Sunday, November 8, 2015

Golden Queen Anne's Lace

Only a barbarian mind 
Could fail to see the flower

The year has turned. Light drains out of the world from an unseen opening in the lower sky.  Due to the deepening slant of the sun's rays there is a golden edge to all that is underfoot: grasses, fallen leaves, acorns. The air is thick with this glow. Everywhere an entire day lived close to dusk forces a slight shift in focus. The radiant eye above still watches, but this stare has grown less intense and it is now possible to stare back up at it without blinking.

Cooler now, the darkness spreads as shadow. I wander quietly, slipping past tree, field, and mailbox, crouching down to examine the wide, dry feathers of the thin, dead blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace transformed from soft white lace doilies to bird’s nests of brown brittle stars. On close examination, each star bursts forth from the center like a July 4th firework frozen in time.

 As I walk, I am everywhere in the company of these silent, seeded creatures. Clusters of collapsed canopies backlit by grass and gravel accent field, rock and roadside.

Whether perched as in a gathering of miniature trees, or as a single dark body, their slow, swiveling heads create a silhouette that disrupts the sun’s dominion, existing as shadow without being shadow. And yet, each unique form casts a shadow as well.

In late September while walking through downtown Graton on my way to the Joe Rodota trail I paid a visit to a building-wide open studio at Atelier One. This two-story red brick building has provided local artists with affordable work space since 1987. You can look at the artists and some of their work here:

While browsing the hallways, I was drawn to a painting on the lower level of the artist workspace that reminded me of the brittle, brown fists of Queen Anne’s lace gone to seed. The painting is the work of local artist Becky Wells. You can find some of her excellent work here:

Hung on the walls of her second floor studio were several other paintings on the theme. My favorite one was titled “Golden Queen Anne’s Lace”. The painting highlights the gold of autumn sunlight, the tight, dark, shadowy vessels of the flower gone to seed, and also small white airy hints of the flower’s celebrated past, or perhaps magnificent, longed-for future as the seeds of a new spring season are sown. 

Becky has integrated a deep texture to the painting by use of collage and overlay. Like nature, the painting is layered and rich with detail. Becky's images chatter joyfully with the morning’s golden arrival while at the same time encompass the autumn day’s approaching dusk and mounting shadow.  

"The painting is a response to walking in the field of Queen Anne's Lace in Forestville," explains Becky. "I was touched by the varied forms the flower takes as it moves along its journey of one season of life.  So many single stems hold the flowers bursting outward then inward then downward to seed. An often overlooked botanical beauty, it quietly and gently takes in sun and soil and a tad of water to become the spidery, nesting flower I've grown to love and paint."

In his book Becoming Animal David Abram writes “Each being that we perceive enacts a subtle integration within us, even as it alters our prior organization. The sensing body is like an open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the surrounding earth. Only by entering into the relation with others do we effect our own integration and coherence. Such others might be people, or they might be wetlands, or works of art”

Becky’s painting now hangs in my writing studio where inspiration and observation intersect on a daily basis to form words, and those same words intersect to form worlds. Perception alters, and with it the earth. Seeing is a steady trading of myself here with the things seen there within a field of feeling. Outside the window where a pane of glass has been newly set within the window frame, I notice cool, gray clouds flattening the sky as November rains begin.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

High Tide at Doran Beach

Fronds of salt-encrusted kelp curl as they dry. Two seagulls sail from the headland and cut over the shoreline, so close I can hear the slice of their wings. In the quiet of the morning the music of their flight is rust-colored, and falls from beautiful sharp-edged patterns into my ears. It is summer’s end, and a friend and I have driven out to the Sonoma coast for a walk along the beach – our idea of Sunday morning worship.

Under a mantle of thick fog, everything takes on a monotone palette. Gone is the brilliant blue of sky, the jewel-like glitter of sun on waves, the sun’s creamy yellow glow. Water and sky merge into a smudge that envelops all shades of grey into one, and one shade into all.  Fog obscures distant hills as it shadows the back of waves. In the foreground the darkened silhouette of an isolated fishing boat is barely visible. 

A quiet descends over the beach, thin and paper-like. Almost brittle. My bare feet sink into the cool sand as soft white lips of waves nibble away at the shore. In the quiet I can hear the ocean breathe.

On this strip of land where sea meets sand, the water has done its work of depositing what is no longer living. When exposed to air abandoned sand dollars bleach white. Crab claws and shells crisp to salty wafers tangled amid ragged skeins of seaweed. 

 Freshly abandoned by a wave, a small silver fish glistens.

This washed-up seabird is light and dense at once, still with much of her plumage. Her white breast is dirty, black wings bedraggled. A sharp bill points seaward past the dark pockets of her sightless eye sockets.

Any expected stench from her rotting body is absent, lost to the salt and wind. The black leatherette of her legs and beak have taken on the foamy texture of worm-rotten wood. Her body is small, the size of a young seagull yet with distinct black and white markings closer in resemblance to a penguin. Further down the beach are more small bent, twisted mounds of dead bird bodies, so plentiful they look like they’ve been shaken out of a box. Some have decomposed to reveal portions of backbone and skeleton. Every few steps there is another. Within the one-mile stretch of my walk, there are at least thirty.  

Most seabirds die at sea, their weightless bones pulverized by the waves and wind, so it is unusual to find such specimens.  Was this a normal occurrence? Perhaps something seasonal? It is the end of the breeding season, and the start of the autumn migration. Were these young birds, swept off course by a storm, then washed into shore?

After a brief online investigation, a series of articles from earlier in the year point to the cause of death as most likely starvation; the type of bird - Cassin's auklet. Some researchers think the phenomenon might be linked to climate change and warming coastal waters. 

In her book What Remains, a study of the death of a body as it decomposes, photographer Sally Mann writes, “The earth doesn’t care where death occurs....It’s the artist, by coming in and writing about it or painting it or taking a photograph of it, that makes the earth powerful and creates death’s memory. Because the land will not remember by itself, but the artist will.” Today while photographing the washed-up sea birds, I am left to make something of the pieces that remain. Even in the midst of deterioration, the small, tattered bodies remind me of all that is eternal and changing: hours, weeks, months and years that paint a picture of the world and its constant risings and fallings. As I zip up my jacket, pack up my camera and prepare to return home, I leave Time to the slow work of wearing away at the parts that are left, rubbing its powerful thumb across the fingertips of its own magnificence.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Coastal Bird Walk

This second week of September 2015 we’ve seen temperatures remain in the triple digits, a blazing heat that won’t let up. In a climate kept moderate by coastal wind and influx of fog, these over-inflated temperatures add further distress and hardship to the parched landscape. Coupled with the water restrictions of this year’s drought, our drooping garden plants are testament to the need for a rapid reprieve. We wait and wait, enduring the heat the best we can, hoping for a helping hand to emerge and move over us.

With a Friday afternoon clear of appointments, my plan is to escape the heat. My new favorite spot on the Sonoma coast is a 1-mile loop through a revitalized salt marsh that provides habitat for wildlife and birds, including Canada Geese, Snowy Egrets, White and Blue Heron. After a brief rise from the parking lot, this gentle trail system has a gravel surface thoughtfully sprinkled with sturdy wooden benches facing the open ocean of adjacent Doran Beach, visible and easily accessible on foot by means of The Cheney Creek Bridge.

I drive to the coast and park my car in a dusty, unmarked turn-off along Highway One. Carrying lunch and book I walk slowly along the elevated gravel path that leads to the bench nearest the bird marsh, taking in the scenery. A series of brilliant white Snowy Egrets spread out along the shallow waterway, each giving ample room to the next as they lay claim to their own private fishing spot.

The coastal air is cool enough for a light sweatshirt, yet warm enough to wear it unzipped. An unsaddled ocean breeze touches the hair on my forehead. All memories of the intense heat at home are quickly erased like a drawing from the blackboard, yet I wonder how much longer until the ocean fog makes its move inland? Overhead, patches of the ascending fog bank thin and come apart, then regroup for another surge, forever striving to cancel out the sun, like a dark hand before a face. Who will win? I wonder. So far it is a toss-up. Then I remember, there is no winner or loser in nature.There is only the next moment.

After lunch I decide to walk the .4 mile path across the bridge to the open beach. Nearing the surf, I notice an outpouring of flowers, lemon yellow and shades of pink, from fluorescent to pale. Their sleekness and fullness, stops me. I kneel down for a closer look. Bright blooms belonging to the creeping Ice Plant, that ground-hugging succulent perennial that roots at the nodes, sprawl into unkempt areas as the plant widens its berth and depth, seeking to secure itself. Widely planted for soil stabilization and landscaping, the Ice Plant is well known by most Californians for its succulent three-sided leaves and deep mats that invade dune scrub, coastal prairie, and coastal bluff.  On closer inspection, I find a worker bee deep in the heart of one buttery bloom.  Do flowers appear as bees entice them, or is it the other way around?

 Once over the small hill of dune rimming the parking lot, the open sand welcomes me.  A steely blue flat expanse of ocean water glitters, reaching over and over again onto the shore before pulling back with a gleaming edge that speaks in sentences where grandeur dwells. I remove my sneakers and steady myself, my feet sinking into the loose sand’s warmth and pull.     

 A hundred yards or so down the beach, the liquid note of an ocean bird falls upon the damp air moving in the direction of where I am standing. Dark silhouettes of a flock of gathering birds are in pursuit of something just below the surface. Flying up and diving down into the water over and over again against a backdrop of flickering light, they are quite beautiful. In all of my beach-going days, I have never been witness to such a spectacle. Pelicans, terns, gulls and cormorants in a come-one, come-all, buy your tickets here before they are gone flying and diving show. 

Venturing out into the frigid water as far as my rolled-up pants will allow me, I wave to the collected body of birds as they pass. How I long to join them, become a part of their energy. Yet as wings slap water and beaks break below waves, they continue to ignore me. Excuse me but I have plenty of work to do, they say.

I look downward, disappointed, feeling betrayed by my heavy feet rooted to their dark, earthly anatomy. Reluctantly I turn and walk toward shore where a woman with hair piled high lifts her long skirt to step into the surf while holding the hand of a small boy who looks out over the indifferent sea. The boy bends down to be closer to the rays that break and sparkle, then closes in on a small white umbrella of a sea shell deposited just within reach of his pale star hand.

 In Jack London’s short novel Valley of the Moon he tells of a young couple's journey up and down the length of California, seeking a place to call home. "What we want," they said, "is a valley of the moon, with not too much work and all the fun we want. And we'll just keep on looking until we find it." As the name of the novel hints, they found that perfect place in Sonoma County, and now, taking it a step further, I have found my perfect place within this perfect place. It is a place where blue water shakes a youthful dance over the shy shoulders of delicate land – where sun, light, sky, waves and wind surge and flash in a daily performance of delicious mist and salt, readily available to anyone who has cleared their calendar of obligations and makes time to take in the lure of the transformative, dreamy grace invading every hollow of the near and dear Sonoma Coast.


Monday, June 8, 2015

S is for Summer

"The world, like a great iris of an even more gigantic eye, which has also just opened and stretched out to encompass everything, stared back at him. And he knew what it was that had leaped upon him to stay and would not run away now. I’m alive, he thought."  
- Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

One of the perks of being a teacher is that each year I get to relive the excitement of childhood's most dazzling day; a day that children all across the nation long for, wait for, plan for and dream of months in advance...The first day of summer vacation! Summer vacation - those mythical, magical two months sandwiched somewhere between June and September that allow for teachers, parents and students alike to step away from their schedules; to relax and recharge. I always have ambitious plans for my "vacation" of course: catching up on neglected home projects, family excursions, expanding on classroom reading lists. But also included is time set aside for resting, and for slowing down. This year the first book on my summer reading list arrived as if on cue from the Sonoma County Library. Helen Mac Donald's H is for Hawk. I plan to spend a good hour each day reading it during my late afternoon hammock time. You can read a review here:

Mizuno Wave Inspire running shoes: color - Florida Keys. It has been four years since I have purchased running shoes, and I feel like Douglas Spaulding in chapter five of Dandelion Wine. Douglas spies a pair of tennis shoes in the window of the shoe store. Not just any tennis shoes, the "Royal Crown Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Tennis Shoes" are what Douglas needs to be able to run. They are infused with summer, and he needs shoes that have the magic to do everything magical that summer requires. 

Did someone leave this sign here just for me? Today is a special event: my first summer walk along the Joe Rodota trail. This paved trail runs through my town of Sebastopol, and in the summer I visit it often, increasing my mileage as the the weeks progress.The walk serves a dual purpose - first, to gently tame my body muscle back into tone and second, walking in nature restores that childlike wonder of being alive, taps into the deep reservoir of inner surprise activated by the everyday world of birds, woods, blackberries, plums and sky.

I listen. Sparrow, swallow, finch. This summer morning is bright and washed clean. Everything is rinsed - sky and tree, splashes of birdsong   I stop to photograph a blooming Catalpa tree, fragrant blossoms of Captapla snow already gracing the ground. An old friend emerges from the weeds and thicket to greet me. I remember him from last summer. It looks like he is enjoying the day as much as I am. Together we drink in the peace of this time and place, every warm drop.

 "The grass whispered under his body.  He put his arm down, feeling the sheath of fuzz on it, and, far away, below, his toes creaking in his shoes.  The wind sighed over his shelled ears.  The world slipped bright over the glassy round of his eyeballs like images sparked in a crystal sphere.  Flowers were sun and fiery spots of sky strewn through the woodland.  Birds flickered like skipped stones across the vast inverted pond of heaven.  His breath raked over his teeth, going in ice, coming out fire.  Insects shocked the air with electric clearness. Ten thousand individual hairs grew a millionth of an inch on his head.  He heard the twin hearts beating in each ear, the third heart beating in his throat, the two hearts throbbing his wrists, the real heart pounding his chest.  The million pores on his body opened.
I’m really alive! he thought."
- Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine