Category Archives: Travel

Storylines in Sepia

After years of planning, I was finally heading for the Galápagos: my long-awaited retirement gift to myself. I had bid a teary farewell to my last-ever group of natural-history students. I had enjoyed the closing parties: the celebration for all my university’s retirees, the reception for the new faculty emerti, the departmental gathering just for me. I had packed. I had given my last final exam, turned in my final final grades that same day.

Forty-eight hours later, Rob and I were, at long last, on the plane to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We spent a couple of days recovering from jet lag by basking in the soft tropical air by the wide brown Rio Guayas, watching mats of vegetation float by on their journey toward the Pacific, fifty miles away.

Vegetation mat rafting toward Pacific on Rio Guayas, Guayaquil, Ecuador

Recuperated and restored, we finally departed for the islands themselves. I was giddy with excitement at the prospect of wandering through a tropical paradise filled with exotic birds, which had been so critically important to my hero Darwin.

But I’d been so busy bringing closure to a thirty-year career that I hadn’t wedged in a lot of time for trip research. So when our planeful of fellow voyagers started its descent into Baltra, I’m embarrassed to admit I was startled by the bare brown landscape below me. Where was all that lush jungly green we’d admired around Guayaquil?

Isla Baltra, Galápagos. Photo by Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA, shared on Wikimedia Commons.

Although the Galápagos Islands are on the equator, which is generally pretty rainy around the globe, it turns out that they’re desert islands. Three cold ocean currents converge there, chilling the air enough to discourage the cheerful abundant plant growth of coastal Ecuador. And the islands, created just a few million years ago by a volcanic hot spot, are so removed from the mainland that it’s hard for plants and animals to get there to colonize and soften their rocky faces. (Some of those floating mats we’d seen on the Guayas may have brought the first seeds.)

At Baltra we boarded the friendly Samba, our floating home for our fortnight in the Galápagos.

The Samba, anchored at South Plaza Island, Galápagos

Lava was the language of landscape on each island we visited. Its dialect might be pahoehoe (smooth) or a’a (craggy), but in each place, fractures in the fresh-made land told stories of its birth from water, birth in fire.

Lavascape, Vicente Roca, Isabela, Galápagos

Lava landscape at Punta Moreno, Isabela, Galápagos. Volcan Alcedo in background, showing classic shield shape of basaltic volcanoes

Viewed from a higher perspective, these fractures tell the deeper stories of the island’s sepia faces. The curved concentric cracks around Darwin Bay at the island of Genovesa were formed when the underlying magma pool drained and the rocks above it collapsed.

Concentric fractures around Darwin Bay show where volcanic caldera collapsed (Genovesa, Galápagos)

To those who can read its wrinkled language, this lava landscape tells its life story: tales of explosion and collapse, of inexorable erosion and stressful seas.

* * * * *

We tend to think of beauty in terms of smooth curves and vibrant colors. Look what shows up when I do an image search on “beauty in nature”:

Results of “Beauty in nature” image search. (I had previously deleted cookies to avoid influence by past searches.)

The resulting images are bright, oversaturated, mostly with a soft feel. So the face of the Galápagos’ harsh landscape, with its craggy wrinkles and sepia palette, might seem unlovely; hard to love. But such fractured faces have their own beauty.

Galápagos Giant Tortoise. Urbina Bay, Isabela. Giant tortoises can live over 200 years.

Giant Tortoise. Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz, Galápagos

Marine Iguana. Punte Espinoza, Fernandina, Galápagos

Climbing such challenging landscapes brings its own rewards as well as new vistas:

View from peak of Bartolomé Island, Galápagos

Lava Lizard on Marine Iguana. Punta Espinoza, Fernandina

Wrinkles bring character and depth to noble coppery visages:

Brown Pelican. Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galápagos

* * * * *

Somewhere in my family’s photo collection is a bunch of old black-and-white photos of my older relatives. Among the great-aunts and second cousins once removed, there are jagged holes. These are where my grandmother Mimi cut her face out of the photos. She was recognized as a beauty in her youth—

My grandmother with my infant mother, about 1925. Photo from Susan Adger.

—and I’m guessing that she couldn’t stand to see her face with the wrinkles etched by hard times and good: the storylines of her life.

Searching recently through the vast photo collection in boxes in my father’s attic, I could only find a couple of images of my grandmother that had escaped the sharp edges of her scissors—including this one from my mother’s wedding day.

My grandmother with my mother on her wedding day, 1954

Over her decades, my mother’s smooth face grew similarly storied, and even more beautiful than in her youth.

My mother in her late 50’s

And now it’s my turn to work toward the peace my grandmother could never achieve regarding wrinkles.

Trileigh, photo by Benjamin Drummond, taken as part of the Natural Histories Project (http://naturalhistoriesproject.org/)

Like the Galápagos Islands’, like my mother’s and her mother’s, my own wrinkles are the storylines of my life, rendered in sepia. All of the women in my family, as all women and men everywhere, are born from water, formed of fire, sculpted by exuberance and by wear.

Bright colors and smooth surfaces aren’t the only shapes beauty takes in landscapes, reptiles, pelicans or people. Those that catch my eye and touch my heart are the etched, lined, fractured faces—the ones with the wisdom of wrinkles.

Galápagos Giant Tortoise, Santa Cruz, Galápagos

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The Original Elves

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula

 

The stiff Icelandic wind picked up as we made our way across the lava plain at Hellnar. As the day turned into late afternoon, dark clouds gathered beyond the rocky cliffs. In the boulders’ lengthening shadows, I could almost make out the huldufólk—elves, the “hidden people”—that most Icelanders secretly believe in. In this raw country, the huldufólk will let you know if you’re on their rocky turf as you try to build a road or other human construction; they’ll break your equipment or otherwise harass you until you come to your senses and change your plans.

Elvish Icelandic topography

Elvish Icelandic topography

Valdimar Hafstein, Professor of Folklore and Ethnology at the University of Iceland, says that in this land, “elves represent nature in the heart of culture; the places attributed to them are wilderness in the midst of cultivation. These places – rocks, hills, ponds – are taboo, they must not be fished in, messed with, moved or mowed; they must not, that is to say, be brought into culture.”

Indeed, Iceland feels like a land where natural magic pervades human settlement. It’s a land of rainbows, land of waterfalls, land of light and mist.

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland

2015-9-23_5748-sunset-at-stykkisholmur-copy

Land of light and mist: sunset at Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

In Iceland, the earth literally splits to show what is hidden elsewhere in the world. The jagged rocks that tore our boots as we walked were born of inner fire, of the slow dance of plate tectonics. East of our hike, the majestic valley at Thingvellir (Þingvellir, as the Icelanders write it) runs north-south through Iceland’s center. Its serene lakes and narrow clefts mark the boundary between two massive tectonic plates that are sailing slowly apart, allowing hot magma to well up from the earth’s interior. When the deep molten flow emerges from the rift, it cools to form the basaltic rock underpinning our trek.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, central Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Iceland is the only place where the Mid-Atlantic Rift comes to the surface; usually it’s deep underwater. This makes Iceland a rare large landmass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—so it’s a sought-after waystation for migratory birds. Most of them had left for gentler winter climates by the time we arrived, but still we encountered Eurasian Oystercatchers, Black-bellied Gulls, Redwings, Redshanks, and other new-to-me species.

* * * * *

To catch our breath and warm up before we began the last leg of our coastal hike, we stopped at Hellnar’s Prímus Kaffi. Enjoying exquisite hot chocolate and hearty soup, we saw yet again that Icelanders clearly have their priorities straight:

2015-9-23-5540-We just have each other

“We Just Have Each Other.”

Refreshed, we resumed our hike over the rough terrain. We were aiming toward Londrangar, whose volcanic spire looked like a Valkyrie’s Valhalla.

Londrangar, Iceland

Londrangar, Iceland

On rocky crags jutting out of the stormy sea, Greater Black-backed Gulls noisily claimed dominion. Common Eiders paddled through the waters below while cormorants flapped heavily above them. As usual, I was the last along the trail, slowing to photograph this unique landscape.

Suddenly I saw Jess and Rob start to wave frantically at me while putting a finger to their lips for silence. Moving as quietly as I could toward them, I saw why they were excited: a stunning Arctic Fox, virtually hidden among the boulders, chewing on the last remains of a gull. When he stood up, I could see  his thick brown fur, made to withstand the winter here near the Arctic Circle, and his penetrating yellow eyes  sharp with intelligence.

Arctic Fox with "fangs" of gull feathers

Arctic Fox with “fangs” of gull feathers

We froze in place, riveted by this rare encounter. Arctic Foxes aren’t endangered, but they’re smart at blending into the landscape, so we were lucky to spot one. Most photos I’ve seen of Arctic Foxes show them as white, with dark brown eyes, so I felt even more fortunate to spot a “blue-morph” individual. You can probably guess that the white version is better adapted to disappear against the snow and ice at the higher elevations of inland Iceland.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6c/Arctic_fox_in_snow_%288425302866%29.jpg/512px-Arctic_fox_in_snow_%288425302866%29.jpg

Photo credit: USFWS/Keith Morehouse. ]CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But here on the coast, where the climate is milder—meaning the temperature only goes down to around 20°F—this fox’s darker color will let him blend with the boulders, helping him sneak up on prey.

Arctic Fox on the prowl

Arctic Fox on the prowl

He can make a good living here on the coast because he thrives on seabirds and marine invertebrates. And that also means he’s likely to deal well with climate change: he’s a generalist in a robust, resilient habitat. His home provides abundant resources and will keep providing even when other habitats become more difficult. Other Arctic Foxes in less isolated northern places, like Russia and Scandinavia, may have a tougher time as animals from more temperate places move into their warming homes, competing with the Arctic Foxes for prey.

* * * * *

As Iceland’s only native land mammal, the Arctic Fox is Icelanders’ closest local natural relative. Might these sturdy creatures of lava and lichen be the original elves of Iceland, hidden from human perception, living in crannies and crags alongside people’s less earthen homes, with ancient wisdom in their shining eyes?

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Wherever we live, the landscape is replete with secret elven spirits. My Pacific Northwest beaches hide hermits, my forests hold birds who disappear—literally—into the woodwork, and high-altitude shrubs in the Cascades Mountains host hungry grasshoppers.

Your home’s land has its spirits as well, alive and thriving beyond or beneath human perception. But as far as I can tell, most of our local elves, unlike the huldufólk of Iceland, aren’t able to turn away bulldozers, reroute roads, or set climate policy. That’s where we come in, defending nature in the heart of culture, as Hafstein put it: being their voices as we learn to dwell with foxes and other elves, honoring homes of all forms, preserving some wilderness in the midst of cultivation on our changing planet. The elves need us, because after all

We Just Have Each Other.

Traces of Hidden Presence

Yesterday, in the darkness at exactly 6:00 am, I heard a high-pitched screech outside my window, which turned into a squeal. Finally the call evolved into one I recognized: a Barred Owl, the familiar denizen of my park. After a short but fierce inner argument between the Voice That Wanted To Stay In My Warm Bed, and Naturalist Voice, the naturalist won and I dug myself out from under cats and covers, pulled on pants and a jacket, and ventured out into the dark street to try to spot the light-gray owl in the thick trees.

Unfortunately, the conifers along my street were too dense and tall for me to find the owl, who stayed quiet after that. So after my brief foray into the dark morning, I (quite happily) went back inside and crawled back under the covers to read for a while with tea and juice, knowing contentedly that the owl was somewhere nearby.

We humans, as you may have noticed, are pretty much diurnal: we’re active during the day, and if we’re out and about at night, we go where there are artificial lights. You can tell this is what we’re made for by looking at our faces. Continue reading

Southern Summer Silence

Eastern beginning of the Routeburn Track

Eastern beginning of the Routeburn Track

Strange but somehow familiar, the late-summer New Zealand forest rose around us as we began our backpack along the Routeburn Track, one of the country’s famous Great Walks. The trail rose gently through the woods, a purring stream beside it carrying water towards Lake Wakatipu, where we’d started that morning. The giant beech trees’ slightly foreign shapes, combined with an understory whose plant population we didn’t know, made for a shift in illumination compared to our Pacific Northwest forest: a slightly bluer tone, a distinctive light-pattern on the forest floor, perhaps.

Beech forest-east side of Routeburn. Photo: newzealand.com.au (click on photo for website).

Red Beech forest-east side of Routeburn. Photo: newzealand.com.au (click on photo for website).

Typically, and happily, the slowest hikers on any trail, we were a little chagrined to find an equally slow older couple keeping us company, and they probably felt the same way. Fortunately, they stopped even more often than we did, looking for birds—particularly the Blue Duck, they told us, which can most likely be found in rushing waters such as those in the stream below—so we shortly had the trail to ourselves.

Rob on swinging bridge over the Route Burn (river)

Rob on swinging bridge over the Route Burn (river)

Normally I’d spend much more time birding than hiking, but the Routeburn is a 28-mile, 4-day hike, and I knew we had a big elevation gain toward the end of today’s segment, so I wanted to keep moving while I still had the fresh energy of morning.

One of my photographic goals for this hike was the challenging Rifleman (Titipounamu, in onomatopoeic Maori), a quick little bird who darts about in the shadows, making tiny little peeps that are at the top of most people’s hearing range. (Make sure to take at least a quick listen to these recordings, to give yourself a feel for what it’s really like out there.) On the trail, I’d often hear a pair of them calling nearby, but they’d be gone before my camera could focus.

The elusive Rifleman - captured at last!

The elusive Rifleman – captured on camera at last!

The lower-pitched counterpoint tones of South Island Tomtits (miromiro) also accompanied us as we made our way to treeline.

South Island Tomtit. (Photo taken on Stewart Island)

South Island Tomtit. (Photo taken on Stewart Island)

South Island Tomtit on Routeburn Track

South Island Tomtit on Routeburn Track

We made our way upward for several hours through glorious glacial scenery.

View from near Routeburn Falls Hut: Routeburn Flats and Humboldt Mountains

View from near Routeburn Falls Hut: Routeburn Flats and Humboldt Mountains

Glacial landscape near Harris Summit (plus a tired but happy hiker)

Glacial landscape near Harris Summit (plus a tired but happy hiker)

Finally the welcome sight of gray-painted paneling greeted us through the thinning woods, and we were glad to offload our packs (which seemed to have mysteriously gained weight with our increased elevation) onto a pair of top bunks in the Routeburn Falls Hut. I dug my camera back out to photograph whichever bird species might show up, then we wandered slowly and ouchingly around the hut area, sitting for a while by the eponymous Falls and marveling at the pools’ clear deep green. I didn’t get any bird photos that evening but was looking forward to taking more during the next couple of days’ hiking, which would be mostly above treeline.

Routeburn Falls

Routeburn Falls

Spectacular Southern Alps landscape spread out alongside us as we contoured our way down from the Harris Saddle toward our next destination, the McKenzie Hut, seven miles away. The weather was perfect: 70’s, with a light breeze on our cheeks to keep us cool and bug-free. Close to the pass, the piercing calls of a small flock of Keas rang through the sky, then faded as we gradually descended along the glacial valley wall. We were far above the one road we could make out in the far distance, so the background sound was the pure distant rush of waterfalls across the deep valley.

Hollyford Valley from Routeburn Track

Hollyford Valley from Routeburn Track

Above our last stop, the Lake Howden hut, a magical hobbitish woods greeted us, sprinkled with the now-familiar voices of Riflemen and Tomtits, who kept us company for the next couple of days as we finished the hike. We reveled in the absence of civilization’s noise; the relative silence, broken by our companionable bird species, felt meditative.

We found out afterwards that it was the silence of death.

In your mind, add together the three bird calls you’ve listened to so far (Rifleman, Tomtit, and Kea), and add in a couple of imaginary ones for the birds I probably heard but couldn’t identify. Now, compare that to this recording of the dawn chorus in Abel Tasman National Park. That’s an approximation of how the Routeburn forest might have sounded before humans came on the scene: an auditory glimpse of the Pleistocene.

Even in 1770, Captain Cook’s naturalist Joseph Banks, describing the New Zealand dawn chorus in January 1770, could write:

This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile, the numbers of them were certainly very great who seemd to strain their throats with emulation perhaps; their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable….

Having evolved in the absence of land-based mammal predators, New Zealand bird species (of which an astonishing 70% are endemic) developed nests that are now exquisitely vulnerable to the huge numbers of mammal predators—rats, stoats, possums, feral cats—introduced first by the Maori, then by Europeans. Some species, like the enormous moa, were hunted to extinction by the Maori, and all of them are presumably affected by continuing habitat loss due to bush clearing and draining of wetlands. Tragically, a full third of New Zealand’s marvelous bird species may have been irrevocably lost since humans arrived. Beneath the stunning scenery, below the silver birches, a stealthy army is systematically devastating the sylvan songscape.

Our first week in New Zealand, we’d visited Ulva Island (an islet off Stewart Island, New Zealand’s southernmost “third island”), whose 670 acres have been transformed into a native bird and plant sanctuary through dedicated efforts at pest eradication. With the expert guidance of Matt Jones of Ulva’s Guided Walks, there we encountered several previously-eradicated species that now populate the island: Yellowheads, South Island Saddlebacks, Stewart Island Robins.

Yellowheads, Ulva Island

Endangered Yellowheads (mohua), Ulva Island (Call of the Yellowhead)

Endangered Saddleback tearing bark in search of bugs, Ulva Island

Endangered South Island Saddleback (tieke) tearing bark in search of bugs, Ulva Island    (Call of the South Island Saddleback)

Endangered Stewart Island Robin (banded for research), Ulva Island

Endangered – but friendly – Stewart Island Robin (toutouwai; banded for research), Ulva Island       (Call of the similar North Island Robin)

But we didn’t realize how precious the complex bird chorus of Ulva Island really was until we grasped the gaps in avian companionship along the Routeburn. If our early trail companions had found the Blue Duck they were searching for, they wouldn’t just have seen a cool duck; they would have seen one of at most 2500 individuals remaining in the world. It’s the only known member of its genus, and those numbers are declining still further. (If I’d known that, I might have spent a lot more time looking for one.)

Coincidentally, my book group’s reading when I returned to Seattle was a biography of Rachel Carson, who drew attention in the 1950’s to the Silent Spring threatened by DDT. In New Zealand, we witnessed a silent southern summer.

Fortunately, contemporary Kiwis love their birds. Every morning just before the 7 am news, Radio New Zealand starts your day with bird songs. I saw a total of two cats outdoors in the entire country. Stoat traps are regular occurrences along the trails. Roadkill was so plentiful as we drove the winding pavement that I had to wonder if drivers were actually aiming for the creatures. Of course, I squirm at all that killing; I can’t help feeling fond of any fuzzy creature I encounter, even knowing the devastation some have innocently wrought on the bird life I also love.

Can New Zealand turn its southern silence into song-filled spring? It seemed that every local organizations and guiding business we encountered sponsors predator-trapping programs, as well as those run by the Department of Conservation. Getting rid of rats is tough enough on small islands such as Ulva and Tiritiri Matangi, near Auckland; freeing birds from predators on the huge main islands of New Zealand is another thing altogether. But as another bird lover wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all.
–Emily Dickinson

That “melodious wild musick” is surely worth the effort.

Bellbird in song, Ulva Island

Bellbird (korimako) in song, Ulva Island (Song of the Bellbird – truly exquisite)

Frozen Eden

Temporarily overheated in four layers and insulated muck boots, juggling my two cameras, I made my way down the gangway to the Zodiac bobbing at the ship’s side. I carefully coordinated my last step with the rocking waves, plopped into the boat, and took a seat on the big rubber tube while disentangling myself from backpack and camera straps. Loaded and launched, we raced toward our planned landing at St. Andrew’s Bay on the northern side of South Georgia Island, the wind whipping salt spray onto my cheeks.

Expedition stops on South Georgia; St. Andrew's Bay is #8 on NE coast. Map from Cheesemans' Ecology Safaris.

Expedition stops on South Georgia; St. Andrew’s Bay is #8 on NE coast. Map from Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris.

Wading ashore to the cobble beach, I dodged the occasional grumpy, growling Fur Seal and walked by piles of calmly snoozing Elephant Seals. Our ornithological expert, Jim Danzenbaker, who had landed in the early boat along with the rest of our guides, was way ahead of me, heading west to the crest of a moraine. On my right, the massive Cook Glacier was creeping creakily yet somehow gracefully between craggy dark mountain ranges; to my left, the dazzling Antarctic sun glinted off the iceberg-studded bay. Panting with the weight of all my gear as I tried to catch up with Jim, I could hear the muted cacophony becoming louder as I finally made it up the moraine.

King Penguin colony, St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

King Penguin colony, St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia; Cook Glacier in background

The sight took my (remaining) breath and my words away. At least one hundred thousand King Penguins stood and walked and swam and argued and copulated and divorced and raised children in the broad valley below my feet. I was on the fringe of a penguin megalopolis, complete with urban villages and suburbs and traffic and peevish neighbors. Teenagers, known as Oakum Boys, waddled around me, picking at their thick itchy brown coats and occasionally at our bags, chasing their parents around, squeaking persuasively that they needed a krill injection now.

Oakum Boy (juvenile King Penguin), St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

Oakum Boy (juvenile King Penguin), St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

Oakum Boy (juvenile King Penguin), St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

Oakum Boy (juvenile King Penguin), St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

Oakum Boy begging for parent to regurgitate krill

Oakum Boy begging for parent to regurgitate krill

Our month-long expedition to South Georgia, Antarctica, and nearby islands was sponsored by the Geological Society of America and organized by the fantastic Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris (highly recommended), whose ambition was to get us on the ground over as much of the region as possible while keeping us safe and extremely well fed (red velvet cake after your wilderness exploration, anyone?). We’d been out for a week by this time, and I was now used to Zodiac rides, muck boots, and spending my days entangled in multiple camera and backpack straps.

But you don’t get used to 100,000 King Penguins.

As in all communities, private stories become more public the longer you watch. Trumpeting contests broke out here and there in the colony as the occasional late-returning penguin spouse came up from the sea, only to find that in its extended absence its mate had taken up with a new partner. (Penguins are a lot like humans in many ways, the frequency of trumpeting-accompanied divorce being just one example.)

King Penguins in divorce confrontation

King Penguins in divorce confrontation

In happier reunions, a freshly washed penguin walked from the shore through a gantlet of pecking neighbors, greeting its nestbound mate—stained with krill and neighbor poop from weeks perched in the same place—as both stretched their necks, swayed in parallel, groomed each other.

King Penguins grooming-St Andrew's Bay

King Penguins grooming, St Andrew’s Bay

A half-hour of keeping my eyes riveted on an affectionately greeting couple paid off when, after presumably 5-6 hours of such rituals, the sitting parent and the incoming parent finally faced each other closely (and, miraculously, perpendicular to my camera) and with the greatest care, ever so gently shifted the precious egg from the black webbed feet of the first parent onto the toes of the second one.

King Penguin egg swap, St Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

King Penguin egg swap, St Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

Barely a minute later, five feet away, two penguins mated under the watchful eye of a curious Oakum Boy, who apparently got a followup lecture shortly afterwards.

King Penguins mating as Oakum Boy watches

King Penguins mating as Oakum Boy watches

Mated King Penguins scolding juvenile observer

Mated King Penguins scolding juvenile observer

At the other end of the life-cycle pendulum, I walked by skua-scrubbed penguin skulls, made my way around discarded penguin feet probably left by a leopard seal and the rest of its cleanup crew, studied the anatomy of penguin skeletons still mostly articulated.

It was hot during that few-day stretch, perhaps 35-40°. Several days later, further south at Cape Lookout on Elephant Island, we saw penguins draped over rocks here and there, trying to cool themselves.

Chinstrap Penguin chick trying to cool off

Chinstrap Penguin chick trying to cool off

Like all life here at the end of the Earth, they’re finely tuned to their home’s temperature and other conditions—unlike we humans, who need basically a moon rocket’s worth of technology and supplies to keep us alive in the Antarctic region. From St. Andrew’s Bay, the nearest permanent human settlement of more than 20 is the town of Stanley on the Falkland Islands, 860 miles away as the albatross flies. To reach a human city of more than 2000, your albatross has to fly all the way to Ushuaia, Argentina, 1200 miles from here. (Fortunately, since albatrosses’ huge wingspans of up to 9 feet allow them to travel 300 or more miles per day, it wouldn’t take him that long. If he wanted to go.) We really don’t belong here, although due to the absence of land-based predators, the penguins don’t seem to mind us too much.

Yet through not-belonging, in the Antarctic region I felt more a part of the Earth than I have in a long time. The profound, primordial Earth, throbbing with squeaking, growling, trumpeting vitality (click for sound effects!) at the edge of habitability. Here I was one species among many, allowed to witness the magnificent hugeness of polar coastline, knowing that there was no significant human presence along its entire 11,000-mile length, that raw nature is spinning out its stories in its own way, on its own scale, rather than sneaking between the cracks of human domination.

But I also experienced another far-too-rare sensation: I was proud of us.

Yes, we’re melting the glaciers and thus threatening the thin line between exuberance and extinction—but we’ve now also managed to stay away from this area, to cease killing its whale and seal and other community members, and not only that, to commit to protecting it forever. “Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes,” states the Antarctic Treaty that’s been signed by nations representing two-thirds of the Earth’s human population.

When was the last time you read a line like that?

I can’t wait to get back there. That may well never happen, so I’m carving a new room in my memory palace, a boisterously loud, exquisitely glacier-sculpted, breathtakingly gorgeous, and slightly chilly chamber called Antarctica. I hope you’ll come take a look.

Juvenile King Penguin with last bits of immature fur

Juvenile King Penguin with last bits of immature down

(Click here to visit my Flickr collection of more Antarctic photos!)

Grand Canyon 1: Rivertime

Glowing canyon walls, Lower Saddle camp, river mile 47.6

A palette of reds, yellows, oranges feeds broad horizontal brush strokes, lit by constantly shifting light on the canvas of the river’s song. Time has shifted to rivertime, where the day starts in the dark with the boat guides’ coffee call, and flows along with the swirling brown water, undivided into minutes and hours but distinguished by rapids, beaches, side canyons. Evening begins whenever we pull over to a camping spot on a soft beach, set up our sleeping pads, read or chat until dinner; it becomes night when I crawl onto my pad and collapse into dreams under the hot wafting air, bats flippeting overhead against a rippling backdrop of stars and planets.

Dusk falls in the Grand Canyon

Bat (left-center) against Grand Canyon night sky

Two weeks of rafting down the Grand Canyon has brought me back into a primordial flow, an easier presence to natural rhythms without the overlays of clock time, homework, the meta-level organizing required to run everyday life. I spend my days gasping in astonishment at the evolving beauty of cliffs towering over me, geologic time recorded in the tilted cross-beds of sand swept by ancient winds, fossil remains of crinoids and nautiloids preserved in their original coffins of soft muck now hardened, frozen lava-falls from more recent times.

Crinoid stem and pinnules from Redwall Cavern, Grand Canyon (river mile 33). (The stem is about 2-3 cm long.) This animal lived between 350-330 million years ago, and looked like a sea lily.

Lava flow in Grand Canyon, about 750,000 years old.

(Astonished, that is, when I’m not frozen myself in fear as we approach yet another churning rapid, our trip leader repeating her mantra to once again cinch down our life vests and hold on really tight this time. Apparently other people find these rapids fun and thrilling, and either I’m the only one terrified for my life on a daily basis or the others are better than I am at hiding their anxiety. Anyway, I have survived!)

Perhaps it was just ongoing sleep deficit, but as I got less and less verbal during our adventure, I wondered whether the canyon was calling me into a more profound presence that went below words. Even though some of my trip-mates turned out to be kindred spirits with whom I knew I could talk for hours at home, as we coursed through the canyon’s curves, I found I didn’t have that much to say or ask. Chatty conversation would have required a real effort to dredge myself up from rivertime’s depths; sitting in silence, letting beauty and spirit seep into my bones was enough.

Grand Canyon, lower end, nearing Lake Mead

(I’ll be posting more about the Grand Canyon in future entries, and more photos are posted on my Flickr page.)

Soaring

Griffon Vulture in Garganta Verde (Andalucía, Spain)

The air over the gorge was filled with griffon vultures, spiraling and soaring as they scanned the landscape for carrion. It wasn’t until we crossed a rocky rise into the canyon itself that we grasped the immense size of these ancient-looking creatures. Their wingspan is about one and a half me’s – around eight feet! What would it be like to lie down and see above me a canopy of dark wings spanning my whole body plus half again? Yet they float with such apparent ease, riding currents that I can’t see.

Griffon Vultures soaring over limestone cliff, Garganta Verde

We sat down for lunch in view of the orange-stained limestone cliffs of the Gargante Verde (Green Gorge), in Andalucía’s Grazalema Natural Park. This is home for Europe’s largest colony of griffon vultures, whose nests we finally made out from the white splotches on the cliffs across the canyon. With binoculars, I could make out the brown feathers of vulture parents hulking tenderly over piles of sticks, which we’d seen them gathering on rare horizontal surfaces.

Griffon Vulture nests on cliff face. The nests are marked by white spotches – upper left at top of cliff, and lower right.
Griffon Vulture tending its nest. (This is upper right in previous photo.)

Thinking at first that the sound we kept hearing was distant planes en route from nearby Africa to northern Europe, we finally realized that the swooshes were generated by vulture feathers as the birds cleared the ridge behind us. Good thing vultures eat only carrion; I’d hate to be a rabbit knowing that sound might be the end of me! (Although I did have some concerns about our lunch when several vultures flew right at us to check it out.)

Griffon Vulture eyeing us – too close to fit in viewfinder! (Click on picture for larger view.)

As we enter the New Year, I want to do a bit more of my own soaring. I want to get better at finding good thermals, at sensing the invisible winds that hold me up and help me get a better understanding of my landscape. The vultures have evolved over millions of years to read their air for what they need. How do I learn to read unseen currents as well as they?

Griffon Vulture, soaring on invisible currents

Spain in crèche season

After six buses, three airplanes, several long hikes through and between terminals, and one rental car, we’ve arrived in Toledo at the height of crèche season. According to Rob, in some countries, there’s quite a competition this time of year in constructing the most elaborate and impressive crèche scene. I can’t yet tell whether Spain is one of those countries, but last night in our jet-lagged ramble around the marvelous warren-like alleyways of Toledo, we happened on an exquisite crèche.

It was an entire miniature villlage, with workers alongside wise men on laden camels, pilgrims and peasants. And my favorite part: actual live plants, bean sprouts and wheat grass, being tended by a tiny farmer. Of course! Why not incorporate living nature into this sculpted story of new birth, new aliveness, new turning toward the light?

Years ago I was working at a conference on religion and ecology, held on my campus. Our stunning new chapel had recently been completed: a place of awe and simple, profound beauty evocative of the caves where the first Christians had worshipped in secret. I loved the interior of the chapel from my first encounter. But one of the conference participants asked, where are the plants? Where is the living beauty of the earth in this sacred space?

Here in Toledo, in the littlest village.

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