Friday, July 25, 2008

THE WILD PLACES


The European Continent at night - And wild places hard to find!

As I mentioned in the previous post, I am enjoying a romp through British nature and travel writing. My current prose adventure is The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, who was a friend of the late Roger Deakin.

This book is probably my favorite nature-travel book so far, even though I loved Roger’s Waterlog very, very much. And although Deakin started my journey, Macfarlane has taken me even farther afield. Macfarlane is also a master wordsmith, whose prose is eloquent and a real delight to read.

Unlike Roger, Robert does his journey by walking rather than swimming. Inspired by the incidental travel writing of the likes of Samuel Coleridge, the poetry of Sorley MacLean, and Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, he travels through forest, moor, and mountaintop, spending at least a night in each place to immerse himself in it.

Macfarlane sprinkles historical natter throughout, which does not spoil—but rather adds to—the overall understanding of the places he visits. He tells of famines, expulsions of people from land due to greedy owners, and horrific storms.


Most interesting was a chapter discussed night walking. In the chapter “Ridge” he tells of the origin of the word ‘noctambulism’ (walking at night), and tells of Coleridge’s bouts of depression, which led to his taking to the outdoors and night walks. Franz Kafka, too, fell under the spell of walking at night, which made him feel “like a ghost among men—weightless, boneless, bodiless.” According to Macfarlane, at night “the sensorium is transformed…new orders of connection assert themselves: sonic, olfactory, tactile.”

Macfarlane’s own reason for walking at night was to find the “wildness which the dark confers on even a mundane landscape;” How the landscape is transformed under moonlight, how shadows form new topography, and the landforms become “presences: inferred, less substantial, more powerful.” In this chapter he also reflects on how humans have distanced themselves so totally form darkness that their methods with which they apply to do affect the natural world:

“The extent of artificial lighting in the modernized regions of the earth is now so great that it produces a super-flux of illumination easily visible from space. The light, inefficiently directed, escapes upwards before being scattered by small particles in the air—such as water droplets and dust—into a generalized photonic haze known as sky glow.

The stars cannot compete with this terrestrial glare, and are often invisible, even on cloudless nights. Cities exist in a permanent sodium twilight. Towns stain their skies orange. The release of light also disrupts the habits of nature. Migrating birds collide with illuminated buildings, thinking them to be daytime skies. The leaf-fall and flowering patterns of trees—reflexes controlled by perceptions of day length—are disrupted. Glow-worm numbers are declining because their pilot lights, the means by which they attract mates, are no longer bright enough to be visible at night.”

I urge everyone to read this book. It will make you feel differently about the world that surrounds you, and hopefully make you want to reconnect with it. As Macfarlane puts it:

“We experience, as no historical period has before, disembodiment and dematerialization. The most infinite connectivity of the technological world, for all the benefits that it has brought, has exacted a toll in the coin of contact. We have in many ways forgotten what the world feels like.”

[Composed while listening to Alan Parsons Project]

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"FIND BEAUTY; BE STILL."


Brannan Island, CA (photo by omaatje9)

So said British author W. H. Murray in In Search of Swallows and Amazons. Lately I have been dipping heavily into the work of British naturalists, finding their words eloquent and illuminatingly descriptive of place and of being in places.

My own journey back to nature began with a book I found by accident: Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain by the late Roger Deakin. I had bought it on a whim, because it sounded interesting, and then laid it away. And on another whim, I picked it up from my stack of unread books on my way to the airport one morning in January 2008, little knowing how it would transform me in ways both subtle and profound.

I was captured—and captivated---from the first paragraphs, touched by Deakin’s mastery of prose, his ability of making his words take you along with him on his journey, which was a swimming adventure through Britain. He described rivers, lochs, oceans, forests, mountains, and meadowlands with clear evocative language that lifted me up and deposited me into the landscapes and water he traveled through. Never have I had a wait in an airport and a plane trip pass so quickly! I was so immersed in Roger’s world that I scarcely noticed the passage of time.

By the time I landed in Seattle, I was ready to take off into the woods somewhere and get lost in the embrace of the wood, to let the forest smother me in its green embrace. That very afternoon I took a walk into a wooded area near my family’s home and spent some time letting the sensory input of all that living green soak in. Shafts of light fell in angles, highlighting a tree stump with new growth sprouting from its top. Cedar needles crunched under my feet, releasing a pungent earthy scent. The whole of the wood breathed with subtle yet tangible life.

I found a log that was perfect for sitting and spent some time listening for the small sounds that make up the music of such places. The trickle of a stream made a merry sound as it meandered through a tangle of weeds and deadfall. A family of juncos chipped and trilled in a tangle of blackberry vines. And the wind, coming in infrequent waves, rustled through the crowns of the trees, whispering in a secret language I could not fathom.

All through my two-week visit I savored Roger’s book. It inspired me to look closer at nature, to take time to try to describe what I was seeing and feeling. I tend to rush along in life; my natural speed is full. But now I wanted to slow down and relax; I wanted to absorb more of what I was experiencing and I could not do it unless I stood still.

As a consequence, my bird and nature journal took on a new tone and grew from laundry-listing to detailed description. It was an epiphany. And I carried this epiphany, this new-found knowledge of the natural world, with me when I returned to Los Angeles.

But as always, upon returning home I felt like I had lost something. That something was all the big trees that one is surrounded by in the Northwest; our city trees are pitiful in comparison. So I was determined to set about finding my own ‘wildness’ nearby, to see if I could recapture the sensations and impressions I felt up north here in the urban wild. Was there were really anywhere in or near this sprawling metropolis where one could feel the touch of nature, to be one with it?

Decidedly a tall order, I realize in hindsight, but in actuality I have found little islands of ‘wild’ in the most unlikely places. Even our state parks are but poor imitations of true wild country, where the wildness has been confined and tamed into, well, parks! So one must be diligent and remain open to any opportunity for a touch of nature to fill ones heart and mind. But it can be done and I have done it. It is accomplished by being still. Not moving, not talking, not having an iPod stuck in my ears, but by being STILL.

I have been rewarded by many moments when I stood transfixed and transformed while small dramas unfolded before me: the symphony of air breathing through the crowns of eucalyptus trees across the street from my house; of giant stands of bamboo creaking and groaning in the wind at the UCLA Botanic Gardens; deer standing in the early morning mist at Topanga State Park; the breath of wind caressing my face and tousling my hair as I sat on a ridge above Whitney Canyon.

It is all in having an open heart and mind, of maintaining a spirit of adventure. Nature surrounds us everywhere, even in the concrete canyons of our cities. One has to sometimes look a little harder, but make no mistake—it is there. It waits for those that seek, and it will welcome you with open arms.

[Composed while listening to the haunting melodies of Afro Celt’s Anatomic, Sound Magic, and Release.]

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

BIRD MIGRATION - A TRUE WONDER OF NATURE

Believe it or not—it’s migration time already! And there are plenty of places around Southern California to find fall migrant birds such as warblers, vireos, thrushes, flycatchers--and who knows what rarities?

The summer months can be sketchy for finding birds, but from now through October, the opportunities increase as any island of green may attract a flock of migrants to rest and feed. City parks with lots of trees and a water feature such as a lake, pond, or stream will top the list, as will business parks.

Migration is one of Mom Nature’s true wonders, when millions of birds fly south to their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central and South America. Because they are on the wing at night (to avoid predators and take advantage of cooler temps and less wind), humans rarely see them. They have been picked up on radar and the images are astounding; here’s some links:

http://www.srh.noaa.gov/key/HTML/springmigration.html

http://www.radar.mcgill.ca/bird_migration.html

http://www.leo.lehigh.edu/projects/birds/migration.html

A simple Google search will turn up many more pages for those interested in learning more about these feathered wanderers.

Bird migration is one of the most astonishing feats in nature. Each spring and fall, birds from geese to hummingbirds find their way through the night sky, braving weather, human hazards such as high-rise buildings and communications towers, to follow their biological imperative.

Some birds fly thousands of miles non-stop; an amazing feat for such small and seemingly vulnerable creatures. One can only imagine the beauty and terror of such a journey, sometimes over open water with no land for hundreds of miles. Their strength and bravery are to be admired and respected.

To fuel these long distance flights, birds fatten themselves up by gorging on food prior to the journey:

“A maximally fattened warbler may weigh 12 grams or more, nearly double its lean body mass. The caloric density of this amount of fat is more than sufficient to supply the energy demand of a small bird like this for making a non-stop nocturnal migratory flight of 400 miles or more--and this is just one of several such flights needed to take it all the way from its Canadian nesting grounds to its Central American wintering grounds! And to think, each small warbler is just one of hundreds of thousands of small songbirds making these journeys, traveling across vast stretches of sky by night, sheltering in forests and fields by day, over and around each and every one of us at this time of the year.” [http://www.westol.com/~banding/Pictorial_Highlights_09291005_2003.html]
One of the most interesting uses of modern technology to track migrating birds is radar. It seems incongruous at first: using something so high tech to track behavior that may be more ancient than humankind! But it is an amazing tool and allows us to see the sheer magnitude of this avian effort:
[From: http://virtual.clemson.edu/groups/birdrad/COMMENT.HTM]

Migrating Birds : Exodus
Birds migrating at night frequently depart 30 to 45 minutes after local sunset, and this departure is visible on radar. As birds leave their diurnal stopover sites and climb to typical altitudes of migration, they enter the radar beam and begin reflecting energy back to the antenna. Such departures appear as rapidly expanding circular (or nearly circular) patterns in a base reflectivity image as more birds climb into the radar beam. By examining radar imagery in this window of departure times, CUROL can identify specific areas from which large numbers of birds are departing.

These areas, often called "hotspots," are the diurnal stopover sites in which migrant birds have spent the day feeding and resting in suitable habitat. Because all habitats are not suitable for migrant birds and because many landscapes are increasingly fragmented and unequally distributed across the landscape, hotspot phenomena appear even more striking. These areas consistently appear on radar images as areas of high bird activity. Delineating areas of high bird activity is a priority for bird conservation, and studying hotspots on radar is an essential tool for this endeavor on a large scale.

The following reflectivity image from the evening of March 31, 1999 at HGX Houston, TX illustrates the premise of "hotspot" phenomena. Notice the areas of higher reflectivity (the reds and purples analagous to densities of 60-500 birds per cubic kilometer) that appear prominently (against the yellow and orange background) around the radar stations. See that the time, given in UTC at 0122Z (6 hours ahead of local CST), is approximately 30-45 minutes after local sunset. This image is a characteristic "hotspot" frame, in which we can see specific areas from which large numbers of birds are departing.



The reflectivity image below shows a striking amount of departure detail east of the station.




One of my favorite conservationists, the late David Gaines, had this to say about birds:

“…the paths they travel, while beyond human design, are parallel with our own. They have as much right to be here as we do—not because they are useful or beautiful, but because they are kin.”

We often forget that we are a part of nature too, but instead of living in harmony with nature, we have shed our wildness in favor of living in ‘forests’ of concrete and steel. What is needed is to get back out into the real natural world and re-establish our ties with other wild creatures—creatures who are never far away, yet are so distantly estranged from us by our myopic modern vision. We need to unplug and go forth into forest and field, to let the wind caress us and bird songs fill our ears with nature’s music.

The beauty that can be found in the humblest of places, such as a vacant field; or in man-made nature, such as a city park, are worth seeking out. There are so many state parks and wildlife refuges in every county of Southern California that it’s easy to spend a day away from the world of traffic and commerce.

Adventure awaits! Leave your daily grind behind and enter nature with your whole heart and mind. Find the reward of seeing a butterfly on a flower or a colorful warbler gleaning insects from a tree branch. It’s all there. All you have to do is open your eyes and ears. Nature is ready when you are.