Little by little. I keep telling myself that. Take it slow. Patience is not this patient’s virtue. I want to run, dive, swim underwater as long as I can hold my breath, and then do the crawl straight out to the horizon until I don’t feel the cold of the Pacific anymore. That’s my usual mode of immersion — well, okay, I do more of a shuffle-for-stingrays than a run. But lately, nothing has been usual.
My biggest fear about having surgery was not being able to swim. You might as well lock me up in a dungeon if you are going to deprive me of water. It’s my exercise, meditation, therapy, habit, and habitat. Keep me on land too long, and I dry out like a slug.
So when I first stuck my toes back in the Pacific after four weeks of exile, I could feel my flesh rehydrating. As I walked gingerly through the wash, the life force ran up my legs to electro-charge my failing heart and douse my brain with dopamine. Two days later, when I had worked up the courage to submerge, I lifted my feet from the earth and lay my body horizontal on salt water. The pain in my core vanished. Freedom from gravity, from the planet’s pull on mass, from the weight of the upper half of my body stacked on the lower half, released my poor, pulverized nerves. The cold Cabrillo water, with its healing salt crystals, worked its medicinal magic. I had been worried that swimming could hurt me, but instead — like it always does — it was my cure.
When I returned to shore from my first wade in the water, a shiny white object beckoned from the wet sand. I thought at first it was a shell, but it turned out to be a different piece of animal: the bone of the top bill of an aquatic fowl, like a duck. Of course, there aren’t generally ducks in the ocean. Gulls, herons, cormorants, pelicans, egrets, sandpipers, and willets — the local species — all have very differently shaped beaks. The mystery bone is a strange, macabre gift but beautiful: delicate, ivory, dotted with pinhole calligraphy. Another masterpiece by Mother Nature.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.”
I like to experience the sea from multiple planes. Diving in, I visit a hidden world, where humans are guests and the life forms more fantastic the deeper one plunges. Swimming on the surface, my view is the point where water meets air, which I share with paddling birds, frolicking dolphins and the occasional curious pinniped. Standing on a paddleboard, I can gaze down into the ocean and watch those same creatures as they dive underneath me, or I can look far to the horizon to where the cerulean earth bends out of sight. Sitting in a kayak, I’m on the water but not in it, at sea level but dry. By kayak, I can cover more miles more quickly than by other routes. Saturday, I paddled to the lighthouse.
As my friend Heidi and I pulled our boats into San Pedro Bay at the Cabrillo Beach boat ramp, an osprey wheeled overhead. I took it as an auspicious sign, pun intended. These brown and white hunters are my favorite birds primarily because, like me, they love the water. There’s one, and sometimes two, that hang out near the ramp, perhaps hoping for catch dropped by fishermen. They also like to patrol the inner curve of the outer beach, right outside my windows. I love to watch them hover in place, their wings cupping the air, meaty legs aimed toward potential prey – treading air like we tread water. Their dive is quick and sudden; its force can take them all the way below the surface. Sometimes I see them fly by with fish dangling from their talons, bringing home the bacon, so to speak. This is another thing I like about osprey; they are pescatarians. They basically just eat fish, sometimes a frog or eel that maybe they mistook for a trout. So even though this osprey is circling over a flock of coots and scooters, unlike an eagle, it’s not hunting other birds; it wants what they want – fish.
There’s a slight chop on the water, so we’re unsure how far we should go. We head toward the Lane Victory, the merchant marine vessel docked at the entrance to the main channel into the port. Just off the pilings, a sea lion is repeatedly jumping in circles through the water, like a cat chasing its tail.
There’s no wind or current and the waves are harmless, so we decide to cross the bay to the harbor entrance. “To the lighthouse!” we two feminist professors exclaim, and giggle at our literary joke.
Angels Gate Light has marked the entrance to the City of Angels for 113 years. Perched on the end of the rock jetty that protects Los Angeles Harbor, it’s an elegant black and white building that was refurbished several years ago. On this day, after the rains have rinsed the air, it seems to positively gleam against the blue sky and water. Also known as the Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse, its light and horn keep the giant cargo ships from running into the jetty. For them, it marks the entrance to the port; for Heidi and me, it’s the exit to the open sea.
We paddle past the lighthouse into the Pacific, just for a look. The waves are still big out here. To our left the ocean is a parking lot of cargo ships waiting for a port berth. COVID infections and restrictions have slowed the unloading process on the docks, and record numbers of ships have been left waiting. A couple weeks ago 55 of these giant container ships had to navigate 17-foot waves. Please politicians, give essential workers their vaccines.
Staring straight south it’s nothing but blue on blue. There’s something about looking out on the ocean from the edge of land that opens a person up – especially after months of limited mobility, of sheltering in place, of lockdown. The options are endless here; it’s the “sea of possibilities,” as Patti Smith sang on the song called “Land.”
Then a fishing boat comes racing in from the ocean, passing too close and too fast. Behind us, a majestic wooden ship, the Zapata II, has all its sails flying and is coming up remarkably quick. I paddle back to the lighthouse to get out of the way, but the wakes from the two vessels merge around me and suddenly I’m pitching up and down, waves breaking over my bow, feeling like a very small vessel in a very busy urban port.
Back in the bay and, literally, even keeled, we take one last look around before retracing our, er, steps. The view from the kayak is like being in the bottom of a landscape painting. To the east, the mountains are dressed in a thick layer of snow. The white triangular arches of the new Gerald Desmond Bridge that connects Los Angeles to Long Beach are architectural echoes of Big Bear. Below them the red and white cranes of the loading docks also reach to the sky. We’re sitting in the ocean, looking up at snow-covered mountains and the engineering marvels of one of the world’s busiest ports.
Alex and I are at the tide pools. According to the Surfline app, it’s almost low tide. Our assignment today is to practice awareness – one of the essential values we gain from nature, according to Sigurd Olson, the 20th century naturalist of Minnesota’s boundary waters. We are focusing on the micro, not the macro – the trees, not the forest, or rather the tide pool, not the ocean. We are trying to see beyond abstract first impressions, the concrete details beneath the surface.
It’s a bit hard to concentrate. We may be in nature, but we are definitely not away from it all. It’s a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, a day of sunny calm amid a week of winter storms, and I haven’t been around this many people for a pandemic minute. Families are swarming the rocks; the only thing ensuring social distancing is the six-foot-wide tide pool Alex and I are hunkered next to. Alex is my dog: a wiry brown terrier we adopted from the Harbor shelter, full name Alexander Hamilton (my son, Cole Hamilton – really his name – named him). “Hammy” has grown up on these rocks and is deft at getting around on them, when he’s not lying in my lap and nibbling on a piece of kelp. Who knew dogs eat kelp?
“I found a limpet! I found a limpet!” The five-year-olds are better at this than I am. They scurry across the rocks exclaiming their treasures. Alex eyes them warily then looks up at me, brown eyes big with sympathy.
I chose to hone in on a tide pool today after the sea smashed my first plan: to observe it from a paddleboard. I couldn’t get my big fiberboard Naish past the surf break; every sixth wave crashed too far out, and I almost wound up somersaulting though the surf with my board and paddle. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, so already wet, I swam around for a half hour, semi searching the ocean floor for the favorite water bottle the wave snatched. A few hours later, I’m back, awaiting low tide.
What I see in my pool:
Pinkish purple lichen-like coral: a forest of tiny aquatic bonsai, rooted on a rock. (I look it up later: coral weed.)
Putrid-green seaweed; tastes like chicken, Alex says.
Vivid green sea grass, spread like mermaid hair.
Bigger – two-foot-long – trunks of dark green kelp; the sequoia of the tide pool. (Feather boa kelp.)
Dozens of snail shells on the opposite shore. (Periwinkle.) Most seem to be empty but a few move quickly: homes purloined by hermit crabs. Why are they called hermits when I always see them in clusters?
Yellow foam bubbles cling to the top of the vegetation. Natural or industrial pollution?
I see limpets!
Some of the rocks are psychedelic in their multitude of colors: yellow, pink, green, white, painted with lichen of varying shades and textures.
Peering deeper, I see a lavender shell – a whelk?
You have to look up sometimes too. Just 20 feet away, a bird is hunting the shore’s edge. It walks in long strides on stilt legs and dips its equally long beak into the water, pulling up a tiny shore crab, whose eight legs wave in the air. Gray with a white chest, it’s a willet, or a plover, or some kind of shore bird. It could be a Monty Python character, straight out of the department of silly walks. I look it up later; first guess was right, a willet.
I look down one last time and realize there is a fish right below me, probably there the whole time. It’s camouflaged black and green on the pond’s bottom, like a mud guppy. It’s small, maybe two inches, and darts into thin water when I bring my finger close. (A sculpin.)
Instead of getting lower, the tide is coming in, a steady stream back into my pool now, whose rocks and limpets will be underwater again in a few hours. Clouds cover the sun and it’s getting cold – winter is back. Alex is restless. He’s already gotten up once, searched for some fresher greenery, then shoved my pen aside with his nose and crawled back into my lap, as if to say, “Focus on this.” We call it a day. Back home I thumb through the pictures in my new guides and try to identify everything I wrote down in my journal. So much to see, so much to learn.