Tuesday, February 20, 2007

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA’S WET AND WILD BAY AREA: Magical and Meditative Water Worlds Abound in Overlooked Settings

Lucky for him, I barely miss crushing a California newt (Taricha torosa) inching across the trail, in arrestingly slow motion, one little deliberate step at a time. Ever fascinated with the lovely creatures, I bend over to inspect more closely and see he‘s clutching a small snail in his mouth. I refrain from touching or picking him up, not just because of the “leave it be“ ethic, but because newts are capable of excreting (possibly hallucinogenic) toxins from skin glands. I muse for several moments over the intricate design of this salamander, over the vastly different world the semi-aquatic amphibian inhabits from mine. Is he aware of my gigantic looming presence? Is there any sense of fear? It’s hard to tell, since there’s no real “fight or flight” instinct in the little guy. . .only an earnest progression across the leaf-littered trail in search of - what? - shelter, a place to munch down his victuals in peace, possibly a mating companion after that.

The newts, and frogs, fish, snakes, skinks, all water-dwelling animals, rejoice finally, with the freshening storm from nearly two weeks ago. Albeit only a few raindrops from the heavens, “each one of them,” wrote John Muir, “is a high waterfall in itself”. Finally, some measurable precipitation, precious moisture to replenish egg-laying sites for newts and foothill yellow-legged frogs, precious moisture to dampen our parched gardens, cleanse the stagnant air, saturate the thirsty hills, and not least, quell our collective anxiety about droughts, water shortages, and unpredictable El Nino weather patterns.

The rainfall total has not been impressive. We just had the sixth driest January on record. February hasn’t fared much better. Last year at this time, gully creeks were awash from heavy rains and reservoirs were overflowing in thunderous muddy free falls that brought out folks from the woodwork, from Hayward, Antioch, Tracy, to witness the local gushers. Roaring cascades surged through boulder-clogged ravines cluttered with the tangled detritus of frequent flash flooding. Arid watersheds transformed into verdant landscapes. But Winter 2007 has produced near-opposite meteorological effects. We desperately need several more “high waterfalls” to drop a deep blanket of snow over the Sierras, to replenish lower altitude vernal pools, ponds, lakes, streams, creeks, rivers and reservoirs. (Another storm is expected by tomorrow, the 21st.)

The greater San Francisco Bay Area is a contrasting land of micro-climates and macro-ecozones. At times of the year, it can seem desert-like; thankfully, alternating at other times of the year -- in the wetter season --with a temperate rainforest-like look and feel. No, we don’t have four seasons, but the Bay Area can surprise -- it might hail in early June and fill your backyard up with icy marble sized stones, or freak-snow on the region‘s peaks and ridges in October; or freeze up like Indiana in early March, or burn like Death Valley in the dog days of August. It can rain like the apocalypse is in sight some years. On hot humid days, like February 17, when it topped out in the mid-70’s, it can seem positively tropical in ambience, but for the lack of palm trees in our regional parks and wilderness areas.

The Bay Area’s nine counties comprise some 7,000 square miles, an area six times the size of Rhode Island. All told, there are about 400 watersheds in the Bay Area, each defined by distinct biological / geological / hydrological attributes. Watersheds, by their inherent topography, capture “high waterfalls” as run-off or seepage, and so are defined by their natural capacity to corral the directional flow of hundreds of ephemeral ravine tributaries and countless creeks to drain vast acres of public lands. Quite a journey all this water takes, falling from the sky onto high hills and then finding an outlet, some wild-cum-urban egress to the ocean, or to one of our many spectacular bays -- San Francisco, San Pablo, Tomales, Drakes, Bolinas, Bodega, Richardson, Suisun, Grizzly, and Honker. Reservoirs and managed wetlands capture the bulk of natural run-off, but an amazing number of our local creeks and rivers find a way to run wild to their final destination. (The Steelhead and Coho are most grateful, no doubt!)

The Bay Area is renowned for postcard images of stunning water scenes -- drop-dead gorgeous views from the Marin Headlands out to the Golden Gate Bridge and the shining City -- endless miles of insanely beautiful and rugged Pacific shoreline from Santa Cruz to Sonoma County -- pristine protean bayside scenery -- frothy white cascades ripping through ferny ravines in ancient Redwood forests -- unique vernal pools hosting rare species of plants and animals -- modest seasonal ponds reflecting 400 year old bonsai-like blue oaks -- soulful lakes and pretty-enough reservoirs with their miles of exotic hiking -- healthy streams protected in thick forest mantel, providing refuge and habitat for steelhead trout and coho salmon -- inland marshes and estuaries co-existing with superhighways and transmission towers -- a sprawling delta system formed by the confluence of powerful mountain rivers. . .yes, indeed, the Bay Area has bragging rights when it comes to easily-accessible, beautiful water scenery for all to enjoy. But there’s so much more, mostly unseen, certainly unnoticed, definitely unheralded. Until now!

The ocean and bay will always enchant with their limitless breathtaking beauty and sheer awe of expansive infinity, but without the high waterfalls, the rest of the earth suffers. The melodic riffs of pure, cold water singing and dancing through a sun-dappled stretch of forest is nowhere to be heard or seen. No rain means dry, barren, dusty hills, the song of water in hiberation. Our favorite places to hike and view waterfalls -- Cataract, Alamere, Carson, Murietta, Donner, Berry Creek, Uvas, Stairstep, Little Yosemite, Pacheco, dozens more -- dry up to desert-like trickles. But, Lordy, when it rains, the world turns lush, green, wet overnight - a perfect time to escape to your favorite wilderness retreat or local nature get-away to witness the revived miracle of water, to reacquaint yourself with the Great Spirit of water, to encounter very pretty, highly precious water in a myriad of magical, meditative settings.

Yeah, verily I say unto thee, seek it out, and you will discover scenes of water that will amaze, soothe, and inspire; you will chance upon water in its natural element that will never be reported on, admired, heralded or honored -- until now! -- miraculous water that, on first impression, might appear to be nothing more than a simple fountain bubbling up, or an imperceptible seep dripping pure sparkling dewdrops through a filter of lush green moss, or simply a little riffle of a miniature cascade gurgling over rocks in the glinting sun, or a ho-hum stream making its unimpressive way somewhere. Go by your instinct to seek out the unusual and exotic, yes, right in your commonplace surroundings, your own backyard. It could be an urban creek cutting passage through neighborhoods and shopping malls. It could be a small city park pond somewhere. It could be water spilling over roadside rocks like a perfect little zen fountain. It could be a hidden cove at Lake Merritt in the middle of Oakland. In actuality, these secretive, elusive, “insignificant” water settings are beautiful and exotic beyond description. What they do is provide a simple means of experiencing the sublime sensation of finding God in a blade of grass, or in this case, Goddess in the melodic riffles and reflective pools of a nameless little creek.

All waters can be thought of as one, literally. And everything is cyclic. The tiniest patch of water in a piss-ass arroyo bears profound witness to oceanic origins and its eventual long cyclic journey back, and then to the piss-ass arroyo again. Such a magical thing! A freshet spewing through a narrow fern-choked defile, on closer examination, mimics in proportion a river ravine in Hawaii. Another splendiferous revelation! Heavens, yes, I am awed and humbled, admittedly charmed out of my wits, usually, by any standing or flowing water in a natural or even semi-natural setting. Any simple little scene of water collecting here and there, running along in a mesmerizing undisturbed flow through enchanting surroundings, water sing-songing a merry little course in a paradisiacal setting, water gently lapping at a remote shore, water merging and intertwining with other arteries in Gaia’s great circulatory system, even trailside puddles of steel-blue water reflecting billowy clouds in a cobalt sky, and freshets of new water livening up the woods after a good soaking -- these are truly quite rare and fugacious, beautiful and special aquatic phenomena - aquanomena! - every last bit of it. As the “lowly” worm is to the health of our soil, “prosaic” water, unnoticed in a “pedestrian” setting, is the foundation, health and character of our watersheds.

Water water everywhere, and although there is still a drop to drink for those of us fortunate enough to not have to spend up to six hours a day looking for it like woman do in many parts of the world, in a drought-prone environment like the Bay Area, water is a dwindling, misused resource that people squander with nary a second thought or consequence for seven generations. People take a clean and abundant water supply for granted; hell, they don’t even know where it comes from. (Fiji?) News break: the water wars of the very near future - perhaps our future! - will make the oil wars of today pale by comparison. Brace for the deadly struggle that will inevitably ensue to possess and control the die-for commodity of dwindling sources of potable water, let alone scenic water to quench the soul‘s thirst.

My paean to the Great Spirit of Water and accompanying photos, hopefully, remind us of how precious and utterly miraculous water is, of how beautiful and spiritual our experiences are involving water moving through natural settings. Certainly, as Loran Eisley wrote in The Immense Journey, "If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

"Water--the ace of elements. Water dives from the clouds without parachute, wings or safety net. Water runs over the steepest precipice and blinks not a lash. Water is buried and rises again; water walks on fire and fire gets the blisters. Stylishly composed in any situation--soild, gas or liquid--speaking in penetrating dilects understood by all things--animal, vegetable or mineral-- water travels intrepidly through four dimensions, sustaining... destroying... creating..."
--Tom Robbins