Category Archives: Travel

Seeds in Seams

With gray Antarctic seas rocking our ship, I hunkered down with a dental pick and got to work on the Velcro. The Akademik Ioffe was pulling up to our first landing on the glorious island of South Georgia, just north of the Antarctic Circle, and our expedition leaders had cranked up biosecurity measures.

2013-1-2_0059-South Georgia profile-©Trileigh Tucker

Approaching South Georgia

South Georgia, for all the rocky strength of its mountains and the sweeping power of its massive glaciers, is fragile. Although restrictions on hunting of whales and fur seals have allowed those species to rebound—we regularly had to dodge grumpy fur seals draped across beaches, the most harrowing part of my Antarctic experience—the island’s ecosystem is now threatened by two subtler menaces: climate change and the introduction of invasive species.

On site, we couldn’t do much about climate change, and the island’s British government has, incredibly, just succeeded in vanquishing the land’s rodent problem. But we could help prevent the colonization of the South Georgia lowlands by non-native plant species.

Which is why I was sitting in the ship’s cold mudroom, surrounded by muck boots, life jackets, and an enormous, mysterious piston-like device supposedly used for sonar “investigations” in the ship’s past life as a Russian research vessel, picking almost-invisible seeds out of the worn seams of my bright red rain jacket. That’s what Velcro is designed for, after all: catching and holding tiny things. You’d be amazed how much plant material is hidden in the folds and pockets and other in-between places in our cuffs and zippers.

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Seeds and vegetation in Velcro in sleeve cuff, paperclip for scale. Note not just the “big” seeds, but the tiny little specks. All of this had to be removed before landing on South Georgia.

Finally clean and seedless, our group loaded into Zodiacs and sped toward the shore. Like Shackleton, our first stop was at King Haakon Bay, where in 1916 he had landed a small crew in hopes of crossing the forbidding mountain range to find salvation on the other side of the island at Stromness. Unlike Shackleton, we were armed with cameras and binoculars, with the assurance of a plentiful meal and fresh-baked chocolate dessert at the end of the day. We set out to get to know this realm of remote beauty.

1_0014-King Haakon Bay, South Georgia-©Trileigh Tucker

King Haakon Bay, South Georgia

The dramatic sightings of South Georgia, of course, were the hundreds of thousands of penguins who filled the glacial valleys around the island.

King Penguin colony, St Andrews Bay-Trileigh Tucker

King Penguin colony St Andrews Bay, South Georgia

More modest but just as inspiring was a South Georgia Pipit.

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South Georgia Pipit. Larsen Harbour, South Georgia

This unassuming-looking little bird is part of the island’s success story, rescued from almost certain extinction by disciplined international efforts to remove its predators, rats, from the entire place. Global warming could still melt glaciers enough to provide increased rat habitat, with consequences for the little pipit, but for now, he and his community are doing fine. They can find healthy food in the form of native plants—with our help in de-seeding invasives from our Velcro.

* * * * *

I’ve long been unexpectedly attracted to the seams in our places, the in-between nooks, the overlooked vacant lots.

Vacant_Lot_of_Osaka_Rinko_Line (Wikimedia Commons)

Vacant lot, Osaka Rinko Line. By 暇・投稿 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 I love walking through neighborhoods as I go on errands, noticing where the wild things live. When I lived in the urban core of Seattle’s Central Area, my walking route often took me past an overgrown lot that had somehow escaped development. It was a narrow slot between houses, a standard 3000-square-foot city lot—but it supported big trees and thickets of blackberry plants where hidden birds chittered. Trails wound through the brambles, paths worn by kids’ sneakers as they explored this urban micro-wild. I hoped that somehow it could be preserved to provide a much-needed island of nature, a green refuge in a gray block.

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A temporary meadow in a vacant lot on Harvard Ave E in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Photo by Joe Mabel; caption provided by photographer. Used by CC BY-SA 2.0. File available here.

One day I saw a big white square glaring on freshly-installed posts: the inevitable Notice of Proposed Land Use Action. It didn’t take long for a graffito protest to appear: “Neighbors – how can we stop this?” Another responded: “Let’s meet,” with a proposed date. But a couple of months later, as I approached the block, I could see a bright gap in the sky where trees had provided cooling shadows. Construction had begun. I stopped to chat with one of the workers, who told me, “Yeah, a Microsoft guy bought it. Planning to build one of those mega-mansions, fill up the entire lot with a big fancy house. Kind of a shame. But that’s always the way it goes, isn’t it?”

Robert Michael Pyle writes in his marvelous essay Eden in a Vacant Lot, “…nothing is less empty to a curious, exploring child”—and I would add, to spunky wildlife trying to make its way in a challenging urban setting—”than a vacant lot, nothing less wasted than waste ground, nothing more richly simmered in promise than raw ground.” Seeds of a child’s love of nature, seeds of nature itself, are planted in these wild seams.

* * * * *

We’re now beginning to see that these urban seams may provide some of the seeds for wildlife recovery. A recent article in Yale 360, Habitat on the Edges: Making Room for Wildlife in an Urbanized World, outlines the ways in which undeveloped space in cities can act as refuges for species squeezed out of areas denser with people. Even areas as narrow as 25 yards wide can significantly help to increase biodiversity, notes author Richard Conniff. He describes a British effort in which conservation-commercial cooperation is generating new attention to the ragged land along rail lines as wildlife habitat: not just nature-by-accident, but purposeful enhancement of unexpected natural spaces. While Conniff acknowledges that much more habitat is needed for true species preservation, these neglected spaces offer small islands of hope.

Weeds_and_wilderness,_The_Haddington_Branch_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1447693

Weeds and wilderness: The Haddington Branch. Caption from Wikimedia Commons: When the North British Railway decided to miss out Haddington, this did not go down well in the county town. A short branch line was built linking Haddington and Edinburgh via a junction at Longniddry. The railway was closed to passengers in 1949, but there is quite a strong campaign to reopen it. The seed rich embankment is a useful resource for the finches now that winter sown crops are becoming more popular here. (Link to file and attribution is here.)

Seeds in the seams are sources of wildness: sometimes a threat, sometimes a treasure. But unless we learn to pay attention—to consider the overlooked, the in-between, the generative gaps—we won’t be able to tell the difference.

2013-10-6_0016-Thistle seeds-©Trileigh Tucker

Thistle seeds

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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

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

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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

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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