May, 2009 Archive

Overnight above the Tracks

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

By the Eucalyptus Grove above the hairpin rail turn in Stenner Canyon.


Yet another pipeline coming through, this time the Nacimiento project.  A great berm topped by the two excavators that piled it over the place where wildflowers and snakes flourished in years gone by.  Behind me the rush of skidding mountain bikes coming down from Shooters on this temperate May afternoon.  Aaron L., the new Cal Poly ranch manager we met at the trailhead says forty or fifty a day pass his house at Serrano.  Rockslide Ridge lit from behind and to the left, Poly Mountain.  The oat grass swaying, creeks on either side tumbling lightly, peaceable murmur of student conversation, while some write and others gaze.


The new trail up here from the tracks on land just acquired by the city switchbacks through oak groves crossing and recrossing Stenner’s central fork on artfully curved, banked wooden bridges.


The students leave at 5:20, after I read a parting prose-poem by Mary Oliver

Look, it’s spring.  And last year’s loose dust has turned into this soft willingness.  The wind-flowers have come up trembling, slowly the brackens are up-lifting their curvaceous and pale bodies.  The thrushes have come home, none less than filled with mystery, sorrow, happiness, music, ambition.

And I am walking out into all of this with nowhere to go and no task undertaken but to turn the pages of this beautiful world over and over, in the world of my mind.

Chad back from Japan and Nancy back from Germany have joined the hike and have brought food to share  somewhere down the trail.  He called at 3:15 to ask if the class would go today and if they could join it. The fellowship of Focus the Nation revived. Alex comes along to explore the section between here and the great oak, where I plan to stop for dinner. As we traverse the three-dimensional curves of the path through grassland and oak canyon, they relate the night before’s adventure of staging a Renewable Energy Education Program for the Sierra Club in Atascadero.  The POPRs (Protect Our Property Rights) turned out en masse, some to harrass, others to learn.  I try to turn their attention to the long prospects down the canyons to the sea, to the the colorful Jasper boulders, the little wetlands, and then the tree.


They discover a dramatically lit canopy under the kneeling limbs and unpack a wine bottle, fresh produce from the organic farm where I went this morning to pick up veggies with Lucas, a little baggie of bulgar wheat and a campstove.  While they prepare the feast,



I climb to the top of the tree, salivating now at the thought of eating something more than the trail mix in my pack.


I’m invaded by memories: the Durand Oak, and the meals of vegetables and rice with students and ex-students at Columbia in the Sixties.

As the sun goes down, I direct them to the path looping back to Serrano, happy to find the solitude I was anticipating yet grieving for their departure.  Nancy is leaving San Luis for good within weeks.  Chad has graduated. They are trying to maintain the bonds of Empower Poly and Focus the Nation against the entropy of dispersal with plans for a California Energy Tour and  other world-changing enterprises. I look for them on the trail below, but it is too dark and too late.


I hoist my pack and walk through tall grass over a rise into an encounter with a black-tailed doe.


She poses for me then prances off, then poses again.



The full moon rises fat over East Cuesta Ridge.


As the dusk deepens and the wind picks up, I pass from the Stenner watershed to Poly Canyon’s and find a relatively flat spot beside one of the springs that source Brizzolara Creek. I’m too tired to read or write or even look at the stars.  The northwest wind has picked up, harrying the trees and grasses, recalling Muir’s description of “A Windstorm in the Forest,” which we read last week:

when the grand anthem had swelled to its highest pitch, I could distinctly hear the varying tones of individual trees,…and even the infinitely gentle rustle of the withered grasses at my feet. Each was expressing itself in its own way,–singing its own song, and making its own peculiar gestures…The profound bass of the naked branches and boles booming like waterfalls; the quick, tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur; the rustling of laurel groves in the dells, and the keen metallic click of leaf on leaf.

The wind is warm, but not as dry as the hot sundowners that make you feel like wildfire is just a spark away.


Next day I find out that while I thought that the hills above Santa Barbara were burning and much of the city was evacuated.  I burrow into my bag and the unrlenting wind tugs at it all night, shaking me awake every hour or so to see the moon progressing across the sky.

Friday morning I drop down cross country into Poly Canyon, knees and ankles grateful for the bracing of my heavy boots. An interesting bird in a dessicated Sycamore lets me take its picture


At 6:30 am the rising sun spotlights the top of Poly Mountain, just where I slept two weeks before.  It’s greeted by a group of students!



Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

This one-hour movie is about, among other things, the life and work of Ernst Haeckel and his mission to integrate science, art and spirituality.   It’s subtitled “A Nineteenth Century Vision,” and it weaves threads of cultural and intellectual history with mythography, art history, and literary criticism into a pattern of emergent form based on the growth of radiolaria.  The film chronicles an alchemical quest that incorporates quotes from Goethe’s poems, letters, and Faust, with a provocative reading of Coleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner,” and an account of the vessel, Challenger‘s voyage of scientific research.  This is accompanied by music, sound design and animation graphics of extraordinary precision and quality.


There’s little discussion of the film on the web.  The New York Times review is dismissive and wierdly tendentious.  I’ve ordered my own copy of the DVD to keep exploring.

Ecolit Hikes Rockslide Ridge

Friday, May 1st, 2009

In the equine unit where we assemble, a filly born at 12:15 a.m. that morning.


The arboretum in full flower.  This morning I biked up here with Lucas in the backpack and we ate wild strawberries under the redwoods.

Out through the back gate, up the little creek still flowing from a single spring at the junction of the serpentine and the lodo soil.

Through the gate at Indonesian Reservoir, where ducks take off and thoroughbreds run over hoping for a treat.


Dylan shows me a picture on his phone of the fat bass he caught here.  I asked if it tasted good.  He threw it back, he says.

Bedrock mortars under the hollyleaf cherries. Volunteer artichokes spreading in the meadow.  At the divide between Horse Canyon and Brizzolara watersheds,  half the group remains and the rest head upward.


We have 40 minutes to get to the top and back.

Dylan finds his own stopping place and calls out that he’s spotted a bald eagle.


At the summit, we take in the big view.


I read out the first paragraph of John Muir’s The Mountains of California:

The Coast Range, rising as a grand green barrier against the ocean, from 2000 to 8000 feet high, is composed of innumerable forest-crowned spurs, ridges, and rolling hill-waves which inclose a multitude of smaller valleys; some looking out through long, forest-lined vistas to the sea; others, with but few trees, to the Central Valley; while a thousand others yet smaller are embosomed and concealed in mild, round-browed hills, each with its own climate, soil, and productions.

Five minutes to write in  journals.

Edge of escarpment–feels like looking into a volcano, but it’s just rotten serpentine slumped down into the melange through which it floated to the surface 100 million years ago.  The blinding green of the grasses three weeks ago has paled, fitfully retaining some chloroplasts, the drier areas now tan yellow after releasing seeds to the wind.  Soon all the grassland will be white against the black of riparian corridors.

The call of a meadowlark fills the big valley:  key-ho-trillabittle.

Endorphins released by the scramble up the mountain tingle through veins in my chest and flow toward my heart.  Sweat drying in the warm breeze cools my brow.


Photo by Ben Taylor (click for large size)