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    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.


    Praying Mantis

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



         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.”

    Image from:

    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.”


    Ravenswood Pond

           In Menlo Park there is a dried-up salt marsh called Ravenswood Pond.  The stagnant pools and dessiccated streams contain mountains of salt crystals and the water is red due to the iron content.  It's a walk in the park compared to the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolvia, but if you've got two hours to kill while waiting for your brother to get out of a job interview in Menlo Park, and you don't want to waste your time at Facebook headquarters, head to Ravenswood Pond. 


    Greenland from Way Up

        From the window of a plane flying 30,000 thousand feet high in the daytime sky, the coast and interior landmass of Greenland is a fantastic sight to behold.  Upon the deep blue water, giant shelves of ice drift away into the sea and break apart like shattered glass.  The shallow bases of many icebergs are visible beneath the surface of the clear water, and the white ice contrasted against the blue water produces a brilliant turquoise hue.  On the coast, immense mountain-valley glaciers lay sculpted and carved by snowmelt rivers that slowly run across the frozen juggernauts and spill out into an ivory sea.  Lagoons of crystal blue water glisten upon the ice fields like gems, glowing like fluorescent coolant.  To the southwest, the land is stark and exposed – towering mountain islands rise up from jade seas, and the sediment from the summer rivers flows into clear water like dust.   


          Seeing Greenland by plane is quite a trip – right up there with lightning storms and forest fires.   If you want to read a beautiful and informative book about the arctic, check out the book Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez.  Also, Cormac McCarthy offers an incredible fictional passage about a polar hinterland in his monumental novel, Suttree

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