Sunday, October 23, 2016


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They used to say humans are the only animals who use tools. Then someone noticed monkeys using tools and even ravens using tools. I haven’t kept up with all the animals that have been discovered to use tools, but I often think about the underlying question of what basic attributes set us apart as human beings. Until recently, everything that occurred to me fell short. Other animals think and learn and remember, and they feel pain and pleasure and emotion, and so on.

Then I wondered if humans are the only creature that can be honorable or dishonorable. Many animals can be cunning, but it seems to me their cunning is in the service of their true nature. A wolf doesn’t wear sheep’s clothing, but it probably would if it ever became as clever as a human. You’d never need to ask an animal what its code of honor is. I’d like to ask our presidential candidates what their code of honor is. What are the top three to five ideals they have lived by? Do they have a history of working for public benefit or private gain? Can they make a joke at their own expense or do they make jokes about others? Do they take responsibility for their mistakes or do they make excuses and rationalizations?

At around 7:45 this morning I heard a sudden loud holler come from the woods across the way. I was on Bolinas Ridge at the Serpentine Power Point and looked north to see where the noise had come from. The shout was so loud that I thought there must be a rambunctious hiker on the Cataract Trail. But as the sound sank into my brain cogs for further processing I realized the sound had come from a coyote. A couple minutes later the coyote howled again—and yes, I mean howled! It was soon answered by other coyotes with howls, barks, yips and whatever other sounds coyotes make. Icing on the cake of a gorgeous morning.

I thought of another potentially distinct human trait. Humans feel shame. Many years ago, I took an emergency medical technician class where one of the EMT instructors told us that sometimes people who choke on their food, even in a crowded restaurant, are found to have wandered off and quietly choked to death. The EMT said some people feel ashamed to have food stuck in their craw, so they go off by themselves to try to cough up the offending chunk, only to asphyxiate and die alone in a stairwell or restroom stall.

I suspect there is no such thing as a wild coyote that feels shame. I’ve seen dogs that appeared to feel shame, but I figure it was humans who did that to the dog. So, perhaps humans aren’t the only animals that feel shame. But they might be the only animals that inflict it.

Being honorable and dishonorable, bestowing praise and inflicting shame—these are probably uniquely human traits. Part of our true nature. But maybe at an even more fundamental level, humans are the only animals that face such dichotomies in their lives, and are therefore the only animals with the power to choose to act one way or the other.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Invitation to Salmon

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The season's first rains are sending invitations to all the salmon waiting in the deeps off Muir Beach. Redwood Creek has cut through the sandbar and is riffling into the sea. I didn't see any salmon trying to make a dash for it on Sunday morning, but the tide was still too low to fully connect creek to ocean. When it gets higher, who knows? 

I seem to miss the brief spawning season almost every year, but I'll never forget one crazy morning, probably 25 years ago, when I saw several salmon heading upstream to spawn in Redwood Creek, way up in the back where Muir Woods and Mt. Tam State Park share a boundary. At one point the salmon had to jump up out of the creek and into the mouth of a metal conduit pipe where the water was shooting out like a fire hose, then go-go-go to get through to the other side and back into the less insane, but still fast-moving creek.

Right here is where Redwood Creek meets the Pacific Ocean. Many hundreds of years ago, long before Sir Francis Drake sailed the Golden Hind past these shrouded shores, young Coast Miwok probably stood right here, or at least very close to here, during the season's first rains, knowing that bounty from the sea was on its way. Of course, the sands of time have no doubt shifted over the years--and there aren't any more grizzlies lurking in the willow thickets--but Redwood Creek has for centuries poured down from Mt. Tamalpais and flowed through Muir Woods and Frank's Valley out to Muir Beach. In the dry season the creek would disappear into the sand before it reached the ocean, just as it does today, and anyone today can still see that it must have been a time for celebration when that sandy dam was breached by the season's first rains.

I drove a short way up Frank's Valley to check the creek where it flows under this old wooden bridge. The railings are covered with lichen, and when a lady jogged across it, the whole thing bounced and swayed. The creek was slowly gurgling along, still quite shallow and clear, not yet singing the song of migrating fish: the splashing of coho as they muscle their red and silver bodies past all obstacles to an apotheosis deep in the forest among towering redwoods, bright ferns and scarlet waxy caps.

An ultramarathon was being run that morning, with the finish line at Muir Beach. Years ago I was out doing photography in the rain, high on a ridge above Tennessee Valley, thinking I had the place completely to myself, when this guy with huge, muscular thighs came bounding up the trail, hardly even breathing hard, running a 50K.

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Saturday, October 15, 2016


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"Many people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with the simulation hypothesis, the argument that what we experience as reality is in fact fabricated in a computer; two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation."

--Tad Friend, from the article Adding a Zero in the 10/10/16 issue of The New Yorker

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In my opinion as a non-billionaire nature guy, the "simulation hypothesis" mentioned above is a good sign. It means the hyper-rational, hyper-materialistic worldview that's been building for three hundred years or so is about to implode in a glorious reductio ad absurdum. On the other hand, perhaps the four river otters I saw feeding and playing in this stretch of Lagunitas Creek, where it empties into Tomales Bay, were secretly engaged in espionage for the great programmer in the sky.

Not that I think the tech billionaires are entirely wrong, mind you. I think it's more a matter of perspective, or even language. If a young man who eats, drinks and defecates code senses that his life is a simulation, it could seem reasonable in his mind that a computer is behind that sensation. In a sense, he is right. The computer that's behind the simulation he senses is implanted in his own brain. In alchemy, they call that the uroboros, the snake that swallows its own tail.  

I wonder if I could get some kind of reward for straightening them out. At least one of those guys is bound to figure it out sooner or later, assuming they don't just leave the thinking to someone else. I mean, in that case, forget it. How would they know the hired scientists aren't just working for The Man?

I would recommend those two tech billionaires take the red pill, like the ones all over this rose bush. You can't hire scientists to plumb the depths of The Matrix for you. You have to go yourself.

In the end, we're not just bits of computer code. We are objects bathed in light.

I believe we are born with a tendency toward expanding our awareness, our consciousness. Most take the blue pill and live in the simulation. A few take the red pill, or are given it without their knowledge, only to end up getting hacked before they reach the bottom of the rabbit hole. 

Meanwhile, a California bay laurel holds the world together with its roots and its branches.

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Saturday, October 8, 2016


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I haven't been around the north side of Mt. Tam in a long time. Fairfax-Bolinas Road remains closed and gated just past Azalea Hill. I was told by a lady driving out of the closed area that Caltrans hopes to be able to reopen the road in a month. Apparently there was a big washout, and lots of new retaining walls are going in.

It was still dark, just before dawn when I got out there. As the night turned to day I enjoyed all the birds coming to life: a golden-crowned sparrow down from the Sierra was whistling "ho hum" from an oak tree, with a California towhee kicking around in the leaves underneath it and flickers squeaking to each other from the tree tops. A covey of quail was companion-calling along the trail, and resident white-crowned sparrows chipped back-and-forth in the coyote brush.

I'd planned to go to the Lily Pond, but since I couldn't drive there I just wandered around Azalea Hill. I was mulling over the topic of "awareness" -- in part because I got doored for the first time in my life while I was biking home from work last Tuesday. Riding along Market Street near Civic Center there was a guy who appeared to be obliviously standing on the edge of the curb to my right, with something slung over his back that was protruding into the bike lane. Just as I nudged left to give him room I was instantly faced with a car door being swung open right in my path, impossible to avoid.

I usually see the bad Uber drivers (who don't pull over to the curb) and their knuckle-headed fares (who blindly open doors into bike lanes, often while spacing out on their phones), but this time my attention had been drawn to the guy on the right, so I didn't see the car stop to my left. 

Awareness is always important, whether on the streets of San Francisco or out in nature, and of course when doing nature photography. I don't know who said it first, but I love Gary Crabbe's teaching that goes something like this: don't include anything in your picture that you don't want. It basically means to compose very carefully, to look closely at the entire frame, from the middle bits where your attention is mainly focused, to the edges that often escape our attention until we view the image at home.

The French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes wrote that all we are is awareness: "I think, therefore I am."

To me, the next question is, "What is the nature of that awareness?" Why does it love life? Why does it dream? What if so-called inanimate objects experience awareness? How can I increase my own awareness, and how can increased awareness improve not just my photography but my life? Awareness is paying attention. If we always direct our attention toward a small circle of objects or ideas, we will miss all the action going on outside that circle. If we see the world only as objects we can touch, we miss all the action going on in our inner lives.

It's always good to get out and make some photographs, even if I'm not feeling particularly inspired, even if I have no idea what I want to shoot. To state the obvious, if I want to be a photographer, I have to go out and take pictures! I need to stay in shape, keep my hands familiar with my camera, my mind familiar with the technical know-how to execute the images I want to make. Also, I find that just being out in nature is its own reward--the scent of the grass, the open spaces, working my legs up a dirt trail, listening to the birds, spotting a mandala of coyotes (I like to think of groupings of four as mandalas)--even if I don't get a particularly good image out of it.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fading Season

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The day after the Sound Summit concert, all was quiet on the mountain again. Patches of California fuchsia provided the only wildflower color, exuberant among dried-up grass stems.

I spooked a few deer browsing below the fuchsia and, a little higher up, a smattering of skinny-looking, nearly colorless wild turkeys as I watched the fading harvest moon sink between the crowns of Doug fir trees. Up near Rock Spring, a pileated woodpecker was working the old Doug fir snag where the Cataract and Benstein trails diverge.

Down along the creek there was no running water for quite a ways. Just a few pools with clusters of water striders on top and a darting fish or two below. Bees buzzing down along the stream's edge looking for safe places to land and take a drink. A blue dragonfly hawking through bugs whirling over the water, its wings pattering like the sound of dry paper.

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Dark Thoughts, Light Heart

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Last night I finished the book, Untamed, that I mentioned in my last post. One of the hallmarks of a great storyand this is also a true storyis that it leaves you choked-up, in love with the cast of characters (good and bad), and with plenty of food for thought.

One of the great conflicts in the book (without giving away too much) involves humanity's insatiable appetite for wild-caught seafood, even when it involves a lot of collateral damage, or so-called bycatch. We are great at thinking up ways to turn wildlife into food and money, and Untamed was a good reminder that a lot of peoplemaybe even mostgenuinely don't care about the cost to wild nature as long as they get what they want from it. 

I can see their point. It's harder to care.

It's hard to admit that wehumanity in generalare doing all that killing. We are a diverse bunch: vegetarians and omnivores, peaceniks and roughnecks, rich and poor, lovers of life and miserable sonsabitchesand everything in between. We treat our beautiful, bountiful planet as if the shelves of the local store had plenty more of them. Earth all filthy and used up? Buy another one!

Not to mention that today is the 15th anniversary of 9/11. I don't think any event in my life has made me feel more patriotic and vengeful. What a world.

I feel lucky to be able to let it all go, to lighten my heart, even if just for a day, by heading out into nature. A day of recreation on Mt. Tam puts some distance on all the problems in the world. I can ruminate on the troubles out there (as if solutions will pop into my head!), only to get side-tracked by a carpet of tanoak leaves, the laughter of acorn woodpeckers, the movement of a squirrel, the scent of bay laurel leaves or sunkissed grass, a patch of rosinweed at season's end.

This is a shot of the same tanoak that appears in the picture before it, Tanoak Cornucopia. It's one of the tanoak's seven trunks. All those fallen leaves and catkins in the previous image are gathered in the hollowed-out middle of the seven sisters. I stopped at first because I've stopped at this tree many times in the past. Back in 2003 I made a photograph of the forest floor under the canopy of this tree, and I always remember that shot when I walk by. 

I was on my way to Potrero Meadow to look for milkweed plants and monarch caterpillars. I don't think I've seen milkweed at Potrero Meadow since 2011, and I haven't seen a monarch caterpillar on a Mt. Tam milkweed since 2003. 

I might not have thought a manzanita branch could still capture my interest after all these years, but what do you know. You never get tired of some things, I guess.

After I rounded Potrero Meadow (no sign of milkweed or even jimsonweed this year) I looked up at the edge of the forest and zeroed in on a nice fat acorn. It seemed as beautiful as a ripe peach, as if some primordial memory from my species' hunter-gatherer past had just discovered a treasure. I knew I wanted not just to photograph it, but to hold it in my hands for a while, so I carried it with me as I hiked back to the car. Wondering why an acorn would be fuzzy....

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Friday, September 9, 2016

Ode to Sutro Sam

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The October-December issue of Bay Nature magazine’s feature on river otters got me thinking about good old Sutro Sam, who delighted a lot of people during his brief stay at Sutro Baths in 2012. Sam eventually ate all the fish in the tank and had to move on to greener pastures.

I’m reading a fascinating and beautifully written book called Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island, where author Will Harlan states that only relatively recently in human history did we lose the ability to live within our resource limits. As many others do, he implies that we lost a wisdom that we once had. But as I wonder about that I have my doubts. As hunter-gatherers we spread out over the globe in search of greener pastures, just like Sutro Sam, until we learned that through agriculture and animal husbandry we could stay in one place and even continue to prosper as our numbers grew. In one respect, our survival strategy as hunter-gatherers didn’t change. In an agricultural society, resource depletion just takes longer.

By 2016 agricultural society has almost entirely supplanted hunter-gatherer societies. Human populations and markets have become so huge that we’re faced with the possibility of whole aquifers and even whole resource stocks being entirely consumed. People are just trying to make a living, but the resource—even when it’s in an ocean—turns out to be finite. The ocean is amazingly productive, but it isn’t magically so.

Maybe we’re a lot more like Sutro Sam than we like to admit, taking care of our immediate needs with little or no thought about where it all leads.

Harlan also mentions in Untamed the observations of NASA scientist James Lovelock, who noticed self-regulating systems in the earth’s atmosphere and in other natural processes, and way back in 1969 “came to a startling conclusion: the earth is alive.”

“He proposed,” Harlan continues, “that the earth is a superorganism—one giant living system that includes not just animals and plants but rocks, gases, and soil—acting together as if the planet was a single living being.”

I like the analogy, but it’s too bad the earth doesn’t reproduce! Then we would have greener pastures to move into. On the same page as the rest of this stuff, Harlan quotes the “wild woman” who is the subject of his book who says, “We cannot grow infinitely on a finite planet.” It’s such an obvious and simple fact that surely everyone sees it. Yet we keep chowing down like Sutro Sam, with no more intelligence or perspective, no more forward-looking consciousness, than a river otter’s.

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Beach of Mystery

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I haven't done an early rock-n-roll session in a long time -- getting up early enough to be somewhere by sunrise, that is. I kind of got faked out by yesterday's clear weather. I could see stars out when I woke up on Friday morning. Not so much on Saturday. But I was kinda sorta up early anyway, so I went for it.

You never know what you're going to find when you go someplace new. And sometimes you don't find the new place right away because it's still dark out. I overshot my main destination and had to hang out somewhere else until it got light enough to see my way around.

Sunrise came a little before 7 a.m. today, and low tide hit just past the hour. I was excited to find sea palm exposed on an accessible reef. I've never been able to walk right up to sea palm before. I've seen it at Salt Point in the past, but it was gone the last time I looked for it. If you're thinking I get excited about sea palm because they remind me of Hawaii, you'd be only partly right. Okay, I'm kidding. They do not remind me of Hawaii. What they remind me of is sea palm strudel, which I've had at one place only, Ravens Restaurant in Mendocino.

Very nice reef for tidepooling, but I didn't try to do any photography of tidepool critters because it was still too dark. Also, the total lack of starfish has got me down. Tidepools should, at the very least, have a few starfish just to give your reef-roving eyes something fun and easy to catch once in a while. The poor bastards are still fighting the wasting disease, a viral infection that turns them into mush.

I'd love to see a timelapse of tafoni forming.

Interesting tidbits in the pebbly sand include a couple of baby sea urchins. I couldn't tell until I got home and viewed several frames in succession that the smaller urchin was moving.


Here are the tafoni pits full of little pit-forming denizens.

A closer view of the tiny beans that scrub out the hollows.

You pretty much notice the dead whale right off. Even if your eyes are closed. I was interested to find the backbone exposed like this since I'd never seen anything like it before on a beach. Turns out some biologists from the California Academy of Sciences came down and did some harvesting. They determined, among other things, that this was a juvenile female humpback whale that was likely killed from a head injury sustained when it collided with a ship. It washed up less than a couple of months ago, on July 24. The remains were still being pecked at by numerous gulls, and a pair of fresh coyote tracks crossed its path. Where the tracks met the carcass, the remains looked like a beached carpet. I suspect the coyotes did not dine or linger.

Although I saw no stars of the sea, I did see a comet made of limpets.

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Friday, September 2, 2016

Back to Nature

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"You must go in quest of yourself, and you will find yourself again only in the simple and forgotten things. Why not go into the forest for a time, literally? Sometimes a tree tells you more than can be read in books."

--Carl Jung, in a letter to a colleague (from The Earth Has A Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology & Modern Life, edited by Meredith Sabini, 2008)

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"Civilized man . . . is in danger of losing all contact with the world of instinct -- a danger that is still further increased by his living an urban existence in what seems to be a purely manmade environment. This loss of instinct is largely responsible for the pathological condition of contemporary culture."

--from Jung's Collected Works, in the same book as above

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The practical advice Jung gave for remedying the loss of contact with Nature, within or without, is not much different from what is widely available today: to live in small communities; to work a shorter day and week; to have a plot of land to cultivate so the instincts come back to life; and to make the sparest use of radio, television, newspapers, and technological gadgetry. The purpose of doing these things, however, is not to repair Nature, but rather to let Nature affect us. 

--from the editor writing in the same book as above 

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Clean Air Day

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Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61"

--Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited

This morning on KQED radio I heard a mother tell an interviewer that, although her child had asthma, she believes clean air is too expensive. 

“We all want cleaner air,” she said. “My son has asthma, I get it. We all want to work on policies that will improve the environment. But the question is at what cost?”

When I heard the mother – Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen of Modesto – say those words, I did a mental double-take. God asked Abraham to kill his son, but a lesser god, the almighty dollar, only asks us to give our children asthma.

When the time comes that there are more "Spare the Air" days than "clean air" days, will we still think it's worth it? Is making our children and ourselves sick in the pursuit of making a living a necessary evil?

On one side we have Ms. Olsen advocating for the status quo, for business as usual, even though it harms her own son. On the other side we have another politician, Senator Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles, saying, "We know that we can grow and prosper without poisoning our communities or the lungs of our children."

I know we don't look to our politicians to be heroes, anymore than we look to our business leaders to be heroes. But here's hoping that the heroes among them will find the ingenuity to one day make "Spare the Air" days a thing of the past, and healthy prosperity a thing of the present.

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Cat Food Caper

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I started putting food out for a neighbor's cat after noticing one day while I was petting him that he was very skinny. Figuring a hungry cat is going to bring more hell on birds than a full cat, I decided to put out a little kibble in what passes for my back yard. 

The skinny cat's name is Ren. He's black-and-white and full of personality. Often when the neighbors take their frisky young German shepherd for a walk, Ren follows them. And I don't mean for just a few steps. He'll follow them on a long walk around the neighborhood, ducking for cover here and there, then catching up again. Sometimes the dog will playfully pounce toward Ren, and Ren will return the pounce, taking no guff. If Ren encounters someone else walking their dog down the sidewalk, he sits on his haunches and stares them down. The dog-walker usually crosses the street to pass. I watched out my living room window late one night as Ren did the same thing with a huge raccoon. They had a quick boxing match before going their separate ways.

So back when I started doing this I put the trail camera out back to see if Ren would find and eat the cat food. I found that he did in fact find and eat it, and on a couple of occasions he would even be waiting for me when I set it out in the morning. However, two other neighborhood cats also got in on the free lunch -- a small, short-haired black cat, and a large, long-haired gray cat. (Squirrels and birds seemed to ignore the cat food.) Using the clock on the trail camera, I took notes on when each cat showed up. Ren and the black cat came by every day, usually multiple times. The long-haired cat showed up too rarely to set a pattern, but Ren and the black cat invariably came during the day, probably because their owners let them inside at night.

Any cat food left out overnight became fair game for rats and raccoons. Ren didn't like other critters eating his food, so he started scooping sand and leaves on it after he was done. That was making a mess, so I started putting the food in my other neighbor's yard, which is just a slab of concrete. (There's a tall fence separating my yard from Ren's yard, but nothing between me and the concrete yard.) After seeing the night action, I put out only as much chow in the morning as the cats could completely eat during the course of the day.

Just on a whim, I decided the other day to start putting the food back in my yard, laying it out on a stepping stone. I was surprised to come home from work to see the pile still there. I checked it again in the morning and it was all gone. I noticed I hadn't seen my neighbors in a few days and figured they might have gone on vacation, and that would explain Ren's absence. But I don't know where the black cat lives and thought it was strange that the food would remain uneaten all day. I did not believe the rat would eat that much so I set my trail camera out there to see what was going on. Why was the food being left uneaten all day? Where were Ren and the black cat?

When I went out to check the camera after work, I saw that most of the cat food had been eaten. Usually it is all gone, so I knew something unusual was still going on. 

Well, the camera found out. The night life was having a party. Ren might indeed be wherever his owners put him when they go out of town, but the black cat had obviously been gone to get medical care. You'll see in the last frame of the video that he walks right past the chow before coming back and finally spotting it. He usually shows up early in the morning, but he didn't show up this time until just after noon, and he didn't return later for seconds, which is why there was still some food left.

My trail camera has been sitting in a drawer since the water hole on Mt. Tam dried up. I was glad to find a use for it by uncovering a back yard mystery.

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Aug. 21 follow-up (Ren returns):


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