Recovery

[I wrote this several days ago, before I flew to Wisconsin. I’ve become an even worse blogger than diarist: I don’t always upload what I put in my journal. This post is for my incredible students in Nature Writing. Somehow, despite Zoom, we created a community that was welcoming, supportive, and entertaining. I thank our Waldens for giving us sanctuary and freedom.]

We’ve arrived late and mishap has preceded us. A helicopter hovers over Point Fermin, sequel to the sirens we heard earlier. Another body rescue, or recovery, I presume. Did they fall, jump, or were they pushed? A month or so ago, a young man and woman — the ages of my students — were found at the bottom of the cliffs. It wasn’t known if it was a double suicide, a murder suicide, or a selfie gone horribly wrong. These bluffs are treacherous. The crumbling sandstone shifts constantly. Most city folks don’t understand this natural terrain. It’s illegal to climb the cliffs, but ever since the internet discovered Sunken City, urban explorers and teenage taggers come here in droves. Followed by sirens and helicopters.

It’s the last week of the semester. I’ve become a lousy, erratic diarist. My early enthusiasm for journaling was displaced by all the other urgent concerns of my multitasking identities.

Or I just failed to prioritize me again.

Coming here and writing about nature was my refuge when the year started. I felt like I found my center, my safe place, my sweet spot — after a year of so much horror. The tide pools were my muse. I had purpose again.

So, where did my love go?

It’s still here. I sit down and immediately the words pour out. Poor Alex whines at me to get a move on: “The tide is rising. It’s windy. It’s cold. It’s boring.” I bribe him with doggie treats and scribble furiously.

I am so grateful for this class, this project, this Walden. When we began, the pandemic was still raging. Our country was in chaos. It seemed like 2021 was just going to be 2020 prolonged.

But peace, and vaccines, and health, and spring came. I’ve gone beyond hope to happiness.

Maybe, I stopped needing to write. But I haven’t stopped wanting to. And I won’t stop writing, again.

The helicopter is gone. At the old Spanish wall a man is trying to fly a trash bag tied to a string. Four surfers wait in vain for their waves. Tonight a “pink” moon is supposed to rise with the sunset. Maybe, I’ll come back then.

Post Script: The moon is/was spectacular. We watched it from the living room. It’s not pink, or even orange: It is white, bright like the sun. It lit up the eastern sky and the ocean below. I can see it now, peeking out over the neighbor’s roof. It will probably slip around to the west window over our bed and wake us up in the wee hours, as it likes to do. I don’t mind.

A drum circle and fire jugglers greeted the moon down at the beach, just like in the old days. The unusual is becoming usual again.

And now, the third helicopter of the evening. According to the citizen journalists of Facebook, there was a suicide at the lighthouse. For some, the rising comes too late.

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Daddy’s girl

Me, Dad and toy cat

I saw Dad today for the first time since December 2019. I’m the second visitor he has had since Covid struck. I was booked to visit him last March and the day before my flight the country started shutting down nursing homes. It has been a nightmare ever since.

The virus swept his SNF but fortunately not his floor. He had no visitors for 8 long months. He has advanced dementia so didn’t know what was happening but I’m sure he felt it, he missed familiar voices and touches.

Fortunately he was in good hands and we can FaceTime with him every week. Thanks to his good care and the vaccine I was finally able to visit him. I had thought I might not ever see him again. He stopped recognizing people before the pandemic but I do think he felt something when I came in and grabbed his hand and told him I was there. His body started shaking and he held on to my fingers. Later, after I spoon fed him lunch, I made a stupid joke and he laughed a big HA then kept chuckling just like he used to. Dad is still in there somewhere and I’m so happy I get to see him again.

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Talking ‘Bout Women and Music

Britney Spears. The Grammys. Lady Gaga. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Women and music has been a hot topic lately, and I’ve been talking about it. Agence France-Presse interviewed me about the Grammy nominations. The Guardian asked me about Gaga. And Newspoint 360 talked to me about a bunch of stuff, see video below.

 

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The flight of the scoters

Whales aren’t the only creatures in the harbor these days. The port is full of birds: grebes, gulls, cormorants, herons, willets, coots, terns, hawks. It’s an ornithological orgy. The other morning we watched an osprey snatch a fish out of shallow waters, shadowed by gulls. Last year, a rare black swan was wandering inner Cabrillo Beach. Native to Australia, it had probably escaped years ago from some suburban farm or millionaire estate; our birder neighbor excitedly explained it might be the same one he had spied years ago. Another day, the neighbor and my son caught a guinea fowl across the street — also probably an agrarian runaway. And one day, and one day only, there were a pair of pea hens on our roof — migrants from nearby White Point, where they are as common as squirrels.

Source: The Daily World

Surf scoters are among the most populous winter birds. There are whole families of these ducks floating just downstream from the cargo ships and cranes. The males are mostly black as oil, with pure white patches on the front and back of their heads matching their white eyes. Their bills are like Halloween masks: a great big bumpy honker decorated in black, white and orange. It’s a beak that makes a statement, a blinking beacon.

But my favorite thing about the surf scoter is the sound of the wind beneath its wings. When a scoter takes flight, the rapid pumping of his wings makes an incredible high-pitched whistling noise. It’s a sound as animated as the bird’s bill, straight out of a Carl Stalling cartoon soundtrack. I love it when I’m out there on the kayak and suddenly I hear that “whor-whor-whor-whor.” The surf scoter’s flight is all sound and fury; for all the racket, they barely rise above the water and usually stop 100 yards from where they stopped, where they resume fishing for mussels and herring.

Until they’re ready for summer vacation, that is. Surf scoters are snow birds. They winter along both coasts, in warmer climates like San Pedro Bay. Come summer, they fly home to the Arctic, where they nest, give birth, molt, and fly south again. For birds, and butterflies, and whales, and so many animals, home is not a singular place; homes are seasonal. They know nothing of borders or passports, but they know how to fly hundreds, if not thousands of miles, from one side of the equator to the other, year after year. I envy their nationless identity and freedom of motion. What a wonderful world it can be.

 

 

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The Problem with 1/12th: Armchair Art Walk Talk

On March 4, I took part in the San Pedro Armchair Art Walk. Following are the remarks I prepared on Women’s History Month, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Women Who Rock, and the problem with tokenism. You can watch the video with slideshow here. I was joined by two brilliant artists, Anne Daub and Monica Orozco.

I want to thank Linda Grimes, Sharyl Holtzman, and the San Pedro Waterfront Arts District for putting together this event. First Thursdays is one of my favorite things to do here in Pedro, and I can’t wait to be able to do it in person again: lobster rolls from the lobster truck, or sushi at Senfuku, wine and snacks and great art at Arnie and Ray’s gallery, all the galleries and restaurants and trucks and people. But I’m glad we have this to tide us over until those good times return.

Like all of us I’m sure, I have mixed feelings about Women’s History Month, because of course, half of the planet should get more than 1/12th of the year. But the fact is, we don’t. Women, like people of color, get disproportionately ignored the other 11 months of the year, so we better shout our achievements every second of the month of March, and keep shouting until it’s women’s history year, decade, century and millennium.

Interestingly, 1/12th is almost exactly the fraction of artists who are women who have been inducted into the rock’n’roll hall of fame since it was founded in 1986. It’s actually less than that: 7.63 percent. These appalling figures are why we need recuperative efforts such as Women’s History Month, or books about Women Who Rock: To set the record straight by shining a spotlight on the legions of women who get left out of the institutions, the history books, the archives, the museums, the playlists, the algorithms. Uplifting female musicians has been a mission for me ever since I was just a kid and heard Patti Smith singing about the sea of possibilities and Poly Styrene shouting Oh bondage, up yours! I created this book to celebrate what I call this rhythm movement, a century of female artists making great, glorious, gutsy music – some of them in the rock hall, most of them not. I hired dozens of women writers and artists to create portraits of these sheroes in words and in ink; here are a few examples . If you want to buy this book, it’s available here in Pedro at the Corner Store and the shop next door to it as well as the Cabrillo Aquarium Gift shop. And of course on Amazon.

But it’s important not just to celebrate women, but also to continually point out the way they are systematically disenfranchised, ignored, abused, and silenced by a male-dominated society and its institutions. We can’t stop with the ghettoization of dedicated history months; we need to be heard every month. That’s why for 10 years, in multiple articles, wielding statistics, graphs, historic examples, and suggested solutions, I have been documenting the Rock Hall’s abominable gender record. And I’m happy to say that in 2021, they listened, and acted. Women make up almost a quarter of the nominees announced last month, which granted, is not parity – but it’s three times better than 7.63 percent. Of course, these nominees – including Kate Bush, Mary J. Blige, and the Go-Go’s — have to get inducted. And the rock hall has 34 years of manhandling music history to make up for: the fact that every inductee gets a vote skews the rock hall voting body male. If every female act nominated – and only those acts – were inducted, the total percentage of women in the hall would rise more than one percentage point, to 8.73 percent – slightly more than 1/12th. That’s the best case scenario. In 2020, only one woman was inducted, Whitney Houston. As Janet Jackson said in 2019, Induct more women.

The industry, press, hall of fames, and history books have a long legacy of treating women musicians like shit. And they are increasingly getting called out on it. In 1994, the Grammys temporarily dropped the Best Female Rock Vocal category because they couldn’t think of any women to nominate for it – no PJ Harvey, no Ani Difranco, no Melissa Etheridge, no Kristin Hersh. A group called Strong Women in Music protested that year. In 2018, the Grammys were denounced for their failure to award women artists. When the Recording Academy president responded women need to “step up” to the plate – as if it was women’s fault their work was being shafted – he was forced to step down. This year, all the nominees in the Best Rock Performance category are female or female-fronted. That’s progress, and it’s progress caused not by women stepping up, but by women speaking up and demanding change.

So in March, we celebrate history, her story, our stories, but now and all year, we must also march, and protest, and demand not just our 8 percent, but our 50 percent. In the rock halls, in the history books, on the airwaves, on the streaming services, in our ears and in our hearts.

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Thar she blows!

The whales are back. I saw the boats before I saw the beasts: the harbor cruises all making a quick buck by never even having to venture out to sea to satisfy the looky-lous. I knew by the way the boats were just sitting there, inside the jetty, that the grays were on their migration back north, mothers and calfs and yearlings ducking into the relatively safe harbor of the port of Los Angeles to escape orcas, find some shallow grub, and scrape off a few barnacles. Sure enough, a heart-shaped wisp appeared in between two power boats. Thar she blows.

Pelicans

There were hundreds of birds on the breakwater near the Angels Gate lighthouse.

It’s a thrill to see a whale up close. I’m as guilty of enjoying it as anyone. I was out there Sunday morning, right where the tour boats had been. Only I maintain a respectful distance in my kayak — 100 yards is the law — with no noisy engine or toxic fumes disturbing the environment. You really don’t have to chase them: If you are patient and calm, they will probably, eventually come to you.

That happened Sunday. I got there early and paddled out alone, stopping to photograph birds on buoys, to sip my coffee and pour a ceremonial cetacean offering in the bay. I saw blows pretty much right away, but I also saw the paddleboarders and boats that were already crowding the whales. So I stayed in my lane, aiming toward the lighthouse. Pausing in the middle to see if my friend Laurie was catching up, I heard it: the exhale of a whale surfacing to breathe. It was a few hundred feet to the north, but I could see its white back. Immediately I heard another blow, the same distance south. Their surfacing seemed so timed I assumed they were traveling together, probably a mother and child. They passed on either side, heading inland, and I kept paddling toward  the ocean.

Laurie caught up with me just before the lighthouse, right after a third whale surfaced in front of us. She doesn’t believe in stopping for whales, and I followed her to the open water, where it was suprisingly calm, more so than in San Pedro Bay. Maybe we should have kayaked on the outside, I thought. But ironically, it’s a lot harder to see a whale out here in the wild than in one of the world’s busiest harbors, at least in the spring.

We had just started paddling back when a whale surfaced in front of a nearby fishing boat. We stopped, and I managed to shoot it in slow motion on my iPhone, though we were too far away for a clear image. It dove, and we stayed motionless, drifting slowly in with the current. They can’t go very deep in the shallow bay so they usually don’t stay under long, unless they are running away.

I was sitting with my camera ready when suddenly the water bubbled a few yards in front of me, and I was looking right at a baby gray whale. It was so close that I had to drop the phone in my lap and paddle backwards so as not to drift over it. I brake for whales. It lay on the surface in front of me, a perfect recently born calf, white as a sheet. Then it bowed its head, diving down again, giving me a full body view from baleen to fluke. I was giddy with laughter, stoned on cetacean: it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and I feel like it came to me, checked me out, and went on its way — I did not give chase.

It surfaced a couple more times, close but not that close. Laurie had paddled away, surfing the wake of a passing boat in her slender sit-inside kayak. She does not like to get close to the whales and feels like we are intruding on them. I respect her opinion, especially since she is a first-nation American. But I feel differently. These whales choose a busy harbor for their day care center and rest area. They are clearly curious about humans — I’ve had several close encounters in the the three years they’ve been visiting San Pedro Bay — and I think we should treat them as old friends who are returning to waters that were once full of whales, before human hunters wiped them out. I think we should welcome them back, give them their space, and help and protect them. Don’t run toward them, but don’t run from them either.

I have heard different versions of why they have been coming to the harbor the last three years: there has been extensive pollution mitigation there and they may feel like it is safer than it was for decades. They may also be starving and looking for food; they have appeared emaciated, and some were found dead in the unusual mortality event of 2019. But I also know that scientists have observed some of the same whales from previous years returning. So when I see them, I like to think of them as old friends. Sharing the water with these magnificent, gentle creatures, as we must share the planet, never gets old.

 

 

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Nature’s gifts

 

Sand crabThe waves deliver gifts. In the last week, my beachcombing has turned up limpet shells, whelks, pieces of sand dollars (does that make them sand quarters?), a thick shard of striped pottery, a white rock with a clear dark blue center, and a giant sand crab – well, giant for a sand crab, that is. Sand crabs are also known as mole crabs or sand fleas and typically they are insect like in size, but this one was a mounter: a good two inches, about 50 percent as big as their usual top range. Since the females are the larger gender – in some Emerita species, the male is so small he spends his life clinging to his woman’s legs – my find was female. She was at the end of her apparently long life, motionless, on her back – though there was some movement when I touched her gently, maybe a lingering reflex, maybe just the ghost in the carapace. With her one horn, she looked like a crustacean unicorn. I found the Emerita in her natural habitat, what Wikipedia calls “the swash zone.” Coincidentally, the swash zone is also my natural habitat. I take her home to show my son, then we put her back in the zone, where the water slowly rolls her back into its multitude.In her illuminating 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about growing up with a “view of a world full of gifts scattered at your feet.” The botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation draws upon the ideas of the American philosopher Lewis Hyde in The Gift. This 1979 book was also an influence on the early, utopian thinkers of the internet — the creators of open-source coding, creative commons, shareware, etc., before the concept of sharing turned into just another Silicon Valley profit scheme. The gift economy that Hyde champions offers an alternative to capitalism: “It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.” This was also how Kimmerer saw the world as a child who instinctively tended the wild strawberry plants that grew in the fields, so she could enjoy their fruit every summer. Braiding Sweetgrass is a remarkable account of how the way we frame our relationship to the earth can change that relationship: “The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences.”

Of course, the American history of the relationship to the land has been a classic story of colonizing: of conquest and depletion, not “respect and reciprocity,” as Kimmerer and Hyde envision. Even our greatest nature writers – Thoreau, Muir, Olson — have described the land as empty – “virgin” — before European settlers came, when of course we know it was populated by millions of humans. In his climate-change opus The End of Nature, Bill McKibben himself defines nature as “the world apart from man,” a definition he traces back to “the European exploration of the New World.” This separation of human from nature is the epistemological root of our ontological problem and is intimately connected to our entrenchment in industrial capitalism. As Vandana Shiva writes in Ecofeminism, “The reductionist world-view, the industrial revolution and the capitalist economy are the philosophical, technological and economic components of the same process.” If this is what “nature” is – the non-human other to which we have been historically subject, and which we have therefore in turn tried to subject – then good riddance to it. I want Kimmerer’s nature, a gift economy of mutual responsibility and reciprocity. A world of strawberries.

On Saturday, I arrive at the tide pools for a -0.5 tide. But it’s windy and the sun has already slipped around the cliff of Point Fermin, so I seek shelter behind a rock. It’s not a great vantage point but nonetheless, I’m quickly rewarded for finally making the ten-minute walk that took me two weeks. A wave washes up a jetty finger below me and I see something strange in it. It’s clear but solid, a translucent, well, blob. More swash zone swag! The tide pushes the blob up the rocks and it turns purple, blue, and green as it moves through light and water. There’s a slight ripple in its flesh but mostly its blubber is smooth, except for a large, bulbous protuberance at one end. I quickly decide it’s some sort of jellyfish, but fortunately, without the tentacles. Like the sand crab, its time has also passed. Still, well aware of the stinging potential of even a dead jellyfish, I don’t touch it until it has washed up on the rocks. Because it seems to be a partial corpse, I can’t say for sure what it is. Possibly a Velella velella, aka a by-the-wind sailor: I’ve seen these in the ocean before, scores of them, powered by their own personal sails. But this has no sail. It could be the body of a moon jellyfish, or, more scarily, a Portugese man of war. In fact, that’s what it most resembles: the upper polyp of this scarily painful creature, which is not a jellyfish at all but a siphonophore, or a colony of different critters.

I leave whatever it is where I find it. This is the nature of gifts: As Kimmerer says about the strawberries, “they belong to themselves.”

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