’ve written on this blog about many of my adventures in national parks, the well-known iconic wilderness areas and historic sites. Recently, I’ve been appreciating the national recreation areas created to provide access to nature and history in urban areas, specifically my local Golden Gate National Recreation Area established in 1972.

In the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island in Golden Gate National Recreation Area hosts more than a million visitors a year who come to tour its infamous old prison. What is less known is that Alcatraz is an important sanctuary for nesting seabirds, egrets and herons. I find it unappealing to tour a prison that’s much like the inhumane places we still have, but it’s a treat to visit the island and find nature thriving in a place filled with broken structures and mobs of people.

Snowy egret adult and chick Alcatraz 6-2016 smallerSnowy egret chick and parent

Nesting bird count sign Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
The census of nesting residents

Pigeon guillemot Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Pigeon guillemot, with just a tiny bit of her bright orange legs showing

Western gull with chicks Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Attentive western gull parent with chicks

Brandts cormorants Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Brandt’s cormorants

Egret feather in concrete crack Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller

Western gull and SF skyline 6-2016 smaller

On this 100th anniversary of the national parks, my wish for everyone is to have an experience in a park or historic site that is the heritage of all of us. Find your local treasures here.

 

Speaking Up as an Ally for My Fellow Humans

“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” – Peggy McIntosh

Some years ago, I was waiting in line for the bathroom at the grocery store when someone mentioned it needed attention and she was going to find an employee to take care of it. The man waiting behind me, white as I am, commented to me that the bathroom wasn’t appropriately clean because employers hire Mexicans and they don’t do a good job.

I wanted him to stop saying such horrible things, so initially I wasn’t responsive. The door to the other bathroom opened and I went in, giving me just enough time to prepare for the rest of the conversation I knew I needed to have when I came out.

The man was still there. I politely said something like this: “I need to let you know that just because I am also white, it doesn’t mean that it’s okay with me to categorize an entire group of people based on their ethnicity, and I found what you said offensive.” At first he was stunned, and then he grew angry. I responded: “I realize you are describing your experience. That is not my experience, and however you intended it, what you said landed as offensive for me.” I ended the conversation and left.

Beneath my external calm, I was shaking. But I had taken the critical step across our societal line of complicity. I landed on the side of using my privilege to make a difference instead of taking advantage of it in silence as I had for many years before that. I doubt that I changed that guy’s mind. But there’s a good chance he would hesitate before saying such poison words to someone else.

I cannot return to a place of silence. The nonviolence trainings I participated in decades ago when I was attending protests against nuclear power and logging of ancient redwoods seem even more relevant in these times of increasing hate and violence. I stand upon my Buddhist practice as another layer of the foundation. With so much at stake, I must keep reaching out to make that human connection for a better world.

How do I look bigotry in the face and see the humanity of the person on the other side, to change our society in my daily interactions without falling into a hateful place myself? This is my ongoing practice.

With that in mind this Independence Day weekend, I took myself to the county fair where volunteers had set up booths for this year’s presidential candidates. I have never met anyone who supports the Republican Party’s scary nominee—I can’t bring myself to type his name on this blog—and I wanted to look in their faces, have a conversation with them, try to understand.

I spent the first part of the day soaking up the upbeat energy of the fair—the determination of the kids in 4-H showing off their dogs’ agility training, the jugglers and music, the artwork and photographs in the galleries, the taste of roasted corn on the cob. Then I made my way to the red, white and blue booth.

So much of understanding is just about listening, so I started there. I listened to the man beside me explain to the volunteers that he believes in the Constitution, and that’s why he is going to vote for the nominee. I believe in the Constitution, too, I thought, which is why I came to the exact opposite conclusion. Someone came by and bought a bumper sticker. And then it was just me and the three women, facing me across their table piled with books, stickers, a clipboard to sign up to help the campaign. They appeared to be about my age or a little older. One of them greeted me.

“I’m here because I’d like to find out why you support the nominee,” I began, as politely as I could. Two of them took turns responding with the catch phrases I’ve been reading for months. “A strong military.” “Securing our borders.” “Keeping us safe.” They then asked me about my opinion.

I started with explaining that when the nominee was asked a question by a reporter with a disability at a press conference, he made fun of the reporter’s disability. All three of them nodded and one softly said, “Yes, that was unfortunate.” Another said, “Well, he doesn’t practice, he just says what he thinks.” Indeed, I thought.

“I’m Jewish,” I said. “And a lot of what he says about Muslims and immigration reminds me of what so many people said about Jews during World War II when they refused to let them into their countries when they were targeted by the Nazis. You could swap the word Jews for Muslims and that’s how it seems today. I think that’s racist.” The reply: “Oh no, it’s not the same. Jews weren’t terrorists.”

And so the conversation went, as they ticked off familiar buzzwords about the Koran and allowing Muslims into the U.S. To keep my center, I visualized the darker-skinned faces of Americans I care about who were born in other countries. That helped me stay calm. I said that the Bible promotes some pretty awful things but that doesn’t mean Christians act on them all, and asked if they’d personally met anyone who is Muslim. They stammered.

One woman asked me who I liked in the election. “I don’t like either of them, actually,” I said, “but I am voting for the other candidate because I find the nominee so frightening.”

We talked a little more. Our conversation was uncomfortable. They drew closer together and I think they might have been a little afraid of what I might say or do. It was time to wrap up. “Well, I see we disagree. Thank you for talking with me.”

I walked away, breathed deeply and set out to locate something uplifting. As a counterpoint, I happened upon the booth for the firefighters, people who risk their lives responding to anyone who needs help without discrimination. I smiled watching them help little kids climb into the fire truck and listened to the children laughing as they placed their tiny hands on the steering wheel.

I came away with a few things from the county fair. A book on local trails, information about where to recycle some old electronics, a framed photograph of a beach that I’m attached to. And a reminder that there is no us vs. them—there is only us. To create an equitable world requires dialogue even with those whose world view I find harmful. Staying silent is staying complicit. On this Independence Day, I recommit myself to freedom for all, being an ally and continuing to speak up.

Portraits of Spring Neighbors

Common merganser female right at Las Gallinas smaller
Common merganser at dusk

There’s a period early in the year in the Bay Area when the wintering birds overlap with the spring wildflower season, and I can hardly contain myself. Here are a few images from a couple months ago.

One of the best birdwatching sites nearby is the unglamorous Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District sewage treatment facility. Multiple ponds not only allow natural processes to break down waste, but provide habitat for waterfowl, songbirds and raptors. While some are residents year-round, the place really comes to life with the migrants present throughout the winter and spring.

Common merganser female left at Las Gallinas
A different view of the same common merganser

Canvasback at Las Gallinas smaller
Canvasback

On a different day, I headed to see forest-dwelling flowers at the Martin Griffin Preserve of Audubon Canyon Ranch. Posting these a couple months after the fact feels like waving goodbye to familiar friends that I’ll see again next spring.

Douglas iris ACR 4-2016 smaller
Douglas iris

Western columbine ACR 4-2016 smallerWestern columbine

Coral root ACR 4-2016 smallerSpotted coralroot

Miners lettuce ACR 4-2016 smallerMiner’s lettuce

Death Valley Landscapes

Mountain view 1 with desert gold Death Valley 2-2016 smallerMy Death Valley trip last month was so spectacular that it’s taken three posts to include everything. Well okay, part of it is is that I finally got a better camera and just took a lot of photos.

One of my hikes was a loop through Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch.

Zabriskie Point from Golden Canyon Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Zabriskie Point above Golden Canyon

Golden Canyon view toward Badwater 2-2016 smaller
View from Golden Canyon Trail toward the Badwater Basin,
the lowest spot in North America

Badwater view Death Valley 2-2016 smallerThe aptly named Badwater—no plants can grow in these salt flats

Beverly with Badwater sign Death Valley 2-2016 smallerDesert rat posing for a photo

The geology of Death Valley National Park is complex and it would take me a long time to figure out all the rock types. One of the places I meandered through was the red rock in Natural Bridge Canyon.

Natural Bridge Canyon Death Valley 2-2016 smaller                                     The trail through Natural Bridge Canyon

Natural Bridge Canyon looking up Death Valley 2-2016 smallerLooking up from Natural Bridge Canyon

On my final day in the park, I traveled to the north end for a hike at Ubehebe Crater, or Tem-pin-tta Wo’sah in the language of the Shoshone Paiute. Ubehebe Crater is a half-mile across. It’s at a higher elevation than the valley floor, so the wildflowers weren’t yet blooming. It has the kind of stark moonscape that Death Valley National Park is known for.

Ubehebe Crater rim view Death Valley 2-2016 smallerView of Ubehebe Crater from the rim

I had intended to take the rim trail around the crater, created by an ancient volcanic steam explosion. But having never hiked inside a crater, instead I chose to head down the very steep trail, a 600-foot descent in a quarter mile. I figured that since I’ve been able to grunt up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon with a heavy backpack, I could manage this short climb.

Ubehebe Crater view of the bottom Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
The other-wordly bottom of Ubehebe Crater

Heading down in loose scree was a blast, like cross-country skiing with my feet skating along in front of me. Of course, that meant the ascent was a beast. My feet sank up to my ankles. I’m convinced that whoever coined the term “two steps forward, one step back” took this hike.

Ubehebe Crater trail view Death Valley 2-2016 smallerThis might be the steepest trail I’ve ever taken.
See the people at the rim and the bottom of the trail for scale.

In concluding this series about my travels to Death Valley, it’s fitting to finish with more photos of this year’s extraordinary wildflower bloom.

Mountain view 2 with desert gold Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Desert gold carpeting the valley floor for miles

Desert gold close-up Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Desert gold

Desert five-spot multiple blooms Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Desert five-spot

Gravel ghost 2 Death Valley 2-2016 smallerGravel ghost

Golden evening primrose and notch-leaf phacelia Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Golden evening primrose and notch-leaf phacelia

Lesser mojavea close-up Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Lesser mojavea

Desert-star and scented cryptantha Death Valley 2-2016 smallerDesert-star at the top with tiny scented cryptantha in the lower left

Desert gold landscape 1 Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
For more about Death Valley, see the previous two posts featuring photos of wildflowers and my adventure in a storm.

 

Storm in Death Valley

Storm approaching Death Valley 2-2016 smaller

I based my trip to Death Valley National Park last month at Emigrant Campground, a remote location at an elevation of 2,000 feet. It features 10 tent sites, no electricity, water and a bathroom across the road, and expansive views. Unstaffed and first-come first-serve far from the developed areas of the park, the campground attracts people like me who seek quiet and solitude. My neighbors and I respected each other’s silence and didn’t speak to one another.

An unseasonably hot day in the 90s rolled in so I left my base camp and drove up the Emigrant Canyon Road to high elevation for the day where it would be cooler. The term “wide open spaces” came to mind with views all the way to the Sierra Nevada 75 miles away. I stopped often just to take it all in.

Wide open spaces looking down Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
The view from about 5,000 feet looking down toward the distant Sierra Nevada range

Wide open spaces looking up Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
This is the view looking up to the snow-covered Panamint Mountains within the park. An old dirt road below shows the massive scale of the place.

The pavement ended and the bumpy dirt road began. It was closed at 6,800 feet due to snow beyond that point. When it’s open, the road ends at a higher campground. Further up is a hiking trail to the highest point in the park, Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet. The road closure was at the Wildrose charcoal kilns, masonry structures built in the 1870s that created smelter fuel for lead and silver mines. I was impressed that the kilns are in such good shape. The black stains on the inside walls are still visible.

Charcoal kilns Death Valley 2-2016 smallerWildrose charcoal kilns

With a comparable forecast the following day, I drove up the same road to leave the heat in the valley behind. This time I left my car in one of the few turnouts along the road and hiked at Pinon Mesa on an old rocky mining route toward a canyon that sounded interesting. The weather forecast turned out to be incorrect. With the wind picking up, the sky darkening, and the temperature dropping, I changed my plans and turned around.

I took shelter for lunch in my trusty Subaru that’s well-suited for the rough dirt roads. Hearing a loud pop outside the car, I looked up to see that the sound was the wind ripping a leafless bush from the ground. It was now a tumbleweed rolling away. The car was shaking.

Rainstorms in this topography often don’t make it all the way down to the valley itself, but the water they drop does. I didn’t want to get cut off by a flash flood along my route downhill, so I headed back to check on my campsite a few thousand feet below.

View of storm arriving Death Valley 2-2016 smallerFollowing the weather down the mountain—unlike the day before, the Sierra Nevada was invisible

Storm view descending Emigrant Canyon Road Death Valley 2-1016 smaller
Back on pavement, descending on the Emigrant Canyon Road

When I got back to Emigrant Campground, the storm created an instant community among a group of us who had not previously spoken. Two other solo hikers returned from their wanderings around the same time, all of us recognizing that we had needed to skedaddle back. While we were gone, our tents collapsed and pieces of them were blowing across the desert. Joanna from Nevada, who had been camping in her van and hadn’t left the campground, explained that the force of the wind had knocked her down and she scraped her hand. Nevertheless, she had grabbed our scattering gear. She piled rocks on the wreckage to hold it all in place until we returned.

Ron from Utah and John hustled over to my campsite to help wrestle with my stuff as the sand and rain pelted us. We stuffed the tent, sleeping bag and air mattress willy-nilly in the back of my car. John told us his own tent was shredded but he had his truck to sleep in. Ron declined my and John’s help with his damaged tent. He calmly shrugged and said his brand new tent was a lost cause, and he was just going to wait out the storm and sleep in his van. Not having a roomy vehicle myself, I needed to find a place indoors to spend the night. I turned the car toward the road and stopped when Joanna flagged me down. She handed me the tent’s groundcloth that she’d grabbed before it blew too far away.

En route to the lodge in Stovepipe Wells nine miles away, I could see that rain wasn’t falling in the valley below sea level ahead. Instead, there was a massive dust storm enveloping the landscape and blocking the view of the mountains I’d seen clearly just hours earlier.

Emigrant Campground view Death Valley 2-1016 smallerThe view from Emigrant Campground in the morning before the storm

Sandstorm view from near Emigrant Campground Death Valley 2-2016 smallerLater that day looking in the same direction at the miles-wide sandstorm below sea level

Sandstorm in valley dose-up Death Valley 2-2016 smallerA closer look at the sandstorm

Exiting my car, I stopped before I entered the lodge and savored the sweet scent of the air, countless creosote bushes damp from the rain. I booked the last available room and set up the tent inside to survey the damage. The poles hadn’t snapped and the body was intact. The rainfly had multiple holes so it would be useless for a future rainy trip. With the storm inevitably passing quickly, the tent was in good enough shape for the rest of this trip.

The wind continued blasting throughout the night. Much of the next day, I was blowing dust out of my nose. Some of the sand particles still hung in the air, gradually settling under clearing skies.

View across valley after storm Death Valley 2-2016 smallerThe view across the valley floor the morning after the storm as the clouds were clearing

The raindrops that had fallen at the campground the night before hadn’t reached the ground below sea level. Instead, the rain from the mountains moved through the valley in flash floods. By the next day they had already disappeared, leaving behind damp surfaces and sediment in the washes and across the road below sea level—rare water in the desert that extended the life of the equally rare bloom this season, the best since 2005. (You can see Death Valley wildflower photos in a previous post.)

Desert gold flower in muddy wash Death Valley 2-2016 smaller Desert gold blooming in a muddy wash

After exploring during the day, I got back to Emigrant Campground at nightfall. I was surprised by how much I hoped to see the others because I was concerned about how they had fared. I was pleased that none of us let the weather chase us away, and over the next few days we continued our parallel outdoor adventures. The storm had broken our silence and we swapped contact info. I brought cookies from Stovepipe Wells to thank Joanna, passed along some food I wasn’t going to use to John, and got the link to Ron’s website for his landscape photography.

As desert storms do, this one blasted through in a hurry. The friendships it created continued.

View across Devils Cornfield Death Valley 2-2016 smaller             View across Devils Cornfield

Two additional posts about Death valley feature photos of wildflowers and landscapes.

Worth a Thousand Words – Wildflowers in Death Valley

Desert gold landscape at sunset 2-2016

Death Valley National Park has the hottest overall temperatures on earth, including the highest recorded air temperature of 134 degrees. With an average of less than two inches of rain a year, the plants there manage to eke out their survival in harsh conditions.

So during the rare years when several inches of rain show up in a few months in fall and winter, it’s miraculous for plants. The long-dormant seeds burst out in carpets of wildflowers across the desert floor. Luckily for me, for five days in February I was able to experience this spectacle.

I have stories to share about my journey in a future post. For now, it’s all about photos of the flowers.

Desert five-spot close-up 2-2016
Desert five-spot, an uncommon flower

Desert goldDesert gold, the showy and densely growing flower that turns entire landscapes yellow

Scented cryptantha
Scented cryptantha, easy to miss with its tiny blossoms

Notch-leaf phacelia 2-2016
Notch-leaf phacelia—I was glad a ranger warned me that touching it can cause a rash

Brown-eyed evening primrose at dusk 2-2016The night-blooming brown-eyed evening primrose, at sunset as blossoms opened

Lesser mojavea
Lesser mohavea

Golden evening primrose 2-2016
Golden evening primrose soon after sunrise, with the notch-leaf phacelia

Fremont pincushionPebble pincushion, the only one of this species that I saw

Purplemat 2-2016
Purplemat

Desert-star 2-2016
Desert-star, looking like miniature daisies

Gravel ghost 2-2016
Gravel ghost

(Two additional Death Valley posts feature my adventure in a storm and more landscapes.) For more of this ephemeral beauty, check out Death Valley National Park’s video about this year’s bloom.

Return of the Water


Redwood Creek, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

It’s always special when the rainy season returns after months of no rain, the typical dry season in California. Except that the rain hasn’t come for years, with a record-setting drought that has left us over and over crossing our fingers each winter for rainfall that never came.

Until it did this winter.

Everywhere, the green has returned. The moss in the forest has once again revived as a big sponge along the tree trunks and rocks. Mushrooms of all colors are emerging from the soil. I’m savoring the squishiness of mud underfoot instead of hard-packed trail. Just being outdoors, you can feel the earth soaking it all up and coming back to life. I can’t help being energized by it.

Today I walked a favorite seven-mile loop, starting in Muir Woods National Monument early before the crowds, heading uphill into the quiet of Mt. Tamalpais State Park, and eventually descending back where I started. What was distinctive this time is that I could hear the welcome sound of rushing water the entire way—first as I hiked up the steep canyon on the Bootjack Trail along Redwood Creek, where the water surged in waterfalls and narrow channels, and then along the smaller braids in the adjacent gullies along the TCC, Stapleveldt, Ben Johnson and Hillside Trails.

Creek on TCC Trail 1-2015Redwood Creek passes through Muir Woods into Golden Gate National Recreation Area and eventually to the ocean. After years without success, this year, the endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout can make it back to spawn.

Although California’s drought has been severe, Oregon’s rainfall until this winter had been below normal as well. On a recent visit to see my friend Bryan in Portland, the one activity I insisted on was a visit to the Columbia River Gorge to see the gushing waterfalls. They were so loud that Bryan and I had to shout so we could hear each other.

Beverly at Latourell Falls in Columbia River Gorge 1-2016
Standing beside Latourell Falls, Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area

Photo by Bryan Aptekar


Horsetail Falls, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Covered head to toe in raingear, it was fabulous to be in the wet forest tromping around in the downpour. Water everywhere. Bring it on.

Beverly portait Bridal Veil Falls Columbia River Gorge 1-2016
Bridal Veil Falls State Scenic Viewpoint, Oregon – Photo by Bryan Aptekar

Time and Textures – The Company of Old Trees

Bristlecone pine portrait White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone pine, Inyo National Forest

Craving the company of old trees, in September last year I ventured to the land of the world’s oldest living things—the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California’s White Mountains. I’d fulfilled a dream to visit with my first trip but at the mercy of altitude sickness, I was only able to stay for a few hours. The place beckoned me back. This time I had medication that enabled me to camp for several nights at 8,600 feet and hike the trails as high as 11,000 feet.

The bristlecone pines’ gnarled trunks speak to their endurance, through fires and thousands of winters in blasting wind, and snow that sustains them through the dry summers. Many parts die back with just a few branches sprouting needles and cones. They grow in nutrient-poor soil at a profoundly slow rate, sometimes reflecting 100 years in tree rings that are only an inch across.

The oldest known tree, Methuselah, is more than 4,600 years old. The trail winds through the grove where Methuselah grows anonymously among its neighbors that are 3,000 and 4,000 years old. Their shapes and textures are striking.

Bristlecone grove on Methusaleh Trail White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone pines siilhouette White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone fire-scarred bark White Mountains 9-2015Even after they die, bristlecone pines can take thousands of years to decompose.

Fallen bristlecone that died in 1676 White Mountains 9-2015Log from a bristlecone pine more than 3,200 years old that fell in 1676

Along the Methuselah Trail, I came upon a tree that was about my height and I wondered about its age. Certainly it must have been at least a few hundred years old, perhaps 1,000 or more. I held its young green needles in my hand, a contrast in old and new.

Bristlecone branches White Mountains 9-2015

Walking among the bristlecones is a journey of awe. I am moved by their persistence.

Moonrise at Patriarch Grove White Mountains 9-2015
Moonrise over the Patriarch Grove at 11,000 feet

Wind and Wings


Snow geese near Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

In early December each year, I head off for a solo retreat. I drive to see some of the millions of geese and ducks in the wetlands of their winter home, the wildlife refuges and agricultural fields of California’s Central Valley.

This is a different kind of nature experience than I usually seek out. The setting is ordinary—agricultural fields, highways and dirt roads. There’s often a strong wind that chills to the bone whether it’s rainy or sunny. I barely leave the car to avoid scaring the flocks into flight, and when I do park on the shoulder, I’m careful not to step in the concrete-like mud that can glue itself for days to my shoes.

The journey is about the birds, a spectacle of thousands of them all around me. Their honks and quacks are audible long before they’re visible. Up close, their wings whir like thunder when a flock of snow geese takes to the air all at once. The whole experience leaves me teary-eyed and breathless with wonder.

A late start meant I missed the sunset at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, when snow geese typically take wing en masse heading to the surrounding rice fields to feed, and other birds fly in for the night. Just as it got dark, I decided to drive the six-mile auto route anyway before the staff locked the gate for the night. Blasting the heat with the windows rolled down, I could hear the honking of invisible geese in the air. I switched off the engine and just listened in the darkness. It’s a sound I crave all year during their absence, and there was something magical about hearing it for the first time this season in darkness.

I spent the night at a motel in Willows and climbed into the car in the rain before dawn. It was 47 degrees, about 20 degrees above what it can be when it’s clear. I arrived at the refuge and awaited the return of the geese at sunrise. Only they didn’t come that day, a first in my experience.

Eventually in full daylight, I meandered slowly down the dirt road watching the many species of ducks emerge from their evening resting spots. Bundled up in my thermals and layers, I opened the windows. For the first time in my years of morning visits at the refuge, I could hear the ducks’ calls that are typically drowned out by the chattering geese. It was a sweet, soft chorus. I smiled coming around the bends and greeting the species I hadn’t seen since last year.

Where were the geese? I would have to explore the backroads and look for them.

I took off in search of the snow geese, white-fronted geese and tundra swans, driving the backroads and stopping on the shoulder for whatever surprises greeted me on the way. I love these discoveries, the mix of knowing that something amazing will show up, just not knowing what.

At 8:00, the temperature had risen a single degree to 48. I’d been up for three hours. The wind was blasting now, whistling against the car even with the windows closed. A bald eagle on the ground took flight, working hard as it flapped in the wind and drizzle. A kestrel was wobbling on a wire, barely able to hang on. The horizon was full of distant geese aloft and on the move.

The sky opened up with rain in earnest as I slowly drove down Road Z in anticipation. And there were birds I always seek out, in their usual spot feeding and resting in the flooded field near some rice silos—tundra swans, this time in the company of ducks and white-fronted geese. I rolled down the window to listen to them cooing and put my binoculars up to my eyes. Immediately I was pelted in the face with rain so I leaned over to keep it to a drizzle. And then… thousands of snow geese flew in, circling and cackling away as they descended into the water with the swans. I turned the car around to watch instead through the passenger window, letting my belongings get wet instead of me.

The roaring in this video made on my older generation camera is the sound of the wind masking the more appealing sound of the geese.


Snow geese flying above tundra swans and ducks

I decided to take one more spin through Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge before my drive home. The visitor center staff, who have come to know me, explained that the geese typically spend the day in the refuge only when it’s sunny and prefer the farm fields when it’s overcast and rainy.

I drove the auto tour route again, well under the speed limit of 15, and looked upward for raptors. A soggy peregrine falcon was perched just above me. Further along, I saw a distant dark triangle in a tree, looking like a kite that had gotten stuck. Once I used my binoculars, the kite became a red-tailed hawk, spreading its wings and tail out to dry. There were multiple raptors in that position along the route, soaked from the earlier downpour and unable to fly until they dried out.

Turkey vulture drying wings in Sac Refuge 12-2015
Turkey vultures in Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

I was a little sad when I pointed the car toward the freeway to head home. I drove across the overpass and as I descended before the entrance to I-5 South, in the field in front of me was an enormous flock of snow geese. I stopped on a pull-off and made the short video that’s posted at the top of this post. I couldn’t imagine a better way to end this year’s birding retreat.

Snow geese photo by Len Blumin
Photo of snow geese by Len Blumin, used with permission

I don’t know why being with these birds draws me so irresistibly. I only know that I am deeply moved by their company. My homing instinct brings me every winter on my own rejuvenating migration.

Len Blumin’s stunning bird photography can be found at his Flickr photostream.

 

Dreaming of the Canyon Country

Bryce viewed from the trailhead before descending into the canyon
The view from the trailhead of the Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

Recovering from an injury, this year’s spring hiking season came and went. Although it’s now summer, I’ve been yearning for a favorite springtime destination, the canyon country of the Southwest, so I poked around and found my photos of a trip to Utah. My explorations there date back to the 1980s, but this trip in 2004 was the first to include the new technology of a digital camera.

Although photo-sharing sites have been around a long time, I haven’t wanted to use them because the images alone convey an incomplete picture without a narrative. It’s the writer in me. Now I can unearth the photos and share them with the full story, bringing the experience to life until I can explore the canyons again in person.

Spring in the canyon country is my favorite time to visit. It’s also a gamble, an experiment in arriving late enough to avoid snowstorms but early enough for sufficient moisture to see wildflowers before the dry, intense heat bakes the high desert.

On this particular trip, it was warm and sunny when my friend and I set up camp in Dixie National Forest just outside Bryce Canyon National Park. Without the crowds that come in summer, we had lots of solitude, another reason to come this time of year. Hiking in our tee-shirts through the striking rock formations, we planned to spend at least a couple days there.

Bryce doorway with pine
Archway on the Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

The aptly named Fairyland Loop was stunning. Our eight-mile walk began and ended with a sweeping view for miles. When we returned to the canyon rim, we could see approaching clouds.

During the night at our campsite at 8,000 feet, it started to snow. There were already a couple inches on the ground when we awoke and it was coming down heavily. We broke camp and skedaddled out of there before we got stuck in the infamous muck that the red rock trails and dirt roads become when wet. We drove through the snowstorm on the paved highway to just outside Capitol Reef National Park, low enough at 5,000 feet that the snow had become rain. We spent the night indoors, dried out our wet gear, and waited for the storm to pass.

The next day was cloudy and cool, with ephemeral waterfalls gushing over the canyon walls above the valley in Capitol Reef. With our four-wheel drive car, we navigated the drying but sticky dirt roads to our backcountry campsite. A couple times, we stopped and stuck a trekking pole into the water flowing through the washes across the roadway, measuring the depth to make sure it was safe to drive through them.

At first, the arid environment dried the landscape so thoroughly that there was no sign of the previous downpour and the resulting flash flooding only a day earlier. But then we were lucky enough to be there for the burst of flowers that the high desert is famous for. Within a day, sprouts were visible. Within two days, the first flowers appeared. By the third day, the landscape erupted in color. For the rest of our trip in Utah, everywhere we went, the red rock country had been transformed by the rain.

Dwarf evening primrose blooming after Capitol Reef stormDwarf evening primrose, Capitol Reef National Park


Golden mariposa lily in Capitol Reef vertical croppedGolden mariposa lily, Capitol Reef National Park

Oak and sandstone in Capitol ReefOak and sandstone, Capitol Reef National Park

Common prickly pear near Moab cropped

Common prickly pear cactus, near Moab

Globemallow explosion after desert rain in southern UtahGlobemallow, near Moab

Prince's plume near Moab

Prince’s plume, near Moab

Claret cup cactus in Capitol Reef

Claret cup cactus, near Moab

Another great joy when visiting the canyon country is discovering the rock art by the native people who lived there up to 2,000 years ago. Yep, I need to get back there in the spring.

Petroglyph panel in ArchesPetroglyphs, Arches National Park
(I don’t know the era or tribe of the artists—I welcome that information by email)

From Charleston to Castro Street

Glide Description-Unconditionally

Glide, Unconditionally

Last week, I filed silently into Glide Memorial Church on an evening after work. Inside the church sanctuary and adjacent to the entrance, I walked past the memorial posters with photos and names—Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson. Their faces were spread across the first pew, reserved entirely for them.

I found a spot in the middle of the many rows and took my seat. I looked around at the rainbow spectrum of people surrounding me. Eventually there were more than 350 of us. We had come to honor the nine people murdered in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, targeted because they were African American. I guessed that others there were like me, not knowing any of the dead personally. Yet we had all come to honor them as our kin.

Waiting quietly for the vigil to begin, I felt immediately at home despite typically having no connection to churches. Fifty feet above me were timbers installed in 1929 and painted with pastel flowers. The stained glass windows featured flowing patterns in bright greens, blues, reds. Banners hung around the perimeter. “We are all precious and accepted.” “Justice.” “Liberation.”

My tears started with the first words from the man who began the ceremony. Wearing a tee shirt emblazoned “Love Heals,” he told us, “We did not come here to tear down—we came here to lift people up. Thank you for your head and your heart. We will not break up. We will put together.” He read a powerful poem about his personal experience as an African American and concluded by leading us all in a chant, “Black lives matter.”

One by one, individuals stepped up to the altar to light a candle. Nine times, a flame was lit in tall green cylinders set on a bright green tapestry with two large red hearts. After each one, a speaker picked up a poster and showed us the photo while reading about the person whose life was taken. Between the readings, we all paused in silence to the chime of a metal singing bowl, reminiscent of the Buddhist retreats I have attended.

At tables around the church were Action Stations—places to share condolences with the Emanuel African Methodist Church, write letters to the South Carolina legislature to remove the Confederate flag, create a patch for a quilt of comfort and solidarity, take signs of protest and hope to share, record a video of what needed to be said, and a brainstorming list of “pathways/future actions to challenge racist structures and systems.”

Grief was just the first step. As the evening’s printed program said, it was a time to remember and a time to act.

______

The following morning, when the news of the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage was announced early in the day West Coast time, the Bay Area community exploded in jubilation.

Just minutes after I awakened, horns were honking around town, even the boats in the harbor. At work, we cried and laughed and hugged each other. On the eve of Pride weekend, people flocked to San Francisco City Hall and Castro Street in spontaneous parties. Everywhere there was a celebration, whether it was at someone’s desk or filling the street. We smiled and greeted strangers, with a tangible flood of joy for the whole weekend.

On an ordinary weekday afterward, I found myself drawn to a personal pilgrimage alone, to express my gratitude more privately.

In the 1970s, 575 Castro Street in San Francisco was Harvey Milk’s photography shop and LGBT activist hub. It was the center for launching the campaign of the nation’s first openly gay man elected to prominent public office as well as a national movement—and the epicenter for events that ultimately led to Harvey’s assassination.

For the first time after decades living in the area, I visited the former camera store. Although it’s been nearly 37 years since Harvey’s death and Castro Camera is long gone, I needed to come here to honor his memory and the success he helped create. Today, the building is the home of the Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store.

Harvey Milk-575 Castro Street door signSign on the front door of 575 Castro Street honoring Harvey Milk

Inside, among the clothing and mugs for sale, Harvey’s spirit was celebrated in photos and videos. On the wall was the quote that showed he knew what he was risking: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door.”

It didn’t feel right to leave without buying something to further the cause. I left with a small rainbow pin for the bulletin board at my desk.

Standing on busy Castro Street outside, I said a silent thank you to Harvey. No candles, poems, or chimes this time. Just the tears.

A rainbow pin now prompts me to remember what one woman shared during the Glide vigil. “Love is more powerful than hate. We can overcome. We have practiced over decades radical acceptance. We are the hope. We must continue.”

Learn about the important work of Glide and the Human Rights Campaign.

UPDATE:  I shared this post with Glide to express my appreciation, and they added it to the Glide blog. I am deeply honored.

Following Flower Season

Tiburon mariposa lily - 1

For years I’d heard about the threatened and protected Tiburon mariposa lily. A small population of individuals blooms for a few weeks on a single serpentine outcrop at Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve, and nowhere else in the world.

I at last decided to find the lily, researching its location online. I stumbled around on the crisscross of unmarked trails and found the general vicinity where the plant grows. I headed out alone, late in the day when the shadows were long and the trails were empty. I ended up on various side trails, poking around along the rocks. To protect them, there is no signage marking the exact spots where the lily grows. I had memorized the photos I’d seen, but realized since it’s not a showy flower and only the size of a quarter, I could easily miss it.

And there it was, right beside the trail. A single flower.

Tiburon mariposa lily - 2
Tiburon mariposa lily, Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve

It was deeply moving to sit beside one of the world’s rare living things. I reached to touch it as I do with most plants, but extra gently. In the silence I appreciated that it exists, and felt grateful to those who arranged for The Nature Conservancy to purchase and protect this property until it could become public land.

That first visit to Ring Mountain was six years ago. I still visit each June to see the flowers, as I did a few days ago. This season after years of drought, the plants could barely eke out their blossoms, noticeably smaller and paler than I’ve ever seen them.

There is a depth of connection that comes with returning to familiar places over time. I have come to know which trails to hike at which time so that I can visit particular flowers I’m fond of.

This year, I’ve missed nearly the entire wildflower season while I’m recovering from the sprain that accompanied my broken ankle in January. Except for the Tiburon mariposa lily, a late bloomer that grows not far from the trailhead, I’ve had to be satisfied with memories and photos from previous trips. I’m smiling, though, looking at these images and thinking about next year.

Oakland mariposa lily - Mt. Tam Van Wyck Meadow 5-2013
Oakland mariposa lily, Bootjack Trail, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

 Baby blue eyes at Mt Tamalpais 3-2009
Baby blue eyes, High Marsh Trail, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

California bead lily at Mt Tamalpais 5-2013 California bead lily, TCC Trail, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

Winter Portraits in Contrasting Climates

Stairs and Mississippi River 11-2014

I find it incredible that we can step on an airplane and in a matter of hours go from one climate to another. Although I grew up in frigid and snowy Michigan, I’ve been on the West Coast for many years. Since I don’t have to navigate the day to day difficulties associated with living in northern climes for more than a few days at a time, visiting the Midwest in winter has become novel and exciting.

On Thanksgiving morning a few months ago, I headed out from my relatives’ home in Minneapolis for a walk alone in the park along the Mississippi River on a sunny windless day. It was three degrees.

Covered in every layer known to humanity head to toe except for my nose and eyes, I was comfortable. I wore insulated boots, thermals on top and bottom, a flannel shirt, a fleece jacket, and the vintage thinsulate and wool coat that I’ve had for almost 30 years. Under the insulated hood was a neck warmer covering my chin and a fleece hat, and on my hands were the wool mittens my mother knitted for me decades ago, doubled up with two on each hand and rewoven multiple times to repair the fraying thumbs.

I was delighted to be outdoors in the quiet solitude of the morning. It had been so cold that there was no open water in the broad channel, with solid ice along the banks and mini floes in the middle. I descended down the long stairway to the river’s edge.

Stairway descending to Mississippi River 11-2014 3Between the sounds of crunching through snow underfoot, an accompaniment that took me back to childhood memories of Detroit, I stopped to observe the long shadows of the bare trees and the contrast of grays and browns against the bright blue overhead.

Snow trees and shadows 11-2014 1

Black-capped chickadees flitted above me, adapted to spend the whole winter in such a fierce climate. I later learned that these little songbirds have no measurable fat every morning, yet are able to create and store a fat layer each afternoon that gets them through the night.

Bare tree silhouette 11-2014I returned home to California at the peak of the winter waterfowl migration, what is typically the green season when the rain starts. In early December after the first rains, the parched earth in the Central Valley wildlife refuges was sprouting with green.

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge sprouting 12-2014Hundreds of thousands of snow geese had arrived to escape the northern winter, congregating in Sacramento and Colusa National Wildlife Refuges.

Snow geese feeding at Colusa 1-2015

Snow geese in Sac 12-2014And later, I enjoyed the return of the green season myself on a favorite trail in Mt. Tamalpais State Park.

Beverly at Mt. Tam 1-2015