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    The Belize Barrier Reef - Part I

    Life is short, life is very short.  I like life, I like it.  I feel like that even if it ends of being short I got lucky because life is an amazing gift when you think about what you get with a basic life –not even a particularly lucky life, or a healthily life.  If you have a life it’s an amazing… Here’s your boiler plate deal with life, this is basic cable, what you get when you get life: you get to be on Earth – first of all, oh my God, what a location!  This is Earth, and for trillions of miles in every direction it fucking sucks so bad, it’s so shitty that your eyes bolt out of your head cause’ it sucks so bad.  You get to be on Earth and look at shit – as long as you’re not blind or whatever it is – you get to be here! 

                                                                                                                                                  -Louis C.K, Oh My God

    Out here in the great cosmic dark there are countless stars and planets, some far older than our solar system.  Although we cannot yet be certain, the same processes which lead on Earth to the origin of life and intelligence should have been operating throughout the cosmos.  There may be a million worlds throughout the Milky Way galaxy alone which are at this moment inhabited by other intelligent beings.  What a wonder, what a joy it would be to know something about non-human intelligence…  And we can.  Here is an exotic, inhabited world mostly covered with a liquid.  We seek the dominant intelligence that lives beneath its fluid surface.  This ocean of liquid water, kilometers deep, is teeming with strange forms of life.  There are communities of transparent beings, there are societies of creatures which communicate by changing the patterns on their bodies, there are beings that give of their own light, there are hungry flowers that devour passers-by, gesticulating trees, all manner of creatures that seem to violate the boundaries between plants and animals.  There are beings that flutter through the ocean like waltzing orchids.  These are a few of the species that inhabit the water world called Earth.

                                                                                                                                                  -Carl Sagan, Cosmos


             Off the coast of Belize, beyond the little islands where puppies gnaw on coconut husks and where you are so far removed from your homeland that a nuclear bomb could have exploded there and you would not have known the difference, lies the second largest coral reef system on Earth (although coral reefs comprise less than one percent of the Earth’s crust, they’re home to nearly one-third of the world’s fish species).  The Belize Barrier Reef is bursting with life.  Beneath the skyblue waves, dazzling coral gardens flourish upon the seafloor and support a diverse array of strange, spectacular, and sentient creatures. 

             Corals are colonies of tiny polyps – animals with tentacles that vary in size and function.  While hundreds to hundreds of thousands of miniature polyps can join together to form coral (the living coral grow on top of the calcium carbonate skeletons of their dead predecessors), larger individual polyps may attach to rocks and live as solitaire entities known as sessile polyps (the sea anemone is one example of such).  Similarly, jellyfish start out as sessile polyps, but later transform into free-swimming medusa. (All jellyfish are also considered gelatinous zooplankton, a word derived from the Greek zoon, meaning “animal,” and planktos, meaning “drifter” or “wanderer.”)  Extensive connected networks of corals are called coral reefs, the three main types of which are fringing, atoll, and barrier reefs. 

                There are over 70,000 species of coral on Earth, and many vary drastically in their characteristics.  Hundreds of coral species – of different sizes, shapes, and colors – can thrive in a small section of reef, creating a smorgasbord of surreal patterns produced by breathing polyp colonies which bring the entire reef to life.  Brain coral is a type of stony coral which resembles a giant brain enveloped by an olive-green cerebral cortex.  Gorgonian sea rods branch upwards like aquatic cacti with slender arms that sway gently in the current.  The massive blade corals are hollow and shaped like pitcher plants, tremendous cauldrons, and upturned bells.  In the shallows, some sections of the coral garden have been trampled upon by human visitors and weathered by the elements, thus, swaths of dead coral fragments littering the seafloor have accumulated like rubble or shattered tombstones in submerged reef graveyards.

              In deeper parts of the reef, the coral gardens lie entirely intact and untouched.  Colorful coral species proliferate along the reef walls and glow brightly in trenches.  Divers are surrounded by a living world of fluorescent and breathing polyps which induce a psychedelic and hallucinatory sensation, as though you were swimming through a dream.  Upon the seafloor the coral structures rise up like great pillars and enormous mushrooms, and along the shelf of the reef the formations resemble castle towers or grails bedecked with gems.  Denizens of this coral city of Atlantis include enormous loggerhead turtles that speed through the water like submersibles.  Moray eels, nurse sharks, and sting rays glide and taxi through seafloor crevasses with such hurried intent it is as though they were late for their appointments on the other side of town. Barracuda, jacks, and tarpon – massive, silver fish – jet through the water like apparitions and torpedoes.  Shrimp, wrasse, lobsters, clams, and sea snails seek coverage in the protective ninches of the coral, and at night octopi and squid emerged to hunt with their lurid green eyes and color-changing chromatophores which pulse across their camouflaged and shape-shifting bodies.  The reef is a place of supreme beauty where saltwater species which have managed to survive for hundreds of year millions of years (jellyfish were around 500 million years ago) by virtue of perfecting their evolutionary skills demonstrate just how awesome life is on Earth, which is in of itself an absolute and mind-blowing miracle.      


    A Word on the Belize Zoo

    I would give ten years off the beginning of my life to see, only once, Tyrannosaurus rex come rearing up from the elms of Central Park, a Morgan police horse screaming in its jaws. We can never have enough of nature.

                                                                                                                                                                                         -Edward Abbey


             Here we have the exquisite Belize Zoo.  A dainty little place where the animals roam free in their cages.  Many of the animals are rescues that have been and are being rehabilitated and appear to be content with the conditions of their confinement because they are fed regularly without having to exert a muscle, are provided with healthcare, and are located in a convincingly natural yet artificial space which replicates their native environment to such efficacy that they (with the exception the winged-birds) seem lazily at home.  It’s a pleasant place to go to see the animals (jaguars, crocodiles, panthers, eagles, monkeys, tapirs, amongst many others) which, despite the efforts of preservationist, regulators, and the animals themselves, cannot seem to stave off their annihilation at the hands of men with guns seeking to fulfill the demands of those whom desire their skin and fur for aesthetic gain and material pleasure.  So please, ladies in New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and in all other godforsaken material hellholes and epicenters that eat into the skin of the Earth like cancerous, bleeding sores: lay off the exotic animals.

    Have a look see at the beautiful animals at the Belize Zoo, because it may the last time we’re ever going to see them in real life if we don’t get our shit together.



    On Dioramas and the Extinction of Earthlings

    Even baby owls know not to shit in their own nests.  Humans have shit all over this planet, we’re less intelligent than baby owls.

                                                                              -Gerry Spence, From Slavery to Freedom: The Rebirth of Tyranny in America


    Homo-sapiens (or, if you prefer, homo-imbēcillus) are the most efficeint and successful of all invasive species. 

                                                                                                                                      -Walter Lloyd Waterson, The Rights of Nature


           Posted below is a slideshow of the dioramas at the California Academy of the Sciences in San Francisco.  As habitat destruction, global temperature averages, pollution, consumption, human population, and urban sprawl increases across the planet, civilizations are closing-in on the natural world, dismembering its ecosystems, gorging upon its resources, and stamping-out its animal inhabitants.  Unless a greater is effort is made to protect Earth’s wild places and the creatures that dwell therein, the animals endangered today will be extinct tomorrow.  While some of the more cherished and iconic creatures may be preserved through zoological breeding programs or cloned into existence, it’s likely that many of the currently endangered species will be driven to extinction in the wild and that our grandchildren will observe them only in cages, in natural history films, as fossils, or as taxidermy. 

             Most animal species on Earth have origins in a past much deeper than our own, yet modern humans often consider the existence of these other, more ancient creatures as insignificant and constituting a lesser evolved order as we slaughter them wholesale and wipe-out their habitats for human purposes, thus ending their lengthy track-record and eliminating their presence of life on Earth.  Humans, in our current manifestation as homo-sapiens (Latin: “wise man”) have been around for roughly 200,000 years, but many reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and birds that are now going extinct emerged and thrived on Earth thousands of centuries before we did.  Amphibians (which comprise a group of animals that has the highest rate of endangerment), for instance, first appeared on the planet 370 million years ago, eons before primates emerged as a distant branch on the evolutionary tree. 

    According to the Center for Biological Diversity:

            We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.

           Habitat destruction and climate change are the two main factors driving species extinction, and while people can argue about man’s climatic influence until the cows swim home, the evidence implicating us in the drastic disfiguration and destruction of Earth’s habitat is indisputable.  By ending the long run of existence for myriad species that have been on Earth since the age of the dinosaurs, humans are effectively hacking down their own biological family tree, for not only do many of these dying species share similar DNA to humans, but it is from out their lineage that we have evolved; they and their kin are in fact our distant relatives.  In destroying forests, polluting the air and the seas, and killing animals en masse, humans are also biting the hand that feeds them, for the creatures that are being sacrificed for the sake of human “progress” are the very ones that we have depended on for our ascendancy and that we rely on for food, shelter, and medicine.  Indeed, many modern medicines are derived from plant and animal species that reside in the seas or in tropical forests, and it is sometimes said that, through deforestation, humans may have already destroyed the cure for cancer without even knowing it. 

            The final irony is this:  that in all our genius and technological prowess which has allowed us to dominate the natural world, we are very likely creating of this world an environment so inhospitable that our highly evolved and intelligent species will no longer be able to flourish upon it.   We are going to kill ourselves because we are so smart and so stupid at the same time.  That we have been given the opportunity to live on Earth is miracle superimposed upon another miracle.  That humans would violently destroy such a precious and marvelous gift, while simultaneously bringing down a galaxy of creatures that we share this planet with is the greatest tragedy in the theater of life on Earth, and it is due time that we change our course.    




    Low Tide Seaweed and Mussel Harvest

    It’s a simple and marvelous thing.  To be a solitaire man on the coast at low tide at dusk, picking your way across the slippery rocks with nothing but a bucket and your stupid phone for taking pictures in your hands.   The danger of being swept out to sea or slipping and breaking a bone is minor but still real enough consider, especially as the tide begins to turn and the waves come crashing in.  But I can think of many worse places to die.  Prying the mussels off the rocks and tugging at the seaweed is fun and arduous, but the greater joy lies in examining the diverse array of vibrant sea creatures that lie exposed at low tide.  More on that next time.  Until then, I’d highly recommend a light harvesting of mollusks for your next dinner party, it’s a liberating experience. 


    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 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.     

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