Tag Archives: Northern California

The Woods

Sunol Wilderness landscape, California

It seems natural to me that someone who likes to be outdoors walking under the trees will also like to be indoors reading. Both are woodsy activities, the first self-evidently so and the second for the reason that paper has been made primarily of wood pulp for the past two hundred years. There is a special relationship between books and trees, and the reader and the hiker are not rarely the same person. Anyway, reading and hiking together make up 95% of what I would rather be doing at any given moment. I’ve never felt there was any disagreement between the two activities. Our library at home I consider a little forest, and any little forest makes an excellent library.

It’s one of the better parts of living where we do in coastal Northern California that we’re able to hike comfortably year-round. It never snows at sea-level (at least not since I was a child), the rain in winter is infrequent enough, and the heat in summer is rarely severe. In addition to the numerous state and county parks where you might go exploring there are dozens of undeveloped open space areas that have been purchased and set aside by altruistic civic groups. In fact, there are so many of these public open spaces in the San Francisco Bay Area that I’ve never managed to visit even half of them. All told, they must contain thousands of miles of hiking trails.

This past weekend, hiking in the Sunol Wilderness area (my photo above), I unintentionally terrified my daughter by reminding her to look out for mountain lions when passing under oak boughs. Hiking in the woods here isn’t entirely safe. In addition to the mountain lions there are also rattlesnakes, and no end of poison oak. I’m lucky in that both my children like to hike almost as much as they like to read. But the little forest of books at home has its dangers too. Physically or intellectually, certain books are still out of reach. Perhaps it’s wise to anticipate threats. A little preparation can make the unexpected discovery of wild eyes staring at you from the branch above less frightening, and more thrilling.

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The New Year on Foot

We survived the holidays after all. There was family galore and friends and no end of gift giving or of food. The boy got the secondhand Italian accordion he desperately wanted. The girl got the metal detector she is sure will make her rich. Despite the cold snap of two weeks before, we had nothing over the holidays but clear skies and sunshine. It felt like a very early spring.

On New Year’s Eve my daughter wasn’t feeling well so we stayed home and played chess and read books and watched Jeremy Brett in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. On New Year’s Day we packed up the car and drove to the coast. As the bird flies our destination was maybe twenty miles away, directly west. But automobiles do not fly and the winding highway over the Santa Cruz Mountains runs to nearly fifty miles.

The coast at Pescadero is one of my favorite places. It’s never crowded, unless it’s crowded with birds. The warm sun and chilly Pacific welcomed us back without a second thought.

The beach at Pescadero, California.

The girl went to work with her metal detector but only found a few scraps of tin foil. Soon she and her brother were building driftwood forts instead. We had an outdoor lunch of bread and cheese, almonds, apples, and chocolate. Walking the shore, we found numbers of mussels and other shells, and the remains of innumerable crabs of all sizes that had washed up the beach with the tide.

Crab shell at Pescadero Beach, Northern California.

At Pescadero you get two days out for the price of one. When you’re tired of the gulls and shorebirds at the beach you can walk inland along sand trails to Pescadero Marsh, a state wildlife preserve. In order to get there you must first pass under the weathered concrete bridge where Highway 1 spans the lagoon.

Highway 1 bridge over Pescadero lagoon.

Hiking the marsh with a pair of binoculars you will spot all kinds of birds, waterfowl and shorebirds as well as passerines and raptors. Even in the supposed depth of winter here in Northern California, there are always birds singing.

You could almost imagine that the landscape is untouched, it feels so wild. But the massive grove of Australian eucalyptus on the north side of the marsh was planted there more than a hundred years ago. The South African ice plant (Hottentot fig), which turns orange this time of year, was probably introduced more recently, to keep the dunes in check. Both are considered “invasive species” and unwelcome now, but the birds and deer aren’t xenophobes, and neither am I.

Hiking the marsh at Pescadero, California.

The wind kicked up. It got cold and it was time to leave. The traffic through the town of Half Moon Bay and over the pass back into the more populous lowlands of San Francisco Bay was just horrible. The prospect of returning to work after a break of more than ten days was no less so.

“Just a shack on a hill nearby here, with a fireplace and a little garden,” I told my wife. “And room for plenty of books, of course. That’s all we need. We could retire and walk around every day and never have to see or talk to other people. I don’t think we’d ever get tired of it.”

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My True Majority

Mendocino
I often daydream about losing my job. I arrive at the office one morning to find that my keycard no longer works. Or else I’m met by an HR representative and given ten minutes to clean out my desk. “What a relief,” I say and smile as I exit the building. In the good old days I was laid off every two or three years. My last period of unemployment (from September 2003 to March 2004) was a golden era. We were poor as dirt but had time for things. I walked alone in the hills. I read and wrote. I was thirty, a new father. My son had a bad case of roseola but a good attitude. There he is in a photograph, rashy and smiling, in a sunny courtyard of an old Spanish mission that we visited one day.

I turned forty last month. If any part of me was still waiting for real adulthood to arrive, I suppose this is it. Paul Giamatti once said in an interview that he never felt right until he turned forty. Some people have young souls and others have old ones, he said, “but I have a middle-aged soul.” I don’t know the age of my soul, but I feel all right. The young narrator of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine expects that age forty will mark “the end of the rule of nostalgia, the beginning of my true majority.” Only then, he calculates, will the weight of childhood ideas and associations be fully counter-balanced by ideas and associations acquired in adulthood. Instead I think: being seven, that was something! Being twenty-seven or thirty-seven? Not so much.

I marked my fortieth birthday by running away with the wife and kids to a cabin near Mendocino, about 150 miles north of San Francisco. At the cabin there is no mobile phone signal, no Internet access (it’s a luxury to be inconvenienced these days). There is, however, the sound of the ocean, there are birds, and there are lots and lots of trees. This is the California I like best, a half-wild bucolic territory of slow Victorian-era towns, valley vineyards framed in oaks, redwood canyons, roaring headlands, and salt fog. Let go from work, it’s just the place to run off to, a place to live on wild berries and sea urchins, or to slowly turn Sasquatch. Retirement is only twenty-five years away.

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Brief, False Summer

Every February in coastal Northern California we enjoy a false summer two or three days long. The weather has reverted now to what we call winter (cold enough for wool and with occasional rain), but this past Sunday was seventy-three degrees and golden. The grass stood up in astonishment. Trees stretched their fingertips into buds. We went out looking for birds in the wetlands and low hills at the edge of San Francisco Bay. My seven-year-old daughter picked tiny wildflowers and offered them to us in miniature bouquets. She and her brother counted seven or eight butterflies, several of them Monarchs.

My daughter’s middle name – Katharine – honors my childhood art teacher. Mrs. Yates gave private lessons. Every Thursday afternoon I would walk from school to her house in an older part of town. She offered milk and cookies, sometimes tea, at a table in her kitchen, where I worked on pencil sketches and watercolors. Mrs. Yates wore riding boots and kept her long black hair pinned up in a bun. She had a mole on her upper lip. Her radio was tuned to the classical station and I used to think about the names ‘Telemann’ and ‘Mendelssohn’ while I worked. Mrs. Yates once asked me to copy Picasso’s line portrait of Stravinsky without looking at my paper, and with the original turned upside-down.

I learned recently that Mrs. Yates died several years ago. I found her obituary in an online archive of obscure third and fourth-tier weeklies. She apparently still lived in the same house in the same inland railroad town that I left behind when I went to college twenty-two years ago. After my parents moved away, I never had a reason to visit. Mrs. Yates never knew that my daughter was named for her, and I’m sorry about that.

Out in the cattails on Sunday afternoon we found ourselves completely surrounded by wrens. There was a wren every twenty paces, in every direction. I had only heard them previously, but this time they bobbed into sight to briefly sing from a high point or to catch a bug before diving into the dry stalks again. The Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris) is a small thing with prominent white eyebrows. He lifts his tail when singing. Peterson was maybe fair but not very generous, I think, when he described the Marsh Wren’s song as “a reedy, gurgling series of notes.” Supposedly our western wrens are better singers than their eastern cousins.

According to Eliot Weinberger, killing wrens used to be bad luck in parts of western Europe and the British Isles, though an exception was made once a year when groups of ‘wren boys,’ dressed in women’s clothes or suits of straw, would make an annual hunt. “The slain wren was hung on a pole with its wings outstretched or carried on a bier decorated with ribbons and mistletoe or even in a miniature house complete with doors and windows. Its size was exaggerated: the boys pretended to stagger under the weight of the pole or bier, and in some places the bird was bound with heavy ropes and placed in a cart pulled by four oxen.”

There are places out in the marsh where the dense cattails – six and seven feet tall – have been bent down in wide swathes, as if herds of bison or elephants had laid down and spent the night. But maybe it was only the wrens.

At the ranger-staffed Nature Center not far from the marsh there are dioramas of dusty, taxidermied animals – a fox and a mule deer, a kite, owl, muskrat and rattlesnake, and a bird I hope to spot someday: the Loggerhead Shrike that impales its kill (insects, rodents, etc.) onto sticks or barbed wire for easier manipulation while eating. There’s also a room in the Nature Center that describes the lives of the Ohlones, a group of American Indian tribes that once occupied the coast from Big Sur to San Francisco.

The Ohlones appear to have arrived here about 9,000 years ago, before the bay filled with water in the long thaw after the ice age. There are probably villages still buried in the silt and mud beneath the bay. The Ohlones did not farm but caught fish and waterfowl from boats made of tule reeds. They hunted game and gathered acorns in the oak and redwood forests. After the Spanish friars came, their population was concentrated around the nearby missions of San Jose and Santa Clara, where they caught European diseases and died off in large numbers. The last fluent speaker of an Ohlone language died in 1939.

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Three Paragraphs of Bug Hunters


It’s the rainy season in northern California but we haven’t seen a drop since November. The nights are cold with occasional frost. The days are bright and warmer than they ought to be. This is the season, most years, when we guiltlessly spend our weekends indoors with books and board games. Instead we’re obliged to be outside. Saturday we hiked to a little farm in the hills and along the way found a spotted towhee hunting through the underbrush.

In the first chapter of The Peregrine, J.A. Baker recommends discarding any simple notions that would make small colorful birds mere accessories of the landscape. “Consider the cold-eyed thrush,” he writes, “that springy carnivore of lawns, worm stabber, basher to death of snails.” If we have nothing to fear in him, it’s only an accident of scale.

Our most common thrush is the American robin. One evening last week my daughter and I saw fifty of them in the greenbelt behind the house, that apparently inexhaustible nursery of insects and worms. They marched in alert formation, evenly spaced, eastward through the grass. What must the plodding beetle feel to look up into the bright red eye of the towhee or the robin’s depthless black?

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