Tag Archives: The Creek

Salmon? In Berkeley?

Chinook Salmon (adult) Photo Credit: Roger Tabor (USFWS)

Not Codornices Creek, but you get the idea.

This is happy news, though someone needs to tell the salmon it’s the wrong size for the creek:

First Chinook salmon reported in Codornices Creek

Codornices Creek is a little creek, mainly year-round, that flows off the Berkeley Hills and through the Hills’ populated alluvial fan to the east shore of San Francisco Bay. It’s pretty much the same as any of thousands of small creeks in Urban California, except for one thing: it’s in Berkeley, and so there have been people working to restore it for a generation.

Chinooks are more usually associated with large main-stem rivers like the Sacramento: little coastal streams like Codornices Creek are more suited to smaller coho salmon, and steelhead for that matter, which have in fact been seen in the creek for some time, though apparently not in a self-sustaining spawning population.

Then again, the fish set the rules, not us, and the Codornices Chinook’s more likely destination in the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed has been, as the fisheries biologists would put it in technical terms, massively fucked. This chinook was probably born in a hatchery instead of a leafy rill with a nice cobble bottom; all but one of the Sacramento and San Joaquin’s major tributaries have been plugged with giant concrete dams, cutting off access to something like 99.9999996 percent of the watershed’s spawning habitat. Agricultural runoff of pesticide-laden silt and silt-laden pesticide fills the water along the way to the dams.

But at least it’s a small, one-fish vote of confidence in the good work my former neighbors have done trying to keep Codornices Creek alive, and until we can engineer precisely targeted earthquakes at the bases of the big dams, that’ll have to do.

(Special homechild points if you heard this post’s title in Mel Blanc’s voice.)

Demons

Running is wrestling.

Running brings the demons to the surface, the doubt, the defeatist self-loathing. It reveals them more quickly, more reliably, than weeks of the most skilled therapy.

I ran fairly well last night, an unathletic 5K for those of us who quantify such things, and a fifth of the way along I had already persuaded myself twice to keep going. A demon manifests and points out the sore knee, the stitch in the side, the sudden hungers literal and metaphoric, the likelihood of something better happening somewhere else. They suggest, rather pointedly, that I stop.

They are angry bees. Stop to address them and you feel their stings, but if you keep running they will only follow you a little way. I pick a landmark a hundred feet ahead, a hundred yards. I tell myself to run at least to that lamppost ahead, to the bridge over the creek where the swallows build their nests, to make it at least that far and then decide whether to continue. If I stop there, it is a victory of sorts.

More usually, I remember hundreds of yards past the mark that I was supposed to make a decision of some kind. At least in this one way I can make the attention deficit work for me.

Distraction is armor against the demons. Last night, rumination on a friend’s recent note about the notion of “redemptive grief” got me much of the way up two kilometers of hill. What is “closure,” after all, but the expectation of conclusive redemption? Crating Zeke between book covers did nothing to prevent the muddy paw prints tracked across my mind, the claw scratches at the back on my neck as he asks to be let in. It was a night like this 18 months ago that the inevitability of that loss sank all the way in, and the Futility Demon suddenly sucked all the oxygen out of the bay-side air as I ran. I stopped short that evening without conscious thought. Any path I choose to run leads back to the demons eventually.

The hilltop is only three blocks away. Make it that far, 2.5K, and then decide.

At one block from the top I meet the end boss, the demon most difficult to beat. My ankle starts to ache, and I think without intending to of that time in 1997 when I ran on a sore ankle and limped afterward for months. This demon is suave, a fighter native to my internal territory. He knows the terrain well. His voice is comforting, nurturing. “Are you overtraining, Chris? You shouldn’t be forcing yourself to run if it hurts.” He plays all the angles. “What’s with the ridiculous stoicism, the macho? You’ve done great already. There’s no shame in stopping here.”

I tell him to get back to me in a hundred yards. A hundred yards won’t make all that much difference to an overtrained ankle unless I twist it, which I could do just as easily walking home.

Twenty yards on, as I run down a narrow walk cloaked in overgrown oat and mustard, a rustle comes from my left. This is skunk country. I am hypervigilant these days. Every hair stands on end and then I see the source of the noise: a black-tailed deer.

We run together for a hundred yards, my pace feeling the way hers looks, a long series of slow, buoyant arcs.

I am demon-free for another mile or so.

Divorce is looming, though, and displacement, dislocation as of bone from socket. This is a perfect run, I think, even running into this tree-shattering wind, even running into this North wind driving tall whitecaps on flat San Pablo Bay, and after June when wilI I see the Bay again? My laps through this neighborhood are numbered.

I stop running then, without even thinking about stopping, at around 3.5K. I walk a little.

I turn around and walk past the spot where I stopped, about a hundred yards past, and turn again, and when I am ten feet from the demon spot I begin running again, a hundred yards at a time. Again I approach the swallow bridge, a quarter mile away. I will stop there, I promise the demons. Let me make it there and I will stop. That’s 4.5K. I can live with 4.5K. Let me get that far and I’ll let you win.

At the far end of the bridge I turn, ready to stop.

An enormous red moon is rising. It hangs low over the hills only eight hours before it’s full. The wind shifts a little, blows my hair off my back and over my shoulder. It streams in front of me.

I force myself to stop at 5K.

Blue light

Blue light, then red, then blue again.
The street looks wet,
fair slicked in darkness,
but my bare feet kick up dry stones.
Pebbles skitter over curbs,
implant themselves in callus,
and I flick them clumsily away
with forefinger.

They have splinted his left leg.
Clotted traffic pools uphill and down.

Just yesterday I ran a mile, then two,
and then another,
the longest run in months,
and mourned a bit
at the run’s end.
Best not to push one’s self.
This sense of splintered shin a sign,
these aching femurs,
impact upon jolt,
Earth rising up to strike.
It is the final blow that does the harm.
A love fractures;
the shards hit the street.

How many such blows can a heart take?
They push their hands, heels down,
into his chest.
A formality.
There is no urgency, and
the ambulance rolls slow away and silent.
Tomorrow I will run in daylight,
will run as Egret hunts the creek,
as White-Tailed Kite
hunts motionless above the marsh,
but tonight the owl
hunts souls above the street.
Her silent breast
reflects blue light, then red,
then blue again.

This is our Bay

copyright Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle, used in fair use for educational purposes without monetary gain

This photo (by Michael Macor, of the San Francisco Chronicle and more of his work on the subject can be found here) is one for the history books. Each generation has its oiled scoter photo. I used one from the 1971 Standard Oil spill in San Francisco Bay on the front page of Terrain a decade back. That one was perhaps more iconic, more deadly looking, the Golden Gate in the background and the bird an abstract mound of goo with a haunting eye.

Macor’s is softer, more intimate. It is thus all the more devastating. These are hands soaked with oil, this is recognizably a fluffy bird with fouled feathers, and while the 1971 scoter is so slicked it surely died, the bird Macor shows us might survive. His photo thus has a greater sense of urgency, that feeling of armchair triage.

His photo has been following me all day. I resort to analysis of photographic artistry, of composition and semiotics. If I did not, the rage in me would insinuate itself into every pore, cover every surface in me, like 58,000 gallons of heavy residual fuel oil on the bay.

This is not the worst spill the Bay has known. That 1971 spill was more than ten times larger, and in the thirties almost three million gallons of crude poured into the sea from a wrecked tanker just outside the Gate. Spills of like size have fouled the Bay’s fringing wetlands from broken pipelines, and these are rarely counted in lists of such disasters despite their hitting the Bay’s most important wildlife habitats. And atop it all, who knows how many gallons of oil wash into the bay with each season’s first rain, the leavings of a summer’s automotive habits?

I repeat these facts to myself lest I explode. This is just a bad day for the Bay.

Already, a dozen beaches are closed in two counties. A showpiece tract of urban wetland in San Francisco, the crown jewel in a necklace of restoration projects around the Bay, is closed to visitors. Oil has been washed into it with the receding tide: the stain drawn along its edges as the ocean sucked it out the Gate. Baker Beach, where Laura Taflinger took this photo, is closed. Kirby Cove, where once I sat with a loved one’s back against my chest, spray in our faces as big waves rolled in from Japan, is closed. Alcatraz and Angel Island are befouled.

Bunker fuel oil is closer in consistency to tar than gasoline. Imagine powering a ship on what you drain out of your engine block after 50,000 miles. (This was literal truth for a while: shipping companies would buy used motor oil to add to their fuel, until they decided the liability from unknown contaminants was too much for their insurers to handle.) From crude oil the refineries extract natural gas and naptha, gasoline and kerosene, diesel fuel and motor oil, and then whatever is left that still flows faster than asphalt in Tucson in July is called “residual fuel oil.” Most bunker fuel is “grade six” fuel oil: the sludgiest of the lot. This stuff, with twenty to seventy carbons in each molecule’s chain, will not volatilize. It will not be metabolized by bacteria, broken into methane and ethane. What the Coast Guard cannot pick up will stay in the Bay, essentially forever.

Today a wind out of the north raises stiff waves on the Bay, and containment is thus made more difficult. The slicks will break up, spread themselves.

I grabbed my camera and was headed out the door to Kirby Cove to document this atrocity, for whom I do not not know. Shaking in anger. This is our Bay they have defouled. This is our Bay. The living heart of California and they have poisoned it again through carelessness, through unwillingness to moderate their avarice enough to move their ships’ fuel tanks away from the hull. This is our Bay they have used as a sewer. This is our Bay, which we must share with the salmon and the pelicans and salt marsh harvest mice. They do not even see it: it is a highway or an obstacle, and casualties of their transit mere roadkill. Murderers. Murderers!

I had my hand on the door of the truck and I stopped.

I stopped for a long moment.

I turned and walked down to the creek instead.

The tide was up, water flooding the creek’s lower reaches, and yet none of the oil had yet reached this part of the Bay. The sewage treatment plant was there, and the train tracks with their sweating tankers, a tangle of sodden plastic bags on the shoreline and two oil refineries in shouting distance, Asian clams and Chinese mitten crabs and invasive Teredo boring worms and pestiferous striped bass, 99 percent of the biomass in the visible Bay made up of invasive exotic organisms, but

but

pickleweedcordgrassgrebes.jpg

but today, the native cordgrass and the pickleweed still grow.

lesser scaups, couple scoters

But today, scaups and scoters swim more un-oiled than not above the tide-drowned cordgrass beds.

mallardsdetail.jpg

But today, mallards burst into joyous flight as though they had not read the news.

Meals

Today was an off-day, so I ran just 2.5K. Sun shining, blue sky and clear,  65 degrees Fahrenheit.

At 1.4K, a possum lay in the road, dead and newly discovered. A turkey vulture approached. I slowed, stopped to watch for a moment. The bird was a bit shy, despite my wearing unobtrusive green and black, so I used a car as a blind. It worked over the possum methodically, plucking at loose flaps of skin where the deceased’s abdomen had burst. Cars approached and swerved, and the vulture would look up placidly, saunter to the curb and back again when traffic calmed. I wondered whether I ought to kick the possum to the curb, decided against soiling my shoes, and started running again. The vulture startled a bit when I came out from behind the car, then sauntered back again.

2.0K: An orbweaver’s mesh shines in a bit of sun. A cricket leaps away from the sidewalk as I pass and lands sidelong on the web. The lady of the house leaps up to answer the door. Sorry, cricket. I didn’t mean to.

2.5K: I am stern with myself and my tendency to overtrain, and end my run. I walk toward home.

2.7K: A sweet mare, black with white socks (three ankle-length and one calf-length), pulls up the last remaining dried grass from the south end of her paddock. I gaze at her for a moment. She is too preoccupied to gaze back. I head down the embanked cut toward the railroad, cross the tracks.

3K: From the Fernandez Park bridge over Pinole Creek, I watch a great egret standing among swimming mallards. A fish wriggles in the egret’s beak. A stickleback, by the size of it, or perhaps a steelhead fry. Egret tosses its head, swallows, takes another desultory stab at the placid water among the ducks.

Water

mono gull detail

A seven-foot tide last night at quarter to ten, and the creek’s tidal reach still absurdly high an hour later, just lapping at the base of the bridges across it. As I walked toward the creek the rain started.

Rain in July is not completely unheard of in the Bay Area, though when it falls it tends not to penetrate this far east, and even in the wet hills across the Bay the average July rainfall is approximately zero. And this was no mere fog drip, no saturated cloud hung low on the landscape, its mist welcome, near-insensible cool needles against skin. These were fat drops to mark the pavement, and the pavement smelled of rain after fifteen minutes of it. I felt the first drop on bare right forearm as I passed the bright-lit ball field, waited thirty seconds, and then the cry went up from the bleachers. “It’s raining!”

At the creek the chorus frogs were shouting, the same words as near as I could tell.

At the creekmouth it was raining and the creek near overlapped its banks. The two were unrelated, that rainfall insufficient to move the July total to one hundredth of an inch. My mind connected them nonetheless, raised the hairs on the back of my neck, my head filled with tidal sediment and drowned cordgrass stems.

And then it stopped, the flagstones dry by the time I got home, pulled Becky out back to see the rain.

At three or so it started again. We woke up long enough to say “it’s raining,” to listen for a moment to the drops hard hitting the screens in the open windows.

Tomorrow I leave for Mono Lake. I’m staying overnight, alone. I should be back by Friday evening, one hopes with photos in hand.

Unrelated management detail: If one of you happened to buy me “On Methuselah’s Trail: Living Fossils and the Great Extinctions” by Peter Douglas Ward from my wishlist, get in touch. Amazon owes you a refund as I never got the book, and they’re being ludicrously unhelpful to me as I try to resolve the matter. Like arguing with a brick wall that has been outsourced to Mumbai.

About the banner graphic

Hi, I’m Chris, and I’ll be your guide on this tour of the marvelous Rancholabrean Pinole Creek scene in the banner painting, brought to us by the fantabulous time machine of the wonderful Carl Buell. Please keep your arms and heads inside the blog as we get going. Thank you.

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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.

Flight

A snowy egret has claimed the creek as his. I say “his” because he defends it, raucously, and I am anthropomorphising. No gentle gossamer evanescence, he, despite his delicate affect. It is only a thousand feet of creek but it is his, and each glimpse of another’s white plumes is met with a loud guttural cry, flashing talons, a wicked beak. His armament can take down the wariest frog, the sleekest steelhead fry: it will suffice to deter any rival egrets who dare sully his territorial waters. 

Each morning I walk Zeke down to the park and the egret is there. Sun rises. We walk down the hill, the frost melting from the roofs we pass. The egret descends northward to the same spot on the creek. We climb the hill toward home, and I carry Zeke when he can walk no farther. In the evening we return, and Zeke stares into the old-dog darkness for twenty minutes. The egret calls warnings from the bank. I carry Zeke up the hill again.

This past month it has been difficult to distinguish waking life from dreams. I sleep and have sober, productive conversations, addressing unfinished business with people I have not seen in years. I wake: life is surreal, random encounters with wildlife fraught with meaning. The next night negotiations resume where we had left them the night before.

I have run but little the last month, recovering from a fever the first week of November that became, and still is, a persistent cough. I ease myself back into the routine. Last night I left the house just as the sun dropped down west of Mount Tamalpais, and San Pablo Bay was draped in vermilion. The geese were there when I reached the creek, a dozen of them in formation heading for the bay. I stopped for a moment to watch them pass out of sight, Canada geese flying northward in December. There came a whistling sound overhead: cold air scraping against the wings of mallards in flight. There were hundreds of them following the geese, a half-dozen at a time passing me as I ran, flashes of black against a violet sky.

I dreamed of agendas and voice mail maintenance.

A month ago on our fifteenth anniversary I took Zeke to the beach, a calm sandy cove I’d found with my brother the month before. He did not venture near the water, but stood looking out over the small waves, apparently content. Two hundred geese flew along the shore twenty feet above us, these headed properly southward. He has good days and bad, and the bad gain in frequency. A week later his legs gave out at the park, and I rolled him over on his side on the lawn to rest for a while. He usually goes to sleep almost immediately when I do this, luxuriating in the sun and the breeze off the hills. That morning he lingered at the edge of waking, eyes closed, ears straining to follow yet another skein of geese as I stroked his flank. “Are you going to fly away with them, Zekie dog? Do you need to fly away with them?” He opened his eyes, watched the geese arc south and past the redwoods.

Snowy egret fell soft to the creekbed, landed in the shallows behind a gravel bar, folded its wings.

Rain

Never mind what the calendar says. The new year started today. At one Kat and Matthew and I sat eating lunch on the bay shore, north of us a pale slice of aquamarine veiled by clouds. One looked dark and familiar, and to none of us in particular I said “that is a rain cloud.”

The slight mist that wet this afternoon’s streets hardened by the time I got home, and the rain came rather unambiguously down. Not enough to drench, not enough to wet a face hidden beneath the brim of a ball cap, but enough to stud the dog’s fur with bright jewels to shake off in a spray beneath the sodium vapor lamps. We walked out under the plane trees, drops sounding timpani off their leaves.

Rounded hills and oaks spell home, Kat said a few days back, and she was right. This country is home more than New York State ever was, and I was born there. But it took me a year or two to acclimate to the dry. Rain boils up out of the landscape in summer where I was born, humidity hanging like sheets over the lakes, and if it does not rain every few days in summer the world ends.

My first summer in Berkeley, it rained in August. It was unseasonable and odd, unsettling to the Californians, and I reveled in it, running up and down Berkeley Way in my bare feet.

There is a rhythm to the rain here, a pulsing of years. This is home. Zeke has made it through another dry and we stood together tonight beneath the plane trees and watched drops gather on the leaves, fall to the walnut trees below. A salamander strode across the street, an Ensatina roused for the first time in months by this first rain, looking around as though he didn’t quite believe it either.

One season opens, another ends. This is the start of the new year, when the seeds lain dormant in the soil begin to quicken, and another few days of good rain will see the first orange poppies sprouting. The creek is still running. Fed by last winter’s epochal storms, it never quite became the usual series of green pools but still ran singing to salt. It sings a bit more loudly tonight, and I will go and run its length and breathe it in, a little, and wipe the spray from my beard and shiver.

A few more rains and the wet will begin in earnest. A downpour or two and the coho will nose past the shoals, start climbing the coastal streams. Live oaks will shake off their dust, sprout new leaves beneath the old. My little hill is breathing tonight, rain raising shivers of remembrance along its flanks, water seeping into the rock to mix with rains long ago fallen. When this wet season stops, in May or thereabouts, I will walk past drying patches of miner’s lettuce with my old dog or watch the creek dwindle again without him, and sigh to think how he would have liked to splash in next year’s warm and algal pools.