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.