Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

The Wild Coyote of Telegraph Hill

February 20, 2014

For several years now, Judy and I have been hearing about a coyote on the hill. There have probably been several. Coyotes are being seen in different parts of the city. We’ve been wanting to catch a glimpse of him, and Judy has spent time tracking down the neighborhood residents who know the coyote’s routine. A couple of nights ago, after receiving some tips from one of them, we found him immediately. He was hard to miss. Someone was standing on the sidewalk  shining a flashlight on him. The coyote is a bit of a celebrity among the condo dwellers at the bottom of the hill. Small groups gather to watch him and compare notes. The coyote has a special interest in small dogs. Before leaving, I was able to get one barely usable shot, which is below, first as a wide shot and then blown-up and cropped.

Telegraph HIll Coyote

The Wild Coyote of Telegraph Hill

Coyote Close-up

Coyote Close-up

It’s interesting that Coyote should show his face at this particular time when greedy developers, ambitious politicians, jaded techies, and unprincipled government agencies are all working in tandem to exploit and destroy what’s left of the beauty of San Francisco. It’s happening at a feverish pace. I can’t think of it as anything other than an attempted gang rape. I’m sure I’ll be writing about it more in the future. It often makes me want to leave the city.


The Rights of Living Beings

January 15, 2014

Before my six-year-long encounter with the wild parrots, if someone had asked me “Do animals have rights?” I would have immediately responded: “Of course they do.” I wouldn’t have been able to argue the point, though. The best I could have come up with is that it’s one of those things that just seems obvious. And it is. But I’ve been through the issue many, many times now and am happy to argue it ’till the cows come home.

A lot of people give you funny looks when you suggest that animals have rights. “Come on,” they say. “Animals can’t vote,” which is a horribly shallow view of what rights are. It assumes that rights are arbitrary, that they’re something you seize, are conferred upon you by a government, or are decided through debate and a piece of paper. But rights are inherent. It is not the government’s function to assign us rights, but to protect our rights. Everything that lives has the right to fulfill itself, to live the life that is natural to it. Who can deny that? It’s only the egotism of human beings that says otherwise. At this time in history, we human beings have become extraordinarily greedy—obsessed with money and power: ego. Our egoistic drives destroy our interest in the fundamental questions. Anything that stands in our way “loses its rights,” which is absurd. It won’t be easy to create a world where all the animals can exist side by side with us and thrive. But we’re supposed to be the smart ones. If we really applied ourselves to the issue, we could manage it. I will never accept a way of life that compromises on this. Even those of us who know it often forget that animals fear death, injury, and loneliness. If you ever get the chance to actually see that, it changes you. The big problem is that so many of us are so alienated from the natural world that we don’t have any idea.

A Strange and Difficult Week

December 16, 2013

My involvement with the wild parrot flock here in San Francisco ended fourteen years ago, and yet from time to time I still find myself being called back to them. People often used to bring me injured or sick members of the flock that they found, but it’s been awhile since that last happened. This week, two parrots came into my life. The first time, a guy was on his way to work when he noticed a parrot in the middle of Columbus Avenue near the intersection with Broadway. Both are extremely busy streets. This fellow is new to town and didn’t know anything about the flock. He just saw a parrot in the middle of the street and decided it needed to be rescued. He brought it to his office, did a little online research, and found out about me. He emailed me, and I went to get the bird. The parrots have a terrifying habit of swooping down low into traffic and then pulling up again. Occasionally they hit cars. My first assumption was that this was the case with this bird. But when I got him home I noticed that he had a bare patch on his throat, that is, the feathers were missing. When a bird becomes ill, the other parrots will often attack him, and they often go for the throat. The bird (a friend named him Broadway) was breathing through his open beak, which indicated respiratory problems. I put him in a cage and gave him some heat. He was woozy and he let me handle him without fear. So he was a very sick bird. About two hours after I got him home, he dropped from his perch and landed on his back—dead.

A week later, I got a call from a neighbor who told me there was a parrot in a tree next to her house, that he’d been there a full day. She’d seen him on her roof the previous day, standing at the base of a plexiglass wind break, unable to fly. When she tried to pick him up, he’d jumped into the tree that he was in now. She was fairly certain he’d flown into the windbreak and been injured in the collision. We managed to get him out of the tree, and I discovered that he was breathing heavily. I could hear fluid in his lungs. I took him home and put him in the same cage I’d put Broadway in. Less than a half hour later, the same thing happened to this bird as happened to Broadway: He fell off the perch and died. It was a bit painful having to bury two of them in one week.


Mr. Mingus

Making the week all the stranger was that in between the deaths of these two parrots, Mingus died. If you’ve seen the movie The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, you’ll remember Mingus as the parrot who used to dance to my guitar playing. For the last fourteen years, he’s been down in the Oasis Sanctuary near Benson, Arizona. I went to see him a couple of times. He was the last parrot still living from my time with the flock. And now he’s gone, breaking that connection forever. Mingus’ act was often difficult to take. He was a lovable rogue—utterly charming and infuriatingly aggressive. I had to throw him outside many times and make him sleep in the trees because of his attacks on other birds that I was caring for. Sometimes he’d fly to a fuchsia growing next to my window and cry, begging to be let back in. (He’d been a pet once, although he was born in the wild in South America.) I usually did let him back in. I could seldom stay angry at Mingus for very long. But he could be extraordinarily cruel. Once, when I wasn’t home, he chewed the toe nails off a bird I was taking care of. The toe nails never grew back. Mingus lived a long life for a conure. At least 25 years, quite possibly more. He had girlfriends at the Oasis, and companionship is what a parrot craves most. I will never forget Mr. Mingus, aka, Mingus the Mongoose. In the end, I have to say that he was a friend of mine.

A Wild Parrot Update

October 23, 2013

I recently got a phone call from Jamie Gilardi, the executive director of the World Parrot Trust. He was calling because he’d been in San Francisco several times in the last month or so and had not seen any parrots out and about—not even one—which is unusual. He’d even gone to their roost spot and hadn’t found any there either. So Jamie called me to find out if I knew what was going on. As we talked I realized that I hadn’t been seeing any parrots either. I’ve been out of town a lot, but even when I’ve been home I haven’t been seeing any. But I’ve been too busy with my book to notice. I figured that if there had been a massive die-off or something, I would have heard about it. But it was worrisome, so I started asking around and got word that the flock has changed the location of their roost spot. That was a relief. Then, just two days ago we got a visit here at the house from two parents and a baby. (The babies usually fledge around the beginning of September. This is the first one I’ve seen this year.)

Two parents and a baby

Two parents and a baby

Later in the day I saw a large group flying in the distance. So the parrots are fine. And I think I know  the reason they’ve been making themselves scarce in this part of town. When I came home yesterday our two birds were nowhere to be found. I looked all over the house and found them cowering in a darkened hallway. That always means one thing: a nasty hawk. I looked out the window of the bird room and, sure enough, there he was.

Nasty Hawk

A Nasty Hawk

I’ve been seeing a lot of hawks around lately. Different species, too. Cooper’s, Red-Tail, Red-Shouldered. There’s even an imprint, that is, the outline of a hawk, on the window of the bird room. Some raptor flew into the window at full speed coming after our guys and left his mark. It’s too light to photograph, but it’s a bizarre sight. It must have terrified the little darlings.

To sum up, the flock is doing fine, but they’re having to play dodge ’em with the hawks, as they usually do this time of year when the hawks migrate across the Golden Gate and into the city on their way south.

Daily Visits from The Munchkin

May 4, 2013
Two Parrots

The Munchkin and Parker

For more than ten years, Judy and I have been taking care of two injured birds (Parker and Big Bird) from the wild parrot flock. Since some trees near our house were cut down, visits by the wild birds have become rare. But last week we started getting daily visits from one of them, who seems to be attracted to Parker. They sit next to each other—Parker in the window sill and the wild bird (whom we call The Munchkin) on a railing on the other side of the screen. There have been two days when The Munchkin was here the entire day, leaving only briefly to eat. I was puzzled as to what was going on until I saw The Munchkin come under attack on two separate occasions by passing members of the flock. It looks like he’s been banished for violating flock rules. I’ve seen this happen in the past. Eventually the ban gets lifted, and the outcast is allowed to return. The last couple of days, The Munchkin has been around less.

The Fracking Kali Yuga

February 26, 2013

Not too long ago, the term “Kali Yuga” came up. I don’t remember why or how. I knew that Kali Yuga is an Indian religious concept, that a “Yuga” is an era or age, and that the Kali Yuga is the demonic age. But I wanted a little deeper understanding, so I did a search. The first link I hit defined it as “The present age,” which made me laugh. ‘Twas rueful laughter. I don’t know that I believe we’re in the Kali Yuga. Very often this type of thing is symbolism or myth, a way of talking about certain ideas. And sometimes they’re just superstition. But last night I saw a movie that made me think that, if there is such a thing, we might be in the Kali Yuga now.

The movie was Gasland, a documentary about fracking. (I know it’s already made the rounds, but I seldom see films.) If you’ve never seen it, you ought to. It’s one of those films about something bad happening in the world that is extremely discouraging. But the filmmaker, Josh Fox, has a good sense of humor, which made the film bearable. In a nutshell, the film says that while in office, Dick Cheney (in my opinion one of the most detestable men in American history) saw to the passage of a law that gets the gas companies off the hook for any environmental damage caused by fracking. The gas companies are clearly causing a great deal of harm to people, to the land, and to animals. Their indifference to the damage is demonic. They’ve been going to great lengths to make the film seem “controversial.” I can’t argue the science. I’ve never been that attracted to scientific learning. But I know liars and sellouts when I hear them, and the gas companies are clearly being defended by liars and sellouts. The government is not doing a thing to stop what’s going on. They either pretend it’s not happening or they actively assist the gas companies. I recommend the film to anyone who doesn’t know much about this whole fracking business. I had no idea how developed and wide spread it was.

A Man and His Island

February 8, 2013
Santa Barbara Island

Signal Peak and Sutil Island

I’m back from my week on Santa Barbara Island. It didn’t seem prudent to say this publicly before going, but Judy wasn’t able to come this time, so I spent the entire week completely alone. I was eager to do it, though. I was curious to know how difficult it would be. I didn’t find it difficult at all. While I prefer being there with Judy, I was able to handle the solitude—I enjoyed it—and could have easily stayed a second week. Now I’m back in the big city and having to make the same psychological adjustments I did last time.

A Thought I Had While Sitting In Moonlight

February 1, 2013

I’m back out on Santa Barbara Island. Last night around midnight, I went outside to sit and listen and watch. I  heard sea lions barking, waves crashing against the cliffs, the peeping of some species of seabird, and the banging of the flagpole rope against the pole. I saw the stars, the moon, the reflection of the moon upon the ocean, and forty miles away the dim glow of Los Angeles. I thought to myself, “I ought to try to write a poem.” And then I thought, “Naw. Nobody reads poetry anymore. Poetry is dying.” A terrible thought, really, and I had to think about that for a little while.

What is poetry? When it functions correctly, it’s a people’s expression of its deepest convictions and insights. The universe has a constant poetry going that sometimes we see in the form of coincidence. Not accident, but coincidence—where things mysteriously coincide, that is, the workings of karma. Those levels are always there. So, poetry, or the poetic, never dies, but a people’s awareness of it can. We can lose our convictions and insights. If no one is paying any attention to poetry in America these days (perhaps you could even say the modern world), I have to think that it’s the culture that’s dying, not poetry.

Back from Santa Barbara Island

January 17, 2013

Judy and I have been back for a week now, and for me there’s been an unexpected development. As I said, when we were offered a third week on the island, we had to ask ourselves whether we could handle it. We decided to give it a go, and it was easy. The hard part has been coming back home—at least for me it has. Being on Santa Barbara Island was such a peaceful experience and we got settled in deeply enough that coming back to the chaos of the city has been unsettling. I dislike going outside right now. The city gets on my nerves more than it did before we left. I’ll adjust. I am adjusting. But this was unexpected. I’m speaking only for myself. Weirdly enough, just three days after our return Judy had to leave for another island: Manhattan. I’m eager to compare notes when she returns.

Beyond the Mists of Avalon

January 5, 2013
Mark at Webster Point

At Webster Point

This is the fourth or fifth time that Judy and I have served as holiday season caretakers on Santa Barbara Island. All the other stays have lasted one week. We’ve loved them, but have always felt we were just getting settled in when it came time to leave. This year we were offered a two week stay, which we happily accepted. The day we got here we found out that a third week was available if we wanted it. We had to think it over, but we both ended up saying yes. The isolation has not been any strain at all. Besides being husband and wife, Judy and I are best friends.

This time I’ve been able to establish a routine: cooking, meditating, writing, working (we’ve been planting native plants), and hiking. One of my favorite parts of the day is right after breakfast when I hike up to a favorite spot in a meadow above the ranger’s house and just sit. The small ranger’s compound is completely out of view. Except for a trail marker, everything I see and hear there is natural. I wrote it all down one day.

What I saw: a broad field of grass with blades around six inches tall, the wooden trail marker, various shrubs (mostly sage and giant coreopsis), Santa Catalina Island (25 miles away), the sun, the marine layer along the horizon, a few distant clouds, the Pacific Ocean, one marsh hawk chasing another marsh hawk out of its territory, a white-crowned sparrow, a hovering kestrel—and on the distant horizon, two container ships.

What I heard: the cry of the marsh hawk being chased, a light wind in my ears, a flock of seagulls, waves hitting the shore, the barking of sea lions, a meadowlark, the grass moving in the wind, the song of the sparrow.

On my way back to the house a barn owl flew quite near and I saw the spouting of a whale.

As I said about my last trip, one of the things I value most about being on the island is having the opportunity to relax my nervous system. I always lose sight of just how much living in a city jacks me up until I get to a place like this. There is a natural rhythm that we are supposed to live by and that modern life constantly exceeds. One of the great delusions of our time is that by living fast and bold we create dynamic lives that are superior to the ways that preceded us. But all we end up doing is losing our clarity, losing our way. Because of the lack of distractions, I’ve gotten a very good handle on what it is I need to do to make my book, Street Song, work. I wish I could stay here for months and months and not do anything but write. I could finish the book within a year. But that’s not to be.

One final note: During my sits up in the meadow I’ve been dipping into the Stephen Addiss/Stanley Lombardo translation of the Tao Te Ching. While I’ve been reading and liking this particular translation for around a year, I’m in love with it now. Most translations of the Tao Te Ching read either like a cryptic and dry philosophical tract or some New Age pamphlet. With this version I can feel the presence of the mind that wrote it. It’s put out by Shambhala Publications.