A rattler in the bramble flashes its patented glare in Mt. Diablo’s Back Creek Canyon.

Unfazed by the fangs

The man, outward bound, reached for the gate at the Round Valley trailhead. Then he paused and said, “I hear there are rattlesnakes out here. Is it safe to hike?”

Inward bound, I said, “Yep. I’ve taken a couple hundred hikes out here and spotted precisely two rattlers. Besides, It’s not easy to get bitten by a rattler. It’s possible – but you’ve got to work at it.”

As the solstice approaches, and summer’s sizzles sets in, I’m struck by the number of folks singing the following tune: “Oh, I’d like to go hiking, but hey, there are rattlesnakes are out there. I’ll take a pass.”

While no one can be blamed for spurning the opportunity to get snakebit, my experience with rattlers cuts the other way. My problem with rattlesnakes: they slither away before I can get a good snapshot.

Trust me, rattlesnake bites come in only two flavors: carelessness and foolhardiness. The careless hiker thinks “Ah, that looks like a comfortable boulder … with some sort of, hmmm, squiggly thing on it” and proceeds to take a seat right beside Mr. Rattler. The foolhardy hiker thinks, “I’d like to get a tight photo of Mr. Rattler. I wonder how close he’ll let me get.”

Popular mythology puts the Northern Pacific rattlesnake on the ornery quotient somewhere between Attila the Hun and Chef Gordon Ramsay. The reality is more prosaic. Sure, the rattler wields intimidating incisors, but it’ll use them on a human only if it senses a threat and only at close range. The overriding principles in dealing with a rattlesnake: be aware and remain calm. And by all means, do not attempt to pet it.

A non-venomous gopher snake hisses a warning at Los Vaqueros Watershed.

First you need to spot the critter and identify it as a rattler. A rattler’s cunning camouflage makes it hard to spot even at close range. As you round a bend or crest a hill, make a visual sweep of the trail ahead before diverting your attention to scenic splendor. When rock climbing, don’t grab a handhold till you’re certain what’s up there. And watch where you sit. You might have company.

Chances are you’ll run across a different slithering creature out on the trail, a creature that’s paid a heavy price for its resemblance to the rattler: the non-venomous gopher snake. The key to distinguishing it from the rattler lies in the head and tail. The rattlesnake’s head is a large, triangular wedge, and its tail ends in the rattle. The gopher snake’s head is smaller and more rounded than a rattler's, and its tail is pointed.

One of the gopher snake’s stratagems for warding off large creatures is to impersonate a rattlesnake. When a gopher snake feels cornered, it’ll hiss, flatten its head and shake its tail in the grass like a maraca player in a rumba band. It’s a clever but sometimes counterproductive adaptation. When the large creature in question is a human bent on killing a rattler, the gopher snake can be its own worst enemy.

Should you find a snake commandeering your picnic area or campsite, keep your cool and get the creature’s ID. If it’s a rattlesnake, don’t chase it off. It might return. And don’t try to kill it. You’re putting yourself in danger – and breaking the law. Notify park staffers; they have the expertise to remove it.

Let’s say you get unlucky and run afoul of the fangs. Again, don’t panic; call 911. If you’re in a cell phone dead zone, send someone for help and sit down, keeping the bitten area below heart level. If you’re on a solo hike, you should walk – not run – back to civilization. The puncture marks of a rattlesnake bite will feel like they’re burning. No burning sensation suggests that a different snake has bitten you, or that the rattler (as sometimes happens) didn’t inject any venom.

A coiling rattler eyes me with suspicion on Black Diamond Mines’ Corcoran Mine Trail.

There are two misconceptions about rattler bites. The first is that a snakebite kit will save you. Don’t count on it. Applying tourniquets, cutting around the puncture marks and sucking out the venom – these can cause more harm (such as nasty infections) than the venom itself. A rattler will rarely inject a human with a large enough dose of venom to cause death. It’s a skilled hunter. It knows it can’t swallow you, so it doesn’t waste precious venom warding you off. At least 25 percent of poisonous snake bites involve no release of venom.

This relates to our second misconception, that a young rattlesnake packs more potent venom than its elder. It doesn’t. But it can be more dangerous precisely because it’s young. Lacking expertise as a hunter, the young rattler will prolong the injection of venom into its victim. A small rattler looks less menacing than a large one, but don’t be fooled; don’t get cute and try to pick it up. If it sinks its fangs into you, you could get a full dose.

And don’t let these dire scenarios deter you from getting out onto the trail. Every single rattler I’ve run across in my wanderings has left me alone. That’s because I left it alone. Armed with knowledge, aware of your surroundings, relax and enjoy your hike. You’re out there for the scenery, right? You’re out there to look for things. Well, now you have one more thing to look for.

Rooted in mystery of mortality

A quartet of my gnarly friends, clockwise from upper left: Knight, Alien, Oliphaunt and Samurai.

I arrive in darkness. And when dawn breaks, I remain in darkness – the darkness of fog smothering Round Valley’s topmost hill like a charcoal-grey shroud. As impending sunrise turns the shroud from charcoal to ash, skeletons appear: the bony arms and fingers of trees. Most are dormant, lost in dreams of burgundy buds and emerald leaves.

But some of the skeletons sleep for eternity: trees decimated by disease or blasted by lightning. My gnarly friends. Anchored in the landscape like historical markers, Oliphaunt and Samurai wait with wry detachment as I trudge Round Valley’s hills to pay my respects. I go out of my way on Coyote Ridge to check on the progress of Alien’s decomposition. Six years ago the twisted intimate I call Knight (à la chess piece) lost his snout to the force of gravity.

Dead trees provide more than habitat for lichens, mosses and lizards; they provide companionship amid the solitude of the trail. Make no mistake: the solitude is good. On the trail I escape the noise of communal life and enter, as Thomas Mann put it, the “mental experiences that are at once more intense and less articulate than those of a gregarious man.” Gregariousness can be jarring. Who wants to hear campers and hikers hootin’ and hollerin’ in the placid grandeur of Murphy Meadow, or on Mt. Diablo’s Prospector’s Gap overlooking the mist-flooded hollows of Morgan Territory in the pale violet of dawn? No, the silence of trees – even dead ones – makes good company.

My first encounter with a gnarly friend occurred on a creepy moonlit night at Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin in the mid-’80s. I dubbed the gnarly one Smaug. A 60-foot pin oak, Smaug had toppled parallel to a path snaking through a dark ravine and been smithied by years of wind, ice and rot into a giant reptile. Under the extreme contrast of moonlight and shadow, Smaug’s sunken eye sockets and uncannily symmetric ears – two broken limbs angling off the trunk – stopped me in my tracks.

The ancient bristlecone pines of Inyo National Forest. For Methuselah's protection, its location is kept a secret. Photo by hlnicaise/iStock/Getty Images.

But whether in darkness or the light of day, the image of a dead tree touches a nerve. It’s a statue on exhibit, yet unlike the statues fashioned by human hands, it was once alive. Suddenly the trail becomes a graveyard where the bones of the departed aren’t buried but put on display.

A dead tree is disturbing in another way: trees are assumed to represent the gold standard of longevity. From its vista atop the White Mountains of Inyo National Forest, a bristlecone pine named Methuselah has felt the rain lash and the wind scour its branches, has watched impassively as the winter stars inched overhead, for 4,850 years. Some trees will go on living into the next Ice Age, long after the human race has abandoned the planet. Or vice versa.

Yet all trees, like the creatures we imagine they mimic, are mortal. Their transfiguration might take a century to complete, but the end is the same for all organic creatures. Today we marvel at the fluky artistry that makes a monster out of dead wood. In a decade the nutrient cycle, aided by weather’s dull chisel, will have sculpted the finely etched carcass into something that reminds us of nothing. In a century even the wood will be gone, digested like flesh into the shrewd economy of Earth. How readily in this voracious universe does food for thought become food for worms.

Old One greets the winter sunrise atop Round Valley Regional Preserve.

A blue oak can live up to 400 years. On Round Valley’s topmost hill stands a blue oak I call Old One. Her trunk, bent by centuries of prevailing northwest wind, points toward the winter sunrise. Her canopy forms a perfect umbrella of limbs reducing fractally to twigs. Whenever I arrive at my summit sanctuary I lay my pole and pack on lichen-spattered boulders, walk up to Old One and say hello. I place my palm on her trunk, hoping to sense a pulse measured not in seconds but years.

“A tree says: ‘My strength is trust,’” wrote Herman Hesse. “‘I know nothing of my fathers, I know nothing of the thousand children that every year spring from me. I live out the secret of my seed to the utmost end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.’”

I don’t own Old One. Though located on a remote hill, she’s doubtless been admired by many hikers. Perhaps some day, as my ashes are absorbed into her roots and partake of her holy labor, she will care for me. For now, I’m grateful to accept her shelter from the wind as we bend together toward the winter sunrise. Arriving in darkness; departing in light.

 

 

 

Saving splendor in the nearby middle of nowhere

Cattle crop the frosty grass on an autumn morning in Murphy Meadow.

There was a time in East Contra Costa – before the arrival of Welsh miners and wheat magnates, Mexican farm laborers and Midwest snow fugitives; yes, even before tribes crossed the land bridge of the Bering Straight, headed 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 nameless hills cradled a nameless valley like a mother’s arms.

That valley now has a name. Its splendor is invaluable but not inevitable. Thirty years ago, these acres were in danger of becoming a garbage dump.

Those of us who tread the trails of Round Valley Regional Preserve rarely meditate on the people who made the trails possible. We focus on falcons and flowers, distant ridges and intimate ravines. But those trails don’t burst into existence out of the blue. They’re envisioned, paid for, shaped and maintained by the efforts of many.

Two key players in the rescue of Round Valley are Jim Murphy and Bob Doyle. In the mid-1980s, farmer and rancher Murphy – grandson of Irish immigrant Tom Murphy, who in 1873 bought the land we call Round Valley – learned that Contra Costa County had nominated his beloved 700-acre spread as a candidate for landfill status. East Bay Regional Park District General Manager Doyle, who back then served as the district’s assistant general manager of land acquisition, was tasked with convincing Murphy to sell the land to the EBRPD.

“All I knew was that he’d shot at somebody,” said Doyle, stipulating that Murphy had fired into the sky. “They were going to do the peripheral canal in the ’70s, looking to acquire all this area for the big reservoir. Jim Murphy wouldn’t let the biologists on his property. He loved this valley – no question about it – got very protective of it.”

The rusted remains of a harvester combine belonging to rancher Jim Murphy, former owner of Round Valley, are among the many vintage farm implements scattered across Murphy Meadow.

Doyle’s first trip into the valley wasn’t his first view of it. “I’d looked down on it from Morgan Territory and lusted after it,” said Doyle. Among the park’s many virtues: it’s the only fully enclosed valley in the EBRPD – a district that operates the largest urban regional park system in the nation.

Round Valley is also a strategic piece of the area’s zoological puzzle. It occupies the center of a wildlife corridor that runs from Shell Ridge in Walnut Creek all the way through Mt. Diablo, Morgan Territory, Round Valley, Los Vaqueros and Brushy Peak. Residents of the corridor range from golden eagles to vernal pool fairy shrimp; bobcats to kit foxes. At dusk you can hear the Round Valley and Los Vaqueros coyote packs howl and yip before splitting up for the evening hunt. 

But in 1986, few East County folk were aware of the existence of Round Valley – fewer saw it as the optimal site for a regional preserve. As Doyle put it, “Nobody thought, ‘Why not have a park out here?’ It was too far from everything.”

When Doyle showed up at the red gate surrounding the Murphy residence in Round Valley, he had no idea how the encounter would go. “This was the first chance I got to meet the property owner,” he said. “And if I said the wrong thing, I wouldn’t have gotten through that gate. He was standing at the gate – he didn’t open the gate.”

Despite his short stature and advanced age (he was approaching 80) Murphy cut a formidable figure. “He was a scary cowboy; hated everybody,” said Doyle. “He was a champion rodeo rider and horse breaker – the Jack Roddy of his time. Always wore his cowboy boots, always wore his big cowboy hat and a big buckle.”

Tule fog slithers through oaks in east Murphy Meadow.

And it was hard to ignore the rifle Murphy toted at that red gate.

Whatever dialogue Doyle had prepared for, he hadn’t prepared for Murphy’s opening line. The rancher eyed the park district guy and said, “What do you think of mountain lions?”

Murphy was a rancher; ranchers aren’t fond of creatures that prey on their livestock. No one would have blamed Doyle for pegging Murphy for a mountain lion hater. But the park district guy replied, “I don’t know. What do you think?” and held his breath.

“Well, I like mountain lions,” said Murphy.

“And that was it,” recalled Doyle. “I’m sure he’d shoot coyotes; I’m sure he hunted deer. But he didn’t have a problem with protecting mountain lions.” Who knows? Maybe the tough, solitary Murphy felt a kinship with the big cat. 

“He told me his story,” said Doyle. “He was very cautious, very anti-government. He’d had lots of ups and downs in his life; never had a lot of money. Most all of these longtime ranching families were only ‘land rich.’ Many of them were getting tired of ranching or needed to sell because they wanted their kids to go to college.”

Measure AA, the $225 million bond on the ballot in 1988 – earmarked for the purchase and preservation of 34,000 acres of prime East Bay open space – was vital to the negotiation between Murphy and Doyle. “The original 700-acre purchase was based on a pre-Measure AA promise,” said Doyle, “which was: ‘Mr. Murphy, if you give us an option on your property for $40,000, we’ll pay you $1.4 million if the measure passes. If it doesn’t pass, you keep the $40,000.’ We really wanted to see his property protected.”

A California black oak greets sunrise over Murphy Meadow.

Measure AA passed in ’88, the district bought Murphy’s 700 acres and over the years acquired 1,300 adjacent acres from the Murphy family. Doyle recalls that “within the first six months (after the initial purchase), as soon as I could get permission, I got Roger in here (the late Roger Epperson, park supervisor). And as local guys, we both thought, ‘Wow. This place is phenomenal.’”

Epperson launched into extensive preparations for the park’s public use: old houses and cabins were dismantled; trails were carved into hillsides; poorly placed roads were “disappeared,” as Doyle put it, and new roads created; the parking lot and main bridge were built – all elements we park users take blissfully for granted.

In 1998, a year after Murphy’s death, an entrance gate on Marsh Creek Road was flung open, ushering the public into a place that would have made a perfect setting for a landfill. But ask the runners, campers and cyclists; ask the exuberant families and solitary pilgrims who visit Round Valley – and they’ll tell you it makes a perfect setting for a taste of the splendor of the world. 

Star-struck eyes gather the distant light

Galaxy Andromeda. Photo by PavelSmilyk/iStock/Getty Images

If you’ve ever wondered how far can you see, the answer hovers in the night sky of late November. Step outside and look up – straight up. Under a clear sky away from light pollution, you can spot an object whose distance can’t be comprehended; only quantified.

Let’s start with distances we can comprehend. We resolve letters on an eye chart from a distance measured in feet; words and symbols on a road sign from a distance measured in yards; the outline of a city skyline or mountain range from a distance measured in miles. We Contra Costa County folk are graced with a magnificent long-distance object: Mt. Diablo, about 10 miles west of downtown Brentwood. Let’s use the mountain as a point of reference.

A little elevation – say, the crest of Round Valley’s Hardy Canyon Trail – rewards us with a view of an object 10 times farther than Mt. Diablo: the granite majesty of the Sierra Nevada Range to our east. A greater challenge to the imagination is the view of our Moon sinking into the west behind Mt. Diablo. The Moon: 24,000 times more distant than the mountain – though not nearly as impressive as the Sun: 9 million times the distance of the mountain.

Our next step takes us into interstellar space. The nearest bright star in our late-autumn sky, found southeast of the constellation Orion in Canis Major, is the glinting diamond we call Sirius, a whopping nine light years from Earth. Now, if nine light years doesn’t sound impressively remote … it should.

A light year is a measure not of time but distance: the distance light travels in one year. Once we leave our tiny solar system, the space between stars, and galaxies of stars, becomes so enormous that astronomers describe distance in light years instead of miles. It’s hard to wrap the mind around a number ending in 18 zeroes.

How far is a light year? Well, if you could hitch a ride on a wave of light, if you could go 186,000 miles per second – seven times around Earth in one second – it would take you 8½ minutes to reach our Sun and nine years to reach Sirius.

But in the scale of the cosmos, Sirius is our next-door neighbor. The main rectangle stars above Sirius in Orion – Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Rigel and Saiph – range from 240 to 900 light years away. Hanging below Orion’s belt is M42, the Orion Nebula, at a distance of 1,350 light years.

But 1,350 light years is a piece of cake. You can see farther than the Orion Nebula – a lot farther. All the stars you can spot with your naked eye reside within our home galaxy, the pinwheel of between 200 and 400 billion stars we call the Milky Way. But there’s a naked-eye object out there that’s well beyond our galaxy. And that would be another galaxy.

Graphic by Ger Erickson

Labeled M31, the Andromeda Galaxy floats in our November evening sky a staggering 2½ million light years away. Expressed in miles, that’s 12,900,000,000,000,000,000. What the heck, round it up to 13 quintillion miles. At that distance, the cumulative light of Andromeda’s trillion stars strikes your retinas with a few thousand photons per second – more than enough to flip the switch of your optical apparatus.

And more than enough to flip the switch of your imagination. When you finally resolve that gossamer oval, preferably through binoculars or a telescope, keep in mind that you’re not viewing Andromeda in the present; you’re viewing it as it was 2½ million years ago. Andromeda isn’t merely the most distant object you can see with your naked eye; it’s the most ancient. 

The next time you squint at your optometrist’s Snellen chart and lament what’s become of the 20/20 vision of your youth, take heart. You might not be able to resolve that P in line 8, but there’s another object you can resolve.

“By the way, Doc. I stepped outside last night and saw something really far away.”

“Yah? How far?”

“Oh, about 13 quintillion miles,” you say with an air of scientific detachment.

“Riiight.”

Constellation Arrowhead – connecting the dots

A fleeting vision in our night sky: the constellation Arrowhead. Graphic by Ger Erickson.

Beneath a night sky of diamonds scattered across the black velvet of space, our earliest ancestors looked up and saw patterns. They connected the dots: a group of stars became the diagram of a lion or bear, a queen or a hunter and his dogs. Those patterns were permanent. From millenium to millenium, the position of the stars never strayed, the diagram was never distorted.

But some heavenly objects did stray. The astronomers of ancient Greece named those objects planetai, wanderers. The planets. The star constellations are set in stone, but the planets wander into formations of their own that, like star patterns, remind us of familiar images. One of these temporary constellations is visible now. Let’s call it Arrowhead.

Step outside at 10 p.m. Pacific Time and look south. Across the horizon hangs the constellation known to the Babylonians as Mul Gir-tab, the creature with the burning sting. We call it Scorpius, the scorpion. Some civilizations have juggled two metaphors: the star pattern reminded the Indonesian Javanese people of both a swan (Banyakangrem) and a leaning coconut tree (Kalapa Doyong).

But in July of 2016, people of all cultures can savor the sight of a new, though fleeting, constellation. The planets Mars and Saturn plus the star Antares trace the pattern of an Arrowhead. The point of the arrow is Mars. The arrow’s lower barb is Antares; its upper barb, Saturn.

Scorpius and its current retinue of planets plus permanent retinue of star clusters. Graphic by Ger Erickson.

Arrowhead or no Arrowhead, the southern night sky of 2016 is rich in delights to the eye and imagination. Mars sweeps past Antares every two years but stargazers have linked the two reddish objects for millenia. “Mars” is the name the Romans gave the red planet, but the ancient Greek word for Mars is “Ares.” The Greeks considered the reddish star in Scorpius to be Ares’ rival: thus the name “Antares” – anti-Ares. The god of war, Ares, and the heart of the scorpion, Antares: a clash of formidable and forbidding powers in the heavens. 

Mars “sweeps past Antares” in only a visual sense. The light of Mars that strikes your retina takes 4½ minutes to make its current 50-million-mile journey to Earth. The light of Antares takes 550 years. How can a star so distant shine so brightly? It’s easy – when your radius is 883 times greater than the Sun’s and you shine 12,000 times brighter than the Sun. Were Antares to replace the Sun at the center of our solar system, it would engulf Earth and Mars.

Mars and Antares share a reddish hue, but the hue springs from a radically different source. Stars generate their own light; planets reflect the light of their parent star. Antares’ reddish light is the fire of an enormous thermonuclear furnace burning at a cool 6,500 F. The red of Mars is sunlight bounced off a few million square miles of iron-rich minerals – a big desert.

Got binoculars or a small telescope? Swivel over to Scorpius and you’ll be treated to the vision of some of the finest star clusters in our local cosmos – the M7 cluster and the Northern Jewel Box in particular.

The planet Saturn. Photo by 3quarks/iStock/Getty Images.

And let’s not space out on that golden planet way out in the solar suburbs, the farthest planet visible to the naked eye: Saturn, which completes one orbit of the Sun in 29 Earth years. Saturn is a prime example of the strangeness of the cosmos. The ringed planet is large enough, minus its rings, to fit nine Earths across its diameter like pearls on a string. Yet as a “gas giant,” Saturn is so light it would float on water. And as telescope owners are well aware, Saturn’s ring system is approaching its maximum tilt toward Earth. Late 2016-early 2017 is prime time to view one the wonders of our local universe: the golden rings of the golden globe we call Saturn.

Stargazing is more than an aesthetic pleasure. From the beginning of our species’ days on Earth, the ability to make the connection between patterns in the physical world and the world of the imagination has helped us survive and flourish. When we gaze into the night sky of A.D. 2016 and see a scorpion – or an arrowhead – we’re re-enacting an ancient and impactful feat. May you enjoy keeping that tradition alive this special summer by stepping out beneath the stars and connecting the dots.

Earth's oceans thrive in lucky Lane 3

Sunset at Stinson Beach.

Does an 800-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath condo going for $950,000 sound like a good deal? If its back yard is a beach on Monterey Bay, it might. Only five miles inland, in Watsonville, you can move into a 1,440-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath single-family dwelling for a mere $189,000.

Ever wonder why oceanfront property is so expensive? Of course not; it’s self-evident: we humans love big bodies of water. The rumble and hiss of surf, the panoramic sweep of the sea, the galvanizing salt breezes all make an oceanside stroll hard to resist.

It’s no wonder the ocean soothes our spirits; we’re drawn to it as a weary wanderer is drawn home. When eons ago our aquatic ancestors dragged themselves onto the enticing strangeness of the land, did they never look back? Hardly. In a remote corner of our unconscious, we’ve never forgotten that the ocean is the womb from which we came.

We’re also drawn to the ocean by its otherness. Stand on its shore and see it recede and meld with the ocean of sky. Sail into its heart and feel lost in a vastness more featureless than outer space. Plunge into its depths and discover the cold, the crushing pressure, the creatures more outlandish than the monsters of sci-fi.

If you’re a well-adjusted Homo sapiens and love the ocean, thank your lucky star – the Sun – that it’s the right star at the right distance: 93 million miles. What makes that distance special? It falls within a range of 74 and 148 million miles, also known as HZ, the habitable zone. Of all the lanes in our solar speedway, Lane No. 3 – Earth’s lane – is the most conducive to water. Outside Lane 3, oceans boil off or freeze solid. End of life as we know it.

Luckily for us, Earth is in no danger of going off the deep (or shallow) end and wandering mindlessly out of the HZ. We’re safe for now. But how privileged is our status? In the last half century, speculation regarding the likelihood of life on extra-solar planets (exoplanets) has taken some curious turns. And the jury’s still out.

Before the era of space exploration it was assumed that planets covered by large bodies of liquid water must be common in our universe. We took our cue from the polar caps of Mars and the tropical paradise we imagined would lie cloaked beneath the clouds of Venus.

The Pinnacle, Point Lobos State Reserve. 

Closer inspection by interplanetary probes gave us a jolt: Mars’ polar caps consisted not of frozen H2O but frozen CO2 – dry ice. Mars was a frigid desert. Venus, we learned, was hell – a greenhouse machine radiating surface temperatures of 800 F.

But that’s only our solar system. Considering the billions of stars in our galaxy and billions of galaxies in the universe, it stood to reason that although Earth’s surface oceans are unique in our solar system, they’re common in the cosmos. With few exceptions, we imagined, all planetary systems must sustain their own HZs. Surely somewhere around the myriad stars out there must orbit millions of exoplanets adorned with life-giving oceans.

Only in the last few years have we developed the tools – such as the Kepler space observatory, launched by NASA in 2009 – to conduct a serious search for planets orbiting other stars in our neck of the galactic woods. 

As of June 1, the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia listed 3,422 confirmed exoplanets. Their sheer number, plus the fact that many of them reside in their star’s HZ, has led some enthusiasts to believe that Earthlike exoplanets are a dime a dozen.

Problem is, HZ is more than a matter of distance. Size matters. Large stars sustain broad HZs but are subject to short lifespans, and small stars live long but sustain narrow (or no) HZs. Were the sun less than 83 percent of its present mass, it wouldn’t radiate enough heat to counteract runaway glaciation on Earth. On the other hand, were the Sun 20 percent more massive, it would have consumed all its hydrogen fuel before it reached its billionth birthday. Earth would have gone dead 3½ billion years ago.

The same principles apply to the size of planets. Were Earth only 10 percent more massive, it would have produced a jailbreak greenhouse effect. Had it been 6 percent less massive, it wouldn’t have developed a sufficient ozone layer to shield it from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. In either case, kiss life on Earth goodbye.

Our single-minded search for water worlds has also made us realize that too much water can be a problem. A computer modeling study suggests that two Earthlike candidates – Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f, 1,200 light years from Earth – are probably covered by seamless, global oceans. Lacking reasonable access to fire and metals – not to mention electricity – whatever life forms take hold beneath those endless seas would likely be strangers to technology as we know it.

Pescadero State Beach.

Factors such as orbital eccentricity, axial tilt and rotation, the influence of a moon or giant planet in the vicinity, atmospheric pressure – even the density of the galactic neighborhood – also need to be finely tuned for a planet to be hospitable to our form of life. That, plus our meager understanding of the processes that govern the makeup and evolution of exoplanets’ atmospheres, have led some experts to conclude that Earth might be a special case.

Imagine the citizens of Earth, centuries in the future, on a quest to find an earthlike planet somewhere in our galaxy. Were they to visit a million worlds, their chances of finding a grand total of one world graced with oceans and continents would be remote. When our spacefaring descendants leave the nest and flutter into the cosmos, they’ll likely never again get to enjoy a simple walk by the sea.

We Californians are doubly blessed: blessed to live on the edge of the mighty Pacific Ocean and blessed to live on a blue planet. The next time you take a sunset walk on the beach, don’t leave till the stars come out. Look up, and know that in all that immensity you’ll not find many gems like our sapphire Earth. The color of water.

Yosemite space measured in time

Half Dome at sunset, viewed from Mirror Lake.

The same sunlight that awakens the hollows of the Diablo foothills awakens Yosemite Valley. But that’s where the comparison ends. There is no ordinary light here; no ordinary marking of time. You feel it most acutely at dawn and dusk, when in summer the sun rises early and sets late. The horizons in this place are outlined by granite walls thousands of feet tall. You must look way up to see the sky.

The last morning star had been washed from the east long before Chris and I rolled into Yosemite Valley for our climb to Vernal and Nevada falls. The sun was up, but something was blocking it from view, something standing 4,800 feet above the valley floor: the fortress of granite called Half Dome, its sheer face stained in blue-grey shadow. No wind shredded the morning stillness.

As we approached the bridge spanning the Merced River at Happy Isles, the stillness was dispelled by a slow crescendo of rushing water and the chit-chat of the day’s first hikers headed east to Mirror Lake and south to the Mist Trail. The scavenging bears had retreated from parking lots and campsites and were headed for the sanctuary of Tenaya Canyon and the trees below Ribbon Fall, far from the distressing two-legged creatures.

As we hoisted ourselves up the trail skirting the Merced River’s perpetual thunder, I was struck by how Yosemite puts large matters into perspective. The scale of this place is measured not only in space – in the loft and mass of its walls of stone and daring plummet of its waterfalls. It’s measured not only in the canyon-carving force of its rivers. The scale of this place is measured in time: 15 million years ago the Merced was a mere creek zigzagging through a shallow valley half its present elevation. As 10 million years passed, the Sierra’s granite backbone drove upward and the Merced engraved a V-shaped valley. Half Dome rose to 5,000 of its present 8,800-foot mark.

In the chill of dawn, as the shadow of the valley’s south walls rappelled down the north walls across a mile of space, I tried to visualize the next chapter of Yosemite’s tale. A million and a half years ago, a river of ice filled this valley to the brim. The millennia unfolded and the glacier retreated, sculpting the battleship prow and pilothouse of Washington Column and North Dome, chiseled a slit beside Yosemite Point that would become the spout of the tallest waterfall on the continent.

Crepuscular rays shred a rainbow above the Mist Trail.

I closed my eyes and fast-forwarded to 12,000 B.C., to a Yosemite I’d still not recognize. Half Dome had grinded skyward to its present level, but the valley was deep underwater. And I was standing on the residue of the silt that filled the bottom of that lake: the valley floor of the 21st century.

My existence had been put in perspective, but so had Yosemite’s. Sure, I’d lived a paltry 66 years of the valley’s 15 million years on Planet Earth. A wisp. But wasn’t Yosemite’s paltry 15 million of Earth’s 4½ billion a wisp? I came to the Vernal Bridge and watched the river, like time, race beneath my feet – like time, inch beneath my feet.

But Earth was rotating beneath Sun; day was in relentless ascent. Pressed for time, we hadn’t the luxury of meditating on the nature of Time. If you target Yosemite’s Mist Trail in May – waterfall prime time – you start early.

We struck upward and eastward where far above, on the fall’s rim, the risen Sun glared through gaps in the silhouette of redwoods. Only a handful of hikers, some bound for Half Dome’s famed perch, joined in the ascent.

When we reached the trail’s first granite stair, it was clear that the winter-spring of 2015-16 had unleashed a beast. Heavy snow had become heavy water in these high places of the world. Droplets had converged with trickles; trickles with rivulets; rivulets with streams; streams with creeks; creeks with rivers in a crescendo of mass and momentum. The Merced was set on full boil.

It was my fifth trip up the Mist Trail, a mile and a quarter of tall, steep and slippery granite steps to Vernal Fall; 2 miles more to Nevada Fall. Now, in 2016, Chris and I watched in awe as the Sierra’s winter melt rocketed down the riverbed, ricocheted off boulders like sparks in a foundry, fumed like steam off a kettle. The Mist Trail had morphed into the Suffocating Torrential Downpour Trail. We donned our ponchos. This climb was idiotic enough to be really appealing.

Like kids in a splash park we giggled and groaned our way to the sun-dried sanctuary of the top. Along the way, rainbows exploded through sheets of wind-whipped spray. Below Vernal’s broad launching ramp the fall was barely visible through the monsoon of moisture; my thoughts barely audible through the barrage of water – tons per second – slamming onto the rocks below.

It wasn’t till later that day atop Glacier Point, as we gazed far down across Illilouette Gorge to the falls we’d climbed, that we came full circle. From stillness to stillness. The voice of the river of time had fallen to a whisper. I sat on the warm granite 3,200 feet above the valley floor and closed my eyes; felt the past and future fall off me like a garment. I existed in the naked now, the now of rock and water and the consciousness to know them.

I opened my eyes and time flooded back into the cosmos. Another world was calling, a world of obligations, deadlines, the tick of clocks. But a world of memories – good ones. We gave the valley, spread beneath us like a banquet table, one last taste.

The Merced River below Vernal Fall.

When rivers run wild

The San Joaquin River slips past Antioch with the stealth of a mother past her sleeping child’s bedroom door. Beneath the grey surface where bass boats hover, the current is slow. A breeze raises ridges like wrinkles on a bed sheet, not high enough along the bank to hinder a heron’s solemn search for dinner.

But the river is not what it seems. Far upstream in the high places of the world it’s a different parent: a stepmother out of mythology, majestic and terrible.

In those high places the river is renewed in a million moments at once, when single drops of melted snow merge with others to form steep trickles that meander down to junctions with other trickles. They find their way to concave avenues like bowling balls find gutters. In a reverse delta spanning mountains, ten thousand rivulets reduce to a thousand streams reduce to a hundred creeks reduce to a dozen rivers reduce to one.

Trace the San Joaquin upstream from Contra Costa County and you take a snaking journey southeast for more than a hundred miles through Central Valley before hooking east toward Fresno and up into Sierra National Forest. Halfway up that journey, 25 miles south of Modesto, the river is joined by one of its tributaries. Follow that tributary upstream to an elevation of 4,000 feet and you find a valley enclosed by soaring walls of granite plumed with waterfalls and streaked by tumbling creeks.

The tributary is called Merced. The valley is known as Yosemite. It’s here that the Sierra’s winter melt is most vividly dramatized.

The Merced’s tributaries are unlike any other: two of the world’s 10 tallest waterfalls – Sentinel and Yosemite, the latter being the tallest in North America – and their retinue, no less magnificent, with names like Bridalveil, Ribbon, Illilouette, Vernal, Nevada and Snow Creek. Right now they’re not so much waterfalls as water cannons. A survey conducted in April showed the Merced-sector snowpack at 91% of average, but don’t let down your guard. Today, May 2, the Merced discharge at Yosemite’s Pohono Bridge was clocked at a rollicking 1,300 cubic feet per second. Toe-dipping not recommended.

In 1806, an expedition led by Gabriel Moraga came upon a river after a long, hot and dusty journey. To express his gratitude, Moraga named the river El Rio de Nuestra Señora de la Merced – River of Our Lady of Mercy. In the spring of 2016, there’s nothing merciful about the Merced. If our snowborn rivers are awe-inspiring, they’re also deadly.

On July 19, 2011, 21-year-old Ramina Badal of Manteca, 22-year-old Hormiz David of Modesto and 27-year-old Ninos Yacoub of Turlock climbed Yosemite’s Mist Trail to the rim of Vernal Fall. Witnesses reported that Badal, in an attempt to get her picture taken against the spectacular backdrop, hopped the guardrail and entered the shallow but swift water at the river’s edge. Several hikers at the scene yelled out warnings. To their horror they watched Badal lose her footing and get pulled by the current toward Vernal’s broad launching ramp. David and Yacoub rushed over the guardrail but were too late to save her – or themselves. All three were swept over the rim, fell 317 feet shrouded in a frigid curtain of cataract, and slammed onto the boulders at Vernal’s base.

The Merced and Cathedral Spires west of Pohono Bridge.

A river suffused with winter melt is more than a match for us humans. The shock of icy water and grip of hypothermia rob the body of strength and muscle coordination. The mind becomes confused and panic sets in. Aiding and abetting in the assault are the river’s heavy volume and powerful currents, which can carry a victim miles downstream before rescue can be attempted.

You needn’t pull a crazy stunt to be claimed by the river. Recreational boaters, skiers, swimmers, campers and hikers – all minding their own business – can be vulnerable to a sudden infusion of cold, fast and heavy water.

In May of 2006, the Truckee River was flowing at four times its volume of the previous year. On May 1, 20-year-old Edward Wilt of Sun Valley and three friends waded to a small island along the Truckee near Painted Rock east of Reno. From there, Wilt and one of his friends jumped into the river, apparently for the fun of it. His friend made it out. Wilt’s remains were found three weeks later near Wadsworth.

It was May 21, 2006, a day before Wilt’s body was hauled out of the Truckee. I was at the source, standing on the edge of a rock as big as a room overhanging the Merced in Yosemite Valley, just west of Pohono Bridge. Tons of river per second thundered past. Sensing Merced’s mass reach out and drag me toward it like a maelstrom drags a doomed ship into its vortex, I got low fast, cross-legged, desperate to drop my center of gravity and dispel the fantasy of falling.

The river was a different creature out of mythology that day: not an angry stepmother but a beast trapped in the cage of its banks, infuriated by my lack of respect, leaping at me and slamming against my granite perch. Two feet to my right the rock dropped away a mere 10 feet to the water. In Yosemite, you can fall to your death from impressive elevations. All I needed was 10 feet.

It was a memorable day; should I fall, the Merced’s biting embrace would be my last memory. I hoisted myself onto all fours and crabbed my way to the middle of the rock. The river, catching the scent of other prey, snarled on by.

Wildflowers strike resonant chord

California orange poppies, Round Valley Regional Preserve.

The universe is large, and getting larger. In the time it takes you to finish this sentence, the universe will have expanded in volume by 100 trillion cubic light years. Period. But run the video backward 13.7 billion years and you’ll see the universe shrink to a mere mathematical point. Call it the cosmic seed, inscribed by the most infinitesimal handwriting, like DNA, with instructions for the universe in its totality: galaxies and gadflies, planets and plankton. You and me.

I like to imagine God as the Great Gardener: creating a seed with the simplicity of the primal elements yet potential for the staggering complexity 13.7 billion years of expansion accrues; planting it in the coldest of soils, the nothingness before time and space; and with one searing command, one blast of incandescent breath, setting it in motion.

This could be one reason why the image of wildflowers in spring strikes such a resonant chord in us. Woven into the fabric of our world is the pattern of darkness to light, cold to warmth – death to rebirth – enacted yearly in the reawakening of sterile and shriveled meadows into orgies of color and fragrance.

There’s another reason why wildflowers should fill us with awe and gratitude: without them, the human race might never have come into existence.

A hundred million years ago not a single flower adorned our planet. It was a world in slow motion. The reproductive processes of plants required either direct access to water (through swamps, lakes, river systems, dew and raindrops) or wind-borne pollen-like particles. Some plants had developed primitive seeds, but the spread of plant life proceeded at a glacial pace.

Dominating the landscape were creatures with slow metabolism, the cold-blooded dinosaurs. They were slaves to the mercury level, plodding through their habitat in the warmth of daylight but largely inactive at night. Warm-blooded creatures existed in this Cretaceous Period but were hardly the dominant life form. They ranged from rat-like dwellers of trees and underbrush to lizard-like birds lurching through the primal skies.

Then, as the Age of Reptiles was coming to an end, something miraculous happened – as miraculous as creation itself. The first simple flower opened its petals. And the world changed.

Unlike a spore, the seed of a flower is a fully outfitted embryonic plant, a survivalist’s doomsday bunker stuffed with nutrients capable of sustaining the sprout. And armed with pollen, nectar, and seeds wrapped in a mantle of fruit, the ancient flower began attracting insects for pollination and exploiting birds and mammals for transportation. It developed featherdown for sailing on the wind and hooks for snagging a ride on a passerby’s hide. The angiosperms (“encased seeds”) were off to the races.

Blue-eyed grass, Sunol Regional Wilderness.

The dinosaurs disappeared with stunning abruptness. A special flowering, seed-producing plant we call grass made its debut. Grasslands swept across the continents, providing a nutritious buffet for the great herbivores, the horse and bison, and indirectly for their predators, the dire wolf and saber-toothed tiger.

Peering meekly from the forest at the great game herds was another creature. Like the other mammals his metabolic rate was high, requiring an energy-rich diet to sustain body warmth and efficiency. He was small, and abandoned the trees awkwardly on his hind legs, no match for the bison. But once he learned to heave a rock, swing a flint axe and build a fire, he, like the flower before him, hopped onto the reproductive fast track. And like the predators before which he had once cowered, he began taking ever-greater amounts of energy indirectly from the grass.

Indirectly – until that moment out on the waist-high savannah when he conceptualized the grass seed, the ancestor of wheat, as a thing to grow and consume for its own sake. That moment was itself a seed. From it would sprout cities and civilizations in countless succession, to our present time and beyond, rising and falling in ten thousand springs and winters of human history. The gift of the flower.

With acknowledgement to “How Flowers Changed the World” by Loren Eiseley.

Where cliff and surf collide

High tide and high winds churn the sea floor beneath the Pinnacle, viewed from Cypress Grove Trail.

There’s no scene here that fails to take your breath away. Tendrils of fog drift through stands of pine and dissolve over coves cut steeply in granite. Squadrons of pelicans sweep low over rock castles battered jagged by eons of sea. On the lee sides of cypress limbs, rust-orange algae cling like frost. Sea lions bray from their island citadels and sea otters float on their backs in carpets of kelp. And accompanying every image and every scent is the thunder of water breaking against rock. Welcome to Point Lobos.

In the long, narrow display case of the California coastline, Point Lobos State Reserve is the jewel that glistens like no other. Nestled between Carmel and Big Sur off Highway 1, Point Lobos State Reserve occupies only 1,300 acres of coastland. But they are 1,300 acres of concentrated beauty.

Point Lobos is both monumental and intimate. Whether your tastes gravitate to whales or wildflowers, the cracking of cliff against surf or the silence of grazing deer, whether you spend a weekend or an afternoon, the images, the scents, the galvanizing salt breezes here will be impossible to forget.

The state takes the fragile beauty of the reserve seriously. Entrance into the park is limited to 450 visitors at a time, not only to reduce wear and tear on the ecosystem but to provide a measure of solitude in this inspirational environment.

The reserve is named after its Punta de los Lobos Marinos, Point of the Sea Wolves, where you’re serenaded by choirs of sea lions perched on an archipelago of rocks. If you want to come straight to the point, take the entrance road straight ahead and park at Sea Lion Point.

The Monterey Cypress known as Old Veteran clings to the granite of Cypress Cove’s east wall in defiance of the wear and tear of wind, rain and gravity.

From here you can get a good view – and earful – of Point Lobos’ stellar attractions: the harbor seal and California sea lion. The smaller and more plentiful harbor seal is a year-round resident of the reserve, while the adult male sea lion – some measuring 8 feet and weighing 800 pounds – leaves Point Lobos in June and July to cruise for chicks in the Channel Islands off Southern California.

If you’re out for a scenic hike with a dramatic arc, Whalers Cove at Cannery Point is a good spot to park. Take your first right past the entrance kiosk. Along North Shore Trail, beginning at Whalers Cove, you can experience Point Lobos in a gradual crescendo of grandeur. You’ll see the ocean foam over the brown rocks of Cannery Point and follow pelicans carving a graceful glide around Guillemot Island.

Hop onto a side trail at Cypress Cove and behold the poignant dignity of Old Veteran, a Monterey Cypress that epitomizes the struggle for survival in this rugged environment, defying the force of wind, gravity and erosion. Anchored onto the edge of Cypress Cove’s east wall, Old Veteran’s roots dangle precariously over the ocean and its branches support banks of foliage that hover like clouds.

When you come to Cypress Grove Trail, hang a right and take the loop around Allan Memorial Grove, where the trail escorts you past a vignette of The Pinnacle, a mini-mountain jutting from the ocean floor. Cypress Grove Trail climaxes at Headland Cove, where all the reserve’s virtues converge: wave and rock, cliff and forest, bird, mammal and fish, and the ocean’s unfathomable span.

Beach Aster, South Shore Trail.

At Headland Cove you’ve reached the reserve’s midpoint. There are many more wonders to savor, both inland along the South Plateau and Mound Meadow trails, and at the sea’s swelling edge on the South Shore and Bird Island trails. If the sea is in a theatrical mood, head down to a peninsula of rock called The Slot, where the Pacific becomes a paragon of physics: gathering itself, cresting and striking with optimal force. Water becomes thunder; blue-green erupts in geysers of glinting white.

A word of caution about The Slot: observe the swelling and slamming of the sea from a safe distance. Let The Slot bear the brunt of breakers. Come too close and, in the most lethal sense of the phrase, you’ll “get carried away.”

Beneath the surface of the Pacific a mile north of the point, the bottom of Carmel Bay drops a thousand feet down. In another five miles the Monterey Canyon plummets to a depth of 7,000 feet. The result: over half of Point Lobos is under water. A full 750 acres of the reserve is devoted to divers, who take advantage of the reserve’s proximity to deep water and the phenomenal variety of creatures it affords. At Whalers Cove, adventurers in wetsuits plunge into 70-foot high kelp forests where southern sea otters play and rockfish weave in and out of view. Harbor seals and California sea lions are plentiful here. From the scale of the tiny to the colossal, from iridescent phytoplankton to gray whales on their migration routes, the world under the water’s surface is one of the chief attractions of this place.

A walk through Point Lobos is an exercise in time travel. Two types of rock inhabit its foundation. The Carmello Formation, a sedimentary rock at least 55 million years old, dominates the terrain of Sea Lion Point, Whalers and Moss coves and the south shore. In some places it's twisted into such bizarre and lurid shapes you’ll swear you’re walking on another planet. The other dominant rock, Santa Lucia granite, forms the craggy majesty of Point Lobos’ famed north shore and Hidden Beach. The granite solidified some 80 million years ago.

The Pacific Ocean unleashes its fury at Sand Hill Cove, which pits overeager photographers against lethal plumes of seawater.

But rock and seawater aren’t the only treasures of Point Lobos. The reserve is one of three places on the coast where the Monterey pine grows naturally. Without the fog drip provided by the Point Lobos’ microclimate, the tree wouldn’t survive the area’s dry summers. The other tree for which the reserve is famous is the Monterey cypress. Its gnarled roots cling fiercely to sheer walls of granite along Point Lobos’ many coves. The rust-colored substance glazing much of the coastal foliage is, ironically, green algae turned orange by carotene pigment. Wildflower aficionados will enjoy the spectrum spanned by Point Lobos’ delicate petals, from blue blossom to the amber of sticky monkeyflower to the lavender tones of beach aster.

We Californians are blessed with an abundance of natural wonders. We’re also blessed with striking-distance proximity to the quintessence of coastal splendor. When our spirits sense the call of the sea, we know it’s time to get to the Point.

For more information, visit www.pointlobos.org.

Make the pilgrimage with Annie

Donner Creek, Mt. Diablo.

When winter rains turn hiking trails into rivers of mud, we trekkers get our revenge by taking it inside: we grab a steaming beverage and nestle into our favorite chair with a good book. When we need a ride out of Cabin Fever City, there’s no better form of transport than our very own author-ignited imagination.

What to read? If you’ve ever felt the sun on your face in spring and been engulfed by a wave of awe and gratitude, or if you’ve ever witnessed up close the suffering of a loved one and shuddered at the hideous side of our existence; if you’ve ever been overwhelmed by the world’s beauty or suffocated by its horror and wanted to put a name to it, pick up a copy of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard.

“Pilgrim” is a book about the world of water and sky, trees and insects; broad in scope and painstaking in detail. It’s a book about the author’s inner landscape, an intimate and confessional diary. And it’s a book about the Why of the world’s joy and misery, an attempt not only to describe, but understand.

After a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia in 1971, Dillard retreated to the solitude of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and banks of Tinker Creek, where she found healing and inspiration. The result, in addition to her recuperation, was the book for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 1975.

What makes the reading of “Pilgrim” so rewarding is Dillard’s dilated point of view. Her senses, her mind and her heart are fully open to the world’s phenomena – and their implications. She sees profundity in the simple and splendor in the ordinary. “It is dire poverty indeed,” she writes, “when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”

Morning on Mt. Tamalpais.

“Pilgrim” is charged with an ecstatic tone but Dillard’s portrayal of the natural world is unsentimental. She not only concedes that nature is red in tooth and claw; she gives us the gory details. Her account of a frog’s skull being collapsed by a water bug sucking it dry from beneath the creek’s surface is a tour de force of ghastly description. Later, Dillard expresses bewilderment at the fact that 10 percent of the world’s species are parasitic insects, which suggests a disturbing possibility about the Creator: “What if you were an inventor, and you made ten percent of your inventions in such a way that they could only work by harassing, disfiguring or totally destroying the other ninety percent?”

Dillard is a Christian, yet she draws from the wisdom of traditions as diverse as Buddism, Sufism, Eskimo lore and Hasidic Judaism. She embraces the paradox that existence is a blessing and a curse; that in our universe, creation and destruction are mysteriously intertwined. And yet she doesn’t let God off the hook for bringing it all into being. What Dillard concludes about the nature of God is consoling and disturbing, blatant and subtle.

“Pilgrim” urges us to step out and experience the moment. In a twist on the standard meaning of a familiar phrase, Dillard exhorts us to spend the afternoon: “You can’t take it with you.” For her, God’s grace imparted through the world of Tinker Creek is available at any moment. The least we can do is be present when the moment arrives. “The secret of seeing,” she writes, “is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the nearest puff.”

As a form of transport, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” is more like soaring than slogging. It’s a pilgrimage worth making.

Moss Beach – low tide, high visibility

Moss Beach marvels, clockwise from upper left: a purple-colored ochre star lounges in a tide pool; a visitor follows a squadron of pelicans above Seal Cove; giant green anemones flaunt their tentacles; and stalked barnacles cling to a rock face.

Sun and moon tug on our ocean and its waters recede. Earth twirls on its axis and the blue sky dissolves to black. These eternal rhythms do more than inspire awe – they unmask marvels. When the sun sets, we see stars. When the tide rolls out, we see starfish.

And we see them in full glory at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach. When winter rains make a mudfest of conventional hiking trails, what better venue for an adventure than a sandy beach?

The organisms that roam the coast are as bizarre as the monsters of sci-fi. The hermit crab wears a snail shell like an oversized turban while scavenging for decayed plant and animal matter. The starfish known as the sea bat feeds by projecting its stomach through its mouth into its victim’s shell opening, discharging digestive enzymes, sucking its liquefied prey like some ghastly slurpee and retracting its stomach back into its body.

South of San Francisco and north of Half Moon Bay, the Fitzgerald reserve’s 3-mile stretch of shoreline and rocky reefs displays an impressive quantity and diversity of marine life, from delicate coralline alga to giant green anemones, from stalked barnacles to gray whales. Bird lovers can trace the graceful glide of pelicans low over the sea or watch herons wade in the shallows looking for lunch while harbor seals cool their heels on the sand.

For the record, you’ll find scant moss at Moss Beach. In the late 1800s, a German immigrant named Jürgen Wienke bought the seaside property and, according to legend, dubbed an odd form of alga growing there “moss.” Wienke’s misnomer eventually spread to include the entire beach. The moss you will find here is well above the beach – delicate tendrils flowing from a throng of Monterey cypresses standing sentinel on the reserve’s tall bluffs. The Bluff Trail affords not only a bird’s-eye view of the beach; from it you can commandeer a vista both intimate and breathtaking. Sunset on the Pacific doesn’t get any finer.

Harbor seals enjoy a snooze on a blustery afternoon.

Head south on the cliff trail and in a few minutes you’ll pop out onto a street leading to the historic Moss Beach Distillery, founded in the rum-running Prohibition era. You can mosey over to a patio anchored on bluffs overlooking the ocean and, libation in hand, sit down to an excellent seafood dinner. The distillery even boasts a resident ghost, the Blue Lady, responsible for weird cameo appearances on premises.

To catch the optimal exposure of Fitzgerald’s reserve’s reefs and terraces, visit at low tide. Log on to www.fitzgeraldreserve.org/newffmrsite/lowtides. The site gives you a detailed table of tides for a given date and time of day. You’ll find that this Saturday and Sunday, January 9 and 10, low tides in the afternoon will unveil the wonders beneath the water.

Surf’s down!

Light pollution threatens body and soul

Photo by auimeesri/iStock/Getty Images

It was late. Late in the year and long after nightfall. I was standing on a tall hill a few miles from home. It was dark, but the darkness was more than acceptable; it was essential. If your plan is to get pelted by the glory of the Leonid meteor shower on a chilly November night – if you insist on paying that price – you find the darkest sky in the county.

Above, Leonids skittered across the pond of the cosmos like water bugs, some flaring out so brightly they made me blink. Below, in the moonless dark, the world was heard more than seen. I went quietly. Whatever creatures were out there, I wanted to hear them before they heard me. I didn’t use a flashlight. Whatever creatures were out there, I wanted to see them before they saw me.

One set of lights, however, was hard to ignore: a galaxy. A galaxy not above, but below. Spread beneath the horizon from northwest to northeast were the lights of East Contra Costa – miniature points of white and orange punctuated by blue and red, glittering like the stars of a spiral galaxy seen edge-on.

Brentwood formed the galaxy’s bright nucleus. Northeast beyond Brentwood glowed Oakley. Far northwest flowed Antioch’s river of lights against the backdrop of San Joaquin’s dark bank. A ripple of white marked the galaxy’s eastern hinterland: Discovery Bay.

If the lights inspired a celestial metaphor, they also inspired dismay. The glare of human habitation bleached the black sky to a blue-grey that erased the dimmer meteors and stars. High overhead, in the darkest sector of sky, the sapphire pendant of the Pleiades was barely visible. Those primal lights blossoming in the meadow of darkness above were no match for the phony photons of humanity below.

We have fought the darkness from the beginning, illuminated caves and continents, resisted night as we resist mortality itself. Step out into your back yard tonight and look up. On a clear, dark evening you should be able to spot about 2,700 stars. If you live near the center of an East County city, you’ll be lucky to spot a hundred.

Astronomy buffs aren’t the only ones to suffer from humanity’s assault on darkness. Our inefficient artificial light wastes energy, scrambles the life patterns of wildlife and disrupts human biorhythms.

The light pollution that washes out all but the brightest stars is due mainly to poor design, which directs artificial light not only downward, where it’s needed, but upward and outward, where it’s wasted. But poor design is the tip of the iceberg. Light – for billions of years expressed mainly as sunlight and moonlight – exerts its power on all the world’s creatures.

The artificial light that makes days unnaturally long and nights unnaturally short alters the feeding patterns, breeding patterns and migration schedules of birds. Some arrive at their nesting sites too early in the season. Ocean-based gas flares on oil platforms and land-based searchlights attract seabirds and songbirds like magnets, causing them to circle the lights till they drop from exhaustion. Birds on their night migrations crash into brightly lit skyscrapers.

Ponds and marshes, once far from civilization and now flooded by the light of highways, no longer provide frogs and toads the illumination signals evolved over eons – signals that govern their nocturnal breeding habits.

The loss of darkness collides with sea turtles’ preference for dark beaches on which to nest. The reflective sea horizon no longer shines brighter than the artificially lit land behind the beach, confounding turtle hatchlings. In droves they head away from the water and die.

The skyline of Hong Kong. Photo by shirophoto/iStock/Getty Images

Light pollution is also hazardous to human health. Our biological clock depends on darkness as much as light. Increased artificial light at night from lamps, TVs and electronic gizmos disrupts our circadian rhythms and contributes to sleep disorders. And it gets worse: evidence gathered over the last decade is persuasive enough to have prompted the AMA in 2012 to support continued research into the connection between excessive artificial light at night and the incidence of breast cancer. In 2007, the World Health Organization’s cancer research division classified night-shift work as a “probable carcinogen.”

Were light pollution perfectly harmless to our physical health, it would remain harmful to our spiritual health. When we lose an appreciation for darkness we lose an essential component of human consciousness. The lights cast across the cosmos were not turned on by a switch thrown by human hands. We internalize that fact through awe and wonder: the direct experience of the night sky. The vast and cold emptiness between stars is the rule throughout our universe, not the exception. When we internalize that fact, we’ll treasure the warmth of our relationships more than ever. As darkness makes light sweeter, emptiness makes interconnectedness sweeter.

As I stood on the hill that night and followed the shining slashes above, I felt a connection to humankind more powerfully than if I’d stood smack in the center of the city. Far from the fluorescent tubes of the grocery store and prismatic acrylic refractor globes of downtown, I felt what my ancestors felt when they stood beneath the dome of darkness strewn with stars, planets and the gossamer river of the Milky Way: I felt the immediacy and ancientry, the greatness and smallness of my place in the cosmos.

My meteor stint was an all-nighter. By 5:45, as the faintest rumor of dawn betrayed the Sierra’s sawtooth silhouette, the local coyote pack had regathered and launched into its pre-dawn chorus, sharing tales of the evening hunt. A single voice – the pack leader’s – suddenly penetrated the shrieks, howls and rapid-fire yaps. The chorus fell silent. The leader took a few moments to speak his piece, and the pack erupted in another cataract of noise. The leader’s chant silenced them again. And again they answered.

The call-and-response ritual continued for a minute beneath a paling sky flecked by the final stars. And I wondered if any coyotes had remarked on the streaks in the sky or the two-legged creature atop the distant hill. The pack and I had pursued a different quest that night but had shared the darkness.

I wove my way back down the hill, guided by the immeasurably slow swelling of dawn, looking forward to reunion with the other creatures connected to me.

Epic effort? Hey, no problem

Photo by Chris Ryan/OJO Images/Getty Images

The host led Leia and me to our table. We took our seats. I said “thanks.” The host said “no problem.” I was tempted to tell the host “I’m mighty relieved to hear that leading us to our table was no problem” but I knew Leia would shoot me a glance that could melt iridium.

Leia ordered wine; I ordered beer. The server delivered them. Leia said “thanks.” The server said “no problem.” I was tempted to tell the server “that’s fascinating; it never occurred to me that delivering our beverages would be a problem” but I knew my reply would be interrupted by an eyeball-rattling pain to my shin delivered by the point of Leia’s shoe. 

By the time dinner was done and we breezed through the restaurant’s exit, we’d been treated to an unofficial count of nine “no problem”s. I imagined thanking a Good Samaritan for yanking my car out of the ditch in a sub-zero blizzard. For my sake he missed his once-in-lifetime job interview, subluxated every vertebra in his spine and probably needed several fingers amputated due to frostbite. And I wanted him to know I appreciated it.

“No problem,” he replied.

It’s official: to paraphrase Nietzsche, “you’re welcome” is dead.

Is it unreasonable to demand that everyone be aware of the literal meaning of the words they use? Probably. I knew a guy who always greeted me with “hey, baby, what are you doing?!” I’ll never forget his facial expression when, after weeks of replying with “hi,” I gave him a play-by-play account of what I was doing. He looked at me as if I were radioactive.

It’s tempting as customers to view service providers’ “no problem” as dismissive and self-centered. “No problem” directs attention to the thanked person, the service person. “You’re welcome” directs it to the thanker, the customer. My personal preference, “my pleasure,” also directs attention to the thankee, but in a genial way: “I take pleasure in doing this for you” (that a problem might be involved is irrelevant and off the table).

So what’s the problem with “no problem? Are those who use the phrase being deliberately dismissive and self-centered? No, the problem is: they’re not being anything – but using words that convey meaning anyhow. The possibility that their effort on your behalf might have been a problem is not a thought that fires in their synapses. To them, “no problem” isn’t an attempt at precise communication; it’s an attempt to fill the moment with a social noise. “No problem” could mean “you’re welcome,” “my pleasure,” “no worries,” “whatevs” or “indubitably.” Its true meaning, I suspect, is far less genial. It means “I heard you thank me.” Nothing more.

And that’s the problem: We talk like we think. Unexamined language exposes unexamined thought. How many folks who use the phrase “I could care less” (instead of the original and correct “I couldn’t care less”) realize they’re expressing the exact opposite of their intended meaning? How many who use “it’s all downhill from here” as a negative term realize they’re flip-flopping the meaning of the original and correct metaphor (“after a hard slog uphill we get to coast downhill; it’s all good from here”)? Again: the exact opposite of their intended meaning.

In a world in which we’re bombarded from every point of the compass by those bent on persuading us to do their bidding – from politicians to advertisers – it’s never unwise to examine the meaning of words.

Some social critiques are attempts at promoting change. My riff on “no problem” has no such ambition. Let’s not fool ourselves: the situation’s hopeless. I’m not offended by “no problem” – just disappointed. But it’s only a matter of time before I lose patience and chasten a bewildered restaurant employee with my “no problem” tirade. How to avoid the unavoidable?

I should quit dining out.

Friday the 13th – perfect day for dental work

Jerry Seinfeld once remarked that one of his chief pet peeves is the term “pet peeve.” I know the feeling: I’m so unsuperstitious that I’m positively superstitious about it. Show me a ladder and I’ll duck under it in a heartbeat; point out a black cat and I’ll cross its path in a flash. Inform me that the 13th of November, 2015 falls on a Friday and I’ll yawn till my jaw joint cracks.

So when my dentist asked me to pick a date for repairs on a fractured tooth, I mulled it over for a nanosecond and replied, “How does Friday the 13th work for you?” Works for me.

Apophenia, the interpretation of meaningless phenomena in meaningful ways, seems hard-wired into the human brain. On Oct. 10, 2010 – 10/10/10 – more than 39,000 couples in the United States were wed, nearly 10 times the nuptial number of the comparable day in the previous year. Elvis impersonators hit the jackpot on 11/11/11, when the Viva Las Vegas wedding chapel recorded 200 bookings, four times the norm.

I’m no psychologist, but I’ve seen enough of human behavior to take an educated guess about who’s pushing the easy-to-remember anniversary numbers. It’s the grooms.

Some superstitions that seem numeric are actually sonic. Superstitious people in Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam shun the number four, a homophone for the word for death. This influences the assigning of numbers to cell phones, floors in buildings (skipping four, as we in the West sometimes skip 13) and names to streets. If this strikes you as foolish, imagine our Western numbering system containing an exact sonic match for “bloodbath.” How’d you like to live on Bloodbath Boulevard?

What prompts some superstition isn’t numbers or sounds – just wishful thinking. Some folks believe that if they use the same pen when taking a test that they used when studying for the test, the pen will remember the answers, well … the pen is mightier than their gourd.

If I’m wrong about this, if our superstitions correspond to the way things truly work, if the number 13 is truly jinxed, we’re all in deep doo-doo. It means that the cosmos is supervised by a malicious prankster, that the slightest slip-up can trigger tragic consequences, as when the groom who drops the wedding band during the ceremony dooms the marriage. Who knows what other innocent acts ignite icky outcomes? Maybe the cosmic prankster decided to lay a curse on dentists who whistle “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” while performing root canals upside down (which might even qualify as an “original sin"; it’s certainly original).

If you’re superstitious and want to break the habit, go break a mirror. Thumb your nose at the cosmic prankster and track the consequences. Keep a journal – in the case of the mirror, every day for seven years. Or make a dental appointment for Friday the 13th. Dental work: drilling and chiseling on sensitive nerve endings in your mouth. What could possibly go wrong?!

But to the true believer on this inauspicious Friday, November 13, 2015: Relax. Embrace your superstition. Take a deep breath. And never mind that it rhymes with death.

Halloween gross-out: wasp v. spider smackdown

Tarantula, Round Valley.

In the 1979 film “Alien,” a monster in hatchling form lays a parasitic larva inside one of the good guys. The larva matures in a couple hours and – no respecter of immaculate walls and ceilings – bursts through the host’s chest as a small (soon to grow really really large) beast with little or no sense of humor.

One factor that keeps our eyes riveted to the screen is the consolatory concept “it’s just a movie.” Just fiction. But where do these makers of horror fiction get some of their best ideas? From the facts.

Of the creatures we run across in real life, the spider ranks high on the creep-out quotient. A life form grotesquely unlike us, it sports eight legs and way too many eyes for our taste. It wears its skeleton on its sleeve and its abdomen in its back pocket. And it dines with a gruesome gentility, paralyzing its prey with venom, wrapping the hapless victim in silk while its innards liquefy, and returning later to sip away with a straw.

One creature that suffers from not a twinge of arachnophobia is the tarantula hawk (we’ll shorthand it as “T. hawk”), a large wasp that preys on tarantulas. As in “Alien,” the T. hawk delivers an especially nasty package to its victim. But the horror inflicted on the character Kane in “Alien” is a spa holiday compared to the real-life tarantula’s ordeal. Shall we elaborate?

The male tarantula stops growing at about age 7 and sheds his exoskeleton for the last time. Normally a nocturnal creature, the mature male leaves the protection of his burrow in September and October and goes searching for a mate in broad daylight. That procreative impulse is good for the species but hazardous to the suitor’s health. Out in the open, the tarantula is a prime target for the T. hawk.

The T. hawk measures up to 2 inches in length, making it one of the largest wasps in the world. It hunts the tarantula on the ground, by scent, skittering around till it finds the female spider’s burrow or locates the male spider while he’s out cruising for chicks.

A tarantula hawk sips nectar at Los Vaqueros. The wasp uses the spider not as food, but as a larva nursery.

The T. hawk probes the spider with its antennae, formulates a plan of attack and strikes with its stinger, which delivers a paralytic blow to the tarantula’s nervous system from which the spider never recovers.

A tarantula expelled from its burrow and paralyzed will be dragged back to the burrow; a tarantula ambushed in the open will be dragged to a burrow excavated by the T. hawk. The female wasp lays an egg on the spider’s abdomen and seals the crypt.

It takes about a week for the larva to hatch. Keep in mind that the spider isn’t dead; merely paralyzed. The T. hawk grub burrows into the spider’s abdomen and feeds – and here’s the icky part – bypassing the spider’s vital organs in order to keep it alive. Clever little grub. When dessert time comes and the spider’s vitals are finally devoured, the grub begins the pupation process, which takes a few weeks. The cute little T. hawk grub morphs into an adult, then re-enacts the “Alien” scene in a climactic belly burst.

A public-service announcement: the T. hawk’s sting is hazardous not only to the tarantula’s health; it can put the human nervous system on pain overload. Although the T. hawk isn’t easily provoked, its sting ranks among the most painful of any insect. According to biochemist Justin O. Schmidt, the T. hawk sting delivers “immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.” Outside Magazine’s Katie Arnold describes the sting as “blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.” The good news: the peak pain lasts only three minutes and isn’t lethal.

In Round Valley's Murphy Meadow, a male tarantula inspects a burrow in hopes of hitting on some long-legged, eight-legged brunette.

The male tarantula leads a hard life. He must fend off not only the T. hawk, but the female tarantula during mating. A famished female will kill (though seldom eat) the male if he fails to make a swift and smooth exit from the coital scene. As a defense, the male grows two tibial spurs (“stirrups”) with which he hooks and neutralizes the female’s fangs before mating.

After luring the female out of her burrow and impregnating her, the male tarantula never returns to his own burrow. He puts his nose to the reproductive grindstone and continues pounding the pavement for poontang until the lethal winds of November – or a T. hawk – permanently ends his quest.

Tarantula mating season is nearly done. If you’re lucky enough to cross paths with these remarkable creatures, admire, take your snapshots, but cut them some slack. Unlike those cardboard creepy-crawlies infesting our haunted houses, they’re probably minding their own besotted business.

And if you hear a buzzing noise and spot a large, orange-winged, black-bodied wasp, follow the the tarantula’s inspiring example. Duck for cover.

East Bay park pros: stars behind the scenery

Eddie Willis explains Native American cosmology at Vasco Caves Regional Park.

It was late August but I wasn't late for dawn. By 6:35 the Round Valley summit was flooded by the light of a burnt-red sun flaring through a gap in the sawtooth silhouette of the Sierra. Atop that highest hill in the park – my treasured sanctuary – stood a blue oak I call Old One – my treasured tree.

As I approached Old One to pay my respects a strange object came into focus – dozens of strange objects. Throughout the tree's mesh of twigs and leaves hung tiny red … thingys … as if a swarm of miniature sea urchins had blown through and latched on.

I snapped photos of the little buggers, hurried home and knocked off an e-note to Denise Defreese, who at the time supervised Round Valley for the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). The gist of the note: what the heck are these red thingys? Are they hazardous to the tree's health?

I hit “send” and moseyed downstairs to brew a cup of coffee and get down to the serious business of writer's procrastination.

When I returned to my inbox 30 minutes later I found that 10 minutes earlier Denise had written back, explaining that the thingys in question were “urchin galls” laid by gall wasps. No danger to the tree. She dialed me in to Ron Russo's excellent “Call of the Galls, The Lively Universe of an Ancient Oak,” published on Bay Nature's website.

Who says you can't get good service nowadays?

In 2014 the EBRPD, the largest urban park district in the nation, celebrated its 80th birthday, replete with art, harvest and wildflower festivals, concerts, a health program, outdoor movies, a gala dinner at the Claremont – you name it. But amid the well-deserved hoopla, the district did what it does year in and year out: provided access to the world of nature that lies just outside our doorstep; access to the awe that world inspires, the healing it offers.

I've been blessed. I've traced with my fingertip a bobcat's track embossed on the caked mud; felt the spring wind sifted through a thousand Coulter pine needles; heard the crazy chorus of a coyote pack assembling for the evening hunt.

Roger Epperson Ridge, Morgan Territory Regional Preserve. The inscription reads “In memory of Roger Epperson (1954-2008) in recognition of his significant and lasting contributions to the East Bay Regional Park District and the landscapes he loved.”

Mike Moran leads a Raptor Baseline expedition at Big Break Regional Shoreline.

I've been blessed. So I bless the rangers and docents and supervisors who help me understand what I'm touching and feeling and hearing. I bless those who negotiate with landowners and buy the properties; those who design the trails, build the bridges – heck, maintain the outhouses – at those havens of natural beauty. I bless those who do the dirty work of ripping out poison oak and yellow star thistle, and those who do the clean but hard work that takes place in offices and meeting rooms.

“What is it about the people in the district – in our DNA – that makes us responsive?” said EBRPD GM Robert Doyle. “We were small. We're big now, but we were small. It's still a family of caring. All our park supervisors care about their parks. They know it's pretty special to work out in this stuff – and that the public's who they work for. They're professional and very committed to their mission. And that's personal – as much as anything in the institution. I'm extremely proud of the staff here.”

The EBRPD heroes who over the years have graced me with their time and assistance are too numerous to recount, but include Carol Alderdice, Rex Caufield, Jim Cooper, Defreese, Doyle, Emily Hopkins, Carol Johnson, Isa Polt-Jones, John McKana, Patrick McIntyre, Mike Moran, Traci Parent and Eddie Willis.

Navigating this juggernaut through the turbulent waters of national and regional economics is no small task. For those unfamiliar with the scale of this enterprise, the EBRPD manages 65 parks (including shorelines, preserves, wildernesses, recreation areas, inter-park trails and land-bank areas) comprising more than 1,250 miles of trails laid out on more than 119,000 acres. And let's not overlook the 235 family campsites plus 42 youth camping areas; 10 interpretive and education centers; 11 freshwater swimming areas, boating and/or stocked fishing lakes and lagoons plus a disabled-accessible swimming pool; 40 fishing docks and three bay fishing piers. And when when 5,000 state park employees lost their jobs during the recent recession, not a single EBRPD person was laid off.

Where the district goes from here will be watched with interest by its constituency: the campers, cyclists and runners; the chirpy families, solo hikers and cyclist convoys who pay these facilities around 25 million annual visits.

One way the district must go is to adapt to the constituency's changing face.“Everybody knows that when you go hiking, you're enjoying it but you're also doing it for your health,” said Doyle. “It's part of your stress release and exercise. But the park agencies were never overt about it. It was, 'Go enjoy the beautiful scenery and the wildlife and the environment.' And we're trying to be more direct. We have a national crisis of obesity with kids, and heart attack with seniors.”

To that end, the district has become a partner in Healthy Parks, Healthy People, a worldwide effort to promote fitness by getting folks off their duffs and into the world of nature. Among the slew of activities offered by the EBRPD are bike rides, kayaking, birdwatching, wildflower discovery, a host of programs tailored to kids, and the Trails Challenge, the district's longstanding self-guided hiking program.

Spying on raptors at Vasco Caves.

The district must also contend with one of the culprits in our current health crisis: the popularity of social media and its power to keep kids indoors and indolent. Doyle's generation “would be out climbing trees, getting dirty, looking under rocks,” he said. “Now kids go 'Eewww. I'd rather get on my social network.' And for us, the environment was social. We were always with a gang of friends – with our girlfriends, with friend-friends, in groups camping out. It was very social. But social now is 'social media.' So how do we build the next generation of park supporters?

“The generation who raised me are all gone now. They were all environmentalists. They were the people who established Save Mt. Diablo, Save the Bay, the state park system. They're gone. The people I got connected with in high school are in their 50s. Where's that next group of kids who wants to come charging up the road?"

That road is more than metaphorical. “We shouldn't say, 'Don't go off the road; this is a fragile environment,'" said Doyle. "This is a tough-as-nails environment. What ruins an environment is dozing off the hilltop and putting a building on top of it. If a bicycle or a horse or a group of kids get off trail, yes, they can cause some damage. So does a big pond-filler of a storm. My biggest worry isn't the economy or public support for the park district in general. It's: where do we get the next generation of men, women, Hispanics, Asians interested in representing the state and taking care of the parks?”

How we answer that question will cast a glaring light on the priorities of our heart. As Terry Tempest Williams put it in “Testimony,” “If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go.”

Next time you cross paths with a park service worker, the star of the show – from whichever generation – grooming a trail or cleaning an outhouse, don't forget to thank that person. For us all.