Amidst the Madding Crowd

Fistral Beach near Newquay in Cornwall is mainly known for one thing: Surfing.

The beach isn’t long, around a half a mile. But it is generally full.

On a recent visit, we watched a constant stream of surfboard-lidded cars arrive at the end of the beachfront road where our friend there lives, turn, and look for a parking spot. Surfers changed into wetsuits on the street. IMG_2776

A surfer website says: “Very consistent, beachbreak peak, that occasionally gets epic.” Indeed.

Even on a calm day of glassy water there are surfers out in the sea, there are beginner’s classes being held on the beach, dozens of people madly paddling and learning to stand on a board, right there on the sand.

On this day, the surf looked pretty decent, at least to this non-surfer. Boards filled the waves, boards filled the beach.

I didn’t take photos of all that.IMG_2777

I was more interested in the water at incoming tide, casting reflections in small pools, or rippling against the sand.

IMG_2762

I went on an early Sunday walk, not early enough to beat the crowds of surfers and families and dogs and kids, but early enough that some of the walk was peaceful and meditative.

It’s the sand beneath the feet and between the toes. It’s the flow and retreat of water.IMG_2770

It’s the sun and subtle reflections.

It’s the hint of past human activity merged into the rocks. IMG_2793The rush of waves that drowns out the sound of bullhorned lifeguards calling out warnings and corralling wayward young.

Two small fish swim in a temporary pond of shadows and light, avoiding notice of nearby children with nets and waiting for the tide to return and carry them back out to the big pond.

Calm among frenzy. It was occasionally epic.IMG_2797

 

Keeping a City at Bay

The Presidio in San Francisco was established as a fortified base by the Spanish in 1776 as El Presidio Real de San Francisco or The Royal Fortress of Saint Francis.

It was the northernmost outpost of a Spanish empire in decline.

The Spire, by Andy Goldsworthy. Composed of 37 steel-armatured cypress tree trunks, felled as part of the Presidio's re-forestation program. Photo: PKR

The Spire (2008), by Andy Goldsworthy.
Composed of 37 steel-armatured cypress tree trunks, felled as part of the Presidio’s re-forestation program.
Photo: PKR

We were there recently with a friend, in the Presidio’s current life as a public-private project – part park, part residential area, part office campus for commercial and non-profit organizations. It’s changed a lot since I spent time there back in the 1980s, when it was a quiet place of dilapidated barracks and virtually abandoned administrative buildings.

The Presidio has always had a special place in the city – its existence as one of the choicest bases in the United States military (golf courses, views of San Francisco Bay, beaches) protected it from the intense urban development that took place elsewhere.

A map of San Francisco, circa 1950, hung on a friend's wall. The Presidio is the entire green area at the top of the map. Source: W. Elliot Judge

A map of San Francisco, circa 1950, hung on a friend’s wall. The Presidio is the entire green area at the top of the map.
Source: W. Elliot Judge

It remains a place of tall cypress trees, sweeping lawns, surrounded by the blue of the bay and the ocean, with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop.

The base was decommissioned by the military in 1995, and has since become part of the National Park Service. The area that President Harry Truman once proposed as the U.S. headquarters for the United Nations is now a (not entirely undisputed) public-private development that includes a campus for non profit organizations.

Old Coast Guard Station and Golden Gate Bridge seen from the Presidio. Photo: Will Elder/Wikipedia

Old Coast Guard Station and Golden Gate Bridge seen from the Presidio.
Photo: Will Elder/Wikipedia

From The Presidio: From Army Post to National Park (Lisa Benton-Short):

“The Presidio is a community within a park within a larger community. We are reminded by such accidents of geography that each of us is placed in human life within the concentric circles of relationship to others and to the natural world.”

In a throwback to when neighboring farmers grazed their cattle on Presidio land, goats now keep the weeds in check.

Goats provide mowing services as part of the City Graze project. Photo: PKR

Goats provide mowing services as part of the CityGrazing project for sustainable landscaping.
Photo: PKR

Who would have thought that a military installation, established 240 years ago as a point from which to develop new settlements, would end up fortifying an entire swathe of territory as parkland for the future?

Wood Line (2011) by Andy Goldswrorthy leads through an upper forest path. Photo: PKR

Wood Line (2011) by Andy Goldswrorthy. Eucalyptus branches curve through a standing eucalyptus grove near Lovers’ Lane, the Presidio’s oldest footpath
Photo: PKR

Fight, Flight, or Loll

We were out early at Drake’s Beach in West Marin, California, under changeable skies. It was low tide, and we were the only bipeds around – the parking lot completely empty, no stray campers or hikers, we had the place to ourselves, at least when it came to other humans.

Drake's Beach, California. Photos: PKR

Drake’s Beach, California.
Photos: PKR

And while there were fewer shorebirds than I would have expected, there were a multitude of large crabs. Mostly intact, mostly dead.

And then we started noticing more remnants of life – traces that reflected the retreating tide in broken shells. IMG_2470

Something I haven’t seen before, countless sand dollars, most of them still alive, scattered at the ebb line. Those small, flat sea urchins with the lovely star patterns that we usually see bleached white – these were still pink and moving.

Some clearly were trying to find their way back to the water, leaving elegant script of their flight. (These two were still very alive, and we put them back in the water.)IMG_2474

Other creatures weren’t ready to give up even an inch of territory, no matter the cost. This palm-sized crab was as fierce as they come.IMG_2519

And then there were those who were neither in fight nor flight mode: They were lolling.

The white spots offshore are the whale and her calf.  Photo: Oliver Brüning

The white spots offshore are the whale and her calf.
Photo: Oliver Brüning

It’s not terribly clear from this image (the better camera had given up by the time we got to the bottom of the lighthouse steps), but this small cove below the Point Reyes Lighthouse had a number of seals, all sizes, doing lazy loops while a mother humpback took her calf through its paces, back and forth.

There wasn’t much to do after that then head back to Inverness for a good dinner. Not before having a seat in the empty lighthouse keeper’s chair, though – someone needs to sit there now and again, since the lighthouse was automated forty years ago.

Photo: Oliver Brüning

Photo: Oliver Brüning

Tactile Topography

These maps, sold to Danish explorer Gustav Holm by Umvit native Kunit in the 1880s. Kuniit's wooden maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq, Greenland. Source: Visualising Data

These maps were sold to Danish explorer Gustav Holm by Umvit native Kuniit in the 1880s.
Kuniit’s wooden maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq, Greenland.
Source: Visualising Data

I came across some maps the other day and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since.

Carved wood maps are well-known Inuit instruments of cartography, made to navigate the coastal waters and inland areas of Greenland. The maps are read by feeling along each ridge, and are legible up one side and down the other for a continuous journey.

The tools are hand-held guidance systems for specific journeys that would be almost illegible to those of us accustomed to paper.

These are maps made for specific journeys, to be read by those who had been there and passed on, or rather, taught, to those who were going. Experiential maps based on being there rather than description. An object that contains sight, sound, touch, all ready to fit into a mitten.

Less a visualization than a finger-felt stroll through a long path.

In English, the caption reads: "Kuniit's three wooden (tree) maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq. Map to the right shows the islands along the coast, while the map in the middle shows the mainland and is read from one side of the block around to the other. Map to the left shows the peninsula between the fjords Sermiligaaq and Kangertivartikajik." Source: Topografisk Atlas Grønland via Nuuk Marlak

In English, the caption reads: “Kuniit’s three wooden (tree) maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq. Map to the right shows the islands along the coast, while the map in the middle shows the mainland and is read from one side of the block around to the other. Map to the left shows the peninsula between the fjords Sermiligaaq and Kangertivartikajik.”
Source: Topografisk Atlas Grønland via Nuuk Marlak

Consider the knowledge of place that is required to craft a map of this kind.

How many places do most of us know as well, using our conventional maps and paths through life?

When I was a teenager, I spent some time living in the dense forests of coastal Marin County, California. We lived in cabins that were almost a mile from the main road, up a steep and rutted dirt road that twisted and turned between bay trees and ferns, no grading or gravel. No electricity, no street lights. No neighbors.

Every so often, walking back from the closest village of Inverness, I would arrive after sunset.

Being a forgetful teen, I rarely remembered to bring a flashlight. Read: Never. So I walked the road in the dark. Barefoot, so I could stay on the soft dirt of the road and not accidentally wander off into the soft fringes of moss and low plants on either side. Once the road was gone beneath my feet, it was gone for a panicky while.

That happened only once, the first time. After that, I got to know the curves and switchbacks, the ruts and the touchstone trees, well enough make my way up the hill without incident. Read: Safe arrival.

Seeing these wooden Inuit maps, I wonder if I would have been able to carve that road into a tool that I could have used, even without bare feet. I knew the road well – but how deeply had I made it a part of myself, as these maps must have been to their makers and users?

The Greenland coastline described in the coastal wooden map, seen from a modern paddling perspective. A description of the trip can be found at the credit link. Source: Jim Krawiecki/The Paddler eZine

The Greenland coastline described in the coastal wooden map, seen from a modern paddling perspective. A description of the trip can be found at the credit link.
Source: Jim Krawiecki/The Paddler eZine

Covering Our Eyes

The main centers of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) lay like a loose pearl necklace around the coastal edges of the nation.

I’ve never been to any of the NASA sites, but I grew up watching them from a distance.

As a child of the Sixties, the moon launches that took place were an invitation to dream of the stars. They made everything – anything – seem possible. It was just a matter of extending the grasp of our human hands by a finger’s length.

This spectacular skyscape was captured during the study of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744, otherwise known as Pandora’s Box. While one of Hubble’s cameras concentrated on Abell 2744, the other camera viewed this adjacent patch of sky near to the cluster. This parallel field — when compared to other deep fields — will help astronomers understand how similar the Universe looks in different directions. Image credit: NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI), Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt Text credit: European Space Agency

This spectacular skyscape was captured during the study of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744, otherwise known as Pandora’s Box. While one of Hubble’s cameras concentrated on Abell 2744, the other camera viewed this adjacent patch of sky near to the cluster. This parallel field — when compared to other deep fields — will help astronomers understand how similar the Universe looks in different directions.
Image credit: NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI), Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
Text credit: European Space Agency

With the passing of time, those dreams of exploration have expanded in unexpected ways. As it turns out, what we don’t know about space is matched in kind by what we don’t know about our home planet.

Or maybe it would be more accurate to say what we don’t know and would like to find about the cosmos runs parallel to what we have chosen not to know, and would rather not find out, about Earth.

We’ve known about human-caused climate impact for a very long time. Even the fossil-fuel industry has known about the effects of its products for longer than any care to admit.

And a rise in sea levels is one of the main effects of a rapidly warming world.

So what to think about the story that many of the most iconic NASA facilities, those stepping stones to understanding our place in the universe and in the environment, are at risk of being submerged by the rising seas of global warming?

NASA and international space agencies around the world provide an array of tools and mechanisms for examining our world as well as others – those first photos of the blue planet bobbing in deep space inspired many to try and protect what turned out to be a rather unique place to live.

Viewed from space, the most striking feature of our planet is the water. In both liquid and frozen form, it covers 75% of the Earth’s surface. It fills the sky with clouds. Water is practically everywhere on Earth, from inside the rocky crust to inside our cells. This detailed, photo-like view of Earth is based largely on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Caption/Credit: NASA image by Robert Simmon and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, based on MODIS data.

Viewed from space, the most striking feature of our planet is the water. In both liquid and frozen form, it covers 75% of the Earth’s surface. It fills the sky with clouds. Water is practically everywhere on Earth, from inside the rocky crust to inside our cells.
This detailed, photo-like view of Earth is based largely on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite.
Caption/Credit: NASA/Robert Simmon and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, based on MODIS data

Those initial images have been followed by a myriad of eyes that look at our planet in self-examination. In photos, measurements, radar, NASA and its partner agencies have been building an ever expanding archive of information, deepening our understanding of the forces at work here on the surface.

These are visions that aren’t necessarily what I would call the stuff of dreams, but they provide a portal to action in a way that perhaps moon launches didn’t for the average earthbound human.

These are images taken from the perspective of celestials, given to the earthbound. They promote an awareness of what the planet it doing, we are doing and maybe, what we can do it better.

Strong El Nino events have a big impact on phytoplankton (in green), especially when the warm water pushes far to the east of the Pacific Ocean, as in 1997. Credits: NASA/Goddard

Strong El Nino events have a big impact on phytoplankton (in green), especially when the warm water pushes far to the east of the Pacific Ocean, as in 1997.
Caption/Credit: NASA/Goddard

The United States launch pads, were built near coastlines for safety reasons. But latitude plays a role – these are the southernmost regions of the country, and thus closest to the Equator, where “the greater diameter of the planet provides a slingshot effect that gives each rocket more bang for the propulsion buck.” (NYT)

What to say about some of our best technological achievements being inundated by the technologies and habits we can’t seem to quit?

The Marks We Leave Behind

Today’s first real post-winter foray into the garden reminds me that I’m a messy gardener. Late, as usual. But I’ve got a special packet of seeds to plant this week, and they’ve inspired me to be more attentive this year.

This is the effect of the person who sent me the seed packet, my guru of gardening, my aspirational green thumb.

Entrance to my friends' garden in Alaska. None of the photos here are of our garden in France, just to be very clear about that. All photos: PKR

Entrance to my friends’ garden in Alaska. None of the photos here are of our garden in France, just to be very clear about that. All garden photos were taken in Alaska.
All photos: PKR

I tackle gardening tasks in fits and starts, I spend hours one day until I’m sore, and then I won’t be back for a few days while I recover, even if the weather is ideal or the season quickly pressing on.

My drip irrigation system has been a work in progress for years, I plant up and tend and then I leave for a week and everything dies. I plant new things. It’s a fraught relationship. I’m still a beginner after twenty years.

Our garden was taken over from a French family that was abjectly devoted to the little square of territory (and I do mean little).

Before them, there was an English lady with a similar  passion. Before that, parts of the property were still taken up by the village stone oven (demolished to universal disapproval by the English owner to improve her view of the mountains beyond), the rest populated by number of fruit trees.IMG_1604

Our tiny corner of village has been worked and built and redone since the 15th century, when our house was first constructed.

Whenever I work the garden, I find evidence of what went before. No matter how many times I turn the soil, there’s always something new. Old coins, the outlines of the old oven, a long-buried heap of small animal bones. An old cooking pot, completely rusted through.

There’s been a recent story in the news about satellite images of a patch of land in Newfoundland, Canada. On a small peninsula that looks nothing more than windswept and wild, careful examination by “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak revealed small and unusual variations  in vegetation patterns on the land.

 A satellite image of Point Rosee used by archaeologist Sarah Parcak in her search for Viking settlements. Dark straight lines indicate the remains of possible structures. Caption/Image: National Geographic/ Digitalglobe


A satellite image of Point Rosee used by archaeologist Sarah Parcak in her search for Viking settlements. Dark straight lines indicate the remains of possible structures.
Caption/Image: National Geographic/ Digitalglobe

Specifically, Parcak identified straight lines of certain kinds of vegetation that could be the result of buried ruins, ancient walls that alter the amount of moisture retained by surrounding soil and thus, the grasses that grow there.

An initial archeological dig has turned up promising evidence that this site at Point Rosee might just represent the second known Norse settlement in the New World.

All based on the way the grass grows, a thousand years after the settlement was abandoned.

Could the people of Point Rosee, assuming they really were Norse settlers, have ever dreamed in their wildest sagas that tufts of grass could indicate their presence after a millennium?

Back to those seeds I need to plant.IMG_1614

They were sent to me by one of the most gifted gardeners I know, a long-time friend who moved away over ten years ago. We became close friends here in France, then she returned to Alaska over a decade ago.

We don’t get to see much of each other these days. The ten-hour time difference makes phone call scheduling a challenge.

It would be easy to let this friendship wilt, easier than maintaining it over the distance and years. Far simpler to let it go its way and replant with a new one. But, for all the fits and starts, some relationships are worth it.

These are the relationships that leave deep marks, that alter the soil around hidden walls and make the vegetation grow differently.IMG_1633

The seeds – some of her favorites, she writes – will go into the garden. If I do my job right, I’ll get to spend time next to them as they grow over the season, and watch them blossom and bear fruit, and enjoy the close proximity.

And maybe, like many of the plants in our garden, they’ll keep coming back, year after year, a mark of our time here.

Secret signs of long distances in time and place that people have gone to live, to thrive, to make friends, to leave again.IMG_1619

Soft Palette Distraction

I was hustling to get a run in before nightfall – my usual loop has a couple of kilometers that are uneven farm track, stony and rutted, perfect for the occasional sprained ankle due to inattentiveness.

So I run, eyes on the rutted road just a few strides ahead, avoiding the rocks and grooves misplaced by tractors, rain and horses.

Why pick this loop? Because when I lift my eyes, I get these views.

Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva. Photo: PKR

Mont Blanc
Photo: PKR

And if I run just a little later than is safe for my ankles, I’m rewarded every so often with splendid sunsets.

And then my ankles aren’t in danger. Because I stop, pause my stopwatch, and take pictures.

Not great for my running time, but there are other benefits to running besides the physical.

Mont Blanc, second time around the loop, fifteen minutes later and from a different angle. Photo: PKR

Mont Blanc, second time around the loop, fifteen minutes later and from a different angle.
Photo: PKR

For a growing collection of skies, mine and others, I invite you to visit my new collaborative blog – FavoriteSkies.com, and to share your own favorite skies.

Gumdrop Moon

Different cultures have different names for the full moons of the year, and January’s is called anything from Wolf Moon to Snow Moon to Winter Moon to Moon of the Terrible.

But the moon that rose over Lake Geneva last night, caught here as we drove across Mont Blanc Bridge, was nothing so fearsome as to warrant its usual names.

This was a soft Gumdrop Moon, one day before it waxes full, shining above in pastel skies and reflected in the lake below.

Moonrise over Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Photo: PKR

Moonrise over Lake Geneva, Switzerland.
Photo: PKR

Light Show

We’re north of Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico.

First evening sunset. All photos: PKR

First evening sunset.
All photos: PKR

 

The place we’re staying is directly on a small beach. Well, ‘small’ is probably the wrong word.

photo 2-5

 

It doesn’t have a poetic name, it doesn’t have majestic cliffs, it doesn’t have any fancy restaurants or hotels or activities.

photo 5-3

 

It’s just a regular, small, coastal beach on the Pacific Ocean. My favorite.

 

Small but filled with the sky. 12316080_10206990175466031_4192824010251365864_n

 

Shadows and Light

An unexpectedly glorious evening drew me out for a sunset run this week.

I got out while the sun was still peeking over the Jura, creating sharp divisions between gold-drenched light and the shadows below.

French Jura All photos: PKR

French Jura
All photos: PKR

These two fellows up on the hill were in high spirits, and stopped what they were doing to watch me watching them.photo 1-7

As I turned to leave, I heard the loud thudding of a rapid approach, and turned to find one curious pony who was ready for his close-up.photo 2-7

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Well, there was one cloud, strategically placed as if to provide a last glowing mirror for the setting sun.

Far in the background, over the mouth of the Rhône Valley, were a couple of contrails. I realized one reason the sky was so dazzlingly clear was that there were no other trails – usually the blue dome is criss-crossed the lines of jets flying across Europe.photo 5-2

 

It was an evening of appreciation.

I’m preparing to launch a new sister blog for ChampagneWhisky soon, one that will be open for contributions. Hopefully by the beginning of the new year. I look forward to new horizons.