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    The Newts of El Corte de Madera Creek and Why Humans are Overrated

            Nestled in the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains lies the sleepy El Corte de Madera Creek.   Before merging with the San Gregorio Creek, which flows out to the vast Pacific Ocean where men in boats and planes are currently searching for a blue whale entwined in fishing line and subsiding somewhere in the depths of the deep blue sea, the Corte Madera Creek cuts through an “open space preserve” in the dense foothills of the Kings Mountain.  The trailhead is accessible from Sweet Road off Skyline Boulevard.   

                The meandering trail descends two-miles through the forest before reaching the creek, which serves as a stream of life for the plants and animals that depend on the water for their existence and survival.  Towering above the creek are redwood tree canopies. Ablaze in the sunlit heat of a summer drought and home to hawks and owls and squirrels, these trees are intermittently nourished by the coastal fog which recedes and burns off in the day.  Three-hundred feet below the treetops lies the creek, which is a riparian, semi-aquatic world unto itself, flowing in slow motion through the tranquility of the watershed.  A prolific population of newts thrives here.  They are seen clambering over each other, playing grab-ass, clumsily lumbering over the moss-covered stones, tumbling over the edges of rocks, and then toppling into the water or onto the dry creek bed, often landing on their backs or on their heads (I realize they wouldn’t have done that if they weren’t running from me).  They look like little dinosaurs; slow to a fault on land but agile as serpents in the water where they float suspended and buoyant in mid-water until they notice you approaching and then sink slowly and vertically out of sight into the murky, clay-rich depths.  They are ridiculously cute and in a way they lead very simple lives: eating the gnats, water striders, and other insects that subsist on the water and on the banks of the creek.  They will hunker down in the rainy season, when the gentle creek will transform into a powerful channel of water which will burst apart the natural dams of fallen trees and javelin-sized branches that have accumulated over the past year and are leftover from erstwhile floods.  The raging water will carry the forest debris out to the boundless ocean, where the water molecules will one day condensate and rise up forming the clouds from which rain may again fall upon the earth to become the selfsame creekwater flowing across the stones that will gradually erode away entirely and altogether be washed out to sea to begin the process anew until the Earth itself dies and the sun implodes in a glorious supernova and the ashes and particulate matter of our long-dead corpses are mixed with that of the newts and are sent flying into space to eventually form new stars and planets that will repeat this cycle infinitely or until the universe ends.

              There’s something comforting about knowing that the newts are there – removed from the monstrous highways of the Bay Area, the dismal and identical business parks, the ever-expanding network of air-conditioned buildings and cookie-cutter houses, the millions of people with their millions of first-world problems – and the newts are just relaxing and wandering around harmlessly under the sun and stars on this little creek which comprises the extent of their known world which lies on a much larger world drifting solitaire through space.  Humans, understanding that we are different from other creatures because we are conscious of our own existence and have consciences, in our infinite wisdom, often make the mistake of assuming that because we’re the most intelligent of Earth’s species that we’re also the most highly evolved.  But the newts have had much more time to evolve than us, and this shows with their highly advanced biological capabilities.  These amphibians breathe underwater by absorbing diffused oxygen through their skin; incredibly, they can regenerate their limbs, eyes, spinal cords, and vital organs.  The newts in the photos are called rough-skinned or fire-belly newts, and the toxin they’re capable of secreting from their skin is potent enough to kill an adult person if ingested (Native Americans would use their toxins as a poison).  Banana slugs also populate the creek bed, and if you get down on your hands and knees and you will see the way these mucosal creatures extend and retract their slimly eyes, something way beyond the reach of human capability (I can only think of one human appendage that can so readily enlarge).  The hawks living the treetops above the creek can see eight times sharper than a human with 20/20 vision, and the owls can rotate their heads 270 degrees and have extraordinary night vision, plus they both can fly.  I’m not sure what the squirrels can do other than jump well, but the spiders who have weaved webs on the ferns have eight eyes, and the silk they produce from their bodies constitutes one of the toughest biological materials on Earth. 
                On this planet there are manifold creatures possessing exceptional skills that greatly exceed the capabilities of the most talented of us puny humans whom they often put to shame but are too humble to rub it in our faces. (Just imagine what the animals on other distant planets in outer space are capable of doing.)  Here, there are shrimp that can emit bursts of bioluminescence from their mouths; there are termites that can blow themselves up using the chemicals in their bodies (eat your heart out ISIS); not only can it change colors and textures, but the mimic octopus can impersonate various predators and prey that live in its surroundings; the immortal jellyfish can transform back into a polyp, effectively reverting to a previous stage of its life where it then releases genetically identical medusae of the former adult, and it can do this repeatedly and indefinitely.  Snakes, vampire bats, and numerous insect species can detect infrared radiation, and dogs and cats can see ultraviolet light (whereas humans are limited to seeing only visible light on the electromagnetic spectrum).    Lastly, these animals have acquired a skill that we modern humans seem incapable of learning: the ability to live in harmony with their environment and not to take what they do not need. 
               Yet despite all their uncanny powers, these animals cannot arrest the rate at which humans are destroying the habitats that they depend on for survival.  Despite their incredible defense mechanisms and prowess for adaptability, they cannot change the reality that nearly 200 plant and animal species are wiped off the face of the Earth each day (this is 1,000 times the rate of natural extinction).  Ultimately, if this madness of environmental destruction persists, if we allow the dark allegiance of corporate, military, and government forces to continue to kill innocent people and creatures, we’ll be pulling the rug out from beneath ourselves and it will be too late to prevent our own extinction, for we will have irrevocably wrecked the support system that our lives depend on.  I can think of no greater tragedy for humanity than for our species to carry out the systematic destruction of oursevles and the creatures inhabiting the natural world – all of which have a right to live their lives fully and are entitled to be here – with full knowledge that we could have prevented this terrible disaster from unraveling in the first place.  Yet when all is said and done and the last human being breathes their final breath on Earth, and when there is not a single person left here, I have a feeling that the newts will still be there at the creek, lumbering around aimlessly, living beneath the sun and stars.


    Pilgrimage to Southern Utah - BYOB

              There may be some among the readers of this book, like the earnest engineer, who believe without question that any and all forms of construction and development are intrinsic goods, in the national parks as well as anywhere else, who virtually identify quantity with quality and therefore assume that the greater the quantity of traffic, the higher the value received. There are some who frankly and boldly advocate the eradication of the last remnants of wilderness and the complete subjugation of nature to the requirements of – not man – but industry. This is a courageous view, admirable in its simplicity and power, and with the weight of all modern history behind it. It is also quite insane. I cannot attempt to deal with it here.

                                                                                                                                                        -Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire


                Beyond the electric confines of the Las Vegas strip, beyond the suburban grid which surrounds that festering, star-crossed city, lie the purple plateaus and crimson deserts of the American Southwest.  Follow the highways and power lines extending north-east through sleepy, podunk, one-horse methtowns in the humdrum state of Nevada, past rock-strewn valleys, beneath buzzards wheeling over the crumbling ridges of ancient canyon walls which tower above the meandering interstates of western Arizona, through the static of the desert air humming with charged particles in anticipation of the monsoon reckoning brewing on the distant horizon, where bolts of lightning whip across dark clouds emitting tendrils of rain, and then head due north in a gradual incline toward the colorful landscapes of Southern Utah.

                Before exploring the wonders of Zion and Bryce, let us first examine one of the many places where the desert has been severely molested and disfigured by men and machines.  An hour east of Kanab lies Lake Powell, an unnatural reservoir which emerged from the construction of the loathsome Glen Canyon Dam.  The dam cut off the flow of the Colorado River and inundated a portion of desert, thus creating the artificial lake and transforming a formerly pristine area of land into a giant water park and sand box for those inclined to ride around on ATVs, jet skis, or float about lethargically on obscene houseboats that sink lower each year as the water level drops.  Despite the dark history of the anomalous lake and the ambient drone of motor boats and recreational vehicles, the place is a vast and surreal dreamscape of undeniable beauty, where billowing clouds drift through blue oasis skies and solitaire sandstone buttes rise up from the peripheral mesa like castles or Mesopotamian ziggurats.  Lake Powell may be accepted into one’s life similarly to how a parent would accept a mentally-disabled step-child into theirs: with sympathetic love and the knowledge that they have inherited a mutilation spawned by no fault of their own, but alas the imbecile child has nevertheless become and shall remain their responsibility.   Yet there can be no forgiveness for the abominable dam, the progenitor of maladies, for it has sown needless death and serves to perpetuate centrally-controlled systems of institutionalization and modern serfdom.  There may indeed come a time when it becomes necessary and right to restore the balance of nature and dismantle the Glen Canyon Dam – an action which may be akin to pulling the plug on a vegetated relative, or when a person suffering from terminal brain cancer exercises their right to die and commits suicide – thus putting Lake Powell out of its misery and allowing for life on the river to return and once again flourish in peace.  Edward Abbey’s superb novel The Monkey Wrench Gang revolves around the efforts of four intrepid protagonists to defend the Southwest against the hellish forces of industrialism, including the environmental afflictions associated with the Glen Canyon Dam.  In the book there’s a scene where one of the main characters, a Mormon nicknamed Seldom Seen Smith, kneels down on the bridge above the dam and prays to God, saying:

              Dear old God, you know and I know what it was like here, before them bastards from Washington moved in and ruined it all. You remember the river, how fat and golden it was in June, when the big runoff come down from the Rockies?  Remember the deer on the sandbars and the blue herons in the willows and the catfish so big and tasty and how they’d bite on spoiled salami?  Remember that crick that come down through Bridge Canyon and Forbidden Canyon, how green and cool and clear it was?   God, it’s enough to make a man sick.  Remember the cataracts in Forty-Mile Canyon? Well, they flooded out about half of them.  And part of the Escalante's gone now – Davis Gulch, Willow Canyon, Gregory Natural Bridge, Ten-Mile.  Listen, are you listenin’ to me?  There's something you can do for me, God. How about a little old pre-cision-type earthquake right under this dam?  Okay?  Any time.  Right now for instance would suit me fine.

                Heading back toward Kanab, one passes the vermillion cliffs of the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument.  Along the desert road the cliffs provide an animated backdrop in which a zealous and wild-eyed coyote has hardly finished painting a tunnel on to the rock wall before a giant blue roadrunner zoomed through with such incredible speed that the pavement curled and folded in its wake, and the coyote, having put on roller skates, lit the fuse of a large rocket that he had strapped to his back and then blasted off in attempt to pursue the roadrunner through the tunnel, but he exploded upon hitting the painted wall of solid rock.  In Bryce Canyon National Park, a similarly fantastical landscape exists and contains an array of gravity-defying rock formations (bridges, arches, and hoodoos) studding the canyons of the Paunsaugunt Plateau like Cappadocian fairy chimneys, gargantuan termite mounds, or terracotta stalagmites taller than the moai sentinels of Easter Island.   In this wild limestone labyrinth, your spirit animal may appear (mine was a chipmunk) to explain that upon closer inspection the microcosmic features of the rocks contain miniature arches and caverns and hoodoos, worlds unto themselves; fractals which seemingly manifest the exact physical characteristics of the greater structure they comprise.

                Zion National Park is a geological wonderland; an epic realm of domes and basins, crevasses and arches, (composed of sandstone, mudstone, shale, rubble, and fossils), rivers and streams and grottos.  Swallows soar through the sunlit chasms of the immense canyons and dark pine trees grow from the cracks of stratified red cliffs that mountain goats pick their way across.  Keep venturing up the staircase, out of Zion proper and toward Kolob Canyons where prairies flourish and huge mounds of earthen rock bedeck the isolated frontier like giant versions of the Flintstones house.  In the lofty Kolob Canyons, where stands of trembling aspens grow, the elevation is 8,000 feet.  After dusk a purple twilight falls across the sprawling panorama of ancient canyons and Jurassic plateaus (part of a system of prehistoric lakes which existed 90 million years ago), and the ghostly skeletons of dinosaurs rise from the earth, shake the dust off their bones, and roam through the moonscape of their past.

            That places like these exists is a marvelous thing; that myriad natural wonders of tantamount beauty exist on Earth is another marvelous phenomenon; that you and I are alive and are able see and experience these gorgeous places under the sun, beneath the seas, and surrounded by stars is an absolute and miraculous gift that we should constantly seize upon every chance we get.  We should be thanking our lucky stars that we are alive and free to explore.  Yet it is not enough to simply enjoy these wonders; we must fight for them and for the freedom of those who cannot themselves fight.  And that remains the subject of a different journal entry.  Until then, here’s a closing quote from Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire:

              My God! I am thinking, what incredible shit we put up with most of our lives – the domestic routine (same old wife every night), the stupid and useless degrading jobs, the insufferable arrogance of elected officials, the crafty cheating and the slimy advertising of the business men, the tedious wars in which we kill our buddies instead of our real enemies back in the capital, the foul diseased and hideous cities and towns we live in, the constant petty tyranny of automatic washers and automobiles and TV machines and telephone!


    The Belize Barrier Reef

    Life is short, life is very short.  I like life, I like it.  I feel like that even if it ends of 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, Oh My God

    Out here in the great cosmic dark there are countless stars and planets, some far older than our solar system.  Although we cannot yet be certain, the same processes which lead on Earth to the origin of life and intelligence should have been operating throughout the cosmos.  There may be a million worlds throughout the Milky Way galaxy alone which are at this moment inhabited by other intelligent beings.  What a wonder, what a joy it would be to know something about non-human intelligence…  And we can.  Here is an exotic, inhabited world mostly covered with a liquid.  We seek the dominant intelligence that lives beneath its fluid surface.  This ocean of liquid water, kilometers deep, is teeming with strange forms of life.  There are communities of transparent beings, there are societies of creatures which communicate by changing the patterns on their bodies, there are beings that give of their own light, there are hungry flowers that devour passers-by, gesticulating trees, all manner of creatures that seem to violate the boundaries between plants and animals.  There are beings that flutter through the ocean like waltzing orchids.  These are a few of the species that inhabit the water world called Earth.

                                                                                                                                                  -Carl Sagan, Cosmos


             Off the coast of Belize, beyond the little islands where puppies gnaw on coconut husks and where you are so far removed from your homeland that a nuclear bomb could have exploded there and you would not have known the difference, lies the second largest coral reef system on Earth (although coral reefs comprise less than one percent of the Earth’s crust, they’re home to nearly one-third of the world’s fish species).  The Belize Barrier Reef is bursting with life.  Beneath the skyblue waves, dazzling coral gardens flourish upon the seafloor and support a diverse array of strange, spectacular, and sentient creatures. 

             Corals are colonies of tiny polyps – animals with tentacles that vary in size and function.  While hundreds to hundreds of thousands of miniature polyps can join together to form coral (the living coral grow on top of the calcium carbonate skeletons of their dead predecessors), larger individual polyps may attach to rocks and live as solitaire entities known as sessile polyps (the sea anemone is one example of such).  Similarly, jellyfish start out as sessile polyps, but later transform into free-swimming medusa. (All jellyfish are also considered gelatinous zooplankton, a word derived from the Greek zoon, meaning “animal,” and planktos, meaning “drifter” or “wanderer.”)  Extensive connected networks of corals are called coral reefs, the three main types of which are fringing, atoll, and barrier reefs. 

                There are over 70,000 species of coral on Earth, and many vary drastically in their characteristics.  Hundreds of coral species – of different sizes, shapes, and colors – can thrive in a small section of reef, creating a smorgasbord of surreal patterns produced by breathing polyp colonies which bring the entire reef to life.  Brain coral is a type of stony coral which resembles a giant brain enveloped by an olive-green cerebral cortex.  Gorgonian sea rods branch upwards like aquatic cacti with slender arms that sway gently in the current.  The massive blade corals are hollow and shaped like pitcher plants, tremendous cauldrons, and upturned bells.  In the shallows, some sections of the coral garden have been trampled upon by human visitors and weathered by the elements, thus, swaths of dead coral fragments littering the seafloor have accumulated like rubble or shattered tombstones in submerged reef graveyards.

              In deeper parts of the reef, the coral gardens lie entirely intact and untouched.  Colorful coral species proliferate along the reef walls and glow brightly in trenches.  Divers are surrounded by a living world of fluorescent and breathing polyps which induce a psychedelic and hallucinatory sensation, as though you were swimming through a dream.  Upon the seafloor the coral structures rise up like great pillars and enormous mushrooms, and along the shelf of the reef the formations resemble castle towers or grails bedecked with gems.  Denizens of this coral city of Atlantis include enormous loggerhead turtles that speed through the water like submersibles.  Moray eels, nurse sharks, and sting rays glide and taxi through seafloor crevasses with such hurried intent it is as though they were late for their appointments on the other side of town. Barracuda, jacks, and tarpon – massive, silver fish – jet through the water like apparitions and torpedoes.  Shrimp, wrasse, lobsters, clams, and sea snails seek coverage in the protective ninches of the coral, and at night octopi and squid emerged to hunt with their lurid green eyes and color-changing chromatophores which pulse across their camouflaged and shape-shifting bodies.  The reef is a place of supreme beauty where saltwater species which have managed to survive for hundreds of year millions of years (jellyfish were around 500 million years ago) by virtue of perfecting their evolutionary skills demonstrate just how awesome life is on Earth, which is in of itself an absolute and mind-blowing miracle.      


    A Word on the Belize Zoo

    "I would give ten years off the beginning of my life to see, only once, Tyrannosaurus rex come rearing up from the elms of Central Park, a Morgan police horse screaming in its jaws. We can never have enough of nature."

    -Edward Abbey


             Here we have the exquisite Belize Zoo.  A dainty little place where the animals roam free in their cages.  Many of the animals are rescues that have been and are being rehabilitated and appear to be content with the conditions of their confinement because they are fed regularly without having to exert a muscle, are provided with healthcare, and are located in a convincingly natural yet artificial space which replicates their native environment to such efficacy that they (with the exception the winged-birds) seem lazily at home.  It’s a pleasant place to go to see the animals (jaguars, crocodiles, panthers, eagles, monkeys, tapirs, amongst many others) which, despite the efforts of preservationist, regulators, and the animals themselves, cannot seem to stave off their annihilation at the hands of men with guns seeking to fulfill the demands of those whom desire their skin and fur for aesthetic gain and material pleasure.  So please, ladies in New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and in all other godforsaken material hellholes and epicenters that eat into the skin of the Earth like cancerous, bleeding sores: lay off the exotic animals.

    Have a look see at the beautiful animals at the Belize Zoo, because it may the last time we’re ever going to see them in real life if we don’t get our shit together.



    On Dioramas and the Extinction of Earthlings

    Even baby owls know not to shit in their own nests.  Humans have shit all over this planet, we’re less intelligent than baby owls.

                                                                              -Gerry Spence, From Slavery to Freedom: The Rebirth of Tyranny in America


    Homo-sapiens (or, if you prefer, homo-imbēcillus) are the most efficeint and successful of all invasive species. 

                                                                                                                                      -Walter Lloyd Waterson, The Rights of Nature


           Posted below is a slideshow of the dioramas at the California Academy of the Sciences in San Francisco.  As habitat destruction, global temperature averages, pollution, consumption, human population, and urban sprawl increases across the planet, civilizations are closing-in on the natural world, dismembering its ecosystems, gorging upon its resources, and stamping-out its animal inhabitants.  Unless a greater is effort is made to protect Earth’s wild places and the creatures that dwell therein, the animals endangered today will be extinct tomorrow.  While some of the more cherished and iconic creatures may be preserved through zoological breeding programs or cloned into existence, it’s likely that many of the currently endangered species will be driven to extinction in the wild and that our grandchildren will observe them only in cages, in natural history films, as fossils, or as taxidermy. 

             Most animal species on Earth have origins in a past much deeper than our own, yet modern humans often consider the existence of these other, more ancient creatures as insignificant and constituting a lesser evolved order as we slaughter them wholesale and wipe-out their habitats for human purposes, thus ending their lengthy track-record and eliminating their presence of life on Earth.  Humans, in our current manifestation as homo-sapiens (Latin: “wise man”) have been around for roughly 200,000 years, but many reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and birds that are now going extinct emerged and thrived on Earth thousands of centuries before we did.  Amphibians (which comprise a group of animals that has the highest rate of endangerment), for instance, first appeared on the planet 370 million years ago, eons before primates emerged as a distant branch on the evolutionary tree. 

    According to the Center for Biological Diversity:

            We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.

           Habitat destruction and climate change are the two main factors driving species extinction, and while people can argue about man’s climatic influence until the cows swim home, the evidence implicating us in the drastic disfiguration and destruction of Earth’s habitat is indisputable.  By ending the long run of existence for myriad species that have been on Earth since the age of the dinosaurs, humans are effectively hacking down their own biological family tree, for not only do many of these dying species share similar DNA to humans, but it is from out their lineage that we have evolved; they and their kin are in fact our distant relatives.  In destroying forests, polluting the air and the seas, and killing animals en masse, humans are also biting the hand that feeds them, for the creatures that are being sacrificed for the sake of human “progress” are the very ones that we have depended on for our ascendancy and that we rely on for food, shelter, and medicine.  Indeed, many modern medicines are derived from plant and animal species that reside in the seas or in tropical forests, and it is sometimes said that, through deforestation, humans may have already destroyed the cure for cancer without even knowing it. 

            The final irony is this:  that in all our genius and technological prowess which has allowed us to dominate the natural world, we are very likely creating of this world an environment so inhospitable that our highly evolved and intelligent species will no longer be able to flourish upon it.   We are going to kill ourselves because we are so smart and so stupid at the same time.  That we have been given the opportunity to live on Earth is miracle superimposed upon another miracle.  That humans would violently destroy such a precious and marvelous gift, while simultaneously bringing down a galaxy of creatures that we share this planet with is the greatest tragedy in the theater of life on Earth, and it is due time that we change our course.