Monthly Archives: December 2006

December 31, 2006, PM

Last hike of 2006 I literally spent the last daylight hours of the year hiking. I had a spot in mind with a broad view of Mount Diablo, and catching the last rays of red 2006 sun as they lit it up in alpenglow, and I left too late. Two months ago I could have hiked three miles and 1400 feet of climb in half an hour, but not today. I gave up two-thirds of the way there, took a small single-track path I’d never hiked before into the darkening woods.

My life started here in these V-shaped cañons clothed in oak and resinous bay, rotting logs like bridges over the seasonal streams. 2007 marks 25 years since I started walking in the California Coast Ranges, the two decades and change I spent before that mere prologue. Coyote brush and miners lettuce and milk thistle sprout from soil so aerated, so full of humus it gives six inches beneath my feet.

This year saw me harden. I am an order of magnitude more misanthropic than I was a year ago, more persuaded that despite our art and cleverness we are an investment the planet should not have made. It is too late now, of course, for second-guessing that gamble. It is too late for a lot of things: for the baiji and the black rhino, for Lohachara Island and the Ellesmere ice shelf, and our victories consist of slowing the rate of devastation a trifle, of finding occasional lone and hopeless survivors of species declared extinct a bit too soon. We read of the devastation and cluck in shame to ourselves and have another 200,000 babies each day. Children are our future. Each and every one of them the future. A bleak future indeed for all but rats and pigeons.

And for the coyotes. The coyotes will survive almost anything we might do to this world: that is solace. They sang to me tonight as I walked downhill in darkness. This was a good year: among the swelling billions of pestilential humans are a few dozen cherished friends. This year saw me soften: I am a little more hopeful than I was a year ago, more persuaded that some of us might see past the petty bickerings among minor subgroups within one species in five million, might rise past our superficial, transitory divisions to stop the damage to the planet we depend on. It is a long shot still.

Ecology is a science that can wreak inner transformations on the scientist: it demands sensitivity to variable conditions, and one learns that adherence to ideology in the face of contravening facts is the mother of unintended consequences. Patriots, or Christians, or radical feminists, Marxists or Theorists or Libertarians or misanthropes, racists or progressives, we determine our opinions by whether they fit the labels we apply to ourselves, but there are more people now who turn that on its head. Some of us are listening for the coyotes. Some of us look to learn what is instead of determining what must be. We are in a small minority, but we are more than we were. Night-walking the forest, one places each foot with deliberation. Counting on the rhythm of your stride will pitch you off the edge.

New Year's Eve Moon And now and then a break in the canopy offers up some light.

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Welcome to el Norte, kids.

This is old news, but it just now came to my attention thanks to nezua at The Unapologetic Mexican and Brownfemipower.

Staff at a privatized prison in Taylor, Texas have, presumably under orders of management, been fingerprinting the babies of detained immigrants.

Is this at the behest of the Department of Homeland Security? Troubling. Or is it a corporate program, with the fingerprints going into a private database? Just as troubling.

Of course if it’s a private initiative, the Libertarians won’t have a problem with it. As long as the Invisible Hand doesn’t get fingerprinted.

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More fascinating information about me me me

I’ve got about a sixth of my book collection catalogued at LibraryThing, so if you’re at all interested in the precise nature of the clutter Becky has to contend with, go take a look. I’ll be entering the rest of the library as time permits. And with the CueCat, I don’t even have to let the NSA know what I’m reading: the machine takes care of that for me. So convenient!

On the front-page sidebar, I’ve got a link to a random ten books from my library which will stay there until I get annoyed with it. If you happen to buy one of the books after clicking on the cover graphic, I get a minor kickback. For what it’s worth.

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Thought, learned, and/or experienced in the course of today’s climb to the summit of Mount Diablo

-A good pair of leather hiking boots requires some time to break in. The fact that you wore them on a painful hike to the summit in August and on several dog walks and shopping trips since will not guarantee a pain-free hike if you wear them to climb Diablo, at least not in the final eight miles of the hike.

– On a winter day after a rain, you might be able to recognize Half Dome from the summit of Mount Diablo without binoculars, despite its location more than 130 miles away.

-When said visit to summit coincides, within a margin of error of 400 feet, with your marking 100,000 feet climbed during hikes in 2006, that fact and the soreness of your feet from the not-yet-broken-in boots combine with the view of gray Half Dome 130 miles east to produce a feeling of contentment that is really rather pleasant.

-On at least one occasion, a flock of more than 150 robins has flown twelve feet above a hiker resting supine alongside the Juniper Trail on Diablo’s west summit ridge.

-The Trader Joe’s trail mix that contains pineapples and cranberries mixed with nuts claims to provide 150 calories per serving, according to the nutritional information on the small bag of trail mix you’ve brought along.

-That same nutritional information panel tells you that the small bag contains 15 servings. You are suddenly no longer hungry.

-When you rest on your way up Mitchell Canyon, you will eventually notice that the manzanita across the road from you is blooming prettily. When you stop to air out your throbbing feet in Mitchell Canyon on your way down, you will eventually notice that the red-flowering currant across the road from you is blooming prettily. You reflect on how rarely you have stopped along this trail without finding some nearby thing worth looking at for some minutes. You dismiss the notion that the trail is replete with interesting things, deciding instead that you possess a secret super-power.

-On your way into the canyon at the beginning of your hike you eat your first miner’s lettuce leaf of the season. You reflect that you can do so safely because dogs are not allowed on the trail. The same reflection flits through your tired mind later when you assume the little dog prints in the mud belong ot the local coyote.

-Your hike marks 410 miles hiked in 2006, a record. It is your 14th successful summit attempt on Diablo in 2006, the 18th in your life. It is the 22nd time in 2006 you have at least made it to Deer Flat.

-There are two more hiking days left in 2006.

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Caring and sharing

The best part of having an aging, disabled dog has to be the random expressions of kindness and concern from passing strangers.

This morning, for instance, as Becky and I were walking with Zeke down San Pablo Avenue in downtown Pinole, an older blonde woman who was driving down the street in a light blue American-made sedan took the trouble to pull over to the curb, roll down her passenger-side window and wait for us to come abreast of her. This showed some patience on her part: it took a few minutes for us to get that far. (Zeke walks slowly on the best day, and his back legs were a little achy this morning before he’d worked out the kinks.) When we got up to where the woman was idling, she started talking to us in a German-accented voice full of concern. I was frankly taken aback by the overflowing compassion in her voice as she screamed at us that we needed to take Zeke to a doctor.

In partial repayment of her kindness, I attempted to assuage her concerns by telling her that Zeke sees the vet a couple times a month. Her response, overwhelming in its caritas and agape and just flat out bonhomie, was to interrupt me in mid-sentence to tell me that our not having put Zeke to sleep might indicate some serious moral defect on our parts of which we might not be aware. I attempted to thank her sincerely for her concern for our inner well-being and for her instantaneous drive-by veterinary consultation, but the fervor of her caring was so great that she interrupted me mid-sentence again, and yet again after that.

Touched to my core, I responded to her graciousness by trying to bond with her. After considering her apparent Teutonic heritage, as inferred from her accent, I spoke one or two heartfelt Anglo-Saxon words and turned away, trying to get Zeke back into the park. Becky continued to speak with the woman in a boisterous tone, explaining Zeke’s history and current medical care regimen and the magnitude of our veterinary bills, tears of joyful fellowship streaming down her face. The raw emotion was more than I could bear, so I appproached the woman’s car again. I expressed the profound degree to which I was touched by her affecting my wife so deeply, and asked whether she might not enjoy being rewarded for her caring by my affecting her in like fashion. But other obligations callled, and with a final sentence of concern over our moral states she sped off.

This is the third time I have had such a conversation regarding Zeke’s well-being, though it is the first Becky has been privileged to witness. Really, I don’t think I can withstand more of this kindness without breaking down altogether. I am privileged to live in a town that possesses so much raw talent at veterinary diagnosis, to the degree that people can contravene the diagnoses and recommendations of Zeke’s regular vet without even checking his pulse. To think we could have saved all that money spent on bloodwork and pain control and chicken breast strips with glucosamine! I’ve been at a loss for a proper way to respond to such kindness.

Until now. I think it’d be nice, when greeted by the next passerby who engages in such fervent freelance veterinary practice, to offer likewise to provide them with a little stochastic orthodontia. I think it’s the least I can do.

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End of year

It all gets stripped away in time. Layer after layer peeled off, one skin and then another, until what is left?

The moon shining like gauze on San Pablo Bay.

Another year, and I have likely seen more than I have yet to spend. Doors unopened and trails not trod, promises left lingering on bare coffeehouse tables, and what is left?

The bay gleams pale silver under the oblique moon.

They are asleep and I have walked out. Some nights like this I have lain on the ground blanketed in stars, the cold a comfort. In the outback it is all home, every square inch, and I am just another small, flickering light against a dark sky.

In town it is not so simple. I will walk away from the dark in a while, back through the streets to the house where they sleep, and the chill that would have lulled me to sleep in the Mojave will be a cramp in my leg.

We wait these days. We wait. He is healthy enough, merely disabled. He cannot be left alone for more than two or three hours. In eleven days Becky’s job resumes, and I must make a decision. We wait.

I can smell the creosote off the railroad ties tonight. I smelled them on cold air the night before I first came home, sleeping in a Wyoming ditch when the rides stopped. Two books and a rock in my pack, and what do I have now after a quarter century? Becky, and Zeke, and aside from them nothing but things.

The next day in Wyoming I rode a bus.  It was in the middle of an oil boom. A roughneck a few years older say next to me for a couple hundred miles, describing life on the rigs, warning me away from drinking in Evanston bars. The sun slid down into the Great Basin and we followed, the walls of Parley’s Canyon flashing past, and I began my life on the Pacific Slope that night.

Aside from Becky and Zeke, I have gained nothing but things since that night. In the wind and moonlight I am the same, as the lights shimmer in Sonoma and Marin I am the same, as the New Year’s Flood rolls down Pinole Creek to meet the brine and the pole tilts slightly toward the sun, white gravel along the path in tonight’s shadow becomes twice-melted snow of a childhood February, the Dog Star reflects in brimming creek and I fold my collar up against the wind blown down my neck I am the same, the same vague man who peered out at midnight salt flats wondering when his life would start.

Last night’s wind storm took down a few of the acacia trees along the levee. In the moonlight I could see the splintered heart, stress fractures in the still-living wood. It will be some days before the branches realize they are dead.