Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Another Week to Go

January 2, 2013
Elephant Seal Cove

Elephant Seal Cove on Santa Barbara Island

Originally, Judy and I were scheduled to leave Santa Barbara Island today, but we were offered the chance to spend a third week here, and we’re taking it. This is an extraordinary place, and it’s been a good experience for both of us. I’ll write more before we leave.


Island Report

December 24, 2012
Planting Native Plants

Planting Silver Lace on Santa Barbara Island

Judy and I left San Francisco on Monday the 17th, driving down Highway 101 to Ventura, our point of departure for Santa Barbara Island. We left a day early so that I could spend Tuesday looking into two final research questions I’ve had for Street Song, questions that could only be answered by making a trip to Los Angeles. While neither question has been important enough to justify the expense of going there, they’ve been tugging at my mind for years. It was only recently that I figured out where the keys were. Since we were going to be in the area anyway, we drove to L. A., and I got my answers. Always very satisfying.

On Wednesday, the sea was too rough for a boat landing, so they sent us out in a helicopter. (Many thanks to our pilot Charlie and all the folks at Aspen Helicopters.) We are scheduled to be here in absolute solitude for two weeks. It’s not exactly hardship duty. We’re in a small house that’s powered by the sun and propane. We have lights, a kitchen with refrigerator and stove, a shower (military showers only) and internet access. There’s also a television with a satellite dish—although we don’t watch it. I’m working on my book, Judy has her film notes and another project, and we read. (Judy is reading Robinson Crusoe and I’m reading Allen Ginsberg’s Planet News and the Tao Te Ching.)

We have three daily duties: radioing in the morning report (the weather and the condition of the ocean); turning on a pump if the rainwater collection tank gets too full (it requires getting up in the middle of the night if there’s a downpour); and helping with the restoration of the island through the planting of native plants (see photo). The rest of our time is devoted to writing, reading, hiking, cooking—and sleeping. For some reason island life makes us drowsy. Every time we come out here, we tend to get in bed around 7:30. Some nights we sleep ten or eleven hours.

One anecdote: Two nights ago, there was a sudden squall. The rain was pounding hard on the roof, and we had to jump out of bed to check the water collection tank. It was filling up fast, so we had to pull out the instructions on how to turn on the pump, something we’d never done before. No sooner did we get the pump running, than the rain began to subside. Then it stopped entirely. Once we were certain that everything was okay, we got back in bed. Just before turning out the light I opened up the Tao Te Ching to a random page. My eyes fell on these lines:

Violent winds do not blow all morning.
Sudden rain cannot pour all day.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and all that jazz

Off Again to Santa Barbara Island

December 13, 2012
Santa Barbara Island

Santa Barbara Island

The last few years, Judy and I have spent every Christmas to New Year’s Day as the sole occupants of Santa Barbara Island, a mile-long island 38 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. The island is part of Channel Islands National Park, and the park service relies on a regular staff of volunteer caretakers to watch over the place. Few people ever go there, except in summer, and even then it’s generally vacant. It’s difficult to get to. A boat goes out only once a week. Since there’s no water, unless you have your own boat, you’re saddled with the need to bring out a week’s worth of water and food. There isn’t a single beach on the island. It’s all cliffs. The landing is a dock built into one of those cliffs. Sometimes the ocean is too rough to permit a landing. It can be that way for days. And even when you can dock, to get to the campground you have to carry your gear up a long path with switchbacks.

The situation is different for volunteers, who get to live in the island’s only building, the ranger’s house, which has a gas stove, solar power, and a regular supply of water brought in by the weekly boat. This year, Judy and I are spending two uninterrupted weeks there. They needed volunteers for the week prior to Christmas as well the Christmas to New Year’s week, and we decided to take it. I’ll be using the time for focused work on my book. The island is incredibly peaceful and free of distractions. There are few sounds other than those that nature makes—wind, waves, sea lions, sea gulls, meadowlarks, insects buzzing in the grass. (Last year, though, we were awakened in the middle of the night by a helicopter that was searching for a boat that had crashed into the island in the darkness. They radioed and asked us to search for the wreckage and to take photographs, which turned out to be quite an adventure.)

Besides the radio, the ranger’s house has a modem connected to a satellite dish, so we won’t be completely cut off from what many people call civilization. I’ll try to write at least once while I’m out there.

Happy Holidays to you all.

Last Night’s Dream

October 6, 2012

Judy and I were at a convention of the nation’s top environmentalists. We were all in one big room. Before the meeting started, one of us went out in the hallway and discovered a troop of about ten poor whites, “trailer trash” types, who had been sent to kill us. None of them was holding a weapon at the moment—they’d laid them down while discussing how to do the job—so the guy who found them was able to round them up and march them into the big room. They were a mix of men and women, mostly men, and they all looked malnourished and poverty-stricken. Each one was carrying a copy of a letter that had been written in 1978 by the CEO of a major corporation. He’d originally sent it to one of the environmentalists present, threatening him with death for having stopped his company’s production of DDT. The CEO was finally making good on his 34-year-old threat, except that now he wanted to do away with all of us. Judy and I were chosen to read the letter out loud to the assembly. The letter was so badly written, though—incomplete sentences, mangled syntax—that we had to keep asking each other what the poor fellow seemed to be trying to say.

Life With Alex

August 16, 2012

DVD Cover

A few years ago Arlene Levin-Rowe, the lab manager for Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the scientist who is studying the language and cognitive abilities of the African grey parrot, contacted Judy to see if she could recommend someone to make a film about the lab’s primary subject, Alex. Judy did have a recommendation for Arlene, a local fledgling filmmaker named Emily Wick. Judy ended up mentoring Emily on the film, and last night, I got to see the final hour-long version. I was impressed. It’s quite well done. The film is going to be available on DVD in early September, and if you want to see the trailer, you can find it here.

Watching the River Flow

August 8, 2012
Watching the River Flow

Watching the River Flow

I recently returned from two weeks away from home—one week on the road and another in the woods. I spent a good deal of my time in the woods just sitting on the bank of a river staring at the water. I got a lot out of it. It never bored me. It sounds strange to hear people talk about the delights and miracles of technology, when they do not even begin to compare with what you can find in a river bed. I’m going to take another month off before starting the last draft of Street Song. In the meantime, I intend to post here a little more often than I usually do.

Gone Fishin’

July 19, 2012

Since finishing the second draft I’ve been feeling a bit shell-shocked. I’ve been bouncing off the walls some. I’m finally coming out of it, though, and getting ready to leave for an extended trip to the woods. This is my last post until I return in early August. I’m going to take another month off after that before turning my attention to what you see below: my research material—books, some of my notes, and my first two drafts. The essential material, though, is in my heart.

Some of my Library

Books and Papers

A Different Kind of Progress Report

March 16, 2012

Last night my wife Judy Irving screened a 34 minute rough cut of her work-in-progress, Pelican Dreams, for the local chapter of the Audubon Society. She also showed 15 minutes of assemblies (rough sequences) that she threw together in the four days just prior to the screening. So many people showed up that they had to put out more chairs. The film is not being made for “birders,” per se. And it’s not a scientific-type documentary. Pelican Dreams attempts to capture the wonder of these birds. It’s really being made for any human being who loves the natural world. The audience understood that and responded warmly. There was a good feeling in the room.

Judy expects to be finished in around two years—around the same time that I foresee my book being finished. After completion there will be distribution issues—we hope! So yes; both projects still have a long road ahead of them. But eventually the wait will be over and they’ll be ready to go.

My Escort out of Town

March 10, 2012

I had a vivid experience last Monday that has yet to leave my mind. Last weekend a sudden opportunity came up for Judy to do a film shoot for Pelican Dreams, her new documentary. She had to go to Ventura in Southern California, and I offered to  share the driving. I dropped her off at the dock (she was to spend two days on a boat) and then I drove to Sierra Madre, which is the town just east of Pasadena. A friend had kindly offered to let me use her cabin for the two days I was to spend waiting for Judy to return to shore.

Sierra Madre is right up against the San Gabriel Mountains, and in the San Gabriel Valley there is an enormous parrot flock. There are thousands of them, mostly red-fronted Amazons. It has to be the largest wild parrot flock in the United States. I was told that I would probably see some of them in Sierra Madre, and I did, very early the first morning. Typically, I heard them first, then saw them in the distance in silhouette. Fifteen minutes later I saw three or four about a block away. They were in the sun, which lit up their beautiful green backs and wings as they flew from tree to tree. Throughout my two-day stay in Sierra Madre I would occasionally hear them, but I didn’t seek them out. As much as I love wild parrots, my main concern right now is my new book. I was focused on my work.

Monday morning, I got in the car and headed back to Ventura to pick up Judy. I was driving down 210 in the right lane when I looked to my right and saw at car-top level a red-fronted amazon flying in tandem with me. I watched him for a few seconds, and just before I reached the Pasadena city limits sign, he flew up and over the freeway and disappeared.

Back from the Island; Progress Report #72

February 18, 2012
A Quiet Spot

A Quiet Spot

Judy and I just got back from eight days on Santa Barbara Island, a one-mile-square island 38 miles off the coast of Southern California that is part of Channel Islands National Park. There is nothing on the island save for its plant and animal life and a bunk house. Water has to be shipped to the island. The residence depends on solar panels for electricity. Because of its distance from the mainland and the difficulty in actually getting onto the island (we had to spend an extra day due to rough seas), it receives few visitors. There is a significant native plant restoration project on Santa Barbara. It’s one of only two sites in the United States where the brown pelican nests. The National Park Service takes us out there as volunteer caretakers—the island has been subject to vandalism when left unattended—and we’ve been the only people on the island when we’re there. Our only contact with other humans is through the park radio system.

The day after we arrived, I walked up one of the island’s two peaks to sit in the grass, feel the stillness and listen to the sounds, all of which come from nature: the chirping of birds, the barking of sea lions, the buzzing of insects, the crashing of waves on the island cliffs, and the wind in the grass. After sitting for a while I became aware of another sound, a high hum in the background, which I believed was my nervous system, all jacked-up from city living. I was curious if the sound would lessen after being on the island for a week. On the next-to-last-day of our stay, I went back to my spot to check it out, and the humming had indeed subsided—considerably.

My Island Writing Desk

My Island Writing Desk

While on the island, I got a lot of work done on Street Song. Before leaving San Francisco, I made a list of the steps I need to take to finish the book. A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to see them. There is still a ways to go, but the end is in sight. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling the last few months. I intend to stay home for awhile now and really get down to it.