Seeing Green

Image of mountain trail

Soon to be on the beaten path?

The Irish know a thing or two about marketing. First there is green. It appears even in food–like cabbage and beer. There are evocative logos–leprechauns, shamrocks, harps. At this time of the year wearin’ o’ the green becomes obligatory even for those whose roots are far removed from the “old sod”.

All of this ballyhoo comes at an appropriate time of the year. Our very own hills wear Irish green for a few brief months. Since many of us have willfully chosen to join our Irish friends in their celebration of all things green, why not extend this clever marketing to a celebration our own “new sod”?

Wherever you are in the South Bay, if you raise your eyes slightly, you will see voluptuous green hills–hills that, for the most part, remain unaltered by human hands. This is partly because it is more difficult to build on a slope than flat land. But it is largely due to the vision of many who have sought for years to preserve this lovely sight for anyone who wishes to gaze on it.

The recent acquisition of the Kirk Ranch, adjacent to Alum Rock Park, by the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority and the Trust for Public Lands adds another piece to the jigsaw puzzle of hillside properties, in hands both public and private, that ring the Bay.

A Bay Area Ridge Trail encompassing four hundred miles, nine counties, seventy-five parks, that completely circles San Francisco Bay has been in the works for many years. In earlier years the Department of the Interior provided startup money for this ambitious dream. More recently many local groups have collaborated in continuing the project. Two hundred twenty miles of trails have been completed so far.

What a gigantic endeavor this is! Some of the land has been purchased at fair market value by private donation. Some is public land, parks and open space. Some of the trail is on right-of-way agreed to by private owners. And the trail itself, sometimes wrested from seemingly impassable terrain, has been built or maintained by a cross-section of humanity that defies demographic definition.

Clark Smith, a former YSI Board member, currently serves on the Ridge Trail Council. As one of those committed to preserving the green for all to enjoy, he serves as vice-chair of the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority.  He is but one of hundreds who have spent years bringing the hills to the people and this Saturday he will take the people to the hills. At noon on Saturday, March 18th, anyone who wishes can take a hike with him along Penitencia Creek on a part of the Trail that will eventually link Alum Rock Park to Coyote Hellyer Park along Coyote Creek.

Even if you aren’t a Bailey or a Walsh, even if you never have and never will quaff a green brew or wear a shamrock, consider the green, green hills of home. They are yours. Wearin’ o’ the green never looked as good as it does on our very own Bay Area hills.

To hike the hills this Saturday, meet at the Visitors’ Center in Alum Rock Park at noon for a moderate hike. Bring lunch, water, and comfortable walking shoes. Rain cancels. For more information call Clark Smith (408) 294-6008.

Spring Starts Small

Two round spots of lichen growing on a rock

If you blink, you might miss them—lichens show a sign of Spring

Sometime in January a hint of green appeared on the brown plastic doormat leading into the house. The moisture and cool air had started something growing in this otherwise inhospitable environment. The mat covered a concrete porch several steps above the ground. Kept dry by a roof and on the sheltered side of the house, it hardly seemed a fertile spot for abundant plant life.

A few weeks later visible but miniscule plants began punctuating the now-bright green film with tiny first leaves barely clearing the surface of the mat. This rectangle began to take on the appearance of a well-tended garden albeit on a tiny scale.

My curiosity piqued, I turned to other specimens in the miniature world I rarely notice and would never know without my glasses. I began to notice lichens and mushrooms, insects and algae. There are mildews and mosses, tadpoles and larvae everywhere. Some of this life will grow to become recognizable plants and animals–frogs, dragonflies, chanterelles, or poppies. But some will remain small–even microscopic–in a part of the world where I rarely venture.

For many years I have been watching the slow growth of a lichen colony on a sheer rock wall along the road I travel daily. I first noticed it as a gray-white quarter-sized patch that glowed with eerie fluorescence at night at exactly the spot where my headlights landed as I rounded a bend in the road. I have heard that lichens can be used as an indicator of the presence or absence of air pollution. They disappear totally in areas of heavy pollution. So I have adopted this colony as my own personal monitor of the quality of the air I breathe.

It always heartens me when I spy it. And, I am happy to report it has been growing, although at such a rate I would never know if I hadn’t been monitoring it for decades. It has achieved a diameter of almost four inches in the course of twenty years. During cool moist winter it plumps up, swells ever so slightly, and ends up a little larger in the spring than it was in the fall, somehow binding itself firmly to this uncompromising surface. In summer it dries out and looks like a scaly scab on the iron-red rock.

Other mosses and lichens, some orange and chartreuse, decorate the brown skeletal frames of the trees that are dripping with rain. The tree on the patio is now clad in mossy elegance on the side away from the sun. This velvet robe in rich green points north as clearly as a compass. The regal raiment turns shabby and brown in the summer, more burlap than velvet, waiting to be revived with the first rains of winter.

These tiny life forms are as distant as the stars from my world in both size and conception. They too speak of space imagined but not understood. But in them the richness of spring is apparent. Ephemeral or enduring, their size only hints at the changes to come.

Deer Friends

I first noticed it about three years ago—the horse down the road had company. The horse belonged to neighbors who kept it in a meadow which occupied a flat at the top of the ridge. A young deer stood munching contently in a far corner having its fill of the tender spring grass. The meadow was partially ringed with four courses of sagging barbed wire, a fence that sufficed to keep the horse from wandering but was hardly a barrier to a nimble deer.

Deer sharing a meadow with a horse

Making friends and just horsing around.

The house faced into the meadow and secured one side of the enclosure. There was no doubt that the horse was part of the family. In the early morning I would see it, its two front hooves resting on the stoop, waiting quietly for the door to open. I was into this familiar setting that the young deer wandered.

This singular sight was repeated many times in the next few months when I happened by at the right hour. That hour seemed to be when full sunlight warmed the glade. Normally the deer of the mountain come out in late twilight and bolt at the sight of a car. But this deer, fully exposed in the daylight, scarcely raised its head as I sailed by. Was the protection of the fence—or the horse—enough to overcome the inborn caution of a skittish deer?

Day by day the deer inched closer to the horse. Eventually the doe, now full grown and about half the size of the horse, could be seen grazing head to head with it, each apparently fully at ease in the other’s company.

The following year the horse was joined by more deer, some not yet fully grown. Were these the offspring of the doe who first took liberties in the meadow? By the third year the place was alive with deer—and the single horse. A sense of peace pervaded the meadow. No longer did the horse stand impatiently on the stoop waiting for company.

History is filled with such tales of unlikely alliances and in congruent pictures. It seems we animals share more than we sometimes realize. Was there a bond or simply a tolerance that developed between the horse and the deer? Or was there indifference in the face of abundance?

And then there is the aquatic tank at YSI in Vasona Park where the Western pond turtle frequently perches on top of the bullfrog for hours on end. The bullfrog, faster, larger and with powerful leg muscles, could certainly avoid this subservient posture or even hurl the turtle off if it chose. What is there in it for the turtle to ride atop the frog in this fashion? Why does the bullfrog comply? What force creates such cozy familiarity?

There is a lot that goes on in this world we know very little about. As for teaching tolerance, maybe there is a thing or two we could learn from others in our kingdom. A little horse sense never hurt anyone.

And The Rains Came

It seemed like it had been raining forever. The rain dripped off my nose. My shoes slurped with each step. Like most people I welcomed the rain. I know what it means to have too little. During the seven-year drought, our well ran dry. But after more than six inches in as many days the ground was saturated. What came down was now running off as fast as it fell taking whatever it could with it.


Each drop in the bucket carries us downstream

A trickle ran down from the trail beyond the house and into the driveway. It knifed its way through the gravel exposing the soft rock below. It collected creating an ever-deepening puddle. The puddle spilled over becoming a rivulet that cut into the lower edge of the drive carving a jagged notch before it ran down through the chaparral below.

Down the hill other freshets emerged. They joined becoming a stream that splashed out through small trees gushing into the gully alongside the road. I watched as buck brush washed down from the hillside onto the pavement afloat in red-brown muck blocking one lane. The water, following the hill, swerved out over the road around the slide. Now brown with mud it continued, cutting a deep gash along the edge of the pavement undermining the asphalt. An occasional culvert relieved the flow and diverted it down the hill on the other side of the road. But more often it spilled over covering the road in a wash that left rock and gravel, turning the pavement to creek.

Eventually a thousand rivulets, a hundred thousand trickles, joined together to plunge down vertical rock once bone-dry in summer heat. The falls, frothy white during lulls in the storm now mud-brown in the downpour, carried the mountain down to the sea. What part of my driveway now colored this torrent?

Around the bend the road slumped, the weight of water and underground springs causing the surface to drift ever lower. The paving showed cracks. It was close to the spot where three stories of mud had closed the road for three days in 1984.

Trees above road cuts were starting to tilt. A few on slopes slowly skidded with root balls intact, open mud wounds marking their progress.

Would the rain never stop?

But this surfeit of moisture could neither dampen my spirit nor depress my soul. I am grateful for rain. I have only respect for its effect on my life. Too much can reek havoc, produce devastation, destroy; too little can do the same. It can tear down mountains and flatten valleys. It can spark life and drown it. I long for it in summer, welcome it in fall. It is beyond my control.

At last the downpour lightened. A patch of blue appeared. A faint rainbow arched across the sky. But no pot of gold appeared. Only a sky darkening to charcoal followed in its wake.

It was time to get out of wet clothes and into a nice hot shower.

The Way of the Dragon

A lizard suns itself on a rock

Reminders if the Dragon are all around us.

The year is 4697, or possibly 4698, the Year of the Dragon. On February 5 the dragon, oblivious to Y2K, issued in a new lunar year with fifteen days of celebration and revelry heralding yet another spring.

And spring it is once again. Buds are swelling, frogs are croaking, the hills are turning green as life on Earth responds to the renewal spring represents. The constellations are moving in the heavens. It is time to do spring cleaning, time to refresh both body and soul, time to take stock.

For much of history we humans have looked with wonder at the life forms around us taking note of both similarities and differences. We have learned from and learned to live amidst a dazzling array of other creatures. It is not surprising that we have “adopted” some special animals to guide us.

The dragon–and we still do have dragons–symbolizes power, tension, endurance, and auspicious beginnings. It rights wrongs, champions justice; it commands vigilance, but not terror.

A fascination with dragons has inspired art, literature, and philosophy. Yet the real message of the dragon lies not in the reality or mythology of its existence, but in what it tells us about the human mind. Now, no less than in the past, there is a need to interpret the world around us, a world that that both anchors us on the earth and transports us beyond it.

We need only look around to see the representatives of the dragon living in our midst. The fence lizards, the blue-tailed skink, the gecko, the Komodo dragon are modern day versions of the dragons of old. The forked tongue, sampling its surroundings like a flame exploring a forest, the scales glistening like sequins on a brocaded frock, have been transformed by the facile mind of man to a larger-than-life legend in the dragon.

A lizard slowly stalks a cricket or grasshopper, the tension mounts. The wary insect jumps, taking it out of range just before the lizard makes its move; the complacent insect waits too long. The lesson is clear.

Nor has the endurance of the reptile in harsh surroundings escaped our notice. In the dragon it has come to signify hope and strength. This stamina beckons to us from a realm beyond our understanding, a realm of raw realty, of courage, a realm many of us have not traveled.

Lizards, salamanders, serpents share with man a complexity of form–a backbone, ribs, organs–that mark them as kin. Yet such a distant relative are they that a chasm exists between their lives and ours, one that leads to speculation and discovery, both scientific and personal.

In this Year of the Dragon you may wish to “adopt” your own animal. Let it take you on a journey of discovery of your inner world or lead you to the outer world around you. It is the spirit of the dragon you seek, not its conquest.

Gung Hay Fat Choy

If you missed San Jose’s Vietnamese Spring Festival and Parade February 6th, you can still see San Francisco’s dragon in the Chinatown Parade February 19.

Deep Freeze

Antarctic explorers on an ice ridge

A long-ago journey that still inspires us today.

The sun didn’t rise for 125 days. Forty-two men, ninety-nine dogs, and three planes lay buried under the snow waiting for the dawn. This was life in Little America, Antarctica, in the winter–May, June, July, August–of 1929.

I watched in fascination as this saga unfolded. I was seated comfortably in the spacious community room of a retirement home in Los Altos. Around me were those who remembered the momentous occasion when Admiral Richard E. Byrd first flew over the South Pole, dropping an American flag weighted with a small memorial stone honoring Amundsen, the man who had first stood upon that most desolate spot seventeen years earlier. The drama was no less gripping seventy years later.

Setting out on two ships from New York on August 25, 1928, the expedition that finally conquered the Pole was entirely made up of volunteers except for two ace cameramen. One of these two, Joseph T. Rucker, was the father of Joy Morin, the woman who had graciously consented to show me the amazing footage that had been put together decades ago by Paramount Pictures from thirty miles of film shot by the pair.

Men and supplies had been deposited on the Ross Barrier, an ice shelf over water two miles deep, just in time for the ships to depart before being locked in for the winter. Everything needed for a two-year stay had been loaded on the supply ship. This included dogs, food, and three airplanes. Before the sun set and winter plunged this “white, silent, dead” continent into impenetrable darkness, two permanent huts were sunk deep into the snow, cloth covering their walls. A tunnel built from crates of food connected the two main houses.

After enduring the monotony of the long winter, both men and dogs greeted the first glimpse of the sun with wild abandon, leaping jubilantly in the snow. Now the rush was on. Amidst sudden unpredictable blizzards, unforeseen obstacles, and necessary daily routines, the expedition prepared for the final push for the Pole.

An emergency landing station, established at the base of the Queen Maude Range, came upon the cairn left by Amundsen seventeen years earlier. The plane for the final flight, able to carry no more than five thousand pounds, was readied. At last Byrd and his crew left for the sixteen hundred mile, eighteen hour flight to the Pole.

Dodging storms and fighting for altitude to climb up the giant glaciers to reach the Antarctic Plateau required lightening the load. Two hundred pounds of emergency rations were sacrificed as an offering to this demanding land.

At 1:55 a.m. on November 29, 1929, the mission was accomplished.

Life is much different now seventy years later. But it is also much the same. Joy Morin was nine years old in 1930 when her father won an Oscar for his role in bringing this drama of conquest and courage to the world. His vision illustrates in the black and white, x-ray-like images of Antarctica the bones of our lives in a world grown complex. Strip away the trivial and there still remains in each of us a longing for both conquest and courage.