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    Waiheke Island Tidepools

    In the tidepools of the subtropical island of Waiheke (population: 8,500), which lies thirteen miles outside of Auckland in New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf, are microcosms of marine life which seem to exist in such independence and isolation from one another that it would appear as though the various tidepools are like islands unto themselves.  Protected from the waves by lichen-covered rocks, the myriad saltwater residents of the tide pools live in relative peace and security in their tiny littoral wonderlands.  Crabs nestle in the niches and crevasses of boulders, with aggregations of baby crabs conglomerating under stones.  Sponges, starfish, sea anemones, and barnacles anchor themselves along the seaweed-rich edges of surge channels, where the water level is constantly changing with the tides and thus flushing in the nutrients and out the waste.  The tidepools are filled with forests of red coralline algae, which provides protection for a range of mollusks, namely the whelks and periwinkles, sea snails which have established entire villages and hamlets within the shallow coral forests and scurry amongst the fragmented bones of their kin and ancestors, amongst the calcified skeletons of their brethren, many of whose shells have be repurposed by florescent hermit crabs whom wander the sandy bottoms like street urchins scouring through the rubble of their once intact and now disintegrating city.  Chitons (my personal favorite phylum of mollusks) thrive among the shoreline rocks of Waiheke, and, for reasons of preservation, I hope that doesn't change anytime soon. 



    Humboldt County

    Mere communion with nature, mere contact with the free air, exercise a soothing yet comforting and strengthening influence on the wearied mind, calm the storm of passion, and soften the heart when shaken by sorrow to its inmost depths. 

                                                                                                                                                                    -Alexander von Humboldt   

    Up in Northern California’s Humboldt county (named after the once-famed and highly-esteemed Prussian adventurer-scientist Alexander von Humboldt; read The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, and Humboldt’s own Views of Nature), live Earth’s tallest trees (100+ meter Sequoia sempervirens, aka coastal redwoods, which can grow taller than the London Big Ben clock tower which gets blown up at the end of V for Vendetta), which are also some of the oldest living organisms (lifespan: 1,200 – 1,800 years or more) on the planet (unless you subscribe to James Lovelock’s reasonable Gaia hypothesis, which posits that Earth is an sovereign organism unto itself, thus is in and within itself the single oldest living entity, weighing-in at 4.5 billion years-old and god knows how many pounds.)  The upturned trunks of fallen redwoods the size of school buses, with their shallow root systems exposed and with ferns and small trees growing from the decomposing bark (within which live whole colonies of ants and other insects), look like great centerpieces in the forest.

    The soaring old growth redwoods are but one expression of the gigantic flora flourishing in the northland wilderness that are Humboldt and Del Norte counties.  Along the coast there are ferns taller than pickup trucks and starfish larger than saucers and frying pans.  My friend and I, both self-professed expert campers who just happened to forget our flashlights and headlamps, arrived to our Patrick Point’s campsite at night, and after struggling to set-up our tents in the dark, went to sleep.   (I’ve always enjoyed the experience of arriving in new destination very late at night, going to sleep, and then waking up early to explore a place that you have never been to.)  Awaking in my tent at Patrick’s Point, the squawking birds and green hues were reminiscent of a tropical jungle, and when I stepped out of my tent the encompassing evergreens and boulders seemed disproportionally larger than usual.  It felt as though I was a miniature person standing in a giant terrarium and playground.  Layers and layers of vegetation covered the boulders like hanging gardens, and the bright green tips of new growth festooned the branch tips of native trees.

    One of the most remarkable aspects of Patrick’s Point is the burgeoning tidepool life, particularly that of the massive starfish population.  Along the shores of Sonoma and Mendocino country it’s rare, if not impossible, to find a single starfish living amongst the rocky shores (wasting syndrome is probably a significant factor), yet the Humboldt coast was rich with sea stars.  It has been many years since I’ve seen such healthy tidepool populations anywhere, and I can only assume that in recent decades the sea star population has dwindled along the California coastline and that had we visited Patrick’s Point (or any point along American continents where the western shores kiss the Pacific Ocean) a century ago our minds would have been blown by the then-incredible extent and variety of intertidal marine life (having said that, I have never visited Patagonia, and would relish the opportunity to explore the tidepools there).  Through time and space the mind wanders, and standing amongst the tallest trees on Earth one wonders:  have there ever been taller trees throughout Earth’s history, or are these the tallest (after all, the blue whale is larger than most extinct dinosaurs, so we may as well assume that these trees are the amongst the largest to ever grace the surface of the Earth)?  Such a comparison of conditions of ecological health can also be made in the river systems of Humboldt County versus that of other popular rivers in Northern California.  The Smith River, which runs through Jedidiah Smith State Park and out to the sea, is perhaps one of the clearest and cleanest rivers I have ever swam in or seen.  Whereas the Russian River in west Sonoma, which seems clean enough, appears dirty enough by comparison that my little niece once questioned me as to veracity of its name, saying, “I thought it was called Restroom River.”


    Mendocino and Kayaking Big River

    The quaint town of Mendocino is one the various manmade gems along the Northern California coast (albeit the gem designation is due to its setting in an area of extreme natural beauty, something that humans had no part in creating, for the town is located upon a unique headland facing the magnificent Pacific Ocean to the west, and to the east are evergreen forests engulfing the hills, and along the coast which is festooned with colorful wildflowers there are rocky outcroppings and meadow-bluffs that kiss the turquoise sea in which enormous kelp forest coves punctured by sea caves harbor a spectacular range of shorebirds and marine life).  Developed by the influx of loggers who expelled the native Pomo Indian settlement in the area in the 1850s, Mendocino is now a heavily touristed town which has retained an antiquated, antebellum character demonstrated nicely by the historic Mendocino Inn, a place that is throwback to the good-old-days when obdurate men on horseback rode to the town saloon for a whiskey drink and then moseyed on over to the brothel where belladonna whores in flowing dresses greeted them and miserly Chinese men named Ching scurried around suspiciously with surprising efficacy and financial success in venues that would in later decades be frequented by men armed with tommy guns and donning striped suits like those worn by the actors cast in the film Dick Tracy.    

    Aside from the saloons and brothels, Mendocino offers close proximity to Big River, which runs ten miles inland from the bay.  At the mouth of the river the freshwater flows into and meets the saltwater coursing in from the ocean, and the riverbed is comprised of white sand, which imbues the water with hints of aquamarine and teal, and also hosts the occasional stand of bull kelp.  The bright aquatic colors and kelp stands continue to appear upriver until the saltwater transitions into the more freshwater-dominated riparian environment, which is submerged in chlorophyll hues from forested riverbanks lined by reeds and cloaked by arching trees and underlying serene algae-laden waters.  Nevertheless, as you make your way upriver you are reminded of its brackish composition by the presence of seals resting on the logs and sandbars of the river; also in the redwood canopies above where dozens of cormorant nests may occupy a single tree, indicating that the sea is not far off for the cormorant is indeed a shorebird if there ever was one.  Further upriver, freshwater animals, such as painted turtles and river otters inhabit the log-jammed flanks, and they retreat at your incoming presence.


    The river was once used as a channel to transport the thousands of ancient redwood trees hacked down in the environmentally devastating ecocide that was the erstwhile Big River logging industry, the resulting lumber having been used for the construction of myriad homes in San Francisco.  Old logging ruins can still be seen as you paddle inland, and none of the old growth trees exist anymore.  One wonders what it looked when the giant two-thousand year-old redwoods were still standing along the banks of the river.  What prolific and glorious wildlife there must have been before those bastards got their fucking hands and saws on those sacrosanct trees.  Not only that, one wonders what the Mendocino coast and surrounding sea must have been like before the whalers and the seal hunters came poaching for blubber like bloodthirsty drunken madmen.  Perhaps the Pomo Indians could have told us, but they’re all gone now, gone or working in casinos or K-Marts, having all but lost the spiritual connection to the natural world that their ancestors must have possessed when they walked along the banks of Big River prior to its mechanized-induced upheaval and mutilation (I was about to say transformation, but that’s too ambiguous, for it could imply something good).  Still, you can kayak Big River and appreciate for what is it now, and once you get far enough upriver, far away from everything and anyone civilized, if you close your eyes you can imagine what it was like before the trees were fell, and that vision will put smile on your sunlit face.  And if you want, you can think about what it may be like down the road, and that prospect may make your cringe and shake your head, for the fate of the Earth and the natural world – Big River included – is looking grim. 


    Yosemite National Park

    In my quest to expand my ecological footprint as much as humanly possible, I made a brief but worthwhile trip Yosemite National Park last week.  A standard tour consists of driving through the Yosemite Valley to and then up to Glacier Point.  Both these areas offer visitors the chance to take short walks which grant them superb views of some of the spectacular granite cliffs and waterfalls that dominate the park.  While such sights are awe-inspiring and their accessibility is convenient for those who are handicapped, elderly, or intoxicated, the dense throngs of visitors creates a Disneyland theme park-like atmosphere in many of the viewing areas.  If isolation is what you seek, you will not find it in Yosemite Valley or in the lofty granite peaks of Glacier Point.   The expansive Yosemite Wilderness is a more suitable environment to attain solace away from the crowds that populate the paved roads and campgrounds.  But for now, with the compound fracture of my tibia and fibula still healing, I’ll have to stick to the main roads and contend with the crowds, saving the wilderness for later. 



    The Northern California Coast from Highway One

    Beyond the shores of Earth lie the endless seas, surging with mystery and ancient lifeforms which, in the darkness of the ocean and of the night, drift beneath the faraway stars around which may revolve other worlds with primordial seas unto themselves, inhabited by creatures whose bizarre constitutions are beyond our wildest imaginations.

                                                                                                               -Walter Lloyd Waterson, On the Possibility of Life on Distant Planets

    If you take the California Highway One north from the Russian River on a clear day, you will gaze west from an elevation of six-hundred feet and see the vast and glorious Pacific Ocean.  The volume of water in the panorama before you is unfathomable and humbling, for it is so immense, timeless, and powerful that your existence is made diminutive in comparison to this massive aquatic force of nature.  The coastline is rugged and pristine, and sheer cliffs drop down to rocky shores where waves crash against boulders and stones that crackle as the gurgling water is drawn back out to sea.  I am blessed to be able to explore the wonders of the eastern Pacific coast in as an adult, and have formerly thought that elderly people who first venture to this coast in their old age must kick themselves for experiencing it when they’re week and feeble, but who knows what fantastic adventures they may have had in their lives, and perhaps I’ll be kicking myself as an old man with limited mobility if I ever visit the coasts of South Africa, Patagonia, or Western Australia.  Since I cannot yet visit those places, I will take what I can get, and am eternally grateful that I am free to explore tidepools, collect shells, hike along cliffs, watch whales swim off the coast, see the reflection of the moonlight on the water at night, and, if I so desire, to throw on a wetsuit and dive mask and peer at some of the wondrous array of wild and weird sea creatures that inhabit the saltwater world.