Poetry in the Ocean: Full Moon, High Tide, and Whale Songs

In early August, I took a visiting friend – a behavioral biologist who studies marine mammals – out to Limantour Beach in Point Reyes. She loved the mountains, the arch of cypress and great eucalyptus trees over the road, the slow drive winding down to the beach.

I told her I’d seen grey whales there a while back in spring, close to shore. She’d already spotted a spout from the car, and walking to the deserted western end of the beach, we saw more small spouts – she wondered if they were a transient pod of orcas. Some distance ahead, hundreds of seabirds gathered, dipping and diving into the water for food: pelicans flying above in formation – so ungainly on land yet so graceful in flight, Heermann’s and common Western gulls, terns, skuas, and shorebirds like willets and godwits. Tremendous upwellings in the ocean often cause such teemings of birds and marine mammals. I plan to return and investigate if conditions are similar, the next full moon and high tide.

We scanned the water for activity. Then suddenly, maybe a mile or so out at sea near the horizon, a massive splash startled us and we watched, astonished, as three humpback whales frolicked (or two males vied for a female’s attention). Turning and raising their flippers and flukes, they slapped the waves in a thunderous roar, possibly singing, breaching fully out of the water. They continued this behavior for about half an hour! It was incredible; a couple of nearby boats must’ve had the show of their lives.

Soon, we stopped seeing them and assumed they swam away. We began walking back to the path where we’d entered the beach. Bottlenose dolphins swam nearby, porpoising in the surf, and a seal peeked out from the waves. And the whales? They hadn’t deserted us at all: spouts and whale backs suddenly popped up even closer than before, maybe 60 yards from shore. As they seemingly paralleled our journey along the beach, we joked about “walking our whales.”

Every few steps we halted at the latest spotting, smiling at our luck. Then out of nowhere: bursting out of the water, one of the huge cetaceans lifted his massive head and took in an immense mouthful of krill and fish not 50 yards in front of us. I screamed, overwhelmed, my heart felt as if it would burst, and tears streamed down my face. Even my friend, who throughout her fieldwork had sighted hundreds of whales, was dumbfounded. It truly was – as if the day hadn’t already been! – the most magical, spectacular wildlife display I’ve ever seen.

To find words that justly describe this encounter is impossible, the sensation of absolute rapture and wonder, watching these peaceful giant creatures in the sea – which, despite seeming like so alien, is also our own environment. When we returned to the car, saw and heard other people talking, it felt like we had just returned from far away. But while the very next day, it seemed like a dream – it’s all part of the same world we all share, the same, amazing reality.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay/Creative Commons

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Posted in Conservation, Friends, Nature, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Bringing in the Harvest

Happy Lammas/Lughnasa to all! Somehow, we’ve passed high summer and autumn is already around the corner. Days shorten and nights grow longer, and the traditional harvest celebration has arrived. It rained more last winter than it had in years. And, thanks to our amending with yard and kitchen compost, the wondrous mix of minerals, organic matter and organisms, water and air that is our soil is healthier than ever. Add the magic of photosynthesis that allows plants to obtain nutrients thanks to these sunny languorous days, and our garden burst into bloom.

Now we reap the harvest after planting extra everything: beets, kale, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers. We found a brand new crop as well – growing zucchini and pumpkin next to each other in years past seemingly allowed them to cross-pollinate, producing a beautiful zucchini-toned hybrid I like to call a zumpkin. The taste of this fresh, nutrient-rich bounty is even sweeter when shared with local food banks, neighbors, and friends!

 

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Summer Solstice, with Pollinators

Purple sage

The Summer Solstice is here, appropriately in the midst of a terrible heatwave (although it’s now Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere). In the Northern Hemisphere the earth in its orbit tilts on its axis, facing the sun for the longest period of the year. The above website will live-stream extraordinary telescope views of the sun from around the globe! With worldwide celebrations from places like England, Ireland, Finland, to Spain, Greece, Russia, from Yakutia to Santa Barbara, California, in traditions such as jumping over bonfires, watching the sun rise, and ritual bathing, we honor the burgeoning new life in the ground, and anxiously await the fall harvest.

 

 

Tomatoes, basil, lemon balm, cucumbers

Arugula flowers (with some blue ceanothus)

 

Catmint (above) and white California buckwheat

In keeping with this theme (and in honor of Pollinator Week), I recently attended a lecture at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Environmental Center on cultivating habitat gardens for pollinators such as bees, butterflies, bats and birds. Humans traditionally have a harmonious, symbiotic relationship with some of these: bees provide us with a third of all the food we eat – from fruit to vegetables to nuts! In fact, some crops are over 90% dependent on bees for pollination. All these creatures are threatened by pesticide/herbicide use, disease, predators such as cats (my favorites!), and habitat loss due to climate change and development.

 

 

 

Butterfly bush

 

Spanish lavender

We can help by planting largely native plants – which are also more weed- and disease-/pest-resistant, as well as more drought-tolerant. By eliminating pesticides (substitute a mix of 1 gal. vinegar, 2 cups epsom salts, and 1/4 cup blue Dawn dish soap), adding water sources for all (in locations protected from predators), diversifying plants for year-round blooms and letting them go to flower and seed, and avoiding pruning and clearing away brush and leaves during nesting season, we can encourage these amazing animals to be part of the small ecosystems in our yards. And, we get to enjoy interacting with them and observing their beauty every day! Happy Midsummer!

 

 

Abutilon

 

 

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May Day

May Day (or Beltane) celebrations traditionally involve bonfires, and dancing around a Maypole to commemorate the coming of summer and the fertility of the growing season ahead. Observances such as our local march pictured here, also honor labor for International Workers’ Day, all across the world.

Our current global climate of conflict, inequality, and increased threats to science and nature itself reminds me again of the connection between nature and humanity.

We rely on the natural world for sustenance (physical and spiritual), for scientific and medical research. Nature must be protected because any imbalance affects millions of species, and that includes us as humans. And also reminds me that we must, more than ever, act not only as guardians and stewards, but as the inseparable part of nature that we are.

  

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Nature, Seasons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Science and Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! Here is a small glimpse of our burgeoning garden (even lusher due to one of the rainiest winters on record). I’m always amazed at what will pop up on its own, thanks to the rich humus under several large trees, and at the symbiotic relationships between plants and animals (including humans): the Dutchman’s pipevine is the sole birthing ground for the Pipevine swallowtail butterfly; the coast redwood hosts different ecosystems from the ground beneath it all the way up into its crown, and even controls its own environment. And, perhaps most important, as we breathe out carbon dioxide, plants breathe it in and provide us with invaluable oxygen, as they respire.

This year, Earth Day has a confluence with the March for Science, held in over 500 cities across the globe. In the current political climate, climate change, evolution and science itself are under attack, and the time is ripe for reexamining and reaffirming how much we benefit from scientific research, education, and environmentalism. Issues such as women’s health, mental health, children’s health, clean water, clean air, biodiversity, and preserving the outdoors to reconnect with nature all converge with and are inseparable from science.

Jane Goodall writes in Seeds of Hope, to celebrate the “beauty, mystery, and complexity of the world. That we may save this world before it is too late.” Let’s celebrate science and Earth Day!

Dutchman’s pipevine (Aristolocchia macrophylla)

Grape hyacinth (Muscari)

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis)

Bearded Iris

Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica)

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Vernal Equinox, with Frogs!

Shooting star (Dodecatheon)

Happy Spring Equinox! After a brief moment of nearly equal day and night, the sun crosses the celestial equator as it moves north along our ecliptic, and Earth’s northern and southern hemispheres are evenly illuminated. Persians celebrate New Year or Nowruz, and in the north we mark the longer days and the sun’s warming of the soil in preparation for planting.

Past equinox posts of mine focus on the sweet tension between repetition and change that comes with the cycles of nature and its seasons of new growth. But at a time when science itself is threatened, I want to venture away from the great comfort I take from those cycles. It seems even more crucial to address species that may escape our attention.

I recently became involved with a research project monitoring amphibian life at the nearby Pepperwood Preserve. There are many such opportunities for citizen scientists.

Here, some of our most fragile yet perseverant denizens such as California newts gestate in vernal pools, somehow weathering drought, pollution, and predators.

   

Frogs, like these Sierran tree frogs, are like canaries in the coal mine, breathing (and thereby also absorbing any toxins or pollutants in the environment) through their skin.

 

Other species found include the California slender salamander, Western fence lizard, Western blue-tailed skink, Southern alligator lizard, and the beautiful Ringneck snake. These animals remind us of our role and responsibility to maintain the delicate balance of the great web of which we are a part. We are not alone in our ecosystem.

            

   

View of Mayacamas Mountains from Pepperwood Preserve

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Local Area Hikes and trips, Nature, Seasons, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Ravens and Love in Point Reyes

20170214_143825After weeks of work, I was thrilled by a recent hike B. and I took to Point Reyes National Seashore, a spectacular stretch of the California coast and a very special place for us. After winding through woodlands of rushing streams fresh from winter rains, the Bear Valley Trail meets Arch Rock. Here, the North American Plate meets the Pacific Plate, and juts out into the Pacific Ocean.

A flock of White-crowned sparrows came out of hiding in some nearby manzanita bushes, to explore the bread (and wine) that we brought for our picnic. These tame birds were clearly used to human visitors. A spout, then a slash of back, signaled a whale out at sea.

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Ravens, two clearly paired, softly called to each other on a nearby rock outcropping. They stood close together, groomed one another, and fed each other. “With such affectionate behavior,” B. said, “There’s no reason to believe that animals aren’t capable of emotions like love, just as we are – after all, we are animals!”

Watching these amazing creatures, I couldn’t remember the last time I heard and saw such a concise, eloquent defense of our link to the natural world.

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Posted in Birds, Geology, Local Area Hikes and trips, Nature, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tagged , , | 15 Comments