Wednesday, December 24, 2008


The weather wept, and all the trees bent down...
(Theodore Roethke)

Woke up to gray skies and angry-looking clouds that herald the approach of what is predicted to be a major rainstorm tonight. I am not looking forward to being out on the road later today, as we are going to the Yule Eve 'clan gathering' with my partner's family, which necessitates driving a long way on L. A.'s freeways--dangerous enough when roads are dry. But travel we must and so I steel myself against it with such prayers as I know.

The air is cold today; with probing, icy fingers that claw down to the bones and bury the chill there. I drink many cups of tea, eat toast and tangerines. Listening to melancholy music: Bel Canto's "Images" and "Night Lady." It is good to be home for now, safe inside and warm. In what passes for winter in Southern California, we shudder at 58-degrees!

For only one of only a handful of times in my life I am not spending the holidays with my family. I decided to stay home with my partner and my extended family this year, and travel to Seattle in January instead. The campus is closed for winter break, so I have nine days off. I am looking forward to reading, painting, and some hiking. It will be nice to relax and not have any particular agenda.

I hope you are all safe and warm and with people you love this holiday!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Angeles Forest - Buckhorn Trail Hike

Back in November Paula and I headed up to Angeles National Forest for a day of adventure and birding. It was a lovely day and the weather was cool, which was a pure pleasure from some of the heat we'd been getting in the flats. Both of us have way more energy for hiking when it's cooler. The view above is looking back down the road from a pull out that was about 3/4 of the way to our destination.

When we reached Buckhorn Campground Trailhead, we found this sign. It didn't affect what we had planned, so we promptly ignored it.

We did, however, pay attention to this one! we were warned, but the "Ursine Folk" never made an appearance.

There was quite a bit of water in the stream and we figured it must be spring-fed, as it hadn't rained in some time. There were lots of neat little waterfalls all along the trail. Unfortunately it was a steeper slope than it looks in this photo, so this is as close as we got to the water.

This old tree is spending its final days as a piece of natural trailside sculpture.

The start of the trail looked so inviting. The trees here are magnificent: Western Red Cedar, Coulter Pine, Spruce--and all so very, very tall.

These odd branches really caught my eye. Trees have a way of contorting their limbs to sustain themselves through drought, destruction, wind, light.

And then there's always that rebel in the bunch that has to stand out from the rest. I'll never know how a tree can grow from what appears to be sheer rock, but I have read that their seedlings are strong and they are able to sprout in a granite crevice.

Fires have touched this area more than once over the decades, so it is not unusual for the living and the dead to be standing side by side. The dead trees often become home to owls, woodpeckers, and other cavity-nesting birds.

Note how the branches all seem to be on one side--the side that gets the most sun during the day.

After about a mile or so we found this narrowing of the trail. We didn't walk too much further, as it started sharply downhill and we didn't feel like walking back up (we are adventurous, but we are also lazy!).

When we looked towards the NE, this was the view. True high-country topography.

A natural 'dolmen' along the trail added an air of mystery...

And a rock fortress across the ravine beckoned us to explore.

Paula taking a break and enjoying the scenery. It was absolutely gorgeous here and we plan to go back--after the winter snow is gone, of course! This area is buried right now. But it's something to dream about.
We didn't see many birds this trip but we got a late start: a few Steller's Jays, Mtn. Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, Common Raven, and a Flicker.
[Composed while listening to Porcupine Tree "Lightbulb Sun"]

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Grianstad an Gheimhridh - Winter Solstice

While doing some background research this morning on the winter solstice, my mind started to wander into the past, trying to imagine what it must have been like in ancient days to observe natural phenomenon and not know the ‘science’ behind it. What must it have been like to stand in the predawn hours, waiting for the sun to rise, hoping that it would. How would it feel to not have any ‘expert’ information on how things work, but instead merely observe, mark, and celebrate the calendar round by the change of seasons, astronomical events, and the like?

An oak grove seemed like a most appropriate place to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Noel and I went to Topanga State Park this morning to hike and revel in the beauty of this place. I've been exploring my pagan roots ever since I decided to embrace the matriarchal side of my family; both grandmothers were Scots-Irish (the Germanic side of my grandfathers doesn't resonate with me all that much). As I've immersed myself more and more into nature and gotten involved with conservation issues, I feel very connected to the Earth, in often deep and compelling ways. And so this Winter Solstice will be just the beginning (as it should be at this time of year) of a new life and new year celebrating the calendar round of the ancient Celts and Druids.

"Grianstad an Gheimhridh (Irish translation: winter solstice) is a name sometimes used for hypothetical midwinter rituals or celebrations of the Proto-Celtic tribes, Celts, and late Druids. In Ireland's calendars, the solstices and equinoxes all occur at about midpoint in each season. The passage and chamber of Newgrange (Pre-Celtic or possibly Proto-Celtic 3,200 BCE), a tomb in Ireland, are illuminated by the winter solstice sunrise. A shaft of sunlight shines through the roof box over the entrance and penetrates the passage to light up the chamber. The dramatic event lasts for 17 minutes at dawn from the 19th to the 23rd of December." (from Wikipedia)

Nice little copse of trees on a mound in the oak grove...

...and hiding amongst them a little wood sprite.

The sky began to transform with clouds during the day; 'mare's tails' signal a change of weather, for indeed we are supposed to get rain tomorrow.

A pointy hillock crowned with cloud.

Virga drips from cirrus clouds.

Sweeping and rolling like waves, the clouds move with the rising winds...

...painting strange sigils...

...and signs on the expanse of blue sky.

Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warblers were plentiful. This was a lucky shot--these birds flit around so quickly that you can rarely photograph let alone glass them. The oaks in the grove were absolutely filled with them. I did a rough count of more than 40. Other birds seen or heard:
  • Common Raven
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Oak Titmouse
  • Spotted Towhee
  • California Thrasher
  • Wrentit

Some of the cloven ones made an appearance, too. We found three deer along the Mishe-Mokwa Trail (little used, as we only saw deer prints in the mud along its length). We were very still and they were quite close, but the sound my digital made each time I took a shot made them nervous, and so they disappeared into the tall weeds.

Doe wants to know what we are doing in her backyard.

The "urban wild child" with Eagle Rock in the background. Another great hike on a fantastically beautiful day. Topanga State Park is about a half hour drive from my home, so I am most grateful to have this slice of the 'urban wild' so close by--especially on this auspicious day!

[Composed to a mixed bag of music: Neil Young ("Zuma") , Patti Smith ("Long Gone" & "Gung Ho"), Moody Blues ("Seventh Sojourn"), Pete Namlook & Klaus Schultze ("Dark Side of the Moog").

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Noel & Paula on the trail.

As a sort of 'anniversary hike,' Paula and I went to Placerita Canyon this morning a year after our first hike. One of my friends from work, Noel, joined us for what turned out to be most wonderful stroll down the deep-shaded canyon. In what passes for winter here in Southern California, the ground, leaves, and other forest detritus was covered in frost, making everything look enchanting and magical.

Fiery leaves on this sycamore echo the fire that scorched its trunk more than four years ago.

Spent remnants of once green, then fiery yellow sycamore leaves lay piled and covered in frost.

A touch of yellow-green still lingers on this frost-rimed leaf.

Veins stand in frosty relief on this one.

Just a hint of rime outlines the edges of this one.

Leaves and grass touched with frost.

Frost so thick it looks like crystals.

Thick rime and crystals

Frosty log.

Some kind of 'shrooms on the floor of the oak forest.

The oak forest near the front of the park. The leaves were so thick on the ground that it felt spongy to walk on it.

This was a most excellent morning of hiking, shared with good friends. I am so grateful that this park was spared the ravages of another fire when the Sayre Fire was stopped on the ridge above Walker Ranch 2 miles to the east. If it had continued it march without the firemen there to stop it, this lovely place would have been wiped out.

It was very chilly today and we were all glad we'd layered properly. It helped when we encountered places along the trail that had some sun, too. These sunny spots seemed to agree with the birds as well, because these were the only spots along the trail where we'd see any.

There weren't a ton of birds, but we did see:

Oak Titmouse (lots of them)
Acorn Woodpecker (lots of them)
Scrub Jay
Northern Mockingbird
Spotted Towhee
California Towhee
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-tailed Hawk
Common Raven
Lesser Goldfinch

But I like to think that even a few birds are better than no birds at all!

[Written while listening to Capercaillie--I haven't worn them out yet!]

Monday, December 15, 2008


Paula kickin' it at Placerita Canyon, December 2007

This post is dedicated to my hiking and birding buddy, Paula Raissner. It was a year ago this month that we went on our first hike after we found out during a casual conversation that we both liked bird watching. That conversation proved to be the catalyst to a whole year of adventure and fun.

Our first hike at Placerita Canyon was one of the best times ever (see December 16, 2007 post). We started out out on the main trail, which wound along the creekbed and through a steep, shaded canyon. It was mighty chilly that morning though, so we turned back to find a sunnier route, and wound up on top of a hill with a grand view overlooking the park. Later one we were also treated to a 'nature show' put on by the park volunteers that included up-close looks at a Great Horned Owl, Kestrel, and Opossum.

It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Since that first hike, we have gone on many more hikes around the mountains surrounding L. A. and have been camping twice; most of those adventures are chronicled in this blog.

So here's to you, Paula! Thanks for being such great friend and fun partner in outdoor adventure. I am looking forward to the coming year and more forays into the urban wild!

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Matillija Creek

Campsite under the oaks

This is why I don't backpack--I'm too much of a hedonist!

"Front Porch"

The "Mystery Bug" - Still haven't identified this little oddity.

Acron Woodpecker granary. There was a large family of them that had claimed the whole area around our campsite. It was neat waking up to their lively chattering, buzzing, and drumming in the morning.

Wheeler Gorge, July 2008

Backtracking a bit with this post, to a camping trip taken this past summer. It was bloody hot that weekend, which made hiking at all but dusk and dawn nearly impossible. It was nice to be outside all weekend though. Each evening we walked out across the road to the visitor’s center parking lot to watch the bats come out.

On the second night, as we were sitting in camp and just gazing up at the gathering dusk, we were treated to a big shooting star that streaked across the SW sky; one of those fortuitous moments when you happen to be looking at the right time. No fires were allowed, due to high fire danger, so we had a ‘dark camp’ each night, too.

Of course some bozos were racing on the road a few miles up from the campground, went off the side, and started a brushfire. We watched as a parade of fire-fighting vehicles roared past for the next half hour. Fortunately they got the fire out, but Paula and I were at least mentally prepared to evacuate if the need had arisen.

There were also quite a few bozos in the campground that were having campfires despite the ban and when the firefighters were coming back down the hill they must have seen the smoke because the drove through the whole campground and made them put the campfires out. There’s always some who never think the rules apply to them—and do not care who else they put at risk.

When we were breaking camp on Sunday I managed to piss off a yellowjacket when I was trying to shoo it out of the tent. I was waving my hand around when it turned and stung me on the left index finger. Wow, that smarted! Needless to say the rest of packing up was a bit more difficult.

It was a nice ‘shake-down’ trip for Paula and I though, as this was our first camping adventure together. We found out that we camp together well and had a great time. And we plan to visit this area gain during winter when it’s cooler and less crowded.

[Composed while listening to soundtrack of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King]

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Milt McAuley 1919 - 2008

Topanga Sate Park

“Every step hiked takes your troubles farther away.”

    We lost a great man and champion for ‘urban wild’ this past Wednesday. Milt McAuley, who wrote the first hiking guide to the Los Angeles area and was an avid hiker until age 85, passed on of natural causes.

    He grew up, literally, in the outdoors; his father was an engineer for the Southern Pacific Railroad and one year the family lived in a tent for a year as they followed a work train through the Oregon wilderness. He was a boy scout and led hiking and backpacking trips from age 16. One of the 10 hikers who plotted the Backbone Trail across the Santa Monica Mountains, he also led a 7-day hike across that trail when he was 83.

    McAuley was a firm believer in letting more people know about hiking trails, despite some critics that felt the areas should be protected. He said,  “If you don’t build a trail and invite people in, someone would come along and subdivide the land. To preserve parkland, you need to access to it. Otherwise nobody will vote the funds to acquire it.”

    So long, Milt. I know you are hiking the hills of Summerland and watching down upon those of us who love this Earthly land as you did, and guiding us to continue our promotion and protection of this great gift.

[Composed to Capercaillie's "When You Return"]