Summer’s winding down here in Northern California. Soon we will be in the rainy season. Six months of dry weather followed by six months of potential wetness. Every year’s the same. This Mediterranean climate is a boon for flora and fauna. So much inspiration for my art is here. My spirit soars and my legs take flight. I like it here. I like it a lot!
Ubiquitous graffiti — If you look hard enough, you will find some. Just off Cabrillo Highway, where Pigeon Point Road begins, a narrow footpath leads down to the sea. Here, an unexpected find: graffiti by a tunnel under the road.
I learned this interesting fact as I started doing research for my trip to Yellowstone National Park: The Yellowstone River is the only river in the contiguous United States that is not damned. The 692-miles long river rises in Wyoming on the Continental Divide, flows through Yellowstone National Park, runs northwards into Montana and finally flows into the Missouri River near Buford, North Dakota.
The River, a tributary of the Missouri, is known for its trout fishing. One of its forks was a favorite fishing spot of author, Ernest Hemingway. In 2011, an oil pipeline belonging to ExxonMobile ruptured in the river. Only with the passing of time will we understand the extent of the damage. No matter where in the world we are, we seem to manage to despoil our rivers.
Unlike the Yellowstone River which I only recently started learning about, I am quite familiar with the Hudson River. The Hudson was the site of many environmental studies and environmental activism during many of the years that I lived in New York. Along with the Long Island Sound, the river had been under severe stress. The details below are an apt description of the Hudson of the 1970s and ’80s, and perhaps, of the ’90s too:
“New York City was dumping 1.5 billion gallons per day of raw sewage into the River, the paint from Tarrytown’s GM plant dyed the River a new color each week, the Indian Point power plant was killing millions of fish each day, the National Guard was filling tidal wetlands at Camp Smith, and Penn Central Railroad was discharging oil from a pipe at the Croton Rail Yard. The oil floated up the Croton on the tide, blackening the beaches and making the shad taste of diesel.”
Man, business and government were killing the river. Today the Hudson has rebounded, thanks in part to a Riverkeeper boat that patrols the river in an effort to protect it from environmental lawbreakers. But other problems like the introduction of non-native invasive species (example, water chestnut and zebra mussels) have altered and impacted the aquatic animal populations. What will the river look like in ten years, fifty years, from now?
The Mississippi River on Exhibit
If you ever read the adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, you will recall that one of the biggest stars in both books is the Mississippi River. Just like the Morant and Yallhas Rivers in Jamaica (See The River Road, Part One), the Mississippi held a special place in my childhood fantasies. I read and re-read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and pretended that my local river was the Mississippi upon which steamboats ran and adventures were to be had. Now my old friend is on view at Stanford University’s Cantor Museum.
In an exhibition that runs until June 2013, photographer, Richard Misrach brings the Mississippi River to life in a way that is far different from Mark Twain’s version of it. Though invisible in some of the photographs, the river is still very much a presence in each of the twenty-one images. The larger than life scale of the photographs (each is about five or six feet high), makes it unlikely that the viewer will soon forget the subject matter. The title of the show? “Revisiting the South: Cancer Alley.”
Cancer Alley is an eighty-five mile stretch of the Mississippi River, from Baton Rouge through to New Orleans. There are innumerable industrial plants there. All are drawn to the region because of favorable taxation policies. The first photograph that the visitor encounters upon entering the gallery is to the immediate right. The photograph is striking for two reasons: First, there is an ethereal light beyond which the viewer cannot see and so, cannot imagine what it is that the woman in the photograph is looking at. The second striking thing about the photograph is that the lady doesn’t seem to belong inside this house. Is she standing in a museum looking outwards? Is she the owner of the house or merely a visitor? As you move closer to the photograph you learn from the wall tag that she is a tour guide. The plaque reads, “Tour Guide, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana, 1998.”
Today’s Nottoway is a tourist destination. In yesteryears, it was a slave plantation. Not so long ago, this woman would have been a slave in this place. She may have been in the fields or she may have been in the house but either way, she wouldn’t have had time to stand around, looking out windows.
This show makes me Jim, the runaway slave (in Huck Finn) kind of sad. Today there is destruction of communities, the river and the environment. The entire show is dressed in poverty, destruction and degradation. In Huck Finn there was hope — hope that Jim would be free, hope that he wouldn’t get sold down river, hope that he and Huck would remain on the island in the river, happy and undetected. If you read the book as a child, you know all about hoping, hoping, hoping, against all odds. Today, after viewing the show, I hope that the:
Mississippi River, poisoned and polluted as it is, will make a comeback
people, like the woman in the photograph, will be able to continue living there
petro-chemical factories that pollute the area be forced to stop degrading the environment and everything connected to the River (including the nearby communities)
cancer rates in the area will subside/lessen
As is the case of the pollution of the Yellowstone River, only with time, will one have answers to these questions.
I’ve been around rivers all my life. In the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, a river ran behind our house and also across the street. It could have been two different rivers or maybe it was one river and the Jamaica Public Works Department interfered with it by running a road across it. I don’t know. Since we lived about twenty miles upriver in the same direction as Serge Island, I would guess that the river of my early memories is the Morant River. Later on, when we moved further down towards the sea, I again encountered rivers, including the one that emptied out into the Caribbean about a mile or two from my first school. That too, may have been the Morant River. I don’t know.
As a small child, I took all these rivers for granted. They were constant companions to play in, get stranded on boulders in, watch from the upstairs rooms of our house, and follow as we drove down the valley to places like Serge Island, Trinityville and Morant Bay. On longer drives, as we made our way down winding mountain roads to Kingston or towards Golden Grove in Portland, we drove past children splashing about as their mothers, aunts and grandmothers washed and dried clothes by the river banks. Always of interest, were the lambs, new arrivals to the kingdom of god, dressed in their flowing white robes and tightly wound turbans. Dipped into the river, they were born anew and welcomed into the fold of believers. There was the occasional Rastaman, bathing and shaking his locks dry, and there was also me, a small girl, skipping over rocks, collecting “beads” from river grasses, following the river to its end by Lyssons Beach. I didn’t realize it then but these things were all my special friends.
Plantain Garden River
My all time favorite river in our home parish was the Plantain Garden River. I loved its name and I reveled in the names of the communities through which it ran. Most of all, I loved that it “walked its own walk,” refusing to run in the same direction that the other rivers on the island did. This river, the Plantain Garden, runs through communities with names like Ginger Hall, Airy Castle and Sunny Hill. Whereas all the other rivers in Jamaica (nearly one hundred of them) flow north or south, my idol flows eastwards. I am sure there is some geographical reason for this but for me, it is its difference that makes it memorable.
The parish of St.Thomas is filled with rivers. These include the Clock and Roaring rivers, both of which meet the Plantain Garden River in the district of Ginger Hall. As memorable as the Plantain Garden may be, it is the Yallahs River that is most striking. Just about every year this river floods its banks, rages across the land making roads impassable and in some cases, makes lives unbearable and unlivable. During floods and hurricane season, it cuts country off from town and vice versa. It surges in a mad rush, taking crops, livestock, homes and humans with it.
Yallahs is a heavily mined river. It is valued by the construction industry for its sand and river rocks. It is also valuable to the National Water Commission (NWC). The primary provider of potable water in Jamaica, the NWC designed the Yallahs Pipeline Scheme to divert an estimated average annual yield of 16.4 million imperial gallons of water per day from the Yallahs River. This water is channeled into the Mona Reservoir, a large concrete dam that serves the semi-metropolitan area of St. Andrew. In some ways this undertaking is similar to the construction of California’s Hetch Hetchy Dam and the diversion of water from the Sierras to the San Francisco Bay area. In both cases, the corporate area gathers water at the expense of the countryside. To learn more about the Blue Mountain Multi-Purpose Project of 1980 and its possible ecological impacts, access the Ministry of Mining and Natural Resources of the Government of Jamaica’s special report here: <http://www.pcj.com/dnn/Portals/0/Documents/SWECO%20PREINVESTMENT%20B3.PDF>
~Please stay tuned for next week’s, “The RiverRoad” part two.~
I finally made it to Big Basin up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The visitor center, also known as Sempervirens Room, is in Boulder Creek, California. To get down to the seaside on foot, you start your hike at that section of the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail near the visitor’s center. It is twelve and a half miles, one way, down to Waddell Creek Beach.
Since I arrived at the park in the late afternoon, I did not attempt to hike the twenty-five miles round-trip from mountains to beach. I opted instead for two shorter hikes, the Redwood Loop, and a self-made route that criss-crossed three different trails. I plan to do the twenty-five miles round trip before the summer arrives in the Bay Area. An additional treat will be to camp overnight at Big or Little Basin.
From Bonny Doon to Fairy Circles
The drive up into the mountains from Highway One is spectacular. Up past Bonnie Doon and a few other towns I went. Further up into the mountains I passed the Ben Lomond Youth Conservation Camp, a monastery, and Little Basin, finally arriving at Big Basin.
There are some magnificent stands of redwoods in this park; some of them are surrounded by fairy circles. If you hike the Redwood Loop Trail you will find some of these circles near the fallen, older trees from which they sprang.
Father and Mother of the Forest
Some of the old growth redwoods have been given quaint names like Father of the Forest (he is 250 feet high) and Mother of the Forest (she is 329 feet high) because they feature what, to those who named them, male and female parts. These trees and others, are on the Redwood Loop Trail, the easiest and shortest of the trails here. It is a mere half-of a mile long and passes by Opal Creek where you will find a beautiful stand of tan oaks along the bank of the creek.
This drive to Big Basin is my third encounter with a conservation camp. The first time I came across one was near a forest between San Diego and Los Angeles. The second time, I was in the Sierras, heading to Yosemite. The words, “conservation camp”, makes me think of “concentration camps”. I did some research, expecting to find that the former are places where people learn how to protect the environment. Instead, it turns out that this is just a fancy name for prison or correctional facility. I don’t know why California doesn’t just call them by their real names. Why the double speak? They are listed right there on the California Correctional and Rehabilitation (Prison) Web site!
Big Basin, designated a park since 1902, is the oldest state park in the United States. That distinction used to belong to Yosemite, at least until it became a federal/national park. Big Basin covers more than 18,000 acres from sea to mountains. Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, Big Basin launched the state park movement in California. Its biggest attraction is a rare stand of ancient coast redwoods that are among the tallest and oldest trees on earth. These include the Mother and Father of the Forest, both of which are anywhere from 1,000-2,000 years old. See my Sequoia National Park article to learn more about some of earth’s giant trees and ancient forest.
Coast redwoods are native to the United States and grow only along the coast from southern Oregon to Central California. They are part of an ancient forest of which less than five percent remains. To meet the demands of the gold rush and urban development we logged the forest and these trees to near extinction. Long gone from the forest are the Quiroste and Cotoni peoples who once made this area their home. Look carefully when you hike some of the Big Basin trails and you will see evidence of their having once been here: The grinding rocks where their ancestors pounded acorns into flour still remain here and in other parks. Some of these grinding stones are also in several Mid Peninsula Regional Open Space Parks along Skyline Boulevard. I’ve seen them at Russian Ridge and over near Alpine Lake too.
Civilian Conservation Corps
As part of his New Deal to lift America out of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a civilian conservation corps of men to work the land and help lift America out of its poverty. The CCC as it became known, helped to develop America’s state and national parks. They built many of the buildings, trails and general infrastructure at parks like Big Basin and Yosemite. The amphitheater and the rows of redwood seats pictured here, were built by the corp. They are a perfect complement to the landscape in which they sit.
More recently (in the 1970s), the endangered bird species, the Marbled Murrelet, was discovered in Big Basin. It was the last bird species in the United States to have its nesting site discovered.
For more than a century early ornithologists searched in vain for the elusive murrelet nest. Quite by accident, a ranger at Big Basin discovered it high in the top of an old growth redwood. This bird flies in from the ocean, about forty-miles away from its feeding “ground”, to make its nest in the old growth redwoods. If we lose our old growth trees, we will most likely lose the Marbeled Murrelet. When you visit Big Basin, stop by the museum near the gift shop to learn more about this bird and what you can do to protect it from other birds when you are there.
For additional information on the Ben Lomond Conservation Camp, Big Basin, and the Marbeled Murrelet, visit the following sites:
After nearly a year, I finally got onto a docent-led hike at Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Preserve in the eastern foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Stanford has several studies going on at Jasper Ridge. In fact, the place has been used for scientific studies since the inception of the university. The preserve is the site of discoveries that are important to both the scientific community and to society. Professor Paul Ehrlich’s discoveries about Bay checkerspot butterflies, for example, demonstrated the unique value of long-term research in ecology, and led to federal programs to fund such studies.
Dirca and Indian Warrior
It was a nice sunny day when I visited the preserve. Many flowers and trees were in bloom. The woods echoed with bird calls. The loudest of them all was the blue and white California scrub jay. It and the ravens were out in full force as were the hummingbirds.
The ubiquitous Indian Warrior plant filled in the spaces beneath the oak trees, doing what it does, living off its host. This hemiparasiste survives in areas with hot dry summers probably because it knows to stay in the shade of trees like manzanitas and oaks. Our guide told us that a name change is afoot as Indian Warrior is a politically incorrect name. What will this plant end up being called, I wonder?
A definite treasure at Jasper Ridge is the dirca plant, several of which can be found along the edges of the chaparral. Dirca or western leatherwood are known to grow only in the Bay Area. They are rare and endangered California natives that do extremely well at Jasper Ridge. Their lemon yellow flowers are practically iridescent in the sunlight. It is more than likely that butterflies, bees and hummingbirds are drawn to this plant.
Searsville Lake and Dam
One of the most picturesque spots at Jasper Ridge is Searsville Lake which owes its genesis to the creation of the 120-year old Searsville Dam. The dam, built by the Spring Valley Water Company 1n 1892, was eventually acquired by Stanford University. Today it is part of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.
Like the Hetch Hetchy Dam, Searsville has been a source of contention: environmentalists want both dams removed and the land restored to its original state. Unlike the water source(s) of the Hetch Hetchy, that of the Searsville Dam is not potable, and so, is severely limited in its use. Stanford is now trying to figure out what to do with the dam and consequently, the lake.
There is no disputing that Jasper Ridge is a special place for wildlife, flora and fauna alike. While there I was treated to the spectacle of hole-ridden trees where acorn woodpeckers had hidden their loot. I came across an emerald green hummingbird with a flash of red, an Anna’s Hummingbird. There was no point looking for the orange and black Bay Checkerspot butterfly that once made this place its home. Endemic to the Bay Area, the Bay Checkerspot was last spotted at Jasper Ridge in 1998.
To learn more about Jasper Ridge and also about the Bay Area’s voracious appetite for water, visit:
To learn about the green, sustainable field station at Jasper Ridge, visit: http://jrbp.stanford.edu/fieldstation.php. If you ever visit Jasper Ridge Preserve, remember to look for the hole-ridden tree that is adjacent to the the field station. It is but one of many such caches on the preserve.
A friend sent me NASA’s earth art book and immediately, I started scribbling down place names for no other reasons than these: They are arresting names; and I wonder what goes on there. What do these places look like up close? Who lives there and how do they live in and treat these places and spaces? Are there open spaces for me to go wandering about in and exploring?
Ever since I arrived in the Bay Area, I have a renewed appreciation for open spaces that I have not felt since my childhood and my later adult sojurn in Jamaica. Just as importantly, this appreciation informs and colors my art. When I looked at the NASA pictures I thought once again, how cheeky, trying to create something, anything, when nature has already done it and done it so well. Here I am, getting ready to re-work my “the vees in picasso” sketches that I did last spring. I know not where the inspiration came from nor why it came from those particular sketches. All I know is I have a clear vision and I am going to move it from inside my head and out onto my canvas. But damned if one of the NASA shots isn’t an almost exact replica of what is in my mind’s eye! Even the coloration and texture (hence the use of modeling clay on the canvas) are the same as what I envisioned.
I just got through experimenting with a light modeling clay and a golden bronze acrylic paint that I have been reluctant to use. The experiment was tedious and it took me a long time to master that paint. I tried working with this bronze before and it hadn’t been tactile. In fact, the wretched thing was and still is, a very heavy paint. It does not rest easily on the canvas. This is the same paint that I worked with in the “David at Yosemite” painting. Turns out this paint is truly a bitch to work with and not simply because the David painting was a difficult subject.
I finally finished this new experiment in bronze painting. It has turned into a painting called, Little Fairy Castles in the Cow Pasture (or Childhood at Belvedere Estate). When I finished it I thought, “That was really difficult but I’m ready to work on my “vee” painting. Now along comes NASA with its “Earth-observing environmental satellites in orbit around the planet”, to show me that it has already been done! They have all conspired to outdo me, NASA, Earth, Nature and those dim-witted satellites that never did anything except spin about in the skies. They never lifted paintbrushes nor tried to coax heavy bronze paint onto canvas! Adding to my chagrin, the NASA picture, shown at the top of this post, is of the desert outside of the United States that I have my eyes on. Yes, it is of the Namib area that I wrote about in an earlier article, the same Namib desert that I invited my Yosemite painting man to visit with me so we could photograph, paint and sand-board there. Sand-boarding and sand-sledding in Swakopmund, Namibia, was another of our Urban Daddy Magazine discoveries. But that is another story.
Here now are some of the place names from NASA’s earth as art book that stirred my imagination:
Painted Desert, USA
Desolation Canyon, USA
Lake Disappointment, Australia (childhood fairy tales and river myths come to mind)
Parana River Delta, Argentina (this conjures up images of piranha fish)
Anti-Atlas Mountains, Morocco (what does it even mean to be “anti” in a place name?)
Carbonate Sand Dunes, Atlantic Ocean (how do you even have dunes in the ocean??)
Ribbon Lakes, Russia
The following are not place names but oh, the conjuring up my mind does just thinking of these titles: gravity waves, ice waves, phytoplankton bloom, and Wadi Branches, Jordan (is this a geographical feature or a place-name?).
“It don’t make any sense you put your hand on your head and bawl; what you going to bawl for? Tell me….”
-Seventy-nine-year-old Hazel McLean’s response to the destruction of her home in White Horses (St. Thomas, Jamaica) by Hurricane Sandy.
Whether you put your hands on your head and bawl or don’t put your hands on your head and bawl, one thing that Jamaican children know about hurricanes and floods is this: There will be plenty of water to play in and a whole heap of school closings because of dangerous weather conditions. (Translation: “Whee!”)
Growing up on the eastern end of Jamaica in the parish of St. Thomas, I knew what these children know: The little ditty we’d been taught about hurricane season isn’t always true. “October all over,” proves to be untrue in 2012 as once again, a late-season hurricane lashes the island and Hazel’s home and is especially cruel to the people living in the eastern parishes of St. Thomas and Portland.
October is probably the gloomiest, darkest month on the island. Storms, floods and tropical depressions all make for dark, overcast skies and many rainy, sunless October birthdays. Here now, is the little ditty about hurricane season. It and Hazel’s phrase, “What you going to bawl for, tell me,” linger on from my childhood. Maybe in a later post I will write about this phrase and another one from many a Jamaican childhood: “You want something to cry for? Ah give you something to cry for!”
Ditty about hurricane season
June too soon
July stand by
August look out
All the photos in this post belong to Garfield Robinson (photos taken in the parish of St. Thomas, Jamaica, end of October 2012).
Some of earth’s largest trees are here in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Sequoia, the nation’s second national park, was established in 1890. The largest of the large trees in these two parks is the General Sherman, a giant sequoia that stands 274 feet tall with a base diameter of 36.5 feet. The shot to my left is my favorite photograph from my walk among the big trees. These trees look as if they are marching right along with me. No, that is not the General Sherman.
A Park is Born
As late as the 1860s, people came from all around to chop down the big trees in the Sierras for lumber. Thanks to John Muir’s nature writing and newspaperman George Stewart’s editorial comments, public opinion led to the formation of Sequoia National Park a few decades later. Today, there are a number of trails leading park visitors to the few isolated groves of sequoias that remain in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Some of these trees are said to be over 3,000 years old!
Although the sequoias are not an endangered specie, other plants and animals in the park are. The mountain yellow-legged frog, the highest-dwelling amphibian in the United States, is one such creature. It lives along the headwaters of the Kaweah River in Sequoia National Park and hibernates nine to ten months of the year. Its numbers have collapsed by about ninety percent. For more information on this once-abundant frog, read John Upton’s 2012 Bay Area Citizen Wildlife Magazine article at http://www.baycitizen.org/wildlife/story/once-abundant-frog-may-deemed-endangered/
Of Beetles and Rocks
Trachykele opulenta Fall, a bore beetle, may or may not be threatened. It was discovered at Beetle Rock in Sequoia National Park around 1906. Because these beetles live in tree tops during their flight period, they are seldom seen. Their status has not been evaluated.
The photograph above is of an adult Trachykele opulenta Fall. This particular specimen was collected from Beetle Rock in 1906. It is part of Harvard University’s H.C. Fall Collection. If you go to Sequoia National Park, visit Beetle Rock. Maybe you’ll spot one of these creatures. I didn’t, but lying on this mass of granite enjoying the sun and views was enervating. When you visit Beetle Rock also go see The Sentinel tree, a 2,200 year old sequoia that is just a stone’s throw away from the rock. Of course, don’t forget to go see the rest of the mighty giants in the Giant Forest.
Below are photos of:
Beetle Rock where Trachykele opulenta Fall was discovered around 1906, and
two of the mighty trees, the Sentinel and the General Sherman.