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    Monday
    Dec152014

    The Rae Lakes Loop and Kings Canyon National Park

    First, a word on Fresno and the Central Valley:

            The Central Valley of California is a combination of a genetically-modified breadbasket (engineered farmland crops subsisting against most natural odds on a diet of herbicides and insecticides in an arid rain shadow) and a suburban twilight zone (towns which resemble nuclear bomb test site towns, complete with jejune buildings and eerie inhabitants as motionless as broken mannequins).  One such suburban area is Fresno – a sprawling concrete monstrosity visible from space in the form of a human skull and  comprised of metastasizing strip malls, elliptical highways, and tract housing developments where half a million people reside in a slow death.  Their official town motto is:  “Fresno, where dreams come to die.”  Their unofficial motto is: “Fresno: good people, even better meth.”  After casting multiple insults toward this town and its inhabitants, my car broke down on the way out.  I spent three days in Fresno and can attest that almost everyone I came across there was a kinder person than I.  Thanks for your help, guys, as well as all the meth.

     The Rae Lakes Loop and Kings Canyon National Park

    Welcome to the planet Earth – a place of blue nitrogen skies, oceans of liquid water, cool forests and soft meadows, a world positively rippling with life. In the cosmic perspective it is, as I have said, poignantly beautiful and rare.  But it is also, for the moment, unique. In all our journeying through space and time, it is, so far, the only world on which we know with certainty that the matter of the cosmos has become alive and aware.

                                                                                                                                                                                            -Carl Sagan, Cosmos

     

    You, by being this organism, call into being this whole universe of light and color and hardness and heaviness and everything, you see?  But in the mythology that we’ve sold ourselves on during the end of the nineteenth century, when people discovered how big the universe was, and that we live on a little planet in a solar system on the edge of a galaxy, which is a minor galaxy, everybody thought, “Aaaauhhhhh, we’re really unimportant after all.  God isn’t there, doesn’t love us.  Nature doesn’t give a damn.”  And we put ourselves down, you see?  But actually, it’s this little funny microbe, tiny thing, crawling on this little planet that’s way out somewhere, who has the ingenuity, by nature of this magnificent organic structure, to evoke the whole universe out of what would otherwise be mere quanta.  There’s jazz going on.  But you see, this little ingenious organism is not merely some stranger in this.  This  little organism on this little planet is what the whole show is growing there, and so realizing its own presence. 

                                                                                              -Alan Watts, What it is to See, from the Out of Your Mind lecture series.

     

    The spider was a symbol of man in miniature.  The wheel of the web brought the analogy home clearly.  Man, too, lies at the heart of a web, a web extending through the starry reaches of sidereal space, as well as backward into the dark realm of prehistory.  His great eye upon Mount Palomar looks into a distance of millions of light-years, his radio ear hears the whisper of even more remote galaxies, he peers through the electron microscope upon the minute particles of his own being.  It is a web no creature of earth has ever spun before.  Like the orb spider, man lies at the heart of it, listening.  Knowledge has given him the memory of earth’s history beyond the time of his emergence.  Like the spider’s claw, a part of him touches a world he will never enter in the flesh.  Even now, one can see him reaching forward into time with new machines, computing, analyzing, until elements of the shadowy future will also compose part of the invisible web he fingers…What is it we are part of that we do not see, as the spider was not gifted to discern my face, or my little probe into her world?

                                                                                                                                                                -Loren Eiseley, The Hidden Teacher

    Humanity as a whole cannot risk slipping into a mind-numbing lethargy, like dim-witted monkeys on a space cruise, fondling each other’s dingalings and playing patty cake while this star-crossed planet crashes and burns.

                                                                                                     -Aaron Dames, The Rae Lakes Loop and Kings Canyon National Park

     

            Heading east from Fresno, the distant Sierra Nevada mountain range rises up from the haze and bleak farmland of the Central Valley like a mirage spread across the horizon.  Route 180 siphons into Kings Canyon in a gradual incline, climbing 6,000 feet through the hills and mountains and away from civilization.  Left behind are the scorched bottomlands which recede under a blanket of dust, and the world ahead brims with life.  Evergreen forests flourish upon the mountain slopes, home to giant sequoia groves which harbor some of the largest living organisms on Earth.  Giant sequoias trees are as massive as 27-story buildings and can live upwards of 3,000 years; their bark is impervious to termite infestations and can withstand extreme centigrades of fire.  (In 1943, the German army invading California attempted to destroy a giant sequoia by firing an explosive shell from a Panzer tank at it, but the American tree merely shook and then dropped a massive branch which landed on and destroyed the Nazi tank.)  From the panoramic peaks on the western edge of the Sierras, the Kings Canyon scenic byway transcends chaparral summits and then plunges beneath yucca-strewn cliffs to run beside the Kings River at the base of the canyon before arriving at Road’s End, a starting point for the Rae Lakes Loop hike.

     

            The Rae Lakes Loop is a forty-six mile hike through a breathtaking (due to the high altitude and difficultly level) section of the lower Sierras.  From the bottom of the canyon, the trail cuts switchbacks up pine forests in a steep ascent along roaring creeks and waterfalls.  Even after a year of scare rain the mountain rivers rush at incredible speeds and volumes, rapidly pumping through cavernous chutes, churning in emerald pools, and pouring off cliffs in a seemingly endless torrent.  (One wonders how severe of a drought would be have to take place before the major creeks and rivers of the Sierra Nevada mountain range were to run dry.)  The trail runs along the vertex of the canyon as the walls of the towering escarpment curve and spread apart like silver wings forming the crests of a vast and shimmering glacial valley.  The valley is home to mountain lions, elk, and wolverines, none of which I saw, and it is here that self-professed log cabin republican and closet pyromaniac, Smokey the Bear, was caught by federal authorities to be growing pot and cooking meth with Scruff McGruff, the former crime dog turned drug addict.  Prevailing above the autumnal meadows are granite domes and stone citadels which cast great shadows across the valley as though it were a massive sun dial.  As darkness falls, the satellites traversing the night can been seen soaring 200 miles overhead, and the space beyond is littered with a multitude of stars, many comprising the nebulous band of the Milky Way, our home galaxy which contains upwards of 500 billion stars and from which an estimated 500 billion other galaxies are visible.

            The trail from Paradise Valley to Rae Lakes transitions from fertile forests to an elevated plane of exposed subalpine woodland where weathered foxtail pine stand bare and disparate upon the shale slopes like skeletal dinosaurs, stoic and petrified, their gigantic fallen branches lying electrocuted and baked upon the rocks like prehistoric reptile tails.  Jagged peaks and leaning spires grace the pale crowns of the overhead mountains, the result of a hundred million years of geologic evolution and eons of cosmic forces having pulled together infinite minerals and particles once dispersed throughout God-knows where in the galaxy.  In Earth the universe has created a living machine with a reactor core as hot as the sun, and upon the magneto heart surging magma turns planetary gears of metal which grind and scrape against the crust above, thus splitting the continents and shaping the mountains in absolute tectonic perfection.  These forces of inner-Earth are natural and theoretically calculable; their clockwork operations are indifferent to, yet in all likelihood dependent on, the beautiful array of life flourishing upon the surface of the planet, above the raging crucible that lies within.

            The Rae Lakes are accessible only by foot or pack animal (I did pass a hiker wearing a bulky multi-cam helmet, collecting image data for Google Trails), and that is the way it should be.  It is conceivable that things could have turned out differently.  That the logging which started in the late 1800s might have persisted without resistance from men like John Muir, and that instead of hiking to Rae Lakes to sleep beneath the stars, hoards of people would be driving to Kings Canyon casinos and ski resorts, drinking bottled water from a nearby Nestlé bottling plant, and watching the World Series on a jumbotron installed on the face of a cliff.  The forests of Kings Canyon could have easily followed in the footsteps of the original old-growth coast redwoods, ninety-six percent of which have been logged.  Although the Sierras are now largely protected, the American citizenry must remain vigilant and wary of those profit-driven and insane entities that would see that the natural world be deforested, mined, and sucked dry of its resources.  Humanity as a whole cannot risk slipping into a mind-numbing lethargy, like dim-witted monkeys on a space cruise, fondling each other’s dingalings and playing patty cake while this star-crossed planet crashes and burns.  It is our responsibility to work together in order to protect and defend this world, for it has given us so much, and if it dies, we will have nowhere else to go.     

    Monday
    Dec012014

    Mushrooms and More

          After the autumn rains along the mountainous coasts of California and the Pacific Northwest, billions of mushrooms emerge from the lush earth.  They burst through the wet soil and populate the forest floor, they grow out of tree trunks and branches and fallen logs.  Colonies of toadstools are home to smurf families and hukka-smoking caterpillars.  Radiant fire-bellied newts lumber across their endemic world of dripping moss and dead leaves, and they will pee on your hand if you pick them up.  If you tromp and crawl long enough through the saturated vegetation, mushrooms will begin to pop out of your ears and nostrils, the fibrous mycelium will grow out of your skin pores just as it (probably) grows on other strange planets in some far-off corner of our galaxy where creatures of indescribable, only speculative and imaginative, nature and physical characteristics roam ancient space forests and float through watery seas.  As you lay down and die in the forest – your body finally doing something useful as it decomposes into the hungry earth – you may refuse to accept the fact that you should have done more with your life and that the world will not adjust its operations to make accommodations to postpone your death.  The Earth will keep on spinning without you, ya filthy animal.



    Awesome presentation by Paul Stamets:

     

    Friday
    Sep192014

    The Lichen on the Rock and the Islands in the Sky

    I embrace my desire to
    feel the rhythm, to feel connected
    enough to step aside and weep like a widow
    to feel inspired, to fathom the power
    to witness the beauty, to bathe in the fountain,
    to swing on the spiral
    of our divinity and still be a human.

                                                    -Tool, Lateralus

     

             At Willow Creek campground (closed, but still accessible) in West Sonoma County lies the trailhead for Pomo Canyon Trail.  If one were to zoom-out from the trailhead they would see an area surrounded by forests and hills and highland ranches.  To the north lies the Russian River which flows west and spills out past the sandy beaches of Jenner. 

              In the late afternoon, a wall of clouds rolls in and blankets the sea and coastal prairies in a stratus fog which creeps through the valleys like curling tentacles and evaporates inland upon confronting particular atmospheric and solar conditions. This phenomena of cloud tips burning off is visible from Red Hill, the highest hill (1,062 feet) in the area.  The trail to Red Hill passes through a cool redwood forest, the soil floor of which is coated in ferns, sorrel, pine needles, duff, and other natural detritus.

              The trail ascends through the shadows of tree canopies along a forest canyon ridge and then crosses into a vast highland of golden hills and chaparral labyrinths where birds and insects have built their homes amongst the brush and wildflowers.  After you cross over a storybook bridge of wood, where an old troll donning overalls and a straw hat emerges to ask you questions about your life and the world in general, the road diverges, and if you take the road to Red Hill instead of the path to Shell Beach it will make all the difference.

              Red Hill grove occupies the summit of a large hill and is a dense stand of redwood and bay trees, douglas fir and live oak.  As the Earth hurdles into the autumnal equinox, myriad tree leaves on Red Hill and elsewhere are losing their chlorophyll and changing colors.  They resemble little orange and yellow flames which will soon fade into a dying brown and fall away in a process known as abscission. 

              Upon the dry grassland there is a cluster of ancient sedimentary rocks that have formed over millions of years and have arrived at Red Hill.  If you look closely at the outer composition of one of the rocks, you will see the individual veins of the varying minerals that comprise the intricate and colorful matrices throughout.  The lichen covering the surface of the rock is a biological lifeform which exists on top of a seemingly dead geological object that serves as the lichen’s substrate and is the extent of its microcosmic world.  Like the lichen on the rock, all life on Earth is dependent upon the planet itself as well as the greater forces of the universe that humans are increasingly coming to understand.  In several billion years from now, the lichen will have long since died, the rock will have eroded into dust, and the Earth shall likely begin a process of disintegration into the elementary particles from which the rock and the lichen and everything else in the solar system and beyond was originally formed.  In the distant future of the cosmos, the atomic particles which constitute the lichen and the rock shall be dispersed amidst a stellar nursery only to one day be reintegrated with other elements to form gases and minerals and planets which may give rise to living molecules and cells similar to those that presently constitute sentient life on Earth.  The point is that everything this universe is ultimately constructed from a shared and common matter and will meet the same fate in eternity, and it is an absolutely beautiful thing this universe operates in such a way. 

              The summit of Red Hill towers above the cloud line, and from here the peaks of the neighboring hills are visible protruding through the streams of white clouds flowing in from above the sea.  These are the islands in the sky.  To the west lies an ocean of clouds which stretches out to the horizon and blankets the real ocean as far as the eye can see.  Fluttering birds and rustling leaves are amongst the sounds that one hears.  The wispy clouds sometimes conceal portions of the other island hills, but for a moment I saw and heard a lone cow mooing along a distant slope before it was swallowed up by the clouds.  It was so quiet that I thought I could actually hear the clouds moving through the air, but that may have just been the sound of the wind, or the rocks.

    Thursday
    Sep182014

    Praying Mantis

    Here's a picture of a little praying mantis I found in my Aunt's garden in San Francisco.

    Sunday
    Sep072014

    Blackfish

         One of the coolest parts of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish is at the 24 minute point, when Orca Researcher Howard Garrett and Neuroscientist Lori Marino speak of the highly evolved social behaviors and intelligence exhibited by orcas.  (The transcription of what they said is below.)

        The entire film is quite fascinating, and examines how orcas in captivity act erratically and unnaturally as a result of their tortured lives.  One significant point that is made is that many captive orcas will experience dorsal collapse – when their dorsal fins become limp and fold over – a phenomena which is seen in less that one percent of wild orcas.  The film makes clear that orcas should not be kept in captivity, that SeaWorld needs to stop capturing and breeding them, and that they are beautiful creatures that should be allowed to flourish in the wild.

    Howard Garrett – Orca Researcher:

    “If you go back only thirty-five years, we knew nothing, in fact, less than nothing.  What the public had was superstition and fear.  These were the vicious killer whales, you know, that have forty-eight sharp teeth that would rip you to shreds if they got a chance.  What we learned is that they’re amazingly friendly and understanding and intuitively want to be your companion.  And to this day there’s no record of an orca doing any harm to any human in the wild.”

    “They live in these big families and they have lifespans very similar to human lifespans – the females can live to about a hundred, maybe more; males to about fifty or sixty, but the adult offspring never leave their mother’s side.”

    “Each community has a completely different set of behaviors.  Each has a complete repertoire of vocalizations with no overlap.  You can call them languages – the scientific community is reluctant to say any other animal but humans uses languages – but there’s every indication that they use languages.”

    orca3
    Image from: http://www.grindtv.com/outdoor/nature/post/orcas/

    Lori Marino – Neuroscientist:

    “The orca brain just screams out intelligence, awareness.  We took this tremendous brain and we put it in an magnetic resonance imaging scanner.  What we found was just astounding: they’ve got a part of the brain that humans don’t have.  A part of their brain has extended out right adjacent to their limbic system – the system processes emotions.  The safest inference would be that these are animals that have highly elaborated emotional lives.”

    “It’s becoming clear that dolphins and whales have a sense of self, a sense of social bonding that they’ve taken to another level – more much stronger, much more complex that in other mammals, including humans.  We look at mass strandings, the fact that they stand by each other.  Everything about them is social, everything.  It’s been suggested that their whole sense of self is distributed among the individuals in their group.”