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    Monday
    May222017

    Russian Gulch State Park, Wasting Syndrome, and the Way the Human Race Ends

    Sea stars along much of the North American Pacific coast are dying in great numbers from a mysterious wasting syndrome. Similar die-offs have occurred before in the 1970s, 80s, and the 90s, but never before at this magnitude and over such a wide geographic area. 

                                                                                                   -UCSC Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, April 2017, Sea Star Wasting Syndrome
     

    Explorers along the west coast of North America also found new stocks of coastal whales.  On his 1786 voyage that took him to Monterey Bay, California, for example, La Perouse remarked, “One cannot put into words the number of whales that surround us nor familiarity; they blew constantly, within half a pistol shot of our frigates, and filled the air with a great stench.”

                                                                                                                                                                                     -Callum Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea
     

    No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                         -H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds 

     

               Below are two slideshows of some photographs I took while hiking and kayaking around Russian Gulch State Park along the beautiful Mendocino coast last week.  Something you won’t see in the pictures are sea stars, which apparently have all died-off in a phenomenon called wasting syndrome that began around 2014.   Possibly associated with a virus called denosovirus or a spike in eastern Pacific Ocean temperatures during the last Pacific decadal oscillation, sea star bodies began to liquefy or turn to mush and melt away, limb after limb, asteroid after asteroid, from the Gulf of Alaska to Baja California (click here to view a sea star wasting map).   I remember witnessing wasting syndrome take effect and decimating the sea star population along the Northern California coast where, while they never appeared in abundance, their presence seemed to a regular fixture and expected part of the tidepools and rocky offshore outcroppings, often eating the flourishing aggregations of mussels covering the rocks.

     

    diseased pisaster ochraceus a
    Wasting Syndrome, Photo Credit: Christy Bell (right), Rachael Williams (left)


            I once had a conversation with a friend in which I remarked that I would love to have been able to see what the coast looked like a century ago because there must have been a significantly greater abundance of incredible sea life and animal species that are no longer around today (just imagine the beachcombing opportunities in the 1800s).    My friend wrote-off my point with the rejoinder that in a century from now people will be nostalgically longing to see the presumably healthier former state of the coasts of 2017.  While my friend was not wrong, I don’t think I was altogether wrong either (though had I traveled back in time a hundred years from now, it’s probable I would have seen even less of many species of whales and other marine mammals, such as the Northern elephant seal, that were hunted to the brink of extinction in throughout 19th and 20th centuries).  If one were to go back in time, century by century, with the purpose of examining the array of life on land and sea, their voyage would be brimming with a cornucopia of bizarre and beautiful plants and animals.  It’s not clear if the same can be said if one were to go forward in time, century by century, for our planet may eventually be transform into a desiccated, scrubbed down, barren, lifeless rock, like Venus, but who knows what Venus will be like one billion years from now.  Perhaps it will be like Earth. 

    Image: Whaling on Dannes Island, Abraham Speeck, 1634

             My friend’s broader point was that our reality is defined by what we think we know and that our perspectives are relative.  Humans a hundred years from now may perceive the state of the environment in which they live much like many present-day humans: with a sense of yearning for the edenic, biologically-rich past (although I wouldn’t want to venture too far back, for anything prior to the Neoproterozoic Era, one billion years ago, with its acid green skies, barren primordial seas, and frozen desert supercontinent seems like it could be pretty harsh) and apocalyptic dread for the future.  In a thousand years from now humans may view those who are alive today similar to how modern man largely views those who lived in 1,000 A.D. – as superstitious peons who were uninformed about the nature of reality due to restrictions (by no fault of their own, but imposed by time and history) related to knowledge, technology, repressive religious ideologies, and political constructs which limited their ability to scientifically appreciate their stations in life (although I think it would be difficult to make the case that those erstwhile denizens of Spaceship Earth were any less intelligent than many people are today, especially those holding political office).  (Many in developed societies probably see contemporary indigenous cultures in this light – as primitive, inferior, and backward, lacking internet technology and thus an accurate grasp of the how the world operates and who they truly are.)   The ignorance exhibited by our ancestors led to them to form incorrect conclusions about the shape and geography of Earth, as well as their position in the universe.  As highly-informed members of a technologically-advanced space-faring civilization, we consider ourselves to be more intellectually evolved than our predecessors (although most of must simply accept facts as truth without knowing why they’re facts; if the average person were asked to independently verify that the Earth is round or how they know that there are over 100 billion stars in Milky Way galaxy, they may have a hard time explaining this.)   It’s possible that in a millennium from now humans may look back at us with pity for our pathetically minuscule understanding of the extent and operations of universe (or universes).  Perhaps an alien species is already looking down upon humans now as we look down at colony of ants that perceive their domain to be the center of the universe, but are sorely mistaken. 

     

           
                Early last year, when the Zika virus made a splash, I was curious if it would infect everyone across the planet in a global outbreak of microcephaly.  I thought, “So this is the way humanity ends, with a virus that makes our heads small.  How fitting.”  This clearly did not happen, but it demonstrates that despite all the incredible and miraculous progress in combating bacteria, diseases, and viruses, humans remain susceptible to microbes, and the potential exists for our species to be wiped-out by an infectious particle or spore.  Some insects can be infected by a parasitic fungus called Cordyceps, of which there are over four hundred species.  When a Cordyceps fungus attacks a host, mycelium infects the insect, (sometimes neurologically, thus affecting its behavior) killing it and growing a fruiting body from the host.  The Jungles episode of the BBC’s Planet Earth series has a hauntingly beautiful montage (above) of various Cordyceps species and the insects they’ve infected and killed.  Is it possible that Cordyceps might one day evolve to infect humans, laying waste to us en masse via mind-controlling spores that drive people mad and produce giant fruiting mushroom bodies that erupt from our corpses?  Is there a chance that a wasting syndrome-like virus may one day lead to mass mortality among humans, liquefying our dismembered limbs and causing our heads to melt off, just as it has among the devastated eastern Pacific Ocean sea star population?  Since Cordyceps only infect arthropods, and the densovirus only infects only echinoderms, it is unlikely that these microscopic agents will induce a plague among humans.  But this is not to say that an epidemic could not appear in some other creative form that Mother Earth will have fashioned solely for us, and perhaps she’s simply waiting for just the right moment to show us what she’s got.  

    Russian Gulch from Land:



    Russian Gulch from Sea:

    Wednesday
    May102017

    Two Paths and Why Should I Care? 

    I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.

                                                                                                                                                                          –Deuteronomy 30:19 

    How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

                                                                                                                                                                          –Anne Frank


    Life is short, life is very short.  I like life, I like it.  I feel like that even if it ends up being short I got lucky because life is an amazing gift when you think about what you get with a basic life –not even a particularly lucky life, or a healthily life.  If you have a life it’s an amazing… Here’s your boiler plate deal with life, this is basic cable, what you get when you get life: you get to be on Earth – first of all, oh my God, what a location!  This is Earth, and for trillions of miles in every direction it fucking sucks so bad, it’s so shitty that your eyes bolt out of your head cause’ it sucks so bad.  You get to be on Earth and look at shit – as long as you’re not blind or whatever it is – you get to be here! 
                                                                                                                 
                                                                                                                                                                           –Louis C.K

     

                  Here are some pictures I took last week while visiting my go-to beach along the Northern California coast.   I’m extremely grateful that I have the luxury of time and the mental and physical faculties necessary to appreciate the multifaceted beauty, both on a macro and micro scale, of this incredible landscape.  When I think of my future I think of two different prospective roads that I can go down.  The less promising one is the dark road which involves me giving-in to my impulses and succumbing to bad habits.  This is the road of instant-gratification and selfishness, and leads to me becoming detached from nature, distanced from my loved ones and true friends, out of touch with reality, inarticulate, lacking confidence, unhealthy, unread, absent-minded, unproductive, stationary, feeble-minded, lethargic, and unable to properly and acutely interpret the world around me.  It is road of sorrow.  The other road, which is the one I seek to travel down, is a road filled with challenges, adventures (namely hiking, diving, and kayaking), sunrises and sunsets, a steadiness of mind and spirit, will-power, self-control, stability, courage, compassion for nature and my fellow man, love for my future-wife and family, good books to help quench my insatiable thirst for knowledge, and good beer to help quench my insatiable thirst for beer.  This road is filled with completed writing, drawing, and art projects, lined by redwood trees and coral reefs where pods of dolphins swim and cast their wild dreams into lapis lazuli seas beneath the full moon and twinkling stars, and on this road I am always striving to gain a better understanding of the world around me by closely studying the natural world, as well as an appreciation for our position in the universe by gazing at the night sky and contemplating the cosmos even if I can barely comprehend an infinitesimal fraction of it.  That I am freely able to make the choice as to which path to embark upon is a gift beyond belief, just as it is a gift to drive to the coast on a sunny California afternoon, pick my way down a steep bluff decked by colorful wildflowers, and wander through tidepools brimming with life.  To be able to simply look at such beautiful objects – be they living sea anemones, turban snails, or shore crabs, or be they the discarded calcium shells of bygone mollusks or the sun-bleached and desiccated exoskeleton remnants of sea urchins, chitons, whelks, or abalone – is something I am eternally grateful for.  To be able to sit still and see these phenomenal expressions of nature – fresh pines growing from a tips of tree branch in spring, turquoise waves crashing a rocky shore, the rising moon and setting sun – is truly a blessing that no man or woman whom is physically free and mentally capable should ever take for granted. 

     

               Not that I am some intrepid or trailblazing explorer venturing into the deep recesses of Earth or across the frozen hinterlands of Narnia, but I like to think that I have proclivity to venture off the beaten path whenever I can and often do so alone.  Without a doubt, I have rarely, if ever, regretted doing this.  The rewards for going somewhere new and unknown, even if it is as simple as down a road which leads to an unknown destination, has almost always resulted in a positive outcome. (I acknowledge that theoretically had I pursued an alternative course in these instances the outcome could have been even better than the one that I proclaim to be retrospectively favorable, but what I’m trying to say is that when I throw caution to the wind, it usually works out well.)  Furthermore, the rewards of staying in shape and exploring new places is that you will most likely live longer and be able to see more amazing places.  This is evidenced by the numerous older folks (usually German men) that I have crossed paths while backpacking through various national parks through the country.  They have adopted a lifestyle of exploration and challenge, and their reward for having done so is that they get to live longer and see more cool shit.

     

              I feel guilty that I take the time to routinely visit the same beach and collect shells, thereby neglecting a rapidly increasing mountain of personal projects and responsibilities that I should be attending to immediately, and also while millions of people are enduring nightmarish conditions that I will never be able to wrap by head around.  Moreover, I feel guilty that I have seem to have stopped caring about the state of the world, about the Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani, Somali, and Yemenis civilians burning the in hellfire of the bombs that rain upon their homelands and are suffering for want of food, water, and medical aid in the aftermath of an arguable quasi-genocide and hellish conditions induced and subsidized by my own government.  I really want to care, I even want to pretend to care, and I used to care, but what happened to me?  Why do I care more about going to the beach to collect shells than I do about helping to improve situations of deprivation and destruction in the world?   Rather than getting into the reasons as to why I stopped caring, let me tell you about a way of thinking that would facilitate my caring again about the world, and to once more partaking as person who helps the planet and humanity as opposed to a spectator, a removed observer who is merely commenting on the creative ways humanity destroys itself and the environment.  The newfound approach to thinking (which is a perhaps a belief that I once held but had forgotten) is so rudimentary and obvious that is it admittedly stupid.  It is simply this: that it is not fair for me to go around enjoying the tremendous beauty of life on Earth and existence in general without any consideration for future generations of people (and other lifeforms) to do the same.  It is not fair for me to be taking regular excursions if I am not doing anything to balance out the detrimental impact me and my ilk are having on the world.  I want my little niece and whatever posterity associated with her and following her to be able to see things of beauty tantamount to that which I have seen.  She deserves to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets, to experience the thrill of falling in love, the adrenaline rush of engaging in whatever crazy outdoor adventure she decides to take on.  She deserves a chance to be able to go to the beach, pick her way down a bluff, and collect shells.  In this sense, my niece is a metaphorical representation for all of posterity, whom we should be fighting to preserve the natural world for, and for whom we should ideally be working together as brothers to leave this world in a better state then when we as individuals arrived on the scene.  If we can do that as a species, if we can only choose the right path, we may be able to ascend above the quarreling and unsustainable environmental destruction presently afflicting humanity and the natural world.  If our species could only choose preservation over destruction, knowledge over ignorance, compassion over intolerance, love over hate, life over death, then what will the reward be?  I believe the reward would be that we would get to live longer and see more cool shit. 

     

    Tuesday
    May092017

    Kayaking on the Russian River

            Below is a slideshow that features some pictures I took while kayaking down the Russian River earlier this week.  Not captured in the pictures is the substantial amount of wind I was contending with while going up and down the river.  I started off in Duncan Mills, where I was somewhat protected from the wind, but shortly after pushing off from the sandbar I experienced what I already knew was going to be the case: kayaking head-on into the wind as I made my way down the river and toward the coast.  I didn’t think this would be a problem because I figured the wind would assist in my return trip by essentially blowing the inflatable kayak back up the river against the flowing water, which it did not, although it undoubtedly provided some help as I was battling my way back up river.  Also, I didn’t really care about the wind for I felt that I could use the exercise anyway and, as I kept telling myself aloud, I had nowhere to go and all day to get there.  The wind made for an unruly river.  When I stopped paddling and rested the oar across my legs the wind would turn the kayak around and around in the water as though it were spinning down a draining sink.  This made for very frustrating photography conditions since I would point my phone-camera in one direction but due to the constant movement of the kayak and my fear of the oar being blown away I unable to take a take a picture of what I was aiming at initially.  One picture in the slideshow shows the kayak on a beach.  Immediately after I took the picture the wind lifted kayak away and it went flying down the beach, tumbling across the sandbar and doing somersaults and flips, and I went hobbling after it (I’m still recovering from a broken tibia and fibula) waving my fists in the air like a maniac and cursing myself for wanting to get out of the kayak and take the stupid picture in the first place.   On the way back I intermittently encountered choppy currents that required that I paddle with all my might so as to not flow back down the river and lose the minimal distance that I had worked so hard to achieve.   Although I was paddling like a madman I was making progress at a snail’s pace.  The water was tumultuous enough that I would say to myself, “What are we whitewater rafting up some rapids or something?”  Or, “What is this, some gale force wind?”  Then there was the water that was blowing into the kayak and accumulating at my feet.  On top of this there were psychological factors discouraging me on the return trip, namely that it was less interesting because I had seen it all before so I was less inspired to kayak back.  This lack of inspiration led me to play a sort of mind game in which I was making bets with myself that I would reach a particular point in the river after so many paddles in effort to incentivize me to keep kayaking so as to determine the accuracy of my speculation.   The coolest thing I saw the whole trip was a sea otter that was swimming in the water near the bridge at Duncan’s Mills.   The little guy was there both on my way out and on my way back in.  After returning to the sandbar and finalizing the trip, I concluded that I will be doing most of my kayaking in the ocean now, for sea kayaking is much more interesting.  I would have gone sea kayaking to start off with had it not been so windy on the coast that day.  

     

     

     

    Saturday
    Apr292017

    Beachcombing and Tidepooling in Northern California 

             One the best and most accessible places to explore tidepools in Northern California is Point Montara.  There is a lighthouse hostel which overlooks the ocean and from the hostel a trail winds down to a sandy beach.  During low tide the waves retreat and the extent of their former reach is indicated by the line of organic marine debris (shells, algae, fragments of dead crustaceans and mollusks) that has accumulated on the sand.  While this aggregation of marine debris may appear uninteresting, it is among this collection of material that one can find a galaxy of sea creature remnants that, if larger, one would marvel at, but because they are miniature they tend to be overlooked.  These miniscule dead sea creatures are visible to the naked eye if you get close enough, but their small size almost warrants a magnifying glass to properly observe their fascinating details.  And while it is possible to collect these tiny arthropods and mollusks with your fingers, it would not be unreasonable to use a pair of forceps in order to pick them up and transfer them into a mason jar.  (Whenever I go beachcombing I am reminded of Steven Millhauser’s beautiful short story, In the Reign of Harad IV, about a court miniaturist who sculpts impossibly small dioramas.)  Upon closer examination it becomes clear that many of the small shells are essentially baby snails, clams, limpets, mussels, chitons, crabs, or urchins that have died and washed ashore.  Although tragic, their deaths need not be in vain, for most shall disintegrate into the sand which forms the beaches of the shoreline, and some lucky exoskeletons may even be taken home with me and become part of a sculpture if I can get organized enough to not take the easy way out by going to be coast whenever I have free time and instead actually staying at home to work on my personal projects.

     


              The tidepools are a temporary world unto themselves, nearly each one a microcosm bursting with colorful intertidal sea life which changes with the cycle of the tides.  Of course, many intertidal residents will remain in their given tidepools longer than others: barnacles and sea anemones (which can live up to three-hundred years and can clone themselves, literally dividing their own bodies to reproduce asexually) are affixed to rocks more permanently than chitons, which graze on algae, or the numerous snails (some of which can live up to a hundred years) that seem to glide over the rocks in the tidepool.  In a healthy tidepool, the creatures inhabiting the intertidal zones compete for precious space the on the rocks, which can sometimes be entirely enveloped by lifeforms so as to appear as though the rock itself is single living organism capable of getting up and walking around on its anemone legs.  The sea anemones are some of the most striking creatures in tidepools.  Their phosphorescent bodies and tentacles (which contain the stinging nematocysts cells used to stun and capture their prey) seem to glow in brilliant hues of green, red, purple, and pink.  They are a reminder of how marvelous life on this planet is, and because they require a stable and clean ecosystem in which they are not stepped on in order to survive, they are also a reminder how fragile life on Earth is as well.


    Monday
    Feb202017

    New Zealand – A Smarter Way of Doing Things

                 What follows are three slideshows from a two-week trip to New Zealand I made last month.   Instead of explaining what the slideshows feature and where all these pretty pictures were taken, I am going to delve into a few notable aspects of human operations in New Zealand that puts Kiwi society on a more intelligent plane that most other modern societies which may find adopting and implementing the following ideas and practices advantageous.   One intelligent thing that New Zealanders do relates to their currency (instead of dead heads of state, the cash bills depict plants and animals): they have discarded the smallest coin denomination (the American version of which would be the penny) from their monetary circulation so as to curb the quantity of loose change in their pockets or on their shelves.  They simply round up or round down in the cost of purchases.  (Incidentally, the American cent actually costs more than two cents to make, and the primary reason that it has not been removed from circulation is because zinc industry lobbyists profit from its existence and exert pressure on American government representatives to not legislate its abolition). 

     

              The second observation pertains to driving.  New Zealand highways are very dangerous to drive on because of the curvaceous nature of the landscape the and successive variations in elevation (at least on the North Island).  The danger level is amplified by a minimal factor of two if you are not accustomed to driving on the left side of the road and in a car that has the steering wheel on the right.  The switched steering wheel affects one’s perception of the car’s dimension and position on the road (leading one to sometimes become off-centered and swerve a little too far to the left).  Regular mental reminders to stay on the left are necessary in to order become conditioned to this and to avoid doing what I did at least three times while pulling out of a parking lot and instinctually driving on the right.  In order to remind people that driving on New Zealand motorways is dangerous, the government has prudently installed road signs along the motorways to warn people to stay alert, pull over if you’re sleepy, that you’re entering a high crash zone, and so on.  Also, in lieu of intersections with stop lights, New Zealand for the most part has roundabouts which obviate the need for stop lights and keep the traffic flowing.  Separately, New Zealand society is much more safe, polite, and trustworthy than most others.  This is demonstrated by the fact that you pump your gas before you pay for it at the gas stations. When I rented a car but had to arrange to pick it up after hours I was instructed to walk to the rental car office from the airport, find the car with my name on the dashboard, and that it would be unlocked and the key would be in the glove compartment.  Those things would not fly in America because we are excessively distrusting of members of our own communities, live in fear (due in part to an vicious cycle perpetuated by an entertainment industry and government which advocates and exercises violence which is then used to justify measures to sustain a police state to ostensibly tackle the systemic problems created in part by the same criminal elements of our government who purport to resolve them.  This process is known the Hegelian Dialectic, where an entity creates a problem then proposes a solution which is implemented serving to benefit the party that has created the problem in the first place), and are raised in environments conducive to being afraid of each other, the outdoors, and the dark. 

     

               The last noteworthy items pertain to the conservation of natural resources.  For the most part, major cities in New Zealand (especially Auckland and Wellington) have not leveled the forest to make way for the city.  There are woods and parks throughout the city, and the residential roads are bursting at the seams with trees and vegetation.  This is especially noticeable from an elevated perspective, such as Auckland’s One Tree Hill, where a panorama of the city and its glorious preponderance of greenery can be appreciated.  The respect for the trees in New Zealand transfers to public restrooms where all paper towel dispensers have been banished and replaced with hand dryers in effort to conserve paper.  Tangentially, showers in New Zealand are built to be wholly enclosed so as to contain the steam from the hot water within shower unit, thus preventing the evaporated water from escaping into the greater bathroom and turning it into a sauna.  In a future journal entry I’ll attempt to cover some of the beautiful aspects of New Zealand’s many ecosystems. The slideshow photographs were mainly taken in Coromandel Forest Park, the Northland, Mt. Cook, Saint Bathans, and Poor Knights Islands.   Poor Knights Islands is a massive marine reserve northeast of Auckland and are the eroded remnants of a supervolcano.  During the nudibranch mating season, numerous of these psychedelic sea slugs can be observed in the sub-tropical waters.  Some of the nudibranchs I saw were clown, variable, gem, and tambja nudibranchs.  The photographs in the slideshow below also feature bluebell tunicates, pillow and encrusting sponges, and jewel anemones.