Monday, February 21, 2011

LIVE OAK PARK: Meditative Strolling and Reflective Lolling in the Wild (and Urban) Environs of Berkeley's First Nature Park


A small parcel of gently sloping land, cleft by a small ravine, is nestled in a pretty neighborhood two minutes away on foot from my North Berkeley residence – and a creek runs through it. Not just any creek, but Codornices Creek, named after the many California quail who once graced the area. Codornices is one of dozens of primordial East Bay hill streams that used to run free and easy, emptying into once prevalent brackish marshes and sloughs along the vast bay shoreline. Most of the East Bay hill streams and their tributaries were long ago concretized over, buried, relegated invisible, but progressively, city planners and environmentalists are restoring our charming little creeks to see the light of day once again.

Live Oak Park, through which Codornices Creek runs for about - I don't know - maybe a total of 300 yards - is Berkeley’s first “nature park”, so designated in 1914 by the Berkeley City Council at a time when Berkeley took up the gauntlet and ascribed to the guiding principles and philosophy of the “City Beautiful Movement” – urban beautification campaigns aimed at promoting “a harmonious social order that would increase the quality of life.” (Wikipedia) They got that right. Without Live Oak Park a heartbeat away from my doorstep, my quality of life would be greatly diminished. Especially after forsaking a car two years ago, having this slice of beautification at my instant disposal is a welcome gift of relief after a hectic day at the office, or whenever I'm feeling restless, stressed, or just homebound and in need of a quick "nature park" fix.

Over the past forty years, Codornices Creek has been daylighted - outed! Most of its entire journey to the bay can now be enjoyed and admired by nature-starved urban dwellers, by appreciative deer who come to sip from its waters, by raccoons who come to claw out crayfish, and by birds who find sanctuary and shelter along its shadier stretches. Many years ago, though, residents of the hills despoiled their little gem with raw sewage and whatever else was deemed dumpable, and officials thought it in the best interests of public health to just bury the effluvia the creek had become under roads and sidewalks. Out of sight, out of mind. Such an easy thing to destroy a beautiful natural habitat....but, of course, to quote T.C. Boyle in his latest novel, When the Killing's Done - "Restoring an ecosystem is never easy."

Today, after much tireless work by advocates and friends of Codornices Creek, the little brook is, without doubt, a precious natural resource, and veritably a pretty sight as it meanders through parks, back yards, neighborhoods and industrial areas. But I'm guessing that only the devout worshippers among us of the small, overlooked and unheralded might find this simple city creek worth crowing about. I hope I'm wrong. I hope people do look beyond the seeming mundane and get excited about the creek's presence, notice it, pay it homage. It's easy to overlook its charms; after all, apart from being an overly-familiar backdrop, it's not a powerful Sierra river worth gawking over, or some big north country trout stream to get worked up about; it isn't in a designated wilderness area; and by all means it lacks the drama and scale and magnitude one wants in their wet dream water scenery (although upstream, on private property, there exists a multi-tiered sixty foot waterfall in a small canyon that is as impressive as anything outside of Mt. Diablo St. Park or Marin County. Seriously.) So why would anyone gush over something so commonplace and unremarkable? Because it is!

Because Codornices Creek is what it is - a modest, humble, tiny ribbon of water, about three to five feet in breadth, flowing through two densely populated East Bay cities. This stripped bare characterization doesn't make the creek's existence any less wondrous, its presence any less beautiful, its form and function any less appreciated. Certainly not to the resurgent steelhead who have come home to nest; not to the deer, raccoon, squirrels, birds (and foxes, coyotes and - yes! - mountain lions!) who rely on its cool cache of water and other "mean and lowly things" to munch on and sustain their living populations hidden in gaps where the urban / profane intersects with the natural / sacred (the so-called ecotone). And, most definitely not to Gambolin' Man and to those of a similar heart-soul-mindset who realize, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, "the invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common"; who understand, like Paulo Coelho, that "each day brings a miracle of its own. It's just a matter of paying attention to this miracle"; who, like Frederick Franck, grok the "extraordinary, the sheer miracle of the branching of a tree, the structure of a dandelion's seed puff"; and who resonate with Edward Weston's photographic dictum, "not searching for unusual subject matter, but making the commonplace unusual." (To those not of the choir, I feel compelled to trumpet these virtuous philosophical sentiments in defense of Codornices' creek cred.)

Because Codornices Creek is what it is. Originating in the central Berkeley hills 900 feet up, it drains an area of about one square mile, and flows nearly three miles to San Pablo Bay through the cities of Berkeley and Albany. Although much of the watershed evaporates, Codornices Creek never dries up, awing (some of us) with a perennial flow - albeit a trickle in places during prolonged months of zero precipitation. Many, if not most, hill creeks dry up within weeks or days of downpours, while a select few owe their existences to ideal geological conditions that collect and store rainfall - a living body of kinetic water is created and sustained by an endless release and flow of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of trapped rain, released from humongous subterranean cisterns sculpted by the complex vulcanism of East Bay geology. (Slam-dunk miracle!) I've often wondered how long it would take for that well to run dry and what is the mechanism by which water is gradually, but continually, released - is it by means of gravity? suction? seepage? sponge-action? - big mysteries in such little things! But, thank heavens, it always rains just in time to replenish the cisterns and keep the creek a viable habitat to attract ocean-venturing (and threatened) steelhead trout - Oncorhynchus mykiss - to their aboriginal spawning grounds farther downstream. Imagine! Our little neighborhood creek is healthy enough, to the extent possible, to play out the primal ritual after so many years of being shut off from the cycle vital for anadromous fish - fish that live in the ocean mostly, and breed in fresh water - to carry on and survive. Give Mother Nature half a chance, and she will rebound. We're witnessing this up and down coastal Northern California where rehabilitation efforts to return spawning creeks to their wild state are paying big dividends for increased populations of coho and steelhead. (We hope.)

For millennia, native Huichin peoples established their village life in the shady lushness of Codornices Creek and reaped the bounty effortlessly - trout, shellfish, salmon, deer, berries, herbs, and acorns from the many varieties of oak trees kept their baskets and larders overflowing. It’s easy to idealize their existence and imagine a time when aboriginal people lived traditionally off the land right here in Live Oak Park, co-existing peacefully, trading with their Ohlone relatives - a proud, quick-witted people whose every need in this Land o' Plenty was met by a proliferation of abundant natural resources and a cornucopia of plentiful edible foodstuffs - all of which enabled them to achieve heights of cultural sophistication, as they were able to devote so much more of their time engaged in - not survival pursuits - but storytelling, dancing, arts, rituals and myth-making, and family cohesion and community harmony. Real social networking connections.

After a good steady rain fall – over two inches in the past couple of days – the creek has transformed itself from a kitten to a lion. I've never seen it so bad-ass. It's amazing what a little rain can do. The park has a resplendent aura about it. Trees have burst to radiant life. Sensual, earthy aromas pulsate in the brain - dewy tree branches, the smell of laurel in mud, heady, pungent redwood duff. The spellbinding rhythm of churning, melodious water burbling through Live Oak Park in a snaky bed framed by 100 ft. tall redwood trees entrances and captivates. The roar and commotion won't last long, maybe twenty-four hours. I stand motionless on a big redwood burl and gaze mindlessly into the foaming and churning water, oblivious to everything and nothing. The dry familiarity of the commonplace has suddenly become a glistening, exotic, almost unrecognizable world unto its own . . .all because of a little rain. A changed perspective also helps. I get right down to the creek's little shore, looking beyond the obvious observations, and begin examining things from a new angle, a different perch. At once, I'm in Live Oak Park, and I am not. The sensation of being lost in a private wilderness sanctuary is enhanced, and very real. On a lonesome late afternoon, lured by the Siren call of a rainstorm, with barely anyone about, and the creek's mighty little roar drowning out the noxious noises of city life, it can surely seem like you're transported to another realm. Returning to an all too familiar scene, it turns out I really am getting to know the place for the first time, seeing it, truly, through different lenses. Codornices Creek is not what it appears to be.

Live Oak Park is an amalgamation of pure, sweet nature and grim urbanity. The contrast can be subtle, the dichotomy unsettling, when urban chaos and natural sublimity intermingle and intersect. But when you're lost in your little world, the industrial world can seem nonexistent. I'm entranced at water’s edge, admiring colorful rocks and tangled roots. There is no one about (who wants to be in this horrible pouring rain for heaven’s sake?), nothing going on except me and turbid water surging beneath a towering tree canopy. Then I look up and spot ugly graffiti and a beer bottle some teenagers tossed several days ago – a jolting reminder that I’m in the city, not lost in my imagined wilderness area. Then, moving along, my attention shifts to a white flowering tree; squirrels prance high atop in branches, ravens' screeches pierce the air as four of them land in a tree top. I am grabbed by how the creek cuts a sinuous course - a perfect S-curve - through the red needle covered flooring of the understory of redwood trees. I'm thankful for this little nature park. Then, a few steps beyond, I come to the entrance of a grimy tunnel, spray painted with crude symbols and figures and words, and in a dingy corner of a barely dry patch of shelter, a forlorn-looking homeless man is making do. Urban ills and ugliness, in yo face. Then I turn to focus on a grove of aromatic bay trees and flowering dogwoods growing tall and proud alongside a steep embankment of the creek, a willowy stretch showcasing a set of snappy riffles sing-songing over small rocks, instantly cradling me back into the arms of nature. Then, I look up and see a dog-walker coming by, a woman with a panicky, hurried look to her stroll - shuffling along, head down, not at all enjoying the inclement weather. The beauty and raw power of the resurgent creek means absolutely nothing to her. Her dog, leashed, wants to run. Urban constraints vs. natural flows. Further along, I check out in closer detail than I ever have the elegant old stone fireplace, completed in 1917, when Live Oak Park was one of the few gathering places for people to come together and experience community; back then, it hosted more than 10,000 people and 300 gatherings a year. Today, it serves a similar function – people come to celebrate, party, or just hang out and barbecue. . .which, thankfully, on this day, no one is doing. Barbecuing, let the rant begin, is an urban activity harkening back to our troglodyte ancestor days and disguised as tradition that, frankly, gets me real heated up. Give it a moment of honest reflection before dismissing my extreme prejudice as a fascistic stance - from my point of view, breathing in the toxic effluvia of incinerated particulate matter while trying to enjoy fresh air in a public space really detracts from the City Beautiful Movement’s goal of “quality life", doncha think? How many times have I felt compelled to leave the park owing to suffocating and lingering smoke from a barbecue pit? Stinky, cloying smoke that just seems to hang in the air above Live Oak's spacious lawns. Some kind of smoke trapping effect that - to my astonishment - most people (barbecuers themselves?) hardly seem to notice or be bothered by. The harmful particulate matter permeating the fresh, clean air in the park on a lovely day, while children are playing and people are lounging about and playing with their dogs, constitutes an unconscionable public health violation, and has no place in a nature park. But, alas, I realize I'm a lone dissenter here, way out of line, and certainly in the strict minority of people who decry barbecues as violating our right to enjoy non-polluted air. Because it's so ingrained in our cave man DNA, it's doubtful laws will ever be passed to prohibit or curtail barbecuing in public places. After all, who doesn't love a good barbecue! A little toxic air is a small price to pay for carrying on the tradition. (Of course, you win the argument; I would rather live in a society that allows the indiscriminate burning and release of toxic particulate matter, our individual health be damned, than one that bans it.)

The charm of Live Oak Park is Codornices Creek, without which the park would still be a lovely place, providing respite from a harried world, and a place to run your dog, picnic on Cheeseboard pizzas, and sit and read in the sun. But urban afflictions are prevalent - the Banksy wannabes, who uglify walls and spaces with their street "art" (very little of it is any good); the frequent bad air from burning wood and charcoal; and the unsightly homeless men and women who find refuge under tunnel overhangs, in bridge nooks and crannies, and on cold days, at the barbecue pits where the impoverished build fires to warm themselves. (Can't blame 'em.) It will always be an urban park, replete with urban ills, and defined by people doing mostly urban things. But if you look deeper, and happen to visit on a day when no one's around, when rains have freshened the dust of earth and filled the creek bed with life-affirming water, when your heart is open to experiencing the goddess of small miracles, you will find that this little ol' place called Live Oak Park, and its little ol' "it is what it is" creek, will surprise you with a treasure-trove of sublime natural beauty in the midst of (largely avoidable) gritty urban phenomena.

To read an account of Codornices Creek and see the hidden waterfall photos in Benner's canyon, visit http://gambolinman.blogspot.com/2009/03/codornices-creek-paying-homage-to.html

Thursday, February 10, 2011

GAMBOLIN' MAN PARSED & GOOGLED: Vox Clamantis in Deserto

Dear Friends, Followers and Fans of Gambolin' Man:

If you’ve noticed, I’ve been absent lately - how about you? It's just that I haven't gone anywhere, or maybe it's that I'm not inspired for the moment. How about you? Speaking of you, I have often wondered, who are you? Where are you coming from? Thank heavens for Google Analytics.

Most of you, of course, are from the U.S., but many also come from places as wildly varied as Slovenia, Bangladesh, Uruguay and Egypt. I know some of you, in the real sense - loyal family members and friends from my "Amigos!" distribution list. And then, there are those of you I know only in the unreal sense - fellow nature bloggers and outdoor enthusiasts surfing the web who stumble on, were turned onto, or have bookmarked my site. I know one or two of you, in the real sense, but for all the rest of you, even though our mutual acquaintance has been purely virtual, it somehow feels like we really do know one another.

From one perspective, how cool! What better way to build my Amigos! list than by making friends through e-mail correspondence, website back 'n forth commentary, Facebook interactions, and bite-sized Twitter sliders! But, c'mon, is this really how friends are made today? Does this define what a 21st century friendship is? People with whom I have become virtual friends, and who know me as a good ol' cyber buddy – we’ve never met! (With a few exceptions.) In a day and age not so far removed, these virtual friends I lay claim to would otherwise be total freakin' strangers. I wouldn't even know their names, nothing of their existences – people like guidebook author and adventurer John Soares, North Fork American River trail advocates and avid explorers Russell Towle (RIP), Ron Gould, Gay Wiseman and CanyonSpirit O'Riley, hiker extraordinaire Rebecca Sowards-Emmerd (“Calipidder”), Russ Beebe of Winehiker renown, Tom Mangan of Two-Heel Drive fame, waterfalls chaser Leon Turnbull, Bay Area Hiker site guru Jane Huber, mysterious Smokey of Smokey’s Mountain, inspirational Bob “4WheelBob” Coomber, and Randy of Waypoints. And yet, crazy as it seems, the Internet has enabled like-minded people from all parts of California and the world to become friends! Hello, Amigos! Well, it'll have to suffice, for it's as close as you can get, online, to a give and take struggle, a dance of flesh and blood, shared sweat and pain, simple laughter and touching, spilled tears of joy and agony. How many of you can give me that?

Ultimately, I write Gambolin' Man pretty much for the sake of Gambolin' Man. Which is okay, I gotta have some narcissistic pride. Still, I have to pinch myself after posting a particularly sexy piece and ask what's the point, when the average time spent perusing my site is one minute and a quarter, and not one second longer. Seventy-five pitiful seconds! Just enough time to quickly scan the photographs and ignore everything else except for maybe an opening paragraph or two. Instead of plaudits for my written descriptions, the (paucity of) e-mail accolades and (near non-existent) posted comments are variations on "Great photos!" "Awesome shots!" "Wow, what a beautiful place!" Well, I suppose I should be thankful for the photos, for without them, I imagine that 75 pitiful seconds would wither to about 7.5 seconds. Like with this post, no doubt. (Is anyone still with me?) Such a pity, for the juicy stuff takes at least twenty minutes to get to!

Turning to the grim statistics of my Bounce Rate - egads! From what I hear, if your Bounce Bate is over 50%, your site is a black hole. You want people to linger in your world, pore over your words. A knowledgeable person I know, a marketing analytics expert, recently consoled me by writing, "Interpreting Bounce Rate is a bit complicated for a blog like yours. The intent of Bounce Rate is to measure the correlation between customer intent and the mission for your site. In other words, why the customer came to the page, versus why the page exists. . .the top-secret Google algorithm that measures Bounce Rate might be overly emphasizing clicks-per-page, meaning that 'interested' readers show their interest by clicking on things on the page. In the case of an e-commerce site, readers would be clicking on offers. But on a 'journey story' blog like yours, the content is essentially text heavy, with few opportunities to click, so the number of clicks per page is less relevant."

My knowledgeable friend then goes on to suggest ways to improve the flypaper effect of my site by "giving people something to click on" such as a mini-book ("The Adventures of G-Man") or a video ("Babbling Brook in Yosemite"). As if this isn't discouraging enough, he goes on to lament, "More troubling is the combination of high Bounce Rate and low time on the page," meaning that readers basically are unable or uninterested in devoting time to finish the entries. This is a painful truism, borne out time and again by the preponderance of "great photos!" comments and very few “great writing” comments. How ironic! And sad. But typical, I suppose. Yet it is my writing, not my photography, that is the source of my greatest pride, warranted or not. My photography skills are like my basketball game, where I just throw it up there and hope for a swish (and often get it). But I am such a rank amateur compared to some of my more polished cyber-buddy auteurs who really know how to capture an image and make it stand out – Dan Mitchell and Leon Turnbull come to mind.

So, maybe people pin ball away from my site so quickly because my writing is too long, or just not that good. I think it has everything to do with the precious commoditization of time, the deluge of information overload, and the glut of articles and posts demanding and competing for one’s attention. I really do think my site attracts people who are looking for interesting places to hike, but end up browsing and looking at the pretty pictures instead – almost like flipping through a dirty magazine. (There is, somewhere on the net, I am 100% positive, without even Googling it, someone's take on nature photography vis-a-vis pornography.) People's inability to get through my posts also has a lot to do with, I’m convinced, people being afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder - in this day and age of chunked information and 140 character communication, who has time for lengthy posts? (A fellow I know suggested that it's not A.D.D. but rather, he teased, I'm blessed with a speed-reading audience!) Finally, no doubt, people ping-pong off my site because, once there, they have zero to little actual interest in reading about boring old hiking stuff - least of all my rambling floral descriptions and fervid faunal encounters; they could care less about poetic narrative apotheosizing the commonplace, elevating it to the stature of the miraculous. But isn't that G-Man's unique angle? Isn’t that the hook that draws you in and keeps your interest?

Coloring prosaic natural worlds with effusive ebullience:
". . .subtle lighting enhancing every natural detail - phosphorescent green moss carpeting trees and rocks, tiny ferns dancing the hula atop a boulder, bizarrely patterned shelf mushrooms thriving on a rotted log, richly yellow leaves layered like an artistic creation of Andy Goldsworthy, deeply textured, magnificently colored red and blue creek rocks."

Infusing ardor and life into the seemingly pedestrian:
". . .now, the creek widens in a big S-curve, enlivening the forest with whitewater noise as a minor drop in elevation galvanizes the flow into a display of mini-falls and swirling cascades, now channeling into shallow turbid pools eddying up against ten foot high banks composed of some hard clay or mud-like rock bearing ferns, horsetail and other aquatic plants. Giant trees, growing on the banks’ precipices, their tangled masses of roots gnarled up in balls of Medusa head snakes, and choked by creeping lianas, lend a Maya jungle world look and feel to the scene."

Transforming the commonplace into the unrecognizably exotic:

"As the day continues to warm up, a few wildflowers have popped out to brighten things evermore. Lovely Painted Ladies appear out of nowhere in large numbers, fluttering around us in a magical, ethereal dance. Skittish Western fence lizards dart here and there. Birdsong fills the air. Everything’s coming to -- LIFE! It’s a golden moment, you’re fully grateful to be alive, blessed to be healthy, happy to be enjoying the great California outdoors."

I don't know where my propensity for this writing quirk comes from, but in many posts I have invoked kindred philosophies by quoting some sagacious soul or another echoing this inherent truth. But I wasn't aware that in 1627, John Donne, one of the great poets of our language, also reflected on the miraculous in the everyday. The following passage is lifted from the 2011 edition of The Old Farmer's Almanac by Robert B. Thomas:

"We experience the world around us, Donne observed, as made up of mundane occurrences that we hardly notice but which, if they were rare, would be accounted prodigies. 'Nay, the ordinary things in Nature would be greater miracles than the extraordinary, which we admire most, if they were done but once.'

"How many events of a June afternoon bear him out? The sky darkens, thunders sounds, rain arrives, passes. A rainbow appears in the east, a vast shimmering arch of light above the valley. We pause to enjoy it, we don't fail to notice it; but then we go on about our business. We've seen rainbows before. If that rainbow were the only rainbow, if it 'were done but once', we would be astonished.

"As the shower passes, a hummingbird returns to the delphiniums, hovering, feeding, zooming off, circling, zooming back, halting, poised on invisible wings. Its movements are so quick that they can be hard to follow, and its brilliant colors make it look like a high-speed gemstone. As with the rainbow, however, though we admire the hummingbird, we don't marvel: It's familiar. If, as Donne reminds us, this hummingbird were unique, we would behold it with wonder."

One solution, my friend suggested, would be to find a way to get readers to spend more time on my posts: perhaps shortening them (Heavens no! Just an analogy, but try telling Jackson Pollack to use just a bit less paint next time); or - here my friend's marketing acumen shines through - I should try creating a strong brand association with what he refers to as my "Mark Twain" influenced style. What a nice compliment! Not to forget Muir and Thoreau, but any pretensions I may harbor to being party to such esteemed literary company are laughable. Still, I would like to think I have created a phenomenon of sorts – outdoor gonzo style nature writing – that people do find enjoyable and entertaining.

For those of you who actually do anticipate my posts and actually do take time to read them (you must work in an office) and actually do enjoy the purple passion of my profligate persiflage - I sincerely appreciate the flattery. I've written over 70 posts during the past five years, and despite the telling tale of Google Analytics, I've managed to continue to be motivated to post. Upwards of 90 unique page visitors a day, even if they’re only spending a minute or two. Not bad, you say? Plus, there is some recognition (viz., my 4th place “Best Hiking” site blogosphere award from Tripbase.com), along with some truly gratifying comments left by admirers of the G-Man style. . .but, truly, it all boils down to this: who is waiting on the edge of your seat for the latest and greatest, fabulous new content from Gambolin’ Man? Raise your hand, go right ahead. Probably my mom, one of my sisters, and my wife, good ol’ Gambolin’ Gal. Maybe Chokeweed, Doughboy, Brock, Indio and the Perfesser, too, are waiting. But not with baited breath. And since my last post, I’ve had a total of two – count ‘em – two – people ask me when my next post would be coming out. People just don't care.

Don’t get me right. I'm not exactly calling it quits just yet, and believe me, I am going to do everything I can to make it an even 100 posts before bowing out gracefully and leaving my humble legacy forever embedded, like fossilized papyri, in the immense unsearchable depths of cyber-strata . . .but, circling back, I must ask myself, who really gives a rat's ass? If the resoundingly empty echo of a response is a lone and humbling, "I do!", then so be it. I will continue to write Gambolin' Man for YOU, and for my own passions and pursuits, and if perchance I bring 75 seconds of joy and entertainment into your A.D.D. bollixed brain, then, wonderful! And if it’s a lone voice crying in the wilderness - vox clamantis in deserto - that’s okay, too, it will be my own barbaric yawp sounding over the rooftops of the world.

For those of you who DO feel enough of a rodent's rectum to keep coming back, after five years of blogging, it must be the thematic content that draws you in, G-Man's irresistible hook, right?

A repetitious insistence on calling out the simple miracles that abound in the commonplace:
"Barely catching my attention owing to a masterful camouflaging technique, I'm lucky to espy, right in front of me, tucked away on a tree branch protruding above a small brook burbling through Codornices Park in the city of Berkeley, a ruby-throated, green and turquoise feathered hummingbird roosting peacefully in a perfectly constructed, symmetrical nest, fashioned out of tiny bits of grass, mud, sticks and moss."

Broken-record pronouncements, elevating from the depths of obscurity to heights of rhapsodized glory, the grandeur and magnificence of an everyday, ho-hum natural setting:
"It was a day in paradise! Wildflowers in profuse carpets across vast rolling meadows rich with the scent of wet earth and sage. Creeks burbling, waterfalls crashing, lakes placidly shimmering deep impressionistic reflections of bright green forested hillsides and snaky-long trees undulating in the chthonic depths. Long views of rugged wilderness ridges and valleys stretching in all directions, so pulsating with life's renewed Spring energy!"

An endless proffering up of irrepressibly enthusiastic descriptions of Mother Nature's glorious bounty, revealing her many guises:
". . .a velvet-smooth, bullet-shaped acorn which you caress softly between your fingers like a lucky talisman; a veritable hand grenade, a heavy and dense Digger pine cone, sticky with aromatic resin and armored with claw-like scales; the amusing spectacle of metallic blue bellied western fence lizards doing pushups on a lichen-plastered boulder; who-cares-what-they're-called pinhead lavender blooms carpeting an area next to an unheralded stream with pretty pebbles and reflections of glorious clouds; watch out! - a juvenile rattlesnake sunning on a little used trail; and looky there! – camouflaged the color of the redwood floor, an inch-long baby newt creepy-crawling up and over a stick. And of course, you take in the big things, too -- panoramic views atop Mt. Tamalpais of remote Marin watershed lands; at Tuyshtak's (Mt. Diablo) summit you gaze out on a flawless day across the great Central Valley at Sierra snowcapped peaks stretching up and down an azure horizon for 300 miles; you espy golden eagles, northern harriers, red-tailed hawks, kites, great horned owls, and perhaps, if lucky, a regal bald eagle circling overhead in between nesting sites at Del Valle and San Pablo lakes; voles scurrying; ground squirrels scattering; blue jays screeching; butterflies fluttering; a field of wildflower dreams; painterly grasses swaying in the wind; still life cows grazing on a bucolic hillside; a young coyot'l resting, half-hidden up the ridge; stringy moss-draped bay and oak trees evoking swampy Mississippian bogs; ocean waves crashing; tidal pools revealing their sanctuaries of innermost marine secrets; the magical allure of waterfalls and that ineffable sacred quality of simple water flowing through carved channels and bedrock on a homing instinct journey back to its oceanic origins. The protean beauty of the Bay Area’s forests, trees, rocky outcrops, bodies of water, hills, mountains, ridges, canyons, fields, meadows, valleys, and views may not be singularly grandiose, magnificent or spectacular in the sense of Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon embodying monumental grandeur and iconic qualities, but what appear on the surface to be merely modest natural features are, in fact, great and small wonders of nature in our very midst, preserved eternally for all to enjoy in this lifetime and beyond."

Heartfelt love letters to sacred tree friends:
“Trees are among the earth’s grandest and noblest creatures / creations. Some trees are spookily draped in stringy moss clinging from branches like spider webs; others harbor epiphytic creatures in their boughs; some, like the great redwood trees, have VW-sized lumps (burls) you can sit on, and unattainable canopies hundreds of feet skyward with heretofore undiscovered ecosystems thriving in them. The bark of some trees is velvety smooth, the color of chocolate ice cream or pearly beige and peeling in delicate patterns of frill and lace; some, like the nuisance exotic eucalyptus, shred long pliant strips of bark that hang from branches like bizarre laundry; other trees have striated or course integument, mottled with moss and maculated in colorful lichen, an isolated close-up view resembling a 3-D map of a mini-canyon. Some trees’ bark smells sweetly of heaven scent fragrances – bury your nose in the furrowed bark and breathe in the sweet woody body odor – mixing olfactory sensations of vanilla, carmel, pineapple, or butterscotchy scents. California is home to the world’s tallest, girthiest, and oldest trees – redwoods and bristlecone pines. Other trees are merely tall and venerable – spruce and valley oaks, for example. Some trees are short and dwarfed, owing to serpentine soil low in nutrients, yet they thrive in abundance as you can see atop Pine Mountain in Marin County when hiking or biking past groves of Lilliputian Sargent Cypress. Some trees are evergreen, while others turn polychromatic in the fall, transforming landscapes into palettes of earthy red, purple, and yellow hues, and when they lose their leaves, there is something starkly beautiful about their skeletons silhouetted against a crisp, blue winter sky. Even dead tree snags can take on an otherworldly aesthetic, with their weathered, insect-bored, bony protrusions thrusting heavenward like weird sculptural deformations.”


Lyrical homage to special rocks:
“What makes Bay Area hiking such a joy and constant source of wonder is coming upon favorite boulders, rocks and outcroppings which are like old friends awaiting you. Some might say they’re just inanimate things, but they are really more than “just rocks” or the metaphoric skeletal structure of the earth – they are sentient sentinels of time’s relentless passage; they are the sacred, the ganz andere or “wholly other”, or the inexplicable otherness of God / Goddess’ earthy manifestation. And so to come upon them, to bear witness to their existence, is equivalent to approaching a holy relic or shrine, encountering and communing with some force from beyond, living things emanating from the earth, projecting out of sacred ground. . .Aeolian forces have sculpted the boulders at this unique East Bay preserve into fantastic shapes and figures, tinged in chartreuse yellow algae and splotched with vermillion red lichen patterns, situated in picturesque hollows like a Georgia O'Keeffe mirage, a chance to test your Rorschach quotient at every turn – see what you can spot in the sculptural contortions of the wind-carved formations -an eagle's beak, an Indian chief profile, a manatee, a badger, and elephantine figures and other fanciful forms."


Not least, melodious gushings of much highfalutin verbiage in vainglorious attempts to breathe life into sacred water worlds - from imponderably vast oceans to tiny ponds, from thundering waterfalls to trickling rivulets - of our blessed blue planet:
"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. . .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.”

So, photos aside, that’s why you return to check out Gambolin' Man! For in 75 seconds, you are able to harken back to and enjoy the simple pleasures of pastoral nature writing (such a quaint thing of the past). I intentionally keep my posts un-political; while I may occasionally express a sentiment railing against the machine that has destroyed trees or despoiled meadows, my real intention is to invite you to come along with me on a stream of consciousness journey through the spirit that moves through all things, of self-discovery and pure joy-in-action, where my narrative is unconcerned with “how to get there” or “which trail to take”, disparaging of outlining for you in detail the contours of my hike using the latest and fanciest GPS techo-gadgetry. Rather, I want to transport you to lovely, intimate nooks of nature where you can experience the simple and miraculous joys of nature’s bounty and beauty, hidden, undiscovered, unnoticed, unappreciated, right in your own backyard, right in front of your eyes. If only you’d just stop, look and listen. Because I believe in the whole "God in a blade of grass" thing. Because I believe in a miracle beholden in a dew drop. Because I believe in the impressionistic majesty of a lichen-plastered boulder. Because I believe in the atavistic thrill of a small cascade equaling in iconic grandeur a Yosemite plunger. Because I believe that, even if we have passed a point of no return where there are fewer and fewer pristine places to write about, nature in its purest form is still pristine and pastoral, and so through my writing (more so than through my photography, I'll tell you that!), I try to capture the unheralded moment, the unwitnessed scene. I attempt to bring acclaim and grandeur to the simplest of nature settings. I endeavor to understand the grand mysteries and simple miracles, how they intersect, how they affect us and change us and inspire us, if only we'd open our eyes and hearts to their largely invisible, and indivisible, presence.

And, not last, I hope to help restore your senses, clear your head, and help to refresh your soul so that you, too, can face the discordant music of society another day without going crazy. Gambolin’ Man, it is my hope, gives you something to look forward to! To say, I’m going to do that! I’m going there and have fun like that! Because extreme pursuits, outré beauty, is not a prerequisite for thrilling adventure – only a passion for enjoying the little things in your midst whilst trapisin’ along on a pretty forest trail.

Admittedly, Gambolin’ Man’s style is Brobdingnagian and sesquipedalian. It may not appeal to everyone’s sense and sensibility. It has been suggested that I tone it down, shorten it, change this, add that, break it up here. Well, if I took all this advice, it just wouldn't be Gambolin' Man anymore, now, would it? (How many of George Orwell’s “simple rules” of good writing do I break?) And so I pile it on. I wonder what Mark Twain would think of my humorous and wryly cynical bromance posts of the boys' Walter Mittyesque outings? Would Thoreau scoff at my "divine trees of nature, heavenly nature of trees" essay? What would Muir have to say about my lionizing narrative of him in his adopted wilderness home, Yosemite? After all, they are my literary influences and nature heroes, I do admit, but being long dead, what do they care? It’s really more important what YOU think, today! Orwell went on to say, "A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?" I admit, I am guilty on at least one count – I probably could have posted consistently more shortly.

Finally, dear reader (and photo admirer), it is my hope all along to lure you into an escapist adventure, draw you into a pristine world that still exists and still evokes a time and place - or timelessness and placelessness - that can be found amidst industrialization, overpopulation, urban sprawl and the disappearance of natural ecosystems. Perhaps that is what draws visitors to my site and what keeps me excited about providing new content as often as possible. The idea that you might find inspiration for your next adventure in the great outdoors is motivation and gratification enough for me. That, and find some truth, beauty, love, and avoidably ugly writing.

By the way, did you miss the photos?