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    Robert Louis Stevenson State Park

          Robert Louis Stevenson State Park is spectacular and dynamic landscape of evergreen forests and rocky canyons.  Part of the Mayacamas Mountain Range, the park’s lofty mountains can be seen for miles and are dusted in snow in the winter, and in the spring colorful wildflowers deck the grassy slopes.  From the panoramic peaks one can see the neighboring mountains – some perennially snowcapped and thousands of miles away – and at dusk you can watch the town of Calistoga light up below you like a circuit board.  Robert Louis Stevenson State Park is officially located in Calistoga and is accessible from the St. Helena Highway (CA-29), which separates the park into east and west borderlands.  On the west lies Mount Saint Helena (elevation 4,341 ft.), the peak of which is a five-mile trek from the parking lot and begins on a switchback trail which connects to a fire road.  Here are some pictures taken from the Mount Saint Helena side of the park:

          On the east side of the park are trails that lead to Table Rock, a two-mile hike from the old parking lot.  The trail winds through shady pine forests and purple manzanita groves that bloom pink flowers which look like tiny lanterns or jellyfish.  Dry scrubland hills spill-out into a strange and arid dreamscape of drifting spores, red stone labyrinths and alien cairns – a lurid shadow zone where twisted roots squirm beneath your feet and lichenous stones turn in your wake.  There are desiccated riverbeds comprised of white clay, emerald streams of cool water, and gnarled volcanic rock formations that curl and fold like brain coral.  The pale basalt surface of Table Rock is reminiscent of a lunar wasteland - craterous and serpentine.  The sheer three-hundred foot cliff is home to mountain banshees and wyvern swallows which nestle in the face of the cliff and dart through the blue and perfect sky.  Here are some pictures of the trail to Table Rock and beyond:

          The Palisades Trail trailhead can be found at Table Rock, and leads to the Historic Oat Hill Mine Road  four miles away.  Treacherous at points, the trail hugs the side of mountain slopes and cuts through antediluvian rock forests and arcadian meadows bursting with flora and teeming with fauna such as crocodile ants and singing trumpet lizards that hide amongst prehistoric fungi and dinosaur fern.  More elusive creatures include hunchback troglodytes and interstellar apocalypse hawks that dwell within the magellanic clouds above.  The Palisades Trail weaves through a stunning array of environments, worlds apart from one’s material lifestyle, and yet compared to the isolation that one can experience elsewhere on Earth, it is prosaic, yet still totally worth a trip.  If you ever need to clear your head, sharpen your mind, or serenely contemplate this melancholy and beautiful world, head to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park for a day (although most any location outdoors and remote should suffice).         


    Beautiful Disaster

    Photo: Ted S. Warren, AP

    Mudslide near Arlington, Washington.  Rest in peace.

    The earth shall move by wind and rain
    By whim, by force of time
    Savage nature eats away
    At all that's civilised

    -Walter Lloyd Waterson, Elemental Forces


    Leapord Seal Sunset

    Here's an awesome video (that's somewhat soothing to watch) of a Leopard Seal swimming through icy seas in Antarctica at sunset.  Watch the penguins running when they see the seal coming at the 4:50 mark.  The original can be found on the National Geographic website.

    In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
    A stately pleasure-dome decree:
    Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
    Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea…

    Excerpt from Xanadu, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge


    Ode to the Elephant Seal

    In the waves the truth doth lie
    Like God the ocean speaks

    All souls rise and drown in time
    So too shall worlds in cosmic seas

                                                                                    -Walter Lloyd Waterson, Preface to The Lives of Sea Creatures

     They were watching, out there past men’s knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.

                                                                                     -Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

           Elephant seals are magnificent and majestic seabeasts that cruise vast stretches of the worlds oceans.   They spend the majority of their lives in the water, and breed and molt on shore.  Colonies of the northern elephant seals gather annually in established breeding areas along the Pacific coast of North America, and California rookeries can be found in Ano Nuveo, Point Reyes, and Cambria.  Here’s some footage of a lone elephant seal swimming and chuffing in the waves off Chimney Rock in Point Reyes:

           Elephant seals are social, vocal creatures capable of extraordinary feats; achieving numerous superlative titles in the animal kingdom.  Northern elephant seal bulls grow to tremendous proportions: battle-class alpha males can exceed 5,000 pounds and reach a length of sixteen feet.  Southern elephant seals, which live in the southern hemisphere, can exceed twenty feet in length and weigh over 8,800 pounds.  They’re capable of holding their breath for over an hour and a half, and they dive (possibly while simultaneously sleeping) thousands of feet in search for prey.   Northern elephant seals have recently been tracked at depths of 5,788 feet, over a mile deep.  They migrate further than any other mammal in the world, traveling 13,000 miles annually.  Males swim along the continental shelf from California to feed in Alaska, while females make two foraging trips a year throughout the northeast Pacific.  They spend between two to eight continuous months at sea, and always return to the same feeding areas and rookeries at the same time year after year.  When they arrive at their breeding grounds in winter, male elephant seals battle for dominance over harems of females.  Here are two boardwalk street fighters throwing down on the Point Reyes waterfront:


           In the late 1800s, humans slaughtered hundreds of thousands of northern elephant seals for the oil contained in their blubber.  By 1892, a sole colony of fifty to one hundred elephant seals remained on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California, and these were protected by the Mexican government.  Throughout the 1900s, a resurgent elephant seal population skyrocketed, and the current population abounds at approximately 160,000 members.  Due to the fact that the existing population arose from a limited gene pool, northern elephant seals share very similar genetics, which makes them more susceptible to contracting diseases should a virus spread throughout their species.  Here’s some footage of elephant seals families lounging on the beach below the cliffs of Chimney Rock:

           In the beginning of the clip, you can hear the guttural cries of little elephant seal pups.  Like many newborn mammals, they’re virtually defenseless and rely on their mothers for protection and sustenance.  An elephant seal mother will nurse her young (sometimes adopting lost seal pups) for about a month, during which time a pup will gain around nine pounds a day from consuming the rich milk (55% fat) of the mother.  They young pups will grow and then severe their bonds with their mother. (I wonder if some animals, like elephant seals or birds look at their young and identify distinguishable and distinct personality traits that are unique to each of them, so that a mother bird can watch the erratic behavior of her son and say, “There he goes, he’s just a crazy bird...”*)  If they’re males, northern elephant seals will live to be about thirteen, and the lifespan of females is around twenty.  Their lives will be filled with adventure and mystery as they explore the dark and gloaming depths of the oceans in search for food to stay alive; their survival as adults linked to the seas which they depend on as much as they depended on their mothers who nursed them into being.  They will drift beneath stars and full moons, through whale song seas and bioluminescent tides, and bask upon the sundown shores of this world.  They will live profound and beautiful lives, each perceiving their own existence as one who is at the center of the universe,** yet perhaps possessing a deeper understanding, however fleeting, that they are part of greater order which is owned by no one. 



    *In the Web of Life lecture from the Out of Your Mind Lecture Series, Alan Watts brings up a funny notion about sea shells critiquing other sea shells, and ties this into a larger, more serious concept related to the way we humans tend to separate ourselves from the world around us.  He says:

    I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing – something to be condemned – to take your own individual life seriously in dead earnest, and to have all the problems that go with that.  Do understand that being that way, that being a real mixed-up human being is a manifestation of nature that is something just like the patterns on the waves out here, or like a sea shell.  You know we pick up shells – I always keep one around as sort of an example for many things – and say, “My goodness, isn’t that gorgeous? There’s not an aesthetic fault in it anywhere, it’s absolutely perfect.”  Now I wonder, I wonder if these fish look at each other’s shells and say, “Don’t you think she’s kind of fat?  Oh my, those markings aren’t really very well spaced.  Pssshhh.”  Cause’ that’s what we do, see we don’t realize that all of us in our various goings on and behaviors and so on are just as marvelous – more marvelous, much more complicated, much more interesting – all these gorgeous faces that I’m looking at, you know every one of them – some of them supposedly pretty, some are supposedly not so pretty, but they’re all absolutely gorgeous.  And everybody’s eyes is a piece of jewelry beyond compare. Beautiful.  But we have specialized in a certain kind of awareness that makes us neglectful of that.  You see we specialize in more or less briefly concentrated, pin-point attention.  We look at this and we look at that, and we select from all the things we might possible be aware of, only certain things.  And as a result of that, we leave out of our everyday consciousness, generally speaking, two dimensions of experience;  one: amazing beauty of experience that we never see at all, and on the other hand, a very deep thing:  the sense of our basic identity, unity with, oneness with the total process of being.  See, because we are staring, as it were, at certain features of the landscape, we don’t see the background.  And because we get fascinated with – you know I could go into details of this shell, as I said, and put myself in the mind of a conch or whatever it is that lives in this thing and say, “Hmm, that’s not so not hot that one,” Like that you see?  And so, I wouldn’t see the whole thing!  But when I look at it like this, when anybody looks at it like that we say, “Oh my God isn’t that gorgeous?”


    **In philosophizing about the idea of reincarnation, Alan Watts makes some interesting (although possibly impossible to prove) points about the way that sentient objects perceive see things around them.  This is from a lecture called Every Incarnation is this One, from the Out of Your Mind lecture series:

    And the Buddhists thought that one over, and they said, “Crazy…we found a way of samsara – the wheel of birth and death.”  And somebody one day said, “But, isn’t that rather selfish?  You get yourself out, what about all the other people? Don’t you have any feeling of compassion?”  “Oh yes,” they said, “Of course.  We forgot that didn’t we?  Let’s come back again, and uh, help all these people out.” Then they got very sophisticated about it and they said, “Look, if nirvana is release from birth and death, then they’re opposed, and so nirvana and birth and death go together and they will have to imply one another.  So you’re really only released if you see that, if you see that nirvana and birth and death are the same thing.” 

    Now I’m gonna pull a fast one on you.  So every time an incarnation occurs, it feels like this one.  See, it might be quite different – we might we reincarnated in another universe as beings in of altogether different shape, see?  Not at all like human beings, but because we were used to it we would feel that that was the human shape.  We would say, “Well that’s natural, obviously, obviously, that’s the way things are.”  So naturally, if you appeared in the form of a spider, you would look around at other spiders and say, “Well yes, of course, this is, this is a natural place to be in, this is the human shape.”  Something that is not us looks at us and thinks we look perfectly terrible.  I mean imagine how you look to a fish: clumsy, cumbersome, stupid looking thing.  Whereas a fish is so elegant and graceful and can slide through the water so beautifully.  The human beings can’t even swim properly. 

    So don’t you see, that in every world that comes into being, or could come into being, it seems just like it seems now, and every species that you could belong to would seem like this one.  It would have its up end of what is highly intelligent, and its low end of what is not so intelligent.  You would be aware of superior forces and inferior forces; otherwise you wouldn’t have the idea of mastering a situation unless there were situations you couldn’t master.  Now we are not aware of species of beings above us unless you cultivate those forms of psychic awareness when you think you’re in touch with angels or something of that sort.  But the things that appear to be above us are great natural processes, only we think they’re rather stupid, only very tough, too strong for us: earthquakes, the elements, also some little ones, see the virus is a very troublesome being.   And this is where a human being really finds himself at his wits end in dealing with molecular biology.  So, you know, if the monsters don’t get your, the ministers will – the insects, you see. 

    But at any rate, whatever level you’re on, it always appears to be the same one.  Now we...therefore, naturally, don’t we, we feel we’re in the middle.  We feel, for example, with the telescope, that there is a world greater than us that is infinitely greater; we feel with the microscope there’s a world below us that’s infinitely smaller, and we seem to stand in the middle.  Of course you seem to stand in the middle, every creature stands in the middle because if you stand on a boat in the middle of the ocean and you turn around through an angle of three hundred and sixty degrees, you will see the same distance in every direction.  That’s because you see, and your sensitivity to sight or the intensity to light is the same in every direction, so you’re in the middle.  You’re always in the middle.  Where else would you be?  In other words, anything that perceives anywhere is always in the middle.  Anything that grows anywhere is always in the middle.  It’s betwixt and between.  And the middle always has, therefore, extremes.  It has extremes in space – as far west and as far east as you can think, as far on and as far back.  And there’s always a beginning and there’s always an end, just as there’s a left and right, or a top and a bottom. 


    Life on Earth and the Kortum Trail – Part I*

    I sent Divided Core’s finest (and only) journalist out to the coast to file a report on the Kortum Trail area.  As usual, he missed the deadline, but this is what he wrote.

          Miraculously, the Earth is bursting with life.  Earth orbits within the circumstellar habitatable zone, or Goldilocks zone – falling not too close to, nor too far from the Sun, which is an enormous fireball that can theoretically accommodate 1.3 million Earth-sized planets within its blazing, spherical walls.  The Sun is like a massive cauldron of hydrogen and helium gas burning in a concentrated inferno 93 million miles away from Earth.  The Sun is a star, and it’s responsible for creating the gravitational field which holds the Earth and other planets in orbit.  Like the extensive network of life supported by its radiating solar energy, the Sun will one day die.  In his book Cosmos, Carl Sagan examines the death of the Earth and Sun; the caption reads:

    Several billion years from now, there will be a last perfect day (top left).  Then over a period of millions of years, the Sun will swell, the Earth will heat, many lifeforms will be extinguished, and the shoreline will retreat (top right).  The oceans will rapidly evaporate (bottom left) and then the atmosphere will escape to space.  As the Sun evolves toward a red giant (bottom right) the Earth will become dry, barren and airless.  Eventually the Sun will fill most of the sky, and may engulf the Earth. Paintings by Adolf Schaller.

            Shifts in the sun’s gravitational disposition may be responsible for tugging comets out of the Ort Cloud – which is one-quarter of the distance between our sun and the next closest star in the Milky Way Galaxy.**  One or multiple comets may have brought water to planet Earth after it began to form 4.5 billion years ago.  This is a speculation that makes sense because if the Earth formed in a chaotic, superheated, astronomical conflagration, then everything on the intensely hot rock would be burning or smoldering, and water from a crashing comet could have cooled everything down. 

            The point is that it took a lot of time, energy, and specific permutations for life to appear on Earth.  And it’s one thing for microorganisms, flora, and fauna to exist, but for life to evolve into conscious creatures which can appreciate the world around them is a spectacular occurrence.  Equally mind-blowing is that humans – seemingly still in search of a homeostasis with nature and each other, and exhibiting the highest form of intelligence – are possibly too smart for their own good, and can take a gift so supernal and sacred such as a living planet, and systemically destroy it.  (Insofar as harming life on Earth, certainly some people are more responsible than others, and those who are responsible may comprise a minitory whose inclinations are inconsistent with the rest of humanity.  My six-year old niece, for instance, shouldn’t bear much of the blame, nor should any child, for they seem to be the most tolerant and loving of any demographic; it’s the adults who cause the trouble.)  Not only have people formed industries and institutions which exploit or wipe-out vast natural habitats for the sake of creating favorable living conditions and amenities solely for our species, but we have constructed social and political paradigms which facilitate such spite and distrust for our fellow man that we continually kill each other while threatening the use of nuclear weapons to obliterate entire cross-sections of the planet.  So what do we do?  We go to the beach.

            If you’re lucky, you will go to a beach that lies along a clean and dynamic coast, impeded by only a few roads and sparse buildings, on a bright and sunny day when the water is clear and the sound of rolling waves wash your troubles away.  One can examine the coast on a macrocosmic scale and observe the relationships between the forests, hills, coastal prairies, cliffs, rocky shores, sandy beaches, and ocean.  Here’s a selection of pictures of the Kortum Trail area and coast, as well as two of the moon, which could be considered another dominant macrocosmic feature depending on your level of magnification.*** There are a few images of large rocks that are thought to have marks rubbed into them by the mammoths that roamed the Goat Rock area 40,000 years ago (mammoth fossils have been found at Bodega Head).  The other large arched rock is a sea stack formation, which indicates that it was once on the seafloor in some distant epoch of time tens of millions of years ago.

            Along the coast there’s plenty to see on the microcosmic scale, but you may have to do a little crawling around.  A close-up view is often necessary in order to appreciate things like lichen, moss, mushrooms, succulents, shells, and a variety of dazzling lifeforms flourishing in the tide pools.  (When scrutinizing natural objects close you may realize how much you’ve overlooked.  It’s somewhat like drawing an object in that you never truly realize how little or much you know about the way something looks until you try to draw it.)  In the following slideshow you can see everything I just mentioned and more, including a chiton in the upper-right hand corner of the tide pool shot.  I’m not sure what the stack of white particles is, but I think it may be a pellet of fish bones. 

             Some of the plants and animals that you see along the coast, and especially in the water, look as though they came from outer space.  This makes sense because we’re on Earth, which is a planet floating in space.  Simple multicellular organisms such as moss, fungi, and algae originate from a genesis tracing back billions of years.  Following on their heels were more complex organisms like sea anemones, sea stars, seals, and pelicans, which seem to have persevered in establishing a specific niche and role in the world.  Like people, the individual animals will live and die, and they have a stake in perpetuating the existence of their own species through procreation.  Like us, they have derived from the generations of their ancestors that came before them, and will strive to produce a generation of their species to follow in their footsteps.  Yet a dichotomy between us and them exists in that they can only do so much to prevent the destruction of their habitats and adapt to changes in their environment.  They’re mostly small, innocent creatures that haven’t done a damn thing to us; they haven’t wronged us in any way, and yet we are carrying-out the wholesale destruction of the lands and seas upon which they depend on to survive.  If the sea stars and harbor seals could talk, I suspect they would say something like, “Please, for the love of God, treat us with a little respect, because we’re all in this together, and there may be things that we are doing for you that you don’t even know of yet.  And if we disappear, then we’re done for, and that won’t bode well for either of us.”  Furthermore, I suspect some of the more desperate ones would issue a mandate to those humans who would listen, and it would go something like this: “Hello.  I’m different than you and your kind.  I’m just a seal, and I can’t do the things you can do.  I can’t speak out or act to stop what’s happening to us and the seas, so please help us.  Please do what you can to change things up there so that we can get by and survive down here.  I’m sorry I can’t help, but we’re just animals, for crying out loud.”


    Asterisk Notes

    *I sometimes fall into a habit of not exploring my own backyard because I know it’s always there.  But this is not the right way to go about things – it is taking something for granted.  Yet that something may change in the way in which it presents itself to you, and you yourself will not always be around to experience it.  With that mentally, I went back to the coast off the Kortum Trail the other day.  I went back with a sea kayak and my diving gear, determined to get camera footage of the coast from and under the water in order to complete the second part of this piece.  But I didn’t go in, because the sea looked like this.  So stay tuned for Part II.

    **You won’t be able to find a photograph of the Milky Way Galaxy in full because we’re in it, and a camera hasn’t gone that far out in space yet.  The Milky Way galaxy is said to contain over 100 billion stars, and it's name has something to do with breast milk.  There are an estimated 100 billon galaxies in the universe, some containing hundreds of billions of stars.  Among astronomers, a commonly cited fact is that there are more stars in the universe than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world.  Our sun is of average size; click here for a neat video which shows how our Sun compares to others.

    ***In the lecture series Out of Your Mind, Alan Watts talks about level of magnification in a lecture called Awareness of the Self.  Here some of what he says:

            “…He sees, shall we say, that everything goes together.  And that is, in a way, by what we mean by relativity because relativity means relatedness – just as fronts go with backs and tops with bottoms, insides with outsides, solids with spaces – so everything that there is goes together.  It makes no difference whether it lasts a long time or whether it last a short time.  A galaxy goes together with all the universe just as much as a mosquito, which has a very short life.  From the standpoint of the self time is completely relative.  You can have, if you scale it down, as much time between two of those very rapid drum beats as you can in eons and eons and eons, it’s all a question of point of view, or, to use a scientific expression, level of magnification.  Change your magnification and you see molecules, and we know by other methods of observation that it can get smaller and smaller and smaller, and that the spaces between these minute units are so vast that they’re comparable to the distances between the sun and planets in scale.  So also with time, so in this sense, there could be vast, vast universes, full of empires, and battleships, and palaces, and brothels, and restaurants, and orchestras in the tip of your fingernail.  And on the other hand, we could be all going on in the tip of somebody else’s fingernail.
            It’s very important to understand not only the relativity of size and of time, but also of what there is.  Now as you know, the human senses respond only to a very small band of the known spectrum of vibrations.  We know through instruments of quite a vast spectrum, but we as I say with our senses see only a little of it.  If our senses were in some way altered, we would see a rather different looking world.  We can do this of course; we can put on special lenses to enable us to see heat, and then we see all the heat radiation coming out of people, and we say “Well, I’ve never noticed that about you before.”  But so in the same way, you see, there are infinitely many possibilities of vibrations, and of organs sensitive to those vibrations, so that there could be worlds within worlds within worlds, spaces within spaces, just like the many, many wavelengths of radio and television going on forever and ever in all directions.  The possibilities are infinite.”

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