Distraction, Forgetting, and the Year Ahead

These are the days of distraction and forgetting. Of too-short days. Of wet weather that's good for us and the world around us, which is everything; but that can also be gray, soggy, and, ungrateful as it is to say, depressing. Dark end of December. The year's finale.

Anyway. We made it through 2010, and we're ready to give 2011 a go. For all of you who have happened this way and continue to do so, thanks, and I hope you all have a great year. And to conclude the scheduled programming, here's a poem that someone share with me earlier today. It's by Paul Hostovsky, a poet I knew not before today. It's posted here with a total lack of permission, but if you like it, here's a link the poet's website, where you can buy the book in which this appears ("Dusk Outside the Braille Press"). 

Be Mine

I love mankind most
when no one’s around.
On New Year’s Day for instance,
when everything’s closed
and I’m driving home on the highway alone
for hours in the narrating rain,
with no exact change,
the collector’s booth glowing ahead
in the tumbling dark
like a little lit temple
with an angel inside and a radio
which as I open my window,
a little embarrassed by
my need for change
(until the silence says
it needs no explanation),
is suddenly playing a music more lovely
than any I’ve ever heard.
And the hand—
so open, so hopeful,
that I feel an urge to kiss it—
lowers the little life-boat of itself
and takes the moist and crumpled prayer
of my dollar bill from me.
Then the tap, tap,
tinkling spill of the roll of coins
broken against the register drawer,
and the hand returning two coins, and a voice
sweeter than the radio’s music,
saying, “Have a good one, man.”
I would answer that voice if I could—
which of course I can’t—
that I’ve loved it ever since it was born
and probably longer than that.
Though “You too,”
is all I can manage,
I say it with great emotion
in a voice that doesn’t sound like me,
though it must be

Finding Eastport


Today’s adventure, after walking the dog this morning, football on TV, drowsing on the couch, puzzling over this and that: We went out on a half-afternoon of creek exploration. Our original destination was Damon Marsh, near the end of 66th Avenue in Oakland. Several creeks flow out to San Leandro Bay near there, including Arroyo Viejo, which comes down out of the hills and crosses the East Oakland flatlands near where Kate teaches.

So we drove down there, and just as we sped across the Lake Merritt Channel on the Nimitz Freeway, I spotted a blimp down toward the Coliseum. The Raiders were playing. So, figuring we’d soon be engulfed in a traffic maelstrom, we decided to cut our visit short and go to our backup destination–San Leandro Creek, near Pinehurst Road up in the hills. We did stop at a place signed “Oakport Field,” which featured a scabby baseball diamond, some beaten-up soccer goals, and a big flock of geese. The site is close enough to the stadium that you could hear the field announcement of each play, including the touchdown that put the game out of reach for the home team.

The shoreline here is well described by the Oakland Museum’s excellent “Guide to East Bay Creeks“:

“A lot of debris of human life is deposited in this area, thought provoking and instructive to the contemporary ‘archaeologist.’ Before human garbage, the creeks washed plant and animal debris down to the mudflats where it became part of the “fertilizer” for the natural productivity of the marshes. Today’s debris is recognizable — items we have all unthinkingly tossed away. Urban runoff entering the creeks through the city’s storm drains is also deposited here, a major source of Bay pollution. The juxtaposition of garbage with wild life, highways and industry with wetlands, forcefully demonstrates the need for people to assume active responsibility toward their natural environment.”

We left and took took a meandering path through up to Montclair to Skyline Boulevard then dropped down Pinehurst. We parking at the hairpin where the road’s gradual ascent up San Leandro Creek ends and the climb up the canyonsides toward Oakland begins. Always a key point on the bike ride up the road.

It was only about 4 in the afternoon, but you’re at the bottom of a deep canyon here, and it seemed to get dark quickly, especially with clouds closing overhead. We walked up a fire road from the hairpin, and it felt like deep twilight. The forest here was wet, the tree trunks and some rocks covered with a thick layer of moss. As we headed up an occasionally slick, muddy trail on the north side of the canyon along San Leandro Creek–which eventually flows down past the town of Canyon into Upper San Leandro Reservoir–we could hear hikers on a trail across the canyon and, further up, a couple of great horned owls hooting. Eventually, we broke out of the heavy cover of laurels and alders. Once we were in the open a little, we could locate roughly where the owls were calling from–a eucalyptus -filled side canyon across the way. We turned back–a light rain had started, and if we’d climbed to the top of the trail, we would have walked back down in almost total darkness).eastport.png

We walked back down to the car, then drove back up Pinehurst and north through the hills to the Lawrence Hall of Science, where we had a little in-car picnic. Back home, I checked out a topographic map of the area, and was surprised to see the name “Eastport” at the place we had parked. One thing I can tell you for sure after having passed the spots scores if not hundreds of times–there’s nothing you’d put on the map at that spot.

But looking for information on Eastport quickly turned up an astonishing series of photos of a railroad that used to emerge from a tunnel from Oakland and run down Pinehurst and, eventually, all the way to Sacramento. The line was abandoned a little more than 50 years ago. The tunnel entrance was apparently buried in a landslide during one of our rainy winters in the 1980s, and most traces of the line have been swallowed up in the undergrowth.

Of course, if that railroad had not been abandoned, if it had been part of the landscape as I had encountered it, I would not be shocked to encounter some virtual sign of its presence. Naturally, I’d take it for granted. If steelhead still fought their way up this creek to the last deep canyon carved into the hills, I’d think they were just part of the place, as they apparently were until the loggers, dammers, and railroad builders–all those people preparing the way for us, the consumers and critics–arrived.

Finding the railroad pictures, though, makes me reflect a little on all the changes we work on the world, everything we build, re-engineer, re-form, and disrupt, then lay aside for nature–improved nature–to reclaim as it will; on everything we invent, manufacture, market, buy and discard for the tide to carry away. The imperative to build and invent, to disrupt and discard, seems so ingrained to our culture that it feels almost impossible to step outside that culture and see it. Every once in a while, we get glimpses. And it is astonishing.


‘Always on Christmas Night …’


The closing lines of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” My favorite part of one of my favorite poems. Merry Christmas, wherever you are on this Christmas night.

… Always on Christmas night there was music.
An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang
‘Cherry Ripe,’ and another uncle sang ‘Drake’s Drum.’
It was very warm in the little house.
Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip
wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death,
and then another in which she said her heart
was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody
laughed again; and then I went to bed.

“Looking out my bedroom window, out into
the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow,
I could see the lights in the windows
of all the other houses on our hill and hear
the music rising from them up the long, steadily
falling night. I turned the gas down, I got
into bed. I said some words to the close and
holy darkness, and then I slept.”

Berkeley Luminaria: 2010 Edition

Welcome to live coverage of the 19th Annual Holly Street Luminaria and Festival of Wonders.

No, I won’t keep that up for long. But it is the 19th year we’ve done the luminaria here. And unlike that first year (1992, for the historically minded), dozens of blocks surrounding us and many in other neighborhoods are having their own light celebrations tonight.

So, here’s a running account (below the slideshow):

[Christmas night: So much for the live blog. What happened was we set up our table in the driveway, as usual, to serve hot cider (and treats from many neighbors), and that was that. I spent the next three hours or so out there. Dozens of people came by, and we ladled up about three gallons of cider.

After that, I came inside and posted some pictures. And after that, we drove around North Berkeley with the Martinuccis, our long-ago co-conspirators in the luminaria game, to see where we might find them. We saw some as far north as Solano Avenue and Tulare Street, as far south as Ohlone Park at McGee and Grant streets, as far east as Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Vine Street, and as far west as Stannage Street between Hopkins and Page. The extreme northern and western points were not connected to our neighborhood, but someone out there has ideas about this.

When we were finished with the drive, a couple people in the van were nodding out. Kate and I came home, wrapped some presents while a Season Five episode of “Lost” played, then went to bed. This morning, there was nothing to do but pick up bags from the street, then go on with our holiday.]

6: 20 p.m. The first sign of the luminaria was reported this morning by Kate, who saw a block on California Street, around the corner from us, marked at 7 a.m. That was somebody getting a very early start. And tonight, bags are out and lit already on Cedar and California streets. Our street? Well, across the way, the Martinuccis and other neighbors are folding bags. We’re getting our cider ready, and have the table set up in the driveway. The sidewalks are marked.

Longest Nights


With a dry day and an early shift at work, and inspired by seeing our across-the-street neighbors hanging lights in their big front-yard oak, the pieces fell into place for me to put up our Christmas lights late this afternoon and this evening. Yes, the job was stretched by having to run to the store to replace a couple of strands of dead or mostly dead lights.

After dark, another neighbor was stringing lights along her porch. And some friends across the street had their full holiday show on. And just in time for the first nights of winter and the longest nights of the year.

Vanishing Moon


It’s been cloudy most of the day here, creating some minor suspense about whether tonight’s eclipse will be visible.

Well, at least the start of it is–despite appearances, the shot above is through some high clouds. No telling when the thicker cloud cover will return. The shot immediately below: a few minutes later, as the clouds got a little thicker. And the last, about an hour after the first, and just a few minutes before the eclipse was supposed to enter it’s “total” stage. Thing is–down here in the Berkeley flatlands, anyway, that’s when the clouds really moved in. I have to be up early, so no late-night moongazing to see if it re-emerges.



The Impeded Stream


The Sunday morning walk with the dog talk us through the rain to University Avenue (coffee stop) then to Strawberry Creek Park, just to the south of University along the old Santa Fe Railroad right of way. When I first visited the neighborhood, back in the mid-1970s, the former rail route was just a flat, brushy expanse. Then the city came up with the money to turn it into a park. Part of the project was to daylight Strawberry Creek, which tumbles down from the hills above the University of California, through the campus, then (for the most part) under central Berkeley. When the park was new, it seemed kind of barren. When the creek was freed from its culvert, it was engineered with a couple of nice aesthetic bends and short drops, though the banks were lined with unaesthetic slabs of broken concrete. All this time later, trees and shrubs have grown up and the place has a nice, green, lived-in air about (maybe a little too lived-in, to be honest–not everything’s pristinely maintained).

Anyway, there we were by the creek, listening to the water spill down the channel. From nowhere, Kate come out with: “The impeded stream is the one that sings.” She has a great memory for poetry and lyrics and still surprises me with her ability to produce the apt quotation.

” ‘The impeded stream is the one that sings,’ ” I said. “Who said that?” Kate didn’t know, but I offered that it sounds like Thoreau. She didn’t think so, and looked it up when we got home. It’s from Wendell Berry, a poem called “The Real Work”:

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

‘Standing Live Carbon’ (Formerly Known as ‘Trees’)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

And surely there's no harm in
Calling a tree "live standing carbon."

Yea, verily we are far from the world of Joyce Kilmer, the only man I've ever heard of named Joyce, a poet whose career was cut short by a sniper's bullet during the waning months of World War I. Back in his day, one might rhapsodize unironically about trees and not be called a tree-hugger. Back in his day, whole forests could be brought crashing to the ground and few in the wider world would doubt it was the sound of progress.

We're wiser now. Look at California. We've got a law on the books that mandates that we cut our greenhouse gas emissions. We're about to embark on a new carbon "cap and trade" system that recognizes the value of forests. So it is that later this week, when the California Air Resources Board meets to consider adopting the cap and trade protocols, trees will turn into "standing live carbon" and forests will become places where the market stores carbon. I'll hardly think of those big wood things the same way.

According to some who have studied the Air Resources Board's plan (131-page PDF) for using forests as an offset opportunity for we who pollute elsewhere, the plan appears to reward the timber industry for clear-cutting forests and "improving" them with species that store more carbon. A single company that might benefit from this arrangement: Sierra Pacific Industries, which has long been the bete noir of those who believe that chainsaws, bulldozers, tree plantations, and biodiversity don't mix.

But apparently, the head of the air board, Mary Nichols, thinks they can co-exist profitably. A story on KQED's California Report today quoted her as saying the board's plan seizes on "an opportunity to actually improve the management of forested land and to make a contribution to the health of the forests and the atmosphere." (Speaking of the atmosphere, the board's "Improved Forest Management" protocol appears to exclude the effect of running heavy machinery as part of the overall emissions cost of "improvement" projects.)

Mark Schapiro, a reporter with the Center for Investigative Journalism in Berkeley, is publishing a new story on the board's forest plans this week. On The California Report today, he summarized the controversy over the air board's work this way: "What the protocol does not do is take further measures to preserve forests, and that's where you have the central tension right now: having as a goal purely the storage of more carbon in trees versus the idea of preserving the biodiversity and the larger ecological function of forests."

Salmon Walk: Devil’s Gulch Creek


Word was out toward the end of last week that coho salmon had appeared in Lagunitas Creek and tributaries in western Marin County, to the north and west of us here in Berkeley. Coho are endangered on our part of the coast, so their annual appearance is an occasion; and also a rarity, because Lagunitas Creek has one of the few viable wild population on the north-central California coast. I had heard that the fish–were talking about five dozen fish so far–were spawning both in the main creek and in a couple of tributaries: San Geronimo Creek and Devil’s Gulch Creek. San Geronimo flows into Lagunitas Creek after skirting several small West Marin townlets and passing a golf course; to get into San Geronimo Creek, the salmon (and the steelhead trout who migrate later in the season) have to make their way up a series of low falls and rapids called the Ink Wells. With few salmon returning the last couple of years, very few have made it up there, but this year maybe 30 fish have gotten past the barrier and started to spawn.

Devil’s Gulch Creek was an unknown to me and appeared on maps to be a tiny little thing. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine big fish going some of the places these big fish want to go. I was told a few days ago by a watershed biologist that salmon were spawning in Devil’s Gulch, though, so I went this afternoon to check it out (yes–the sad truth is that for all my interest in California salmon, I’ve never seen truly wild fish spawning).

I didn’t see any today, either. But I can confirm the creek is small, rocky, and full of the things that biologists say the coho need: gravel beds (for spawning) large woody debris (to provide refuge for growing salmon in the year-plus they’ll spend in the stream before migrating to the ocean), and lots of shade (to keep the water cool–salmon don’t tolerate warm water). Next time I’ll try to give myself more than the tail end of daylight to conduct my explorations (it was pretty much dark when I got back to the car).

(Picture above: Devil’s Gulch creek, just upstream from the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard bridge–you can see the road in the background. Here’s a Flickr Devil’s Gulch slideshow.).

Berkeley Journal: December Morning


More than a day of a sort of strange, dripping-down rain. It reminded me of a long-ago hitch-hiking trip down the coast side of the Olympic Peninsula in the middle of winter, but warmer, and with no rain forest. Kate drove off to work in the fog. I went outside to snap a couple of pictures and ran into a couple of neighbors. All of us had some variation on the same thing to say: “What a beautiful morning.” Gray. Foggy. Drippy. And yes, beautiful.