A rocky outcrop atop Mt. Diablo’s Eagle Peak. Beyond, Mitchell Canyon Road snakes southward to Deer Flat.

Spring sheds its skin

Summer swooped into Contra Costa on dragon wings, withering the final wildflowers on wilderness hills, evaporating the last pools stagnating in creek beds. Only a week before solstice, the Sun would rise early and set late. The weekend forecast called for the Fahrenheit to hit 104.

I fell asleep as the crescent Moon sank into the west like a dewdrop bending a blade of prairie grass. When I awoke at 3 a.m. the Moon was gone, but so was the heat. I stepped outside. High in the southwest burned the stars of Aquila the Eagle like campfires in a canyon cut by the river of our Milky Way galaxy. The molten gold pendant of Venus hung low in the east; blue-white Jupiter led his retinue of moons west toward Mt. Diablo.

I crossed the mountain’s northern boundary at 4:44, 64 minutes before sunrise. The eastern horizon was dark and the air still. I shot a glance at the Diablo Summit, three miles south, and caught the blur of a darting bat snatching insects. Its work was almost done; mine was beginning. I cut southwest toward Back Creek Canyon and the black silhouette of Eagle Peak.

At the threshold of Eagle’s sweaty switchbacks I shed the skin of my long-sleeved layer. As I escaped the forest of Coulter pine and gained altitude, the subtlest gradations of blue were staining a porous sky low in the east. The threat of sunrise drove me up the slope into warm air falling from the peak like mist from a waterfall. Only 5:15 and things were heating up.

The day before, I’d surfed into a Kinks tune on the radio: “Girl – I want – to be with you – all of the time – all day – and all of the night” and as hard as I tried, couldn’t get it out of my head. Now, hauling my butt up Eagle Peak’s razor ridge, I swung with it: stone-age rock stomped in sync to the thwack of boots striking the rocky trail. When assaulting Eagle Peak, you exploit whatever aid to propulsion occurs to you.

At the peak’s apex, 2,369 feet above sea level, stands a wedge of rock in preternatural isolation, a Stonehenge of one. It has felt the solstice Sun strike it for centuries of centuries as our planet carves its helix onto the marbled cosmos. That morning was no different, except for the presence of human eyes to see it. “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them,” wrote Annie Dillard. “The least we can do is try to be there.” So I stood there, absorbing the miracle of dawn on the rock, night in the canyon below, and the silent glint of dragonflies trawling the peak’s rising warmth.

After shedding its skin, a gopher snake boosts its body temperature in the morning Sun.

On the return, in the cool air of Back Creek Canyon, I crossed paths with hikers headed to the mountain’s hot heights, and was tempted to warn them of the ordeal to come.

The time was 8:15 and the mercury was pushing 90. But some lessons need to be learned first-hand. “Enjoy the climb,” I chimed in gravity-assisted affability.

As the canyon tapered into the open gold of grassland, a shape on the trail’s shoulder caught my eye – at the last moment – and I slammed to a stop, kicking dust in the creature’s face. It was a gopher snake and it wasn’t budging; I’d caught it in the drowse of its morning warming ritual. But something else was going on. Somewhere during the night the snake had shed its skin, and its tender new scales were glistening, hardening in the swelling sizzle of sunrise.

The snake wasn’t alone. I’d watched Contra Costa shed its skin that morning: shed spring for summer; night for the hissing heat of dawn. I’d caught a glimpse of Earth’s essence: transition. Like the organisms inhabiting it, the planet is always in the process of becoming something else.

The shimmering zigzag lay motionless, watching me, its tongue tasting me in the air. Earth was falling toward autumn now; scorching summer was in ascent. Nothing was standing still, not even the snake and I, hurtling as we were around our planet’s axis, around our star, around our galaxy.

As if in a dream I shed my last damp layer, felt it slither against my glistening skin, felt the scales of my cells harden in the hot air. And at that moment I couldn’t shake the thought: Had I just dreamed I was a snake, and awakened to wonder: Am I a snake dreaming that I’m a man?

After all, it was summer, the season of long heat and short sleep. Many would dream strange dreams.

Blasted by Easter starlight

A few minutes after Easter sunrise at Round Valley. April 12, 2009.

Glory must begin in gloom. Easter expresses the principle, and one Easter in particular epitomized it.

April 12, 2009: I stood on the topmost hill of Round Valley Regional Preserve 90 minutes before sunrise. The climb imposed a welcome hardship – you can’t feel cold when you’re scaling 1,000 vertical feet in 1⅓ miles, circulation raging. But after reaching the top and cooling down I realized I’d underdressed; a stiff northwest wind got me shivering.

The boulders scattered across my summit sanctuary aren't tall. I had no choice but to shelter against a phalanx of boulders by squatting on dirt, hunched over as crowbars of wind tried to pry my hat loose. I poured coffee from thermos to cup with shaking hands, saw on the liquid’s surface the wind-rippled reflection of a waning gibbous Moon in the west. 

The glory began in gloom. Dawn began as a brushstroke of blue low in the east – ultramarine splitting the charcoal of earth and sky. The line spread slowly north and south like a tide flooding opposing shorelines; its center inflated to a shallow arch. The backlit silhouette of the Sierra Nevada Range, 100 miles distant, came into focus. High in the southwest, the sear of Luna’s disc softened, exposing the dark dappling of Mare Imbrium and Oceanus Procellarum. Directly above, Altair and Vega lost their luster. The cosmos began disappearing behind the silken veil of dawn.

Eastward, despite the wind, something like music was being played. The minor key of blue was modulating seamlessly, tempo largo, into the major keys of gold into bronze into copper. The horizon began to burn. That once-shallow arch swelled, forming a dome of blue played pianissimo, in my mind’s ear, by violins, flutes and oboes in their highest registers. Gazing into the darkness below, I imagined contrabassoons and double basses giving voice to stone and soil.

Then it happened: that moment, midway through the pageant of dawn, when you sense a shift in the balance of light. Measured from the first faint color in the east to the first flare of Sun atop the distant peaks – in clear air, an 80-minute crescendo – the moment came when my Moon shadow finally dissolved and my impending-sunrise shadow, cast westward, began blackening against the boulders.

I stood up and turned to view the gloom behind me. Barely visible through eight miles of atmosphere west between me and Mt. Diablo, a plume of marine fog drifted between the foothills and the mountain’s crown. The air was bitterly clear; no trace of cloud scarred the sky. Gusts of wind sent me hunkering back against the boulders.

I’d made this pre-dawn hike before and become accustomed to predictable intensities of light as dawn unfolds. But Easter of 2009 was different. Behind the mountains, the top of a small, glowing fan took shape, herald of the Sun’s corona. The alchemy of atmosphere had transmuted bronze and copper to gold. No strata of heavy air lounging on the horizon would stain today’s Sun in red; no blood of crucifixion would haunt the vision. I braced myself. 

The Sun has been present every day of our lives, every day of the 4½-billion-year life of planet Earth. Rarely do we give our daystar a conscious thought. We don’t contemplate that star; we contemplate things lit by that star. But at 6:34 a.m. on April 12 of 2009 that star was impossible to ignore. It rose without warning in jets of dark gold flaring through a gap in the sawtooth Sierra, as if a volcano had erupted. It cleared the mountains naked and hot. I stood up, faced east and stretched my arms wide. The wind on my hilltop blew as viciously as before but its bite had vanished. In a few minutes the landscape was as bright as at noon. Blasted by starlight.

Easter doesn’t belong to one religion. Easter is the expression of a world we all desire: a world where darkness is obliterated by light, where wounds are healed and suffering is overwhelmed by joy. Where death is defeated by resurrection and ascension. Easter is the glory of spring: deliverance from winter. And Easter is the glory of morning: deliverance from night.

Sunrise, September 1, 2013 at Round Valley. Another commonplace opportunity for resurrection.

In the eight years since that morning I was blasted by starlight I’ve witnessed scores of sunrises from high places. On some mornings, sheets of tilted cirrus shimmer like a crimson mirror; on others, clouds in grotesque shapes at multiple levels bewilder the eye, slash the sky in violet and ivory. On some mornings the Sun struggles upward behind banks of purple-grey hugging the horizon. A mundane hour passes before shafts of light suddenly explode high overhead.

Humans, despite our best efforts, are night creatures. “We have come from the dark wood of the past, and our bodies carry the scars and unhealed wounds of that transition,” wrote Loren Eiseley. “Our minds are haunted by night terrors that arise from the subterranean domain of racial and private memories. … We imagine we are day creatures, but we grope in a lawless and smoky realm toward an exit that eludes us. We appear to know instinctively that such an exit exists.”

Trust your instinct. That exit is morning; it’s spring. That exit is the glory of Easter.

Visions in grey

Stillness but for the motion of breath in steam. Silence but for the call of a distant owl, a smoke ring of sound disintegrating into heavy air. I was standing still and silent, hoping to spot a bobcat scouting for an ambush site among boulders hidden in mist, or a coyote loping warily through an arroyo laced in haze.

It was morning at Round Valley Regional Preserve, but it could have been evening. The Sun’s disc, wherever it might be drifting in the cerulean blue, was veiled by a wave of grey saturating East County like a storm surge in slow motion. I was standing inside a cloud.

I hike in the fog not merely for the eerie imagery, for the vision of oaks drifting wraithlike in and out of view; I hike in the fog for the awareness of my own form drifting wraithlike in and out of view. I come to wear grey like a garment.

But I’d come to this place for more than the grey. I’d come to steal a glimpse of the hidden – a view denied the several hundred thousand folk below. I’d come to see if the park’s 1,220-foot summit stood above or below the fog’s rippled plateau. If above, I’d be able to rotate through the panorama of Mt. Diablo’s twin peaks in the west, the broad brushstroke of Morgan Territory’s ridgeline southeast, south 25 miles to Ohlone Wilderness, and east 100 miles to Sierra’s granite spine – all floating above a sea of fog.

Round Valley’s interior hills are a maze of ridges, ravines and escarpments. Take your pick: from the trailhead you can assault the park’s apex from a variety of approaches displaying a variety of scenery and compounding a variety of sweat equity. Since I was anxious to discover the state of the fog at the top, I opted for speed. I chose the fastest (and therefore steepest) route: Discovery Ridge.

“I feel more comfortable with that which is nameless,” wrote Rilke. There was a time in East County – before the arrival of Midwestern snow fugitives and Mexican farm laborers, Welsh miners and wheat magnates; yes, even before humans braved the land bridge across the Bering Straight, tacked south and earned the title Native – there was a time when nothing here had a name. A nameless mountain ruled the western horizon; a nameless plain stretched east to nameless snow-capped peaks. And a nameless creek cut a silver swath from the mountain to a nameless delta.

You won’t find the label “Discovery Ridge” on the map you snatch at the trailhead. Few of the park’s features have been given a name, and the interior hills are devoid of trail markers. But since I, unlike Rilke, feel more comfortable with that which has a name, my unofficial map of Round Valley Regional Preserve is scribbled with terms such as Arroyo Grande, Antler Ravine and Coyote Ridge.

Thoreau believed that winter promotes an inward life. Standing on the banks of a frozen river, he imagined the human brain as “the kernel which winter itself matures.” As December winds clear leaves from branches, winter clears the mind’s clutter, giving our intellectual landscape a transparency that allows us to see through things. “The winter,” Thoreau maintained, “is thrown to us like a bone to a famished dog, and we are expected to get the marrow out of it.”

The irony of fog is that it aids, not inhibits, perception; helps us get out the marrow. The fog ahead seems utterly opaque but with each step we’re able to resolve nearby images with remarkable clarity. We’re trapped in a bubble of the immediate. There is no ahead; there is only here.

I arrived at a summit drowned in fog. That vision of Diablo, Morgan Territory, Ohlone and the Sierra I’d hoped for was denied. No trace of bobcat or coyote. The visible universe had collapsed to a sphere 50 yards in diameter. What lay beyond was the stuff of theory; not evidence.

But I was in good company. That miniature cosmos, that fog-encased bubble I was dragging around resonated with the energy of creatures committed to the immediate task: cicada and butterfly larvae, great-horned owls and kit foxes; some dormant, some busy outwitting the cold Sun and long night. They don’t need fog to make them aware of the grass beneath their feet. Their existence is free of the riddle of existence, of melancholic musings over the uncertain promise of spring. They aren’t mesmerized by metaphors. They are metaphors.

And so I count among the season’s many blessings the grey – yes, even the cold Sun and long night that are its inseparable companions. May they pass into and through us, and lead us to find on the other side of winter a place – perhaps on Discovery Ridge – where the first wildflowers grasp for the growing light, a place that without winter would be less sweet.

Frost on windowpane. Chicago, January 1994.

Tree of light

Some things you can’t pencil into your agenda.

I stood in a forest at night under a quarter Moon so smudged by a sheet of altostratus that Luna herself looked like a cloud. The place was Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin, a month past Christmas of ’94; the mercury was a marrow-numbing 20 below zero. But these were factors I’d penciled into my agenda.

The most memorable moments on the trail are things I didn’t pencil in: a tag-team of coyotes pursuing a pair of black-tailed deer on Mt. Diablo’s North Peak; crepuscular rays streaming through gaps in a massive oak on Mt. Tamalpais; marine fog at dawn whipped though Highland Ridge on a stiff southwest wind. Such moments aren’t boxes to check off on a to-do list; they’re gifts, not achievements.

As the quarter moon broke the horizon on that minus-20 day in ’94, I decided to hit the trail and push the envelope’s frigid edge. I packed the essentials: a pastrami sandwich, Armagnac and a thermos of blistering coffee. I slipped layers over my torso and slid spectacles over my nose, hoping the frames wouldn’t freeze to my bridge. Yes, this hike was idiotic enough to be really appealing.

In the Upper Midwest, you assault winter with recreation or cower indoors. I chose assault, but that winter had been quirky: too little snow for cross-country skiing; too much for hiking. I’d contracted an acute case of cabin fever and needed trail time. Never mind the mercury.

I hopped into my car and got the first good news of the evening: the engine started. Eighty minutes later I rolled to a stop at the Scuppernong trailhead north of Eagle. I stepped out and immediately felt the skin on my face tighten in the bitter air.

The trail had been dusted with a quarter inch of snow. Had it been a foot deep, my boots wouldn’t have noticed. Not much melts at minus 20 F. After 10 minutes on the trail I pressed a gloved finger to chin and nose. No sensation. I pulled my turtleneck over the bridge of my nose, losing the faint scent of pine needles but gaining feeling in my epidermis.

An hour later I rounded the northern arc of the trail through a grove of oaks and entered a prairie undulating south in shallow waves. Having escaped the forest’s sheltering friction, I felt the first hint of wind from the northwest graze my right cheek. I picked up my pace to get the blood churning.

Above, Capella, Rigel and Sirius pierced a sky washed pale by moonlight and streaked by altostratus gaining density. The other stars strained to break through. It was hard to look away from that sky, but something far down the trail, maybe 500 yards distant, caught my attention: a small orb of light.

I descended the prairie’s next trough and lost sight of the orb. When I reached the next crest the picture wasn’t much clearer, except that the orb’s shape was more oval than circular and its light wasn’t solid and steady. Down the next swale I went, this time at a trot. At the top, 200 yards from the light, I found I’d only created more questions than I’d answered. I could make out a tree, not more than 10 feet tall – a tree emanating the softest of shimmering light.

I was stumped. The closer I drew, the dimmer the light fell, as if I were hurtling toward a galaxy that betrayed its true emptiness, the immense darkness between its stars, with greater vividness the nearer I approached.

Photo by mscornelius/iStock/Getty Images

The light disappeared below the final crest and I found myself running down the slope, a slope just steep enough to send me flying. I reined back the pace and climbed the final incline with impatient strides. When the light peeked above the crest, just 50 yards away, my puzzlement turned to anxiety. The tree was sparkling.

It was a perfectly ordinary scraggly young pin oak, but for one detail: from its bare branches a thousand slivers of light flared like meteors. I closed the distance, my heart pounding in my ears. Epiphanies are nice, I suppose, but I didn’t come out here to meet the Almighty in the form of a burning bush.

Finally, at a distance of 10 feet, the tree revealed its secret – something I’d never have thought to pencil into my agenda. Someone had been out here in December, I guessed, and draped the branches with tinsel. In the middle of nowhere. As the strands twisted in the breeze, splintered moonlight danced and vanished and danced again.

If a tree glitters on the prairie and no one sees it, does it radiate light? Yes, whether we’ve penciled it in or not. “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them,” wrote Annie Dillard. “The least we can do is try to be there.” So I stood there, straining to grasp the improbability of the convergence of moonlight and the silvery fire of tinsel warming that perilous air with beauty and grace, my belated Christmas gift from the universe.

May you be graced by the unexpected mystery made manifest this Christmas season. May the Father, whose intricacies of love glisten like the snowflake, cause you to shine with the brightness of the winter Sun. May the Christ Child, the small but growing light of solstice, bring you hope. And may the Spirit, like a current of wind across a frigid landscape, breathe steadily on the coals of your heart.

Giving thanks for the valley girl

Thanksgiving season can be overwhelming, and not merely as an exercise in cooking seven-course meals and scrubbing burnt turkey off roasting pans. As we turn our attention to the “thanks” in Thanksgiving and make a mental list of our blessings, the list triggers emotions that can overwhelm – and confuse. Our most treasured blessings, our relationships, are fraught with pains inflicted by ourselves. Some blessings come in disguise.

A warm summer sunrise strikes Round Valley's Castle Ridge. Eight miles northwest rises Mt. Diablo.

So today I give thanks for a relationship fraught with no pain, unless it’s the pain that helps you gain – elevation, that is. Elevation to a summit. Today I give thanks for my neighborhood sanctuary, Round Valley Regional Preserve.

It wasn’t love at first sight. I met her beneath a sear of summer sun in ’03. I’d been warned that in summer she gets hot – not sexy hot but cruel. She cools off in the evening. By dawn her ridges are gripped by a delicious chill. But as the summer sun rises, you feel the heat in her breath; hear her golden hair, brittle since June, crackle in the breeze.

She’s no bombshell. Compared to the glamorous and statuesque chicks in her clique – Los Vaqueros, Morgan Territory, Mt. Diablo and Black Diamond Mines – Round Valley at first sight struck me as petite and plain. Then I got to know her; indifference turned to interest. When I strutted up and asked for a whirl on the dance floor, she said “Take a hike.” So I did.

The blue oak Old One greets dawn on the Summit.

That whirl was a hike through her interior hills. In the years before the whirl I’d stayed on her main trails: Miwok, Hardy Canyon, Murphy Meadow and Fox Tail. But on a grey January morning in ’08, on the Miwok Trail, I looked left to admire an intriguing ravine that rose southward and disappeared beneath a mantle of buckeyes, luring me in.

Low clouds scudded from the east, threatening rain. I tightened my laces. Maybe I could find an off-trail shortcut through the interior hills and rejoin the trail at the canyon’s crest, 1,110’ above sea level.

I took the plunge and began climbing a network of ravines, ridges and escarpments robed in oaks whose bare branches combed a rising east wind like receding surf hissing through shale. At the 700-foot level the wind blew off my cap. I retrieved it and clambered down the lee slope of the ridge I was exploring. Against the base of a lanky black oak I sat and sipped coffee to heat the bones. The hiss of wind masked the sound of my hip pack’s zipper as I stowed the thermos. Then, motionless for minutes, I became invisible, inaudible to three black-tailed deer crossing 30 yards below. They stopped twice, ears alert, possibly smelling my presence – I was upwind – but disappeared with unhurried strides behind the warp of the ridge.

The ridges of Hardy Canyon in winter.

“Language,” wrote Paul Tillich, “has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.” That oak woodland where I sheltered in solitude many years ago, a mere 30-minute descent back to the trailhead and 12-minute drive home, might as well have been hundreds of miles from a trace of humanity. No drone of road traffic, no chatter of nearby hikers encroached on the rattle of dry leaves twisting on twigs in the wind. No trail signpost – for that matter, no trail – distracted the eye. I was in the nearby middle of nowhere.

Since that first encounter with Round Valley’s inner wonders, I’ve explored her ridges, ravines and escarpments with the persistence of a suitor and methodical plod of a researcher. She’s given me beauty and I’ve given her features names. Coyote Ridge, Antler Ravine and Arroyo Grande are inscribed not on the map you grab at the trailhead but the map in my mind. Whenever I visit the Summit I pay my respects to trees dubbed Old One, Samurai and Oliphaunt, trees that, as Hesse put it, “do not preach learning and precepts; they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.” Black Rock Garden and Buckeye Cascade feature boulders of repose and refreshment. And when running the narrow track of Dorsal Alley, I step high.

It wasn’t love at first sight but didn’t need to be love. Awe sufficed. That first summer melted into autumn; by November the blue oaks of Hardy Canyon had lost their leaves and betrayed their fractal structure. Struck by the oblique light of late morning, oak shadows streaked the canyon’s ridges in long, thin slashes. The romance began.

Round Valley is a place I not only hike over but watch over. Her seductiveness is her survival scheme. As years pass and our intimacy intensifies, I grow more determined that she endure, that my grandchildren grow to love her and safeguard her when I’m gone. “If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go,” wrote Terry Tempest Williams. “We are talking about the body of the beloved, not real estate.”

And so today I give thanks for a relationship, my romance with Round Valley. Here’s lookin’ at – and hikin’ – you, kid.

 

 

 

 

Beneath the surface of surf

At Pescadero Beach, a plunging breaker crashes against the rocks.

Californians are notorious for making waves. From flaunting alternative lifestyles on Castro Street to enthroning stars of the silver screen in Sacramento, we love to soak the unsuspecting body politic in the spray of our cultural cannonballs.

Maybe we’re taking the cue from the ultimate wave maker, a certain large body of water to our west. Year-round, along 840 miles of coastline, we get to see and smell the swell and scent of the mighty Pacific Ocean; get to hear waves, like breath, exhale onto the shore and inhale back to the dark lungs of the deep. And once in a while, tide and wind conspire to create that paragon of fluid physics: the plunging breaker. 

But what exactly is going on there? Why does a wave plunge? What physical forces produce the aesthetic event? And as a bonus puzzler: why do waves always roll in parallel to the shoreline?

To understand the inner workings of a wave, hold your breath; we’re taking it underwater. A wave isn’t primarily the movement of the surface of the water but the collective motion of water beneath the surface. If you’ve ever thrown a small piece of driftwood – or uncooperative Frisbee – onto a gentle incoming wave, you’ve seen this principle in action. The floating object rides up the wave crest’s leading edge and down its trailing edge with a slight forward, then backward motion. For its part, the wave rambles on toward the shore, leaving the object to bob atop the next incoming wave. In short, the wave moves toward the shore while the water on the surface moves up and down.

Boogie boarders test their mettle at Stinson Beach.

So what’s going on beneath the surface? Circular motion, that’s what. Once a wave gets organized out at sea, it resembles a long cylinder, like a roll of carpet in a warehouse. (The wave is actually a series of many rolls stacked on top of each other, decreasing in size the deeper they go.) A surfboarder knows this better than anyone. A breaking wave’s topmost roll forms the large tunnel along which the lucky surfer skims. When we say that waves “roll in” we’re speaking more than figuratively.

At a certain point in its tumble toward the shore, the deep water wave runs up against the ocean bottom, which causes two things to happen. First, as the wave brushes the bottom it’s pushed upward and its crest steepens. This causes the water at the crest to speed up. When the speed of the crest outruns the speed of the overall wave that supports it, the crest collapses as a plunging breaker. Imagine a slapstick comedian leaning nonchalantly on a cane. Someone sneaks up behind him and kicks away the cane, making him crash to the ground.

Parallel waves march in at sunset along the California coast.

The ocean bottom is also the culprit in our second cause of a wave’s collapse. When the water through which the wave spins becomes too shallow to allow the wave to complete a full rotation (that is, to get filled in with supporting water), the cane again gets kicked away and the wave falls on its face. But what a fall. If you’ve ever seen that translucent curved curtain strike a rocky cliff at the optimal gathering of energy, you’ll never forget it.

Finally, what explains the tendency of waves to approach the shoreline in parallel formation, like a well-disciplined marching band? Well, consider the marching band. That long, rolling cylinder zeroes in on the shoreline at, say, a 45-degree angle. One side of the cylinder’s length will feel the bottom first. Friction slows down that side, while the side out in deep water spirals along at its original clip. Like a marching band executing a wheel, the faster deep-water side rotates around the hinge of the slower shallow-water side till voilà! The wave marches home perfectly perpendicular to the shoreline.

Here’s wishing you a memorable escape at the coast, where breakers plunge and waves wheel – and your knowledge of the inner workings of these marvels makes them more dramatic.

The flag in the trunk

The purple majesty of Mt. Diablo at sunrise. Viewed from Marsh Creek Reservoir.

What does the American flag stand for? Our anthem hints it might stand for freedom and bravery. Another anthem praises the landscapes we love: amber grain and purple mountains. My suggestion: throw in hope and courage. 

Five years before I was born, Pfc. Victor Erickson sailed the Atlantic to join Gen. Mark Clark’s 5th Army in Italy. His mission: to assist in the eviction of Italy’s German occupants.

Dad’s preparation for war included the ancient art and science of marching in formation. As a method of armed assault it had gone the way of the trebuchet. But as a method of flying the colors down a city street to get the patriotic juices flowing, it had proven second to none. Recalling his feelings as he crisscrossed Aberdeen Proving Ground’s parade field, stars and stripes streaming in the breeze to the robust rhythms of John Philip Sousa, Dad said, “I was so proud, I thought the buttons on my uniform would pop off and kill the guy in front of me.”

Victor had crossed the Atlantic twice before. Born in Wisconsin to Norwegian immigrants who had earned their American citizenship, he sailed to Norway in 1934 to rejoin his family, which had returned to Trondheim, the nation’s third most populous city. He crossed the Atlantic for the second time in the spring of 1940, on the last ship to flee before the German invasion on April 9, Victor’s 21st birthday. His parents, Bjarne and Ruth, and sister, Lillian, remained in occupied Norway. Victor joined the U.S. Army; his brother, Bernard, the U.S. Navy.

Flags exert mysterious power. In the spring of 1940, as the Nazi red, white and black was hoisted up flagpoles across the Land of the Midnight Sun, in Trondheim the Ericksons buried a flag at the bottom of a trunk in a storage room. No one would have blamed them for burning that banner for safety’s sake, especially after Dec. 7, 1941, when Germany – Japan’s ally – declared war on the United States. The flag they hid bore 13 stripes and 48 stars.

When Bjarne died in a traffic accident in August of 1941, Ruth and Lillian were left to their own survival schemes. The Gestapo knew they were American citizens, and never took its eye off them. What the Gestapo didn’t know: they were mother and sister to members of the U.S. armed forces. For five years they lived under a pall as pervasive as darkness in Nordic winter.

May, 1945: U.S. paratroopers march the Ericksons’ 48-star flag down a street in Trondheim, Norway following the city’s liberation from German occupation.

The spring of 1945 was filled with the scent of liberation in Europe ­– and the scent of an ember smoldering at the bottom of a trunk in Trondheim. When the city was liberated on May 9 and American paratroopers dropped by, it was clear that a parade was in order. After a five-year exile, the Norwegian flag would once again flow down Kongens Gate, Trondheim’s main thoroughfare – accompanied, of course, by the American flag … if the Americans had only remembered to bring one.

Word was put out that an American flag was needed, and Ruth and Lillian knew exactly where to dig one up. Old Glory, for five years hidden ingloriously in the dark, at last saw the light of day amid shouts and laughter and tears on the streets of Trondheim.

It’s said that the flag is a mere symbol of something greater. Yes, like the mere courage and mere hope of Ruth, Lillian and Bjarne. Tomorrow the stars and stripes will stream in the vanguard of parades across the 50 states of the Union. Some friendly advice: don’t stand in front of me on the curb. I wouldn’t want my buttons to pop off and kill you.

Miniature marvels – the down-and-dirty crew

Moss sporangia sweep across a boulder in Round Valley Regional Preserve.

Californians worried about the state’s water crisis are grateful for this wet winter of 2015-16, but some are feeling that enough’s enough – time to stow the rain slicker and start drying out.

But let’s not be hasty. Right now our regional parks are late-winter wonderlands. Tucked enticingly among the damp forest grasses, hung shelflike on tree trunks and splayed flamboyantly across boulders are fungi, lichens and mosses – miniature marvels of form and color.

That’s right: there’s a lot to like about lichens, and it’s not odd to be fond of fungi. Those fleshy and scabrous organisms we associate with the monsters of sci-fi horror flicks (“The Toadstool That Ate Tahoe” comes to mind) are essential to the life of the landscapes we admire.

The toadstools that rise from the forest floor are only the tip of the fungal iceberg. Call them the “fruit” of the organism, the structures that hold spores for dissemination by wind, water or animal transport. The true heavy lifting of forest decomposition is done beneath the soil by a network of microscopic fungal threads called hyphae. The hyphae, aided and abetted by other small fungal bodies, plus bacteria and other microbes, can be credited for the decomposition of about 80 to 90 percent of the dead plant and animal matter in the forest.

Fungi also provide food for creepy-crawly mites and slithering nematodes (microscopic worm-shaped creatures). But some fungi have turned the tables by evolving strategies for preying on small invertebrates. Sci-fi horror writers, take note: One type of fungus preys on nematodes by dangling a series of little nooses, each composed of only three cells, from its filaments. When the unsuspecting nematode slinking through the soil passes through a noose, the friction of its body trips a mechanism in the noose’s cells, inflating them and strangling the nematode. If you’re wondering why the nematode doesn’t have a prayer, well, the noose inflates in a snappy one-tenth of a second. The fungal cells then grow into the worm and digest it. That, I presume, is how the toadstool disposed of the citizens of Tahoe.

Red-banded polypore fungus on blue oak, Round Valley.

The fungi that adorn tree trunks are among the most fascinating and photogenic of all. Trees growing fungal shelves take a less upbeat, aesthetically appreciative view of their partners in parasitism. You wouldn’t want the lovely and expensive Japanese maple in your front yard disassembled by fungi. But like forest fires, fungi are nature’s way of telling a tree in the wild that it’s time to make way – but with style. Those banded and multi-hued wedges spiraling up tree trunks testify, like the crimson and saffron leaves of autumn, to the terrible beauty of Earth’s rhythms.

If mushrooms are hard to find, nestled into the dark and damp crannies of the forest floor, lichens are hard to miss, spattered across rocks and trees like Jackson Pollack graffiti. Lichens wear two hats: they’re fungus-alga organisms in one. But unlike mere fungi, which don’t photosynthesize, lichens thrive in sunlight and don’t require much water to survive. They’re efficient little sponges, soaking up as much as 35 times their weight in water from fog, dew, even humid air. And they retain water like camels, enabling them to survive on rocks, deserts and tundra.

Like fungi, lichens play an important role in the nutrient cycling. They intercept air- and rain-borne nutrients, absorbing those they can use and contributing the rest to their host organisms, such as trees. Although they’re among the hardiest living things on the planet, lichens are sensitive to changes in their habitat, especially the intrusion of air pollution. This makes them valuable indicators of ecosystem continuity and helps scientists identify habitats that need protection.

Crustose lichen spatters a boulder in Round Valley.

The first mosses appeared around 350 million years ago – before reptiles and flying insects – making them among the most ancient inhabitants of the planet. Like lichens, mosses need external moisture to move nutrients from place to place – thus their penchant for damp habitats protected from direct sunlight. They’re the most luxuriantly textured of the forest’s miniature marvels, adorning rocks and trees like furry archipelagos strewn across the ocean.

Mosses form a vital line of the ecosystem’s defense. Like soldiers kept in reserve at the outset of a battle, they reinforce the lichens’ shock-troop foothold on rocks, eventually creating a layer of topsoil in which more sophisticated flora can take root. On hillsides subject to landslides, mosses provide a mat that keeps loose soil from slip-slidin’ away.

Over the centuries, we humans have gotten pretty creative with mosses. We’ve mined them for use as a soil additive, fuel, home decoration and flavoring (think Scotch whiskey) – even as first-aid dressing for battlefield wounds (mosses contain a mild antibacterial agent and are highly absorbent).

As our grey winter gives way to the chromatic dazzle of spring, as our attention turns to bright blossoms and sweeping vistas, let’s keep an eye peeled for the miniature marvels beneath our feet, the blue-collar crew whose down-and-dirty work makes it possible for the pageant of spring to maintain its blockbuster status.

Secret winter enshrouds the summit

A trio of Coulter pines bends beneath its burden of snow on Juniper Trail.

The world I knew was gone, obliterated by an ocean of white and wind. Visibility was down to 30 yards. Ice crystals finer than grains of sand, driven by currents swirling from the southwest, struck my face. I lowered the brim of my hat a notch, turned and looked east. Home was 10 miles across the foothills and 3,800 feet down – I assumed. Since my watch read 6:57 a.m., I also assumed sunlight was beginning to flood the East Bay with the dawn of Feb. 14, 2009. But that world was gone, no match for the white and wind on the summit of Mt. Diablo.

There’s a winter that’s kept secret from most East Bay folk. It’s not the winter we see from afar once or twice a year when our communal mountain gets dusted by snow, metamorphosed for a few days – if we’re lucky – into a vision of alpine splendor. We gaze admiringly at that distant winter and snap our photos till rain and sun dispel the reverie. But when the mountain is wreathed in another form of white – the cloud factories that engulf Diablo’s Summit and North Peak like a sea surging over volcanic islands – inside those cloudworks is forged a secret winter: pale and severe.

My alarm had gone off at 3 a.m. and I’d taken a look out the window. High in the south, a half Moon was slipping behind scattered swift clouds like a soldier dodging enemy fire, advancing from cover to cover. The hike was on. A hundred minutes later I pushed off from the Donner Canyon trailhead. In the southwest towered the silhouette of Eagle Peak. Bald Ridge rose due south against the backdrop of a crown of mist clarified by moonlight. I traced the mist southeast as it condensed to obscure the upper elevations of the Summit and North Peak. A breeze with a hint of menace funneled down the canyon, inspired me to unscrew my flask and grab a swig of bourbon. Perhaps the wind would gather strength and drive the clouds from the mountaintop.

At the 1,700-foot level of Meridian Ridge the first patches of snow began spattering the trail’s shoulder. The Moon was still with me, drifting in and out of tendrils of vapor that rose and dissolved like steam from a kettle. Only when I made the turn east toward Prospector’s Gap did I begin to lose the Moon behind the wall of Bald Ridge. Vega burned hot white high overhead, nearly bright enough, I fantasized, to navigate by. Northeast, the horizon skirting Olympia Summit betrayed the subtlest paling of blue. I checked my watch. Less than an hour till sunrise.

Wind-whipped ice razors stream from buckbrush on Summit Trail.

I came to the final assault of the gap and found snow I could sink my feet into. The trail’s rocky outcrops normally make its long and steep track slow going. But 2 inches of tacky snow smoothed over the bumps, allowed me to sail up through the bottom of the cloudbank to the saddle between Diablo’s twin peaks, 900 feet below the Summit. The wind had gathered strength but was not driving the clouds from the mountaintop as I’d hoped. The mountaintop had seized the wind and was twirling it around its head like a rodeo artist his lariat.

I cut right and let North Peak Trail’s narrow course hoist me across the warp of the Summit’s east face. The snow had deepened and the drop-off to my left into the impenetrable white was sharp. I reined back my pace. At the trail’s first switchback I caught a faceful of ice dust ricocheting off rock and tree. The foliage was straight out of sci-fi. It had rained up here before the mercury had plunged. With nowhere to run and hide, the wind-whipped moisture had been frozen, like the victims of Pompeii, in mid stride. Spreading sideways from a thousand stems of buckbrush glinted blades of ice like barbers’ razors.

Farther up, bracketed by the Summit Trail’s sheltering chaparral, I spotted coyote track laced with blood and wondered who was doing the bleeding – the predator or some prey spirited away in the lethal sanctuary of jaws. The prints peeled off into the manzanita just below the summit of the Summit. I turned north toward the home stretch and in two minutes planted my hiking pole, flaglike, in 4 inches of snow at 3,849 feet above sea level. No more up to go.

I stood in a world of limitation: no tourists would be motoring to the Summit today. The only track up here would be made by predators and prey, the tire tread of park rangers and cleat pattern of hikers. No sweeping panoramas would be gained – no sight of the Sierra or Farallons or Lassen. No sight of anything more than 30 yards away. I had caught a glimpse of our secret winter, but what secrets it had revealed to me – beyond its severe indifference to my comings and goings – I can’t say. I pulled my pole from the snow and began my descent toward the world I knew.

Journey up the white mountain

PART ONE: DARKNESS TO DAWN

The moon was a glowing oval high overhead, a streetlamp casting clarity on Mt. Diablo’s North Peak. I looked out my driver’s-side window. A mile away, the north ridge of Perkin’s Canyon descended like a waterfall of tarnished silver. Below, shielded from the moon, the canyon was dark. Above, the peak’s ragged mass took me in tow.

Many who make the pre-dawn drive from Brentwood to Clayton along Marsh Creek Road have seen North Peak lit by the moon. This was different. The previous night’s rain had crossed paths with low mercury. The two had danced a drowsy samba in a late-night club named Diablo, dusted the place white. In the darkness an hour before sunrise, the moon was shining. And the mountain was shining back.

Diablo gets dusted nearly every winter, but rarely has the mountain’s Junction Weather Station deemed a snowfall deep enough to record. By dawn on Saturday, February 18, 2006 the unofficial mark was three to four inches at the summit, decreasing to a trace at the 1,500-foot level. The best news: the storm had passed. When at 5:30 a.m. I stepped outside to defrost the car and saw Jupiter burning in a scrubbed sky, I knew that we in Contra Costa County would be given a rare treat: a Saturday to play in the snow of our own back yard.

As I rolled into Clayton and looked left, low above the slope of North Peak a light was escaping from a small hole punctured into the sheet metal of night, as if heaven were blazing behind it. Were the puncture larger, this light, this Venus, would have blinded all who looked on it.

I left the car, dropped down a gully and headed south into Donner Canyon and the mountain’s northern approach. Broad ribbons of clouds, high and thin, tinged pink along their eastern edges, cut diagonally across Diablo’s silhouette, motionless. The stillness drifted down and settling into the canyon like a presence. The silence of expectancy.

An hour earlier, lacing up my hiking boots, I’d wondered about the condition of the trail. The lower elevations had shipped water a few hours earlier. This could be a sloppy climb. As I entered the canyon I smiled – glazing the trail was the thinnest layer of frost, a billion crystalline surfaces reflecting the paling sky. Magical footing.

I left the wide road trail and hopped onto the single-file Hetherington Trail, crossed a wood-slat footbridge spanning Donner Creek and began the ascent toward the snow. At the tips of long, tender needles of white pine hugging the path hung single drops of water like miniature Christmas tree ornaments. One more fording of the creek – this time by hopscotching the rocks – and I found myself loping, racing against the clock. The sun would be rising soon.

I hooked up with the Donner Canyon Road trail again and then Meridian Ridge Road, hoofing it, hoping to get a clear view of North Peak at the moment of incandescent truth. A quarter mile past Meridian Point, at the 1,600-foot level, I reached the snow line.

Then I saw them. Embossed in the deepening snow were two sets of coyote track alongside the track of a single deer, all created a few hours earlier after the snowfall had ended. They tattooed the steepening trail for a couple hundred yards. Then, at the 2,200-foot level, something had happened. The deer, perhaps sensing danger, had hooked sharply left up into the dense sage and chamise, and was gone. One coyote had peeled off and followed. The other had kept to the road trail. Were the predators working as a team? Whatever drama of flight or fight occurred up here would not be mine to know.

Ahead in the west, like a balloon about to be popped, the argent Moon was sinking into a cluster of dead manzanita branches. Without warning, the snow on the branches turned the color of Moon. I wheeled on my heel and there it was: sunlight setting afire the mountain’s crown.

To be continued Friday

PART TWO: FARTHER UP, FURTHER IN

I had my trail and the moon had hers. When she rose in the east, a pearlescent snail inching up her stalk of sky, I was preparing for bed. Eight hours later, as I climbed Mt. Diablo’s Meridian Ridge at the cusp of darkness and dawn, I saw that she had crossed the balance point of her stalk. It had bent under her weight, lowering her toward the hills in the west.

Unlike the moon, I’d yet to reach my zenith. Starting at 530 feet above sea level in Clayton, less than an hour before sunrise, I’d climbed to 2,200 feet. My goal was North Peak, 3,557. If half the elevation was behind me, ahead was the hardest half – and the most fun. The mountain was covered with snow.

Sunlight was beginning to spill over the brim of Prospector’s Gap and flood the snow-streaked crest of Eagle Peak, the western citadel of the Diablo massif. Earlier in the week I had climbed the peak on a green and glowing afternoon, full of the promise of spring, and found a cluster of violet blossoms called “naked broomrape” growing out of the rocks at the pinnacle. Now, clad in warm layers, gazing at the peak clad in snow, I wondered if the flowers would survive.

At Murchio Gap I cut back toward the sun and began the trudge up Bald Ridge. Now came the serious part: narrow, steep and rocky in places, with deepening snow. I pulled the hard rubber cap off the end of my walking stick and inspected the five-toothed metal tip beneath. Good to go.

From a distance, Bald Ridge seems to live up to its name. Up close, you discover that the ridge has hair. This morning the hair – chamise, sage and ceanothus – was as white as my grandfather’s. I smiled at the sight of ceanothus, hoping it would entertain later hikers. Ceanothus is a chest-high shrub that puts out a profusion of tightly-packed spherical clusters of flowers. White flowers. When the snow melted off, the ceanothus would masquerade as snow.

The sun wouldn’t be melting down Bald Ridge anytime soon. Every branch crowding the trail was topped with a high crest of snow, flake on flake forming a crystalline house of cards. Running those gauntlets was an exercise in ducking down, fending off obstructing branches – and getting doused. There was more snow on my back than on my shoes.

After Bald Ridge, on the way up North Peak, I drank in the receding ripples of Morgan Territory, Los Vaqueros and Del Valle to the southeast, greens and blues bleached in the sun’s low light. Behind me spread Napa, Solano and Marin counties and a view of hundreds of thousands of people waking up to a view of me standing on the mountain’s white battlements.

It’s strange how the original goal – the peak experience – can pale in significance to the journey to the peak. Or the journey back. On my way down, on Middle Trail, clumps of melting snow were falling off a million limbs, branches, stems, twigs. I stopped and closed my eyes. I could have been at the ocean listening to the seethe of receding surf. I could have been caught under a squall line listening to the hiss of the gentlest of hailstorms. I had gone up the mountain to see. What I’ll remember forever is what I heard.

Farther down, below the snow line, I heard another sound. In that place it was as strange as the music of the melting snow: human voices. Ten minutes later I saw a string of children followed by herding parents coming my way. Five kids, four adults. One of the men was carrying a saucer sled. I stepped off the narrow trail to let them through. 

“How far to the snow?” the man asked.

I made a quick calculation based on the little ones’ strides. “About 30 minutes,” I said. “And you’ll have some good snowball fights up there. Perfect packing.”

“All right!” he said.

And I thought: yes – up there, down here, all around us. All right.

Christmas, solstice share star power

Photo by Sam Camp/iStock/Getty Images

Whatever your view of Christmas, as biblical believer or secular skeptic, you can’t escape the star. Whether you celebrate the celestial event known for two millennia as the star of Bethlehem or the celestial event known for umpteen millennia as the winter solstice – or both – you’re subject to the power of the star.

Change on a grand but gradual scale is often impossible to detect. The grand transition from summer to winter is too subtle to sense from sunrise to sunrise. Since June 21 at 8:38 a.m. – the moment of summer solstice – as incrementally as a loose lug nut unraveling on a wheel bolt, daylight has become increasingly scarce. The wheel came off on November’s exit ramp to Standard Time, when our road trip suddenly required headlights. Tonight, December 21 at 8:48 p.m. PST, the northern hemisphere of planet Earth achieves its ultimate tilt away from the light: the winter solstice. In East Contra Costa County, the Sun rises at 7:19 and sets at 4:51, doling out a mere nine hours and 32 minutes of daylight compared to the 14 hours and 48 minutes of daylight at the summer solstice. Dec. 21 – the rock bottom of darkness.

We need no astronomer to tell us what happens next. We know, from direct experience and collective memory stored in DNA, how this drama plays out. Daylight, nearly defeated, takes a deep breath, struggles to its feet and begins its trudge back up the mountain toward summer’s long days and short nights. The light prevails.

The human race has been attuned to these rhythms from the beginning. Ancient people whose survival depended on the accurate calculation of seasons and prediction of weather looked to the sun, moon and stars for guidance on when to plant the seed and when to harvest the grain; when the monsoon would sweep in and when drought would grip the land.

In our time, insulated from most of nature’s hard knocks, we flip a switch and get light; turn a valve and get water. Our ability to predict the rhythms of the world is greater than ever – and so is our disconnect from those rhythms. We of the 21st century know the facts. But do we know the meaning?

Ancient people we label “primitive” knew exactly what the winter solstice meant – deliverance from death – and through ritual wove the great event into the fabric of their communal life. Their winter solstice celebrations dramatized the enduring question: will spring follow winter; will the most vital god in the pantheon, the Sun, return from exile and overcome darkness? The answer had always been yes, but was never guaranteed.

Winter solstice sunrise 2013, Round Valley summit.

 

“Solstice” comes from the Latin “Sun stands still.” In reality, nothing in our universe stands still. At our Bay Area latitude we’re burning rubber around Earth’s axis at 700 feet per second. As riders on the planet we’re clocking in at 19 miles per second in orbit around the Sun. And our Sun is dragging us on its scorching course around the galactic nucleus at 150 miles per second. When we claim that the Sun stands still, what do we mean?

If you’re a devotee of dawn, you’re likely aware that the Sun rises at a different place on the horizon in summer than in winter. The corona of dawn swells behind points of reference (a tree, a lamp post, the chimney of your neighbor’s house) to the southeast in winter and northeast in summer.

Every day of the year, the Sun breaks the horizon at a different position along a line from northeast to southeast – with two exceptions: the summer and winter solstices. On those days, the Sun rises exactly where it rose the day before – for several consecutive mornings. Solstice.

Illustration by Victor R. Erickson.

The concurrence of the star of Bethlehem and the star that marks the winter solstice provides more than charming imagery. It provides a reminder that humanity is united in a fundamental splendor: we’re all receptacles of light. Christians believe (in the words of St. John’s gospel) that at the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, “the real light that enlightens everyone was even then coming into the world.” And Christians enact that belief in Holy Communion, internalizing that light in the form of Christ’s body and blood. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” is more than a figure of speech.

But if the light dwells in Christians through the Son, it dwells in us all through the Sun. Our Sun is a second-generation star, created from the debris of a first-generation star’s destruction. We were forged inside that star; it’s literally in our blood: hydrogen to helium, helium to carbon, carbon to magnesium, magnesium to iron. And in that star’s death throe, those heavy elements were spewed into the interstellar medium and transformed by the alchemy of gravity into Sun and planet Earth. Every atom of hydrogen, helium, carbon, magnesium and iron in our bodies has its origin in starlight.

We can no more ignore the power of the star than a moth can ignore the flame. No wonder our hearts leap in response to the rebirth of nature in spring following winter, the daily resurrection of light from darkness. Buried deep within us is a light-shaped void that only the light can fill.

Celebrate the victory of light over darkness however you choose, but celebrate it. Whether your focus is the star in the sky over Bethlehem heralding the Christ child or your focus is our daystar on the horizon heralding the breaking of night’s dark siege, focus on it. Celebrate your journey back toward the light – and celebrate the light in you.

Winter – gnawing the marrow

Devil's Peak, Royal Gorge, elevation 7,074'.

Winter couldn’t wait. A week short of the solstice, a snowstorm swept through the granite spine of the Sierra Nevada Range. Bear Valley registered 30 inches in the last 48 hours. The calendar belies it; the imagery clarifies it: black bears and big-leaf oaks lie dormant. Fangs of ice hang from the lips of cliffs and carpets of white weigh precariously on windward mountainsides. Winter is here.

For us west of Central Valley, the fee exacted for eight months of dry skies is four months of rain. No sub-zero temperatures crack our water pipes, no blizzards send our cars careening into ditches. Winter in the Bay Area: If this is as bad as it gets, we’ve got it good.

We Bay Area folk might wish our winters were more severe. According to Garrison Keillor, chronicler of Minnesota’s imaginary Lake Wobegon, harsh winters produce virtuous people. At the least, communal shivering discourages the vice of self-pity. “Winter is not a personal experience,” writes Keillor. “Everyone else is as cold as you are; so don’t complain about it too much.” And the physical challenges of winter – shoveling sidewalks, jump-starting dead batteries, pushing cars out of snowdrifts – provide ample opportunities for neighborly acts.

The naturalist Barry Lopez echoes Keillor’s take on winter. In his travels with Eskimo hunters, who live “in a world where swift and fatal violence, like ivu, the suddenly leaping shore ice, is inherent in the land,” Lopez was struck by the Eskimos’ acceptance of Nature’s hard knocks. “They have a quality of taking extravagant pleasure in being alive; and delight in finding it in other people.”

In the crucible of winter, our molten frailty hardens into a Promethean shape: resourceful and defiant. We bring down fire from heaven. Fire, in fact, has always been the chief weapon in our war on winter. Harnessing fire allowed us to emerge from the last Ice Age and pursue the woolly mammoth across the Arctic Circle into America. Tens of thousands of years later, the sparks thrown by those modest campfires have set the forest of our civilization ablaze, jumped the fire line and changed the face of the planet.

But there’s a catch. In the words of archaeologist and anthropologist Loren Eiseley, “The sorcerer’s gift of fire in a dark cave has brought us more than a simple kingdom. Like so many magical gifts it has conjured up that which cannot be subdued but henceforth demands unceasing attention lest it destroy us.” This applies not only to the fire of nuclear self-annihilation. Our modern version of primitive tinder and flint – coal, petroleum, natural gas, nuclear fission – might shield us from the ravages of this or that winter. But they cannot prevent the next Ice Age or global warming. They might, of course, bring them on sooner.

Wind-whipped ice razors on the Mt. Diablo summit.

If winter makes us tougher, it can also make us more thoughtful. Thoreau believed that winter promotes a more inward life. Standing on the banks of a frozen river, he imagined the human brain as “the kernel which winter itself matures.” Winter clears the mind’s clutter as it clears leaves from forest branches, giving our intellectual landscape a transparency that allows us to see through things. “The winter,” wrote Thoreau, “is thrown to us like a bone to a famished dog, and we are expected to get the marrow out of it.”

No matter how compassionately winter treats us in 2015-16, it’s clear that Nature has required us to submit to its terms. Be grateful for the challenge. If it’s a pass/fail test, we’ll surely pass. The greater achievement will be to embrace the cold rain and long nights, let them sweep into and through us, and find on the other side of the season a place where the first wildflowers grasp for the growing light, a place that without winter would be far less sweet.

Grey unveils the gift of here and now

Bald Ridge, Mt. Diablo State Park.

It drifted in like a tide, in silence. I never saw it coming. At dawn I awoke from one dream world only to be seized in the grey and damp grip of another. No caffeine ritual could dispel the effect of this fog; only wind or a searing sun. Or a hike up Mt. Diablo.

A hike in the fog can be an exercise in aesthetic awe – or just exercise. When you can’t see more than 40 yards ahead, the assault of a 4,000-foot peak is the scenic equivalent of a traipse down your neighborhood sidewalk.

I struck out south into Donner Canyon and swung up Meridian Ridge toward the 3,000-foot crest of Bald Ridge, where I’d take stock of the atmosphere and head up to the Summit or back down by way of North Peak. No need to haul butt to a pinnacle that provides only a sea-level vista.

For all its palpable mystery and peril, fog is a form of optical illusion. You know how it goes: the fog ahead seems blindingly solid. But with each step through it, you’re able to resolve nearby images with surprising clarity. You’re trapped in a bubble of the present; your future is hidden. There is no then; only now.

As I climbed the narrow spine of Meridian Ridge, the canyons called Donner and Back Creek to my left and right faded into haze below. Above, the fog thinned and Bald Ridge came into focus. Suddenly I was transported from the now of nearby images to the then of a smoky height – an object one mile, one thousand feet of elevation and one-half hour in my future. Tendrils of fog lacing the ridge’s northern face like steam from a kettle swirled and coalesced into waves. A northeast breeze drove the waves up to the crest, where they collided with a southwest wind streaming in from the ocean and shattered like breakers against coastal cliffs.

Just as suddenly a tsunami of fog washed over the ridge and the vision vanished. I was alone again in the company of objects small and nearby – sage and chamise, clusters of bell-shaped blossoms dotting manzanita branches like snow – objects I could reach out and touch, objects whose scent I could catch if I paused long enough to accept the gift of the fog: the eternal here and now.

The summit of Round Valley Regional Preserve.

I never made it to the mountaintop. Brief glances through gashes in the ashen gauze confirmed that I'd gain no grand vistas this day. Ransome Point, 400 feet beneath the Summit, was smothered. North Peak was nowhere. I was condemned to embrace the proximate and the present – a fitting sentence for one who spends an alarming share of his energy inhabiting an imagined future. I mark my calendar, set my alarm and turn my gaze upward and outward, confident the river of time will deliver me to my destination, if not my destiny.

On my traverse down North Peak I came across a boulder robed in mosses of dense and deep green flecked with tiny ferns. What archipelagos, I wondered, what continents, what worlds of strange and tireless life grace the boulders of this one mountain in Northern California? There isn’t enough time in the lifespan of our universe to exhaust the marvels of this one place. There isn’t enough future, I thought – and caught myself straining once again to imagine an existence on the far side of the fog. No, it was more than enough to have seen less than enough.

Farther down the mountain I crossed paths with a pair of hikers on the way up. It was their first time on these trails and they were lost, oblivious of the rough road ahead. I chimed in with factoids – distance, elevation, terrain – but recalling the mosses, reliving the vision of a vapor-wreathed ridge, I offered no advice. Despite my knowledge of precisely where I stood and where I was going, I was lost, too.

“You won’t see anything from the peak past 40 yards,” I told the lead hiker.

“That’s OK. It’s a good day to be out here,” she said. “Knowing where you’re going takes all the mystery out of life.”

I pinched the brim of my hat, they waved, and the three of us disappeared into the mist.

Guardian angel overworked, underpaid

The Slot, Pt. Lobos State Reserve.

It was exhilarating – in all the wrong ways. One moment I was crouching; the next I was flying. Backward.

The time was November, 2006; the place: Point Lobos in Carmel. The sun was high and so was the ocean, swelling and slamming against a peninsula of rock called The Slot. Every third or fourth wave was a paragon of physics: gathering itself, cresting and striking with optimal force. Water became thunder. Blue-green erupted in geysers of glinting white.

Imagine The Slot as a bent thumb protruding from Point Lobos’ south shore and hooking parallel to that line for 40 yards, forming a cove of sloshing seawater behind it. The thumb’s knuckle is a hill of nubbled Carmelo Formation rock that dips down to the thumbnail, the ideal spot from which to bag photos – up close and perpendicular – of breakers pummeling the promontory’s midsection. I hopped onto the thumb, clambered up the slippery knuckle and slithered down to the nail.

The ocean was in a cooperative mood. As the sun climbed toward noon the breakers burgeoned. I squeezed off my last shot and started back up the knuckle. I was almost to the crest when a breaker barreled in and launched a plume that rose high and fell hard. I reached down and found a handhold. The curtain of seawater stooped to my level. Whap. Feet slipped off wet rock but fingers hung on. I stood up and kept going, knowing I’d be given a three-to-four-wave reprieve before the next breaker would hit.

I knew wrong.

The next wave threw no curtain skyward; it threw a wall. I crouched, groped in vain for something to grip, and looked up. Sea and sky were erased. The wall, a Jackson Pollack masterpiece of silver spatter, rushed straight at me. I heard a seething noise and then something that sounded like – and felt like – swack.

Those who suffer physical trauma are often condemned to remember it too clearly. I was spared. My rough-and-tumble trip backward down the hill and into the cove began too suddenly and ended too soon for fear to take hold. The other blessing: I fell enveloped in seawater; couldn’t see a thing.

Three impressions stuck: the heaviness of the wall of water that hit me; the sensation of striking something that took my breath away; and the image from several feet under water of a fantastic swirling of green, white and gold above.

When I broke the surface I let out a whoop. I was alive. I had landed on my shoulder and not my skull.

I dragged myself out of the cove gashed and grateful. And embarrassed. I’ve apologized to my wife, my boss, my broken collarbone, my collapsed lung, my torn rotator cuff and my guardian angel, who must be thinking, “I’m not getting paid enough to cover this guy’s butt.”

Why do edges attract us so? Why do we lean over the rail and look down, climb to the summit and look up; scramble onto the promontory and look out? Is it, in the words of Mount Everest chronicler Jon Krakauer, because it's “titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier”? Do we pursue these moments, as he claims for himself, “not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them”?

I answer only for myself: No. I don’t go to the edge for the danger. I go for the view. I’ve cracked my skull on Yosemite granite to gain a special view of Nevada Fall; blistered my skin with Sunol poison oak to gain a special view of Alameda Creek; shredded my shins on daggers of manzanita to gain a special view of Morgan Territory. Some views are hard won; some lessons should be learned. Icarus’ wings and my collarbone learned the hard way: fly too near the sun and you get melted; wander too near the breakers and you get busted.

But the edge shouldn’t be dismissed. Only on the edge can we be both here and out there: clinging to the faithful grasp of earth while floating like a hawk on the updrafts of epiphany. Ask any cliff diver, hang glider or rock climber. At the world’s extremities – say, a thumbnail – are extreme experiences found.

I’ve returned to The Slot several times; returned to witness up close the terrible beauty of the out-there of ocean battering the here of earth. I’ve gone to the edge and looked down, looked up and – yes, my wife, my boss, my bones, my lung, my cuff, my guardian angel – looked out.

Leonids flaunt Meteormania Tuesday night

Illustration by Victor R. Erickson

Nov. 18, 2001 was only an hour old when Leia and I hauled ourselves up a hill above Mt. Diablo’s Back Creek Canyon and watched the millennium’s first full-fledged meteor storm explode above the ragged black of the mountain’s profile.

I’d been stalking meteor showers for decades, staking out observation spots from campsites to prairies to remote rural roads, where I’d remove my car’s headrest, use it as a pillow and lie on my back on the cool pavement, keeping a peripheral eye peeled for headlamps heading my way.

A normal Leonid shower streaks the sky with 15-20 meteors per hour. But the 2001 display was no shower; it was a storm. As the constellation Leo slinked over the mountain, meteors flamed so fast and furiously – up to 4,000 per hour – I couldn’t have tracked them with a clicker.

This was Leia’s first meteor gig. And I, like an idiot, tried to give verbal expression to how exceptional this 2001 installment was. And she, like someone watching golf for the first time as Tiger Woods in his prime goes on a birdie binge in the wind and rain at Carnoustie (“Hey, that game must be easy!”), just settled back and enjoyed the show. After a while, I shut up and we watched the storm in peace.

A meteor isn’t what its nickname implies. It’s not a “shooting star.” Our Sun is a star, large enough to fit 109 Earths across its diameter. The average meteor is the size of a grain of sand. But when that grain zips through our upper atmosphere at up to 50 miles per second, its flare-out is stunning.

I’ve seen meteors spewing flaming green tails, and meteors with no tail, tumbling through the night like glowing knuckleballs. I’ve seen cigar-shaped meteors flying sideways, and chunks that split in two as Earth’s atmosphere found chinks in their armor. I’ve seen flameouts so bright they made me blink, and fireballs that fell to the horizon slowly, dripping molten gold in their wake.

Earth collects about 400 tons of meteoric debris every day, the lion’s share of which is so microscopic it can float around for years before descending to our planet’s surface. A tiny minority of the debris is large enough to create that brilliant burst we see from ground level. And yet on an average night under a clear sky graced by low light pollution, the patient sky watcher can spot three or four meteors per hour, increasing to seven or eight by dawn. There’s a lot of stuff up there.

Photo by tombonatti/iStock/Getty Images

The light show gets serious when Earth in its voyage around the Sun passes through a special kind of debris. For billions of years, fragments left over from the formation of the outer planets have crossed the plane of Earth’s orbit in their elongated journey around the Sun.

As these mountains of ice approach our star, solar radiation begins to vaporize their surfaces and solar winds blow the gas and dust rearward, creating comas many times the diameter of Earth and tails millions of miles long. You might have seen two shining examples of these ice mountains back in 1996 and ’97. Their names were Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp, and their tails were magnificent. We know those ice mountains as comets.

One comet in particular, labeled 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, slingshots around the Sun every 33 years on a path proximate to the plane of Earth’s orbit. Its detritus is spread through long, narrow corridors of space like permanent oil spills. (By “narrow” we mean approximately 10 Earth diameters wide.) Every November 17-18, Earth plows through 55P/Tempel-Tuttle’s trails. We call the event the Leonid meteor shower.

Meteor watching is easy – no knowledge of astronomical facts or figures required. The Leonids’ radiant area is the constellation Leo, but meteors scoot in from all directions. All you need are clear skies and a good pair of eyes.

Scope out an open spot as far from city lights as feasible. Bring a blanket and pillow, a thermos of your favorite hot beverage and a portable recliner. The ultimate posture for meteor watching is the one that allows for the widest field of vision: flat on your back. (The naked eye is a far better meteor-sighting instrument than binoculars or a telescope). So stretch out, feet pointing east, relax your focus and take in the whole sky at once.

And enjoy the show.

El Niño promises buckets of beauty

Winter clouds above Brentwood, California.

"The present (El Niño) event still has some potential to become the strongest on record (it’s already in the top three, and by some datasets already leading the historic 1997-1998 event)."

– Daniel Swain, Weather West, October 28

The party’s over.

Like a convict whose sentence got lost in the clerical shuffle, we were braced for the bad and were given the good: a stretch of clear October skies to kick off the monsoon season. But Mother Nature has stumbled onto our paperwork. It’s time to serve the sentence; it’s time to get wet. Out at sea a cortege of clouds is assembling and getting itself pointed down the time-honored parade route. Straight at us.

We should see this as a good thing. Our Golden State, no tropical rainforest under the soggiest of conditions, could use a thorough dousing. Some sectors of the San Francisco Bay Area have been sideswiped by only 1/10 inch of rainfall since June. Pray that the weather gurus got it right when they predicted an El Niño winter for 2015-16. How wet will it get? The jury’s still out, but don’t leave your umbrella at home.

The summit of Round Valley Regional Preserve.

It might be too much to ask Bay Area folk to pray for rain – especially those involved in winter soccer leagues. But it shouldn’t be too much to ask us to pray for snow. Lots of it. In the mountains, that is. A deep and enduring Sierra snowpack, which accounts for 40 percent of California’s fresh water, means a healthier Delta. One cause of our Delta crisis is the increasing influx of salt water from the Pacific and decreasing fresh water runoff from the Sierra. As the sea level rises and the Sierra snowpack thins, the squeeze on the Delta – the West Coast’s largest freshwater estuary – will get worse. We Northern Californians should be the first to hop onto the wet-winter bandwagon.

Need another reason to be dreaming of a wet Christmas? Those magnificent clouds, of course. As winter clouds roll in, sky memories are awakened and new memories made. From the Ridge Trail at Antioch’s Black Diamond Mines I’ve seen the December sky become an ocean. On its vastness sailed an armada of cumulus in disciplined formation like an invasion fleet bearing down on an enemy coastline. And from Big Break in Oakley I’ve witnessed a sunset sky straight out of the Book of Job, spread out “hard as a molten mirror.”

I know, I know. It’s easy to rhapsodize about the beauty of clouds from the safe haven of East Contra Costa. In our microclimate no mighty rivers escape their banks; no mudslides bury our homes. Better yet, no sub-zero temperatures crack our water pipes; no blizzards send our cars careening into ditches. Winter in East County: if this is as bad as it gets, we’ve got it good. Residents of the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard might take a less upbeat view of clouds. When clouds are given names (Katrina and Sandy come immediately to mind), aesthetics tend to go out the window.

The summit of Round Valley Regional Preserve.

If clouds are hazardous to our health, they’re also indispensable to life on Earth. Four and a half billion years ago not a single cloud graced the skies of our planet. Earth was a sphere of molten rock, a victim of countless high-speed collisions of asteroids, planetoids and comets. Earth's oceans were red, not blue. The collisions tapered off and our planet, like a pastry whisked out of the oven, cooled and its magma ocean formed a crust. Then it happened: the invisible gas we call water vapor escaped from the crust and condensed in Earth’s primitive atmosphere. The first clouds were born.

Those primordial clouds lashed our planet with rains that cooled the surface further and flooded its hollows to form the first seas. Then, about three billion years ago, another miracle took place: the seas gave birth to single-celled organisms. Life on Earth was off and running.

It’s November, the run-up to our holiday season, time for the canvas of our lives to be embellished with light and music and cheer; time for the canvas of the sky to be brushed by mare’s tails, piled high with anvil heads and stained in crimson and magenta. Things are looking up. And so should we.

Vision of the skulls

Illustration by Ger.

A true story in three parts

PART ONE

 

“Man, for all his daylight activities, is at best an evening creature. Our very addiction to the day and our compulsion, manifest through the ages, to invent and use illuminating devices, to contest with midnight, to cast off sleep as we would death, suggest that we know more of the shadows than we are willing to recognize. We have come from the dark wood of the past, and our bodies carry the scars and unhealed wounds of that transition. Our minds are haunted by night terrors that arise from the subterranean domain of racial and private memories. … We imagine we are day creatures, but we grope in a lawless and smoky realm toward an exit that eludes us. We appear to know instinctively that such an exit exists.”

– Loren Eiseley, “The Unexpected Universe”

I stand on the topmost hill of Round Valley and gaze southeast. Below me the densely spaced oaks of lower Hardy Canyon thin out as my gaze swings southwest and the canyon climbs to its barren crest. Behind it the lofty ridges of Morgan Territory and Los Vaqueros slant away toward Ohlone Wilderness 25 miles distant. 

I see these things only in my imagination. It’s midnight; the Sun won’t rise for seven hours.

The landscape is a chameleon. Its patterns and colors shift from dawn to dusk. In the horizontal light of sunrise, shadows lean acutely west; in the horizontal light of sunset, east. Shadows in the egalitarian glare of noon fall straight down. Just as we don’t begin to understand the trail till we’ve hiked it in opposite directions, so we don’t begin to understand the landscape till we’ve viewed its opposite shadows – and viewed it at night.

At night, you’d imagine, the scenery becomes one enormous shadow. And you’d be right – but for one enormous light.

When it comes to the Moon, I can’t claim objectivity. In the course of roughly 200 solo night hikes I’ve seen the Moon – as I might see an old friend or lover – in countless moods: the slenderest of crescents suspended featherlike in the delicate updraft of dawn, or a pearl glowing from the Milky Way’s river bed as clouds flow past her like leaves caught in the current. And I’ve seen her in eclipse, an angry queen robed in red, majestic and terrible.

The landscape in moonlight exudes a luster unmatched in daylight: leaves tinged in silver; shafts of lunar light slanting through gaps in the forest canopy; the extreme contrast between light and shadow calling film-noir phantasms into being. In that dreamlike interplay of a hundred gradations of gray, senses other than sight are heightened. I don’t use a flashlight. Whatever's out there, I want to see it before it sees me. I go quietly. Whatever's out there, I want to hear it before it hears me.

Round Valley, Morgan Territory, Mt. Diablo: these have become my private haunted houses. In moonlight the most harmless object – a boulder, a fallen tree limb – can assume the most threatening appearance. I get a lot for my entertainment dollar.

Fallen limb along the Miwok Trail, Round Valley.

Sure, a few big cats and wild boar roam these parks. But their danger is corporeal; analyzable by the science of vertebrate jaw mechanics and the physics of cutting compliant substrates – such as my neck. The greatest danger at night comes not from without but from within. The solo night hike provides optimal conditions for machinations of mind. Absent the distraction of day-lit scenery, the mind is free to roam for hours through realms of introspection, fantasy, fear. The night hike becomes a waking dream.

This isn’t always a good thing.

If fantasy and reality are states separated by an objective boundary, the night hike has the power to obliterate that boundary. You round a bend in the trail and without knowing it, skip straight into Oz, plunge straight down Alice’s rabbit hole. Only much later do you understand you’ve come to a faraway place by a route you can’t remember.

To be continued Wednesday

PART TWO

The setting: the Scuppernong Trails in Kettle Moraine State Park north of Eagle, Wisconsin (visit http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/kms/pdfs/kmsscuppernongtrmap.pdf). The time: October of 1989.

An oval moon rode low in the east, fragments of pale gold flashing randomly through gaps in trees as I ran – not to or from anything, but to get my circulation raging. It was cold.

I flew through the dark wood intoxicated by the sensation of speed, of serotonin geysering in the brain. My face plowed the cold, moist air like the prow of a ship as I wheeled eastward onto a broad and flat avenue of trail and closed my eyes on the fly. That’s when I saw them.

Against the black backdrop of my eyelids’ inner walls appeared two pale ovals the color of bleached bone and shape of human skulls, minus the sockets, just floating there side by side. They were large – about the size of 3-inch-tall discs held 5 inches away and 5 inches apart. I opened my eyes to re-center my line down the trail. When I closed them again, the skulls were still there.

I was getting a lot for my entertainment dollar. No hallucinogens required.

Sometimes, as I lie in bed in the dark, an image will appear in my mind’s eye – a fractal pattern resembling a tree branch; sometimes a Euclidean form such as a mandala – glowing neon green or violet against the slate-grey screen of semi-consciousness. No matter how hard I concentrate on anchoring the image, it’s always on the move, shifting and dissolving into some amoebic figure and then into the melodrama of dreams.

But as I ran through the woods on that October night, the skulls hanging inside my eyelids were sharply drawn and stationary, allowing me the luxury of etching them finely into memory. It was tempting to give their shape a cheerier taxonomy than skulls. Were they eggs? No, their tops and bottoms were too flat; they lacked the egg’s graceful ellipsoidal curvature. Skulls they were.

But what exactly was I looking at; what did the skulls represent? Were they the manifestation of something within or without, a message I was sending to myself or a message sent from another? Perhaps they were a rare but perfectly explicable neuro-optical phenomenon and no message at all.

It became a game: I’d close my eyes, study the skulls, open my eyes and catch myself veering off the trail. And then it became clear that the show had only begun. It wasn’t long before I realized that the black gap between the skulls had narrowed. They were converging.

It was like watching the minute hand on a clock. The skulls seemed perfectly inert from one moment to the next. But as every 20-to-30-second interval passed, it was clear they were on a collision course. What would happen when they met? Would they meld to form a brighter object? Would that object reveal its identity? Perhaps the skulls were more than metaphor. When they merged, I wondered, would eye sockets and nostril slits appear? Would a grinning mouth take shape and speak to me?

To be continued Friday

 

PART THREE

I approached the point where the Green Trail forked north off the Red and Orange trails. Decision time. The skulls, though intriguing, were fraying my nerves. Should they merge and become truly scary, should something manifest itself on the trail ahead, something man high and wearing an eyeless skull on its shoulders, I’d rather not confront it in the claustrophobic heart of the woods. I hooked left and burst onto the open and moonlit prairie that dominates the trail’s northern arc.

I hadn’t shut my eyes for about a minute. The Moon hung impaled on the tip of a tall Scots pine as I followed the trail down a slope into the cool and moist air of a hollow rich with the aroma of wild mint. I filled my lungs, hoping to keep alive whatever psycho-chemical process was fueling the image. Then I closed my eyes again.

There, like lamps in a cavern, hung the skulls in dim florescence. Only now the gap between them was a hairsbreadth. I watched them, hoping to catch the moment of contact, but felt and heard the swish of grass on the trail’s shoulder. I opened my eyes, re-centered my course, finished a shallow curve and headed up a straight stretch north. When I closed my eyes again, the skulls had begun to overlap. Like a pair of suns in the act of eclipse, their light bled into a single light betraying no boundary.

My fear of a horrific climax to the pageant of the skulls was unfounded. As I streamed north along the prairie’s eastern perimeter, the light of the now-single skull – almost fully formed – began to fade, dying from the center outward like the nucleus of a galaxy being devoured by a black hole. Soon only the sharp outline of the rim remained. And soon that too passed into the void.

But I needed answers; I needed the skulls to speak. I kept running, hoping to bring the vision back or conjure a new vision. But the show was over. I geared back.

Considering the array of possible unpleasant outcomes, I shouldn’t complain that the skull didn’t speak. Some machinations of mind are best cut short. One of my recurring boyhood nightmares involved teetering on the edge of a tall building. One night in mid teeter my conscious self burst onto the scene. “You’re dreaming,” I heard it say. “Don’t fight it; go ahead and fall.” So I launched myself off the edge like a cliff diver … and plunged straight into a different dream. The teetering nightmares went away.

There’s another reason I shouldn’t complain. In Emerson’s formulation, “A beauty not explicable is dearer than a beauty which we can see to the end of.” If the skulls were more than a psycho-chemical phenomenon – if they were a coded message  – it’s a message I’ll never decipher. The skull show was a one-night engagement. I’ve wandered in the dark many times since that October night, closed my eyes and scanned the back of my lids. So far: nothing; no chance to repeat the experiment.

I reached the north tip of the trail. The Moon was higher now and brighter. I swung south and plunged down a narrow avenue lined by tall pines blocking the Moon. The trail below was dark; the true trail was above: a stretched V of moon-washed sky cleaving the black forest like an ax blade. So I ran to the sky, wondering what machinations of mind it would set in motion. After all, it was only midnight. Plenty of time for more lunacy.

THE END

Autumn – the sunset season

Blue oak, Round Valley summit.

The rumor is out. It’s whispered in the amber crowns of sycamores and spread by the gossip of southbound geese. The low Sun, casting long shadows even at midday, insinuates it. We feel its breath on our skin; its resonance in our bones like the bronze toll of a bell. Autumn is here.

If spring is the sunrise of the year, autumn is its sunset. It doesn’t matter what time of day you read these words; the sun is setting – setting on A.D. 2015. Since the summer solstice on June 21, when we in the San Francisco Bay Area received 14 hours and 48 minutes of daylight, planet Earth has completed a quarter of its 584-million-mile voyage around the Sun, carving an arc onto the black granite of space at 19 miles per second. Astronomical autumn arrived Sept. 23, when we reached a mark along that arc where daylight and darkness measured about 12 hours each.

But the darkness must have its season. Earth’s next port of call will be the winter solstice, Dec. 22, when in our Bay Area latitude the Sun graces the sky for a mere nine hours and 32 minutes – the year’s midnight.

Buckeye branches, Round Valley.

If autumn and sunset are vehicles of beauty, they’re also vehicles of dread. The dying of the year, like the dying of the day, awakens an ancient fear: we know what’s coming, and the knowledge underscores our frailty and vulnerability. We’re as capable of reversing the encroaching cold and darkness as a starfish, trapped in a tide pool, of reversing the ocean’s ebb. “As for the nights,” wrote the poet Archibald MacLeish, “I warn you the nights are dangerous. The wind changes at night and the dreams come.”

We know also, in a remote recess of the soul, that autumn is what we are: transitional creatures, always in the process of becoming something else. The static landscapes of summer and winter symbolize an existence of perpetual paradise or desolation. Is this the metaphor for humanity? No, we understand from experience that the transitional flow of autumn and spring – when before our eyes leaves fall and wildflowers blossom – is the metaphor for a creature in whom something is always dying; something else is always being born.

More than 24,000 sunsets have dyed the western sky since I was born. Many are spectacular but all are meaningful. As time passes, time becomes more precious, and the symbols of its passing – the seasons of the year; the seasons of the day – more striking.

California wild grape, Mt. Diablo.

“We are symbols, and inhabit symbols,” wrote Emerson. As I approach the transition of my earthly existence into something more ineffable, autumn and sunset gain not only symbolic power; they gain factual power. Numerical power. The clock is ticking. I’ve numbered the days behind me; ahead, those days are numbered, too. As a human in his 60s I've become as explicit a symbol for sunset and autumn as they are for me.

But autumn is not the season for the blues; it offers other colors to embrace. Leaves in droves spatter creek beds in saffron and scarlet; litter the trail like colossal confetti. Leaves the color of footballs and pumpkins, of sunlight and blood. Let the woods drift into dream as we plot our adventures in chromatic splendor, let the moan of wind through wizened limbs be the sound of the forest yawning as we set our alarms and program our coffee pots for the world of wakefulness. Time for us to rise; time for the woods to shine.

May your path be firm and the air bracing beneath a sapphire sky. May every twig on every branch seem more finely etched than in summer’s sweltering air. May trees slipping into sleep seem strangely wakeful as the onset of autumn exhorts them to gather their energy for one final, defiant display.

Sure, winter is coming. But autumn is here.