Pyramid Lake, NVPyramid Lake, NV

It’s a rare privilege to find the lake so calm on a warm spring afternoon. Wedged into a basin between rugged desert mountain ranges the surface area of Pyramid Lake is a smidge larger than its cohort, Lake Tahoe, the source of its water, the Truckee River flowing between from the Sierra Nevada down into the Great Basin. Wind is resident in this open landscape, continuously rippling the surface or whipping it into foamy crests. But not today. The briny water is buoyant, almost viscous. It takes the disturbance of my swimming or the launching of our kayaks to break the bond between water and land and give voice to the shoreline. The just audible hiss as the water ripples down the tiny stones and mysterious shells of the beach. Floating is effortless, directionless, our pudgy boats gliding away from shore as if pulled outward toward the voices. They come from the far shore and from remote spots out of sight on the vast surface. The conditions offer little resistance to the transfer of sound, amplifying it in fact. Canada Geese call from the opposite shore miles away and invisible. Western Grebes seem satisfied that our somnolent approach is unthreatening and maintain the chirping calls to one another scattered to our low horizon in rafts of three or four. In the air there are Gulls and ever present Raven, a solitary Tern, full bodied White Pelicans in small untalkative groups share a fine whisper of exhalation with each wing beat and the whistling of gliding wingtip feathers, subtle and exquisite sounds normally unavailable without this rare calm. As the warm glow descends toward evening Lahontan Cutthroat Trout breach the surface in sudden ker-plops and the steady sounds of our companions are joined by the heart-quickening sound of the Common Loon, the unmistakable yodel seems almost foreign to this near-treeless land. A fresh checkerboard plumage is a clear message that they’ll soon be seeking a more private north woods pond.  It is a rich conversation to which we are welcomed despite our tendency to be overbearing, drowning all others with the insistent cacophony of civilization.  We can reciprocate with a calm and attentive presence and be humble in the fact that our own sounds are rarely a beneficial contribution and only when added sparingly.

Raven is a good conversationalist. There are people who may disagree, people who don’t enjoy the versatile repertoire of Raven. It may be that they aren’t good listeners. Many people are not. To be a good conversationalist it is necessary to listen at least as much as you speak, to sincerely pay attention to what the other is trying to tell you and not just formulate your next response. I often feel as if Raven is trying to tell me something. Her gestures and sounds are so commonly available throughout the Western States as though in her message, elemental and persuasive, she has infinite patience for us to one day look upwards and comprehend. If you camp atop Comb Ridge in southeastern Utah the ravens will check in on you several times a day.  They will express a collaboration of group flight that is unmistakable in its joy; unnecessary and gratuitous inversions and rolls, drops of great altitude followed by effortless hovering on the continuous updrafts. One startles me as he crosses over my head a couple arm lengths away moving laterally and casually dropping a few coded words in his quiet guttural tongue. This couldn’t possibly be the whole story but it a good start.

In the heart of Buenos Aires National Wildlife refuge, amidst a savanna of mesquite trees and knee-high grass we’re the only people for as far as the open landscape could reveal, except for a Border Patrol vehicle stationed on a remote hillside, though otherwise showing no signs of activity, and an infrequent Homeland Security helicopter flyby. The namesake winds have been steady all afternoon before dropping distinctly into a silence so enveloping and profound that it reminds me that I should have been kinder to my hearing as young man. Just at the point where time becomes irrelevant the faintest laughter rises across the low ridges to the west. This grows into a soft chorus of yipping voices in ecstatic communion, the unmistakable song of Coyote. In the western landscape you should sleep with your window cracked. Better yet sleep on the ground in the open air, nylon tent if you must, but your head at snout level.  The next night again the stillness and again the voices, this time slightly closer and from the east subtle and unintimidating but an unambiguous message that we are enveloped in the home of another being. The hint of joy and excitement in this voice is mitigated by notes of lonesomeness and obligation.

The desert southwest of our spring travels presents an improvisational poetry of subtle signs and biologically repeating riffs, each arroyo a variation on a theme. The season is offering an information overload of exuberant fecundity when chance allows or the obscure poetry of resourceful desert survivors patiently awaiting the next opportunity. There is a small talk of feathers and tracks; residue and scat, far more relevant and engaging than the dissonance of mediated voices encountered each day. I recommend finding a good sized Saguaro and stand in its presence as the wind is serrated by 10,000 spines creating a unique smooth hiss in the dry Arizona air that most certainly has something to tell you. As patient as any tree the cactus won’t bother to compete for your attention. If unmolested, Saguaro will be here far longer than we aught to need to understand its story.

Saguaro, Ironwood Forest National Monument, AZSaguaro, Ironwood Forest National Monument, A

Buried Treasure

As a twelve-year-old boy the dusty canvas rucksack, a slightly faded grey/green, found long forgotten in the corner of the garage was an inspiration. Reason enough to plan an adventure with my brothers, perhaps bring along a couple neighborhood friends. In those days our street marked the tenuous edge of a ready-to-grow Biggest Little City. Excursions down to the wash or the nearby sagebrush steppe that covered the rolling bottom flanks of Peavine Mountain were a weekly activity. We were fortunately ignorant that our open space, the incubator of our nascent freedom, would someday be developed into tract homes, gas stations and strip malls filled with predictable corporate choices. Our horizon was almost literally infinite, close enough to be true in my adolescent mind, in a way that is still blessedly possible across of much of Northern Nevada.

Emblematic of untold stories in which one gathers a kit of provisions and navigational tools for important things, this newly discovered backpack insisted on a special adventure, something a bit more substantial than our typical makeshift wanderings. We all knew where we would go. At the top of our block, visible during any game of street whiffleball was a bigger foothill crowned with a rocky prominence that I can now identify as an igneous outcrop. However to the neighborhood kids it was a possible bandit hideout, a rocky castle with a hidden prospectors’ jackpot or the lair of a thousand rattlesnakes. It was our far northern horizon, a compelling destination.

Rucksack shaken out and loaded with a dented Boy Scout canteen, a few snacks and a pair of antique binoculars our expedition hit the sidewalk. The first leg of our journey took us through the familiar neighborhood landscape, up past the pizza parlor and laundromat where we’d often empty our pockets of quarters spent on video games. The open space was just past the small adjacent apartment complex and as the hill steepened our mission began in earnest. At the time my ecological eyes were underdeveloped. The open terrain was merely the setting, the rocky ground with sporadic ground hugging plants that desiccate in the summer sun, the evenly spaced sagebrush twisting our course with weaving gaps, scratching our bare knees and shins as we’d shimmy through. That same soil became boot-caking clay for days after a winter soaking or snowmelt saturation, but on this early summer day the ground was dusty dry and route finding as simple a lifting your gaze to the destination ahead.

I think that it’s probable that some of my companions were glad for getting out and expanding our boundaries but perhaps unimpressed with the rewards of our efforts. No strongbox of Comstock silver was uncovered and it was certainly a good thing that we didn’t trip over any of the rattlesnakes that undoubtedly inhabit the mountain. However, my sense of the possibilities was galvanized. I still find that when I set out on any walk, an urban meander, a forest hike or particularly when I find myself cross-country in the open desert, a part of my mind is triggered by subliminal expectations of hidden riches that will reveal themselves if I keep my senses sharp.

This is still the neighborhood my family calls home. After all the further wanderings of my life it’s a place I come back to wander. It is still a short five-minute bike ride from my mother’s house to the trailhead. The hillside, so exotic and undeveloped when I was a young boy is public land and access point to an invaluable reservoir of larger pubic space beyond, desired by so many and increasingly valuable to the inhabitants of a growing city that has extended itself to this very edge.

The increased sharpness of my ecological vision sees how in the intervening years things have changed. There is a wonderful network of trails, clearly showing the commitment of local volunteers engaged with the Forest Service that manages the land. Fair space is given to different users; mountain bikes, hikers, dog walkers and OHVs. The ad-hoc routes of old jeep roads and rocky ravines is no longer the only way to explore these hills. Another recent change that has caught my eye is a near uniform carpet a yellow that doesn’t match the mental picture ingrained into my imagination during my formative years. A fast growing grass inadvertently introduced to the Intermountain West has firmly established itself. The formula is simple; cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) a plant from Eurasia is an annual, resprouting each year and growing quickly, smothering the more reserved locals. Being highly flammable and fond of burning, fire wipes out the established shrubs like rabbitbrush and big sage. Fire frequency has increased substantially and the natives don’t have the opportunity to come back easily when the cheatgrass returns first. This yellow carpet is what I encounter where was once a sporadic ground cover of subtle but interesting herbs and the maze of sagebrush that has largely vanished, remnants in areas not recently burned. This story is playing out throughout the Great Basin and beyond and the ecological consequences are heartbreaking. Habitat for threatened species like the greater sage grouse is diminishing and the overwhelming newcomer contributes precious little back to the ecosystem relative to the native plant community. Not even the rangy cattle raised in the region can eat the plant and many ranchers share the concern about its proliferation. The seminal conservationist Aldo Leopold said, “One of the consequences of an ecological education is that one lives in a world of wounds”. My blissfully ignorant adolescent self couldn’t see the havoc caused by our foibles, our carelessness or our greed the way I have no choice but to see it now.  However I would never trade the beauty that my engagements with nature and ecological stories have shown me, although I occasionally envy the willfully ignorant.

          Artemisia tridentata, commonly referred to as big sagebrush or my preferred Great Basin sagebrush is the fitting choice as Nevada’s state flower. Many of the one thousand wide valleys of the Great Basin were filled with inland seas 12,000 years ago. Now many of them have waves of the softest green leaves, evenly spaced sage stretching beyond the curvature of the globe. Don’t expect a dramatic showy inflorescence. Like much about the desert there is some subtlety that demands our attention, the clusters of small yellow flowers stretch upwards in the late summer enough to shift the tone of a whole basin to those with sensitive eyes. What is not subtle is the smell of the volatile leaves combined with the floral aroma when a September thunderstorm sweeps the Nevada rangeland stirring the countryside. Each season as cheatgrass fire cycle is creeping across the landscape we will have less of this joyous experience and fewer of the delicate flowers. A fire maybe twice in a century was once typical, more than twice a decade is common now. The loss of a billion plants might be a gross understatement. Each of those innumerable plants that remain may produce a million tiny black seeds. Mostly borne on the wind they may not be long lived, succumbing to the frequent fires or struggling to compete when they do sprout. Nature provides infinite opportunities for redemption. I can hope the land holds the memories of my favorite plants encapsulated in the seedbank.

Meditative riches or quirky ecological surprises are the expected and welcomed reward of my rambles. This afternoon I took advantage of the mild January we’re experiencing to go for a mountain bike ride, the winter mud and clay that would encrust my tires tamped down by dry air and unseasonably sunny skies. My mind predictably wandered to hidden treasures stimulated by glimpses of 100 year old mine shafts and adits clustered around ridges of andesite. Mysterious lodes were removed the forgotten value and content possibly to be rediscovered by digging into the archives of the University Nevada Reno, Mackey School of Mines. The trail traversing the modest tailings piles produced my mule power and individual sweat reflecting long forgotten desires. However the land does hold a buried treasure far beyond my 12-year-old imagination. Countless seeds representing the vegetative history of the land are stored beneath the surface hoping for the opportunity the return.

Still Marching

It seems there is a blog post I wrote but never published, in fact I never even wrote it. This thought, this idea of what it was like to visit D.C. for the first time back in April 2015 never fully came to fruition. I remember thinking about it. I know I laughed a little at how this “drained swap” was sinking and thought on the topic of man’s need to control nature that is generally to our detriment. I remember walking the monuments of the of the mall reading great quotes from fallible, human men that have been entombed unnecessarily on invisible (and visible) pedestals. I remembered meandering from one free museum to the next absorbing as much as my brain could handle and remarking on how freely we show of our enterprise and our folly to any in the world who wants to see. I remember standing in the dimmed and solemn room that houses the star-spangled banner. As I stood there I did feel a sense of pride for a young America full of grit.

Outside in nearby Baltimore the streets had just erupted in multiple decades of suppressed anger and anguish due to the police killing of a 25 year old black man named Freddie Gray. Eventually U.S. Marshals would walk the streets to keep “order” of a disordered, classist, racist society. Meanwhile at the Supreme Court men in tutus and women with butch haircuts stomped and shouted on the steps while internally we all held our breath and prayed, and prayed, and prayed on this first day of hearings on same sex marriage (Obergefell vs. Hodges). Down the Mall reporters stood at the Vietnam Memorial and interviewed Veterans whose brothers’ names were etched into the black reflective wall, a memorial designed by a 21 year old Asian-American who hadn’t seen war but represented it’s loss perfectly with this black ‘V’ gouged into the earth. As you walked down into it’s embrace the sounds of D.C. slipped away leaving nothing but our own voices bouncing back at us and so we got quiet and reflected on this 40 year anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the atrocities of war, the mysteries of what we had been fighting for so far away when we’re still fighting wars here at home, for what it means to be free.

I never thought that two years later, for Earth Day, we’d be standing near a stage next to the Washington Monument listening to Maya Lin (designer of the Vietnam Memorial) espouse the benefits and need for open and honest science research and education in America. I didn’t know that we’d hear from a transgender scientist about collaboration or a black man from New York City talk about inner city scholarships for science programs or a Native American woman talk of the early science of generations of observations for the first Americans. We heard from a farmer, many musicians, doctors, teachers, benefactors of scientific research, all there to defend science. Frankly, I didn’t think we would need to. And I certainly didn’t want to when it was 50 degrees and raining. We waffled back and forth between cold, wet and uncomfortable to amazed, inspired and joyful. As the stage event ended and the march had yet to begin the musicians, led by the beautiful Jon Batiste, struck up a raucous beat to lift us past our soggy pity party to a real dance party in the streets. However, shortly after that the crowd stopped the slow lurch forward, the rain picked up again. Signs dropped, umbrellas were raised and suddenly I was having an internal yet massive panic attack from being pinned in the middle. But then I turned and saw a sign that said “Park Rangers for President” and I remembered why we were there in the first place.

I’m finishing up these thoughts two months after the event having hit the ground running here at our summer stint in Sequoia National Park. I’ve been having a hard time trying to keep up on what I need to accomplish this summer and feeling more and more removed from this movement. That is until I realized I’m not removed, I’m living the march alongside my NPS family, not out of any sort of rebellion but it’s just what we do that makes our work meaningful for us and the visitors alike. Here we are working on talks that highlight the cute and precocious Pika that could be in real danger due to warming temperatures. We are walking in meadows that have been meticulously restored looking for mosses that help represent the growth and natural succession of the meadows. We are working with partners to study the effects of the elongated and extra hot drought on the Sequoia trees and we have partnered with Native tribal members to apply their indigenous scientific knowledge to do prescribed burns their way for the health of the oak trees. Everyday we’re out there having conversations about drought, fire, restorations and conservation with our visitors who are happy to be here and to learn a little about the beautiful place they came to visit.

There are many social physics at play in these times but, I can only hope that these scientific efforts that are in motion stay in motion. Marches won’t fix the mess we’re in but it’s nice to know that we are not alone in our fear and frustration and that even a cold rainy day won’t keep away a 100,000 angry scientists.

Sharing Knowledge

Tule reed duck decoy  Photo by Tim GillerTule reed duck decoy  Photo by Tim Giller

Tule reed duck decoy  Photo by Tim Giller

To my mind, the pinnacle of human engineering was realized in the classic bicycle frame; the standard diamond shape, archaically referred to as a “safely bicycle”. It is still the most common frame design and a modern bike would be immediately recognizable to the first cyclists of the 19th century. After being around for roughly 150 years it is still the most efficient mode of personal transportation and is impressively versatile. By tweaking the geometry the basic design can be made to fit any person and nearly any kind of terrain from smooth pavement to rocky slopes or even snow and sand. I personally prefer a bike constructed of high quality steel for the durability and suppleness, but bicycles have been made out of all kinds of material from iron to plastic. Bamboo is even being used to make inexpensive, reliable bike frames that can be built and repaired with a renewable material on the cheap.

As a long time advocate for fossil fuel free mobility what I’m about to say is a bit of personal heresy, but here goes: The inline 4 cylinder internal combustion engine is also a wonder of transportation engineering. Like the bicycle it has a basic form that is largely unchanged and has an elegant simplicity. The motor in a Model T could be identified in the structure of the motor in many contemporary compact cars, if the owner bothered to open the hood and could see past all the computer controlled emission components, wiring, hoses and other gizmos crammed under the hood. All that clutter has created the trade off of making it far more difficult for the driveway tinkerer to wrench on her own car but has also given us far cleaner and efficient vehicles. The forty year old “4 banger’” in Lil’ Squatch is mid way on this spectrum. The uncluttered engine compartment houses a modest Toyota 20R engine that can be approached with the typical tool box stashed in your closet and having been influenced by the 1970s gas crunch gets better milage than the average soccer mom SUV (not bad for a house). However the tail pipe could give off a fair bit more toxins when idling alongside a comparable modern vehicle.

When we got the notion of trekking to Washington DC to join the March for Science we had assumed that, of course, we would be traveling in our spirit animal/home/(relatively) trusty conveyance. A quick calculation of time available versus average velocity, not to mention leeway for unforeseen contingencies plus travel expenses meant that our window of opportunity was not ample enough and our budget a little too tight. Lil Squatch couldn’t make the journey, but I did have a new appreciation for the math necessary to get a probe to one of our neighboring planets. We needed another option and that’s how we came to choose a railroad excursion across the continent.

One thing that has been reinforced in my experience is the truth that it is not the destination, but rather the journey that is most important. You might say the journey itself is the destination, they are one and the same, that we live in the moment and that the future is an illusion. This might be a good thing to keep in mind if you ever think about taking a 3 day (each way) Amtrak ride in coach class. It’s kind of a long trip. It’s a great one though, and in many ways the most appropriate way to get to our nation’s capital in order to join thousands of others in an exercise of our democracy. The landscape rolls by in a literal cross section of it’s natural beauty and a fair sampling of small town citizenry, bookended by a few of the best, most cosmopolitan cities in the world. This mode was also, by far, the greenest method to get us there. Lil’ Squatch is best used for patient, contemplative travel where your home is where you park it. The gas burned and money spent for a quick out-and-back across the continent would have been hard to justify.

I maintain my ambivalence about driving and the ever increasing negative side-effects of car culture. I have similar, though less acute ambivalence about science. Technology has wrought destruction in myriad ways, it can serve to concentrate wealth as the benefits are rarely distributed equitably. Science, as a reflection of our intellectual capacity can also reflect our best nature. It’s all in how we chose to use our hands and minds. For me the March for Science might just as easily been called the March Against Willful Ignorance, or the March for Critical Thinking. How about a March for Indigenous Knowledge? The best science is a collective endeavor of many minds building, thought by thought, going all the way back to capturing fire and teaching each other new ways to chip a stone into a finer spear point than the one before, to the ever more complex theories on the nature of the universe. I might declare that we hit our apex in a beautifully crafted bicycle frame, hand built in the 21st century, the familiar design, constructed with care so that it becomes a joy to ride. Yesterday at a cultural event in Sequoia Nation Park I had the privilege to learn from a local American Indian how to craft a duck decoy from tule reeds. A transfer of knowledge across millennia given with generosity. Mine has a novice’s character but it is still elegant in its simplicity and I expect it would function in the same way it would have a thousand years ago, a testament to its good engineering.

Lil’ Squatch by Otis Bowser

Brewing Curiosity

Pin the Tail on the IchthyosaurPin the Tail on the Ichthyosaur

Pin the Tail on the Ichthyosaur

Sometimes the answer is right in front of your face. That answer might come in the form of a trio of 3rd graders taking turns shaking a concoction of plaster “rocks” that you just put in a jar half filled with water before handing it to them and telling them to pretend that they are the nearby Truckee river, raging with springtime runoff after a winter of bountiful snowfall. I’ve been struggling for a couple weeks to come up with some erudite words about science and why the hell I feel compelled to join a big march advocating for it. Then Rachael and I found ourselves volunteering for a science expo in a gymnasium full of 9-year-old scientists and they don’t seem to need any convincing of its value. They’ve noticed the local rivers and have skipped rounded stones across them. After two minutes of their enthusiastic rock tumbling, my jeans and black Vans are speckled with gypsum-laced water droplets and the kids get see the results of weathering. Dumping the easily worn and polished test objects into a colander their tired arms intuitively understand the cause and effect of being a force of nature and they are happy and full of wonder about it. Too many adults are criminally blasé about these things as if cynical disinterest were superior to getting stoked about rocks. This is clearly learned behavior. Does it take any less effort to learn that cynicism? To my mind the feedback loop of questioning and seeking answers creates enough momentum to compete with the cop-out of cultured, self-absorbed ignorance.

You might say that I don’t do science. At least not fancy lab coat science in an expensive facility full of high precision equipment. I do observe. I can watch a Clark’s Nutcracker obsessively bury pine nuts and guess that saving these seeds to eat later may also help spread new trees around. A friend may point out that certain trees have unique mushrooms that pop up from the soil around their trunks and we can wonder that the fungus and the tree likely have a relationship. Mysterious nocturnal sounds give rise to the imagination of unfamiliar beasts before I settle on the likelihood of a resident screech owl.  I can hypothesize, let my imagination play with the possibilities, tease out a list of whys or why nots. Curiosity is our birthright; this habit starts in us before we are self-aware. It is undoubtedly a key component of the mental and emotional toolkit that has helped us survive and has shaped our place in the universe.

Science as we practice it today is simply a formalization of humanity’s inherent curiosity and passion for knowledge. As such it is an idea, a method that belongs to anyone who chooses to pick it up. Our alienation from science as some partitioned “other” is indicative of our alienation in general; our unfortunate prejudices of different people or ideas and our widespread inability to connect with the natural systems and the earth from which we were manifested. It is frightening to me how quickly we can give away the very talents that kept us alive in our Paleolithic days. Humans are a social animal that survives by shared efforts and shared knowledge. Ignorance of one’s surroundings is not a luxury a subsistence society could afford. Yet we willingly hand over our observational skills and abdicate our critical thinking, choosing instead a short hand of biases and superficial binary choices. There is a whole world of color and nuance we can participate in; that we can chose not to reduce to black and white.

The cumulative and collective endeavor of learning and passing along information has not simply given us better gadgets to play with and a deep list of trivia. It has continuously raised the baseline of human thought. Unfortunately our conscientiousness lags perpetually behind our cleverness. Atom bombs, global warming and online trolling are evidence of that. A better informed society is crucial and can come from having broader ownership of the basic process of science, can come from the truth that knowledge and lifelong learning are not burdens but part of the joy of being human. Currently there is a cadre of belief in our nation that happily takes the smart bombs and internal combustion, that buys and sells the baubles of a industrialized technological nightmare, that expects the best pharmaceuticals and medical techniques to cure the side effects of their bad habits, so long as they don’t have to chip in for anybody else’s welfare. However, god forbid, we learn evolution and the definition of Theory or make evidence based decisions about our society and environment or fund research that doesn’t immediately line a benefactor’s pocket.

Sometimes the answer is beer. Most of the crowd we found ourselves with last Friday night didn’t need beer to be inspired by the lecture of a German paleontologist, but the beer was a nice touch. Nevada has some rich fossil beds dating back roughly 250 million years when it was the edge of the supercontinent Pangea and was much closer to the equator. An inland sea harbored a wide variety of ancient creatures including many forms of Ichthyosaur (Fish-lizards). A local brewery has long celebrated the State Fossil, Shonisaurus, possibly the largest of the Ichthyosaurs, with a popular IPA and we were at their production facility for an event to share the discovery of a new fossil and to raise funds for further research. This crowd was clearly stoked about rocks. Of course it was swimming dinosaurs that time and pressure had turned into rocks, and there was beer, but this group didn’t need much convincing that science brings value to our lives that can’t be measured in just dollars.

South Lake Tahoe Science ExpoSouth Lake Tahoe Science Expo

South Lake Tahoe Science Expo

A Breeze Growing

The Coriolis Effect can be small. On our spinning orb of a home the equator moves fastest and speed drops as you move towards the poles. Stare at a record turntable for a few minutes (if you can find one) and you’ll understand. This difference in speed has an influence on motion in the water and atmosphere. Air masses and water currents are dragged along at these different rates as they move across the planet. Because of this we once liked to say that our toilet bowls and showers drained clockwise in the Northern hemisphere, anticlockwise in the South. An old Simpsons episode had a gag about expensive toilets in the US embassy in Australia that reverse the flow for the psychological comfort of American citizens down under.

The truth is that the alignment of your faucet or the imperceptible imperfections in your porcelain will have far more influence on the way the water swirls. On such a small scale, the width of a sink, the Coriolis Effect is swamped by other local forces. Is this a truth that matters? Is our urban legend about drains worth the fantasy? When was the last time you paid attention to the spinning in your sink drain?

One a bigger scale this effect is meaningful. It is one of many factors that influence our largest storms. In fact they would likely not build into spinning masses without it. The chaos and destruction, the regeneration and dynamism of our biosphere is dependent on the rotation of our planet and the entire surface of Earth would be unrecognizable without it. Over wide ocean spaces and with continuous input of energy, a smidge of extra warmth that to a swimmer would go unnoticed, a swirling mass is created that can cover a whole sea or engulf a large portion of a continent. It will spin a perfectly reliable anticlockwise in our Northern hemisphere or clockwise in the Southern. Cyclones are a powerful realization of innumerable tiny actions persistently combined into a common force. On this scale facts matter. Observations and measurements, work by untold thousands of researchers working over the recent centuries have given us the ability to know these storms well enough that people have some chance at preparation and there is plenty still left to learn.

Perhaps there is no such thing as bad weather, there is just better or worse adaptation. We should be asking if building homes on sandy barrier islands or draining wetlands and estuaries or filling flood basins with tract homes is wise for long term dwelling. While in Louisiana, we witnessed properties rebuilt along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Many were simple structures to accommodate a trailer or fifth wheel, something that could be quickly evacuated. Others were status quo homes, raised a bit, but still built right up to the a sandy beach waiting to bear the brunt of the next storm surge. I don’t live in the most water resistant home so I know which approach I’d take.

Here in California we might have been careful what we asked for. After years of deepening drought we have been deluged by record rains causing widespread issues with landslides and localized flooding, undercutting roads and bridges or covering them in debris. Sinkholes have swallowed cars and the water storage infrastructure is strained, such as the the nation’s tallest dam at Oroville. The snowpack does not reach down to particularly low elevations but it is thick and moisture ladened in the high country hitting record depths in the Lake Tahoe Basin as I write. Those swirling winds driven by the Coriolis like a bicycle chain cranking these rivers of warm moisture right into the West Coast. California’s wet winters and dry summers created a rich diversity of ecosystems and allowed for one one the most fertile agricultural regions the world has ever seen. These are reliant on a particular climate, one that created an irreplaceable frozen reservoir in the High Sierra that releases abundant water when the the dry lands below need it most. This is most likely changing to a significantly different mode, one that we’ll need all hands on deck to prepare for.

It is hard to be prepared for something if you don’t want to see it coming. A social climate of deliberate obfuscation, denial of facts, a glorification of ignorance as a virtue will leave us naked and underprepared. This dystopian phenomenon is the center of gravity that I’ve found nearly all my recent conversations circling towards, like so much waste crowding toward the sewer, like a hard black stone in the pit of my stomach. Maybe this is part of the process of exorcism, releasing the bile, clearing space to fill with healthier fare. I can hope for an effective flushing process. I may now be paying closer attention the swirls in my drains. I’m definitely interested the sea changes on the streets and in our hearts. I sense a flourishing of inputs collecting and new directions of movement. Something far more substantial than an uninterrupted stream of asthmatic and vitriolic, bluster. Enough voices coming together that when those in its path choose put their heads in the sand they’ll eventually look up to see their beachhead washed away.


We still have our hands with which to write, we still have our senses with which to observe, our minds with which to interpret, imagine and share. Most of all we have the most incredible community of family and friends to nurture us in ever inspiring and surprising ways.

What we don’t have are nearly all the the tools we’ve been scraping together to work on our ever evolving project and to tell our stories. While on a long overdue visit with our wonderful community of old friends in the SF Bay Area our car was broken into. In one moment of letting our guard down we lost nearly all the equipment, nature journals and camping gear we’ve been using for the creative project that has been driving our vagabonding. Not to mention some of of favorite clothing and underwear. I’ve spent enough fruitless hours wondering how after being so prudent and watchful throughout any number of vulnerable locations the one time we felt it necessary to let our guard down in a reasonably safe place was exactly the wrong time. We intend to come out of this crisis stronger and more focused. As dedicated naturalists we feel inspired and to compelled to join the March for Science in Washington taking place April 22, 2017. We intend to continue to share our story and have no doubt that we can add value to the work being done and contribute.

Because of that surprising community there ended up being a couple ways that folks can contribute, if inspired, to our rebound effort:

  • We started a Gofundme page here.

  • And some sneaky friends surprised us with a Paypal fundraiser at If you have Paypal account, this option incures no fees if you use the “send money” feature.

Helping us to our goal will cover travel expenses and re-investing in the equipment that allows us to create. Our goal is likely much less than the cost to replace our our material possessions, but we try to be frugal people and enjoy improvising with our toolkit. So we’ll work with what we’ve got.

The intention is to flip our luck around and use this momentum to carry into another year or fruitful reciprocity. Together over the past 2 years we’ve put in well over 1500 hours of volunteer time, traveled a significant portion of North America and lived and worked in two National Parks. In that time we’ve had an invaluable education on the land and all the life that inhabits it, including us humans. Science is the backbone to all of our knowledge about the world around us and has brought living things into sharper focus. It is the firm ground on which to structure our narratives and the soil from which our imaginations can flourish. The well-being of all life depends on good science and the will to use that knowledge wisely. Science is an inherently neutral, non-partisan concept; a method to seek the truth. However it is indisputable that we are living in a moment of widespread insecurity about what is fact and a climate of selective bashing of scientific thought. We wish to be part of the effort to create an inclusive atmosphere that strengthens the connections between people and the tools that contribute to our collective knowledge. There is always so much still to learn and curiosity belongs to everyone. You can learn more about the March for Science here.

Saturation Point

Tule Fog from above. Photo: Tim GillerTule Fog from above. Photo: Tim Giller

Tule Fog from above. Photo: Tim Giller

As I walk to work I eye the hillside suspiciously. Each new rock on the road, each new branch makes me wonder if the the whole hillside will be coming down. The U shape of the road that leads us to the tucked in RV sites of Cricket Hollow in Sequoia was carved long ago. The road beyond turns to dirt and a large oak has fallen across our backroad emergency exit. A culvert runs right through camp and we yell over the roaring waterfall of what was a bone dry creek a month before. The front, inside, bed area of the RV is soaked 4” high, the walls are sweating with condensation, the moisture drips from our vent and if I had measured I’m sure to have wrung out a cup of water from what was wiped from the windows. Our blankets are damp, our pj’s are damp and it’s finally dawning on me that life in an RV is only just barely out of the elements.

Tim and I play a game called “remember when”. As in “remember when it was dry and 106 degrees in here?”. Truth be told it’s effective. After the better part of two years we’ve pretty much been through it all, and survived. Playing this game reminds us that, as much as this moment is all consuming, it’s just a moment that will pass. Tomorrow will be some other uncomfortable element to laugh about. Kind of a wonder we’re still sane.

I click on every article about flooding, rockfall, tree fall and road closures. California is a mess and it’s a good thing. The park is also a mess and the road has been closed off and on since we arrived. I’m temporarily answering the phones and e-mails for the park. “Yes, the road into the park is closed”, “No, I have not been given an estimate of when it will open but we are working on it”.

The best part of all this rain down where we are is that it’s snowing buckets in the mountains. This bank of snow is California’s most important reservoir. This is the water we so desperately need. The Sierra snow pack makes up 1/3 of the state’s annual water supply with the late spring melt off getting us through our long dry summers.

Lucky for us on a day off we had perfect snowshoeing weather, a sweet offer to use park snowshoes and un-trampled snow due to the previous park closure. The day was overcast but we were still excited. As we gained elevation we drove through a thick and still fog. The sinuous Generals Highway climbed ever higher and eventually we popped out over the clouds. Tim commented on the “1000 feet of fog”. It hadn’t registered that way for me but I mulled over this thought for a few until we turned a corner and spread out before us was a swirling, boiling ocean of white, California’s Central Valley capped in Tule Fog. The combination of wet winter soil and still air causes the whole valley to fog up. Infamous multi-car pile ups have happened because of this yearly phenomena. However, along with our winter weather, the fog has diminished exacerbating the effects of drought for farmers whose fruit and nut trees rely on this trapped chill and moisture.

Finally we start to see snow on the ground and further still the Giant Forest blanketed in a sparkly white powder. Every time I see the Sequoias my heart skips a beat. We slip and slide through the parking lot ice rink til’ we get to our trail head. No tracks, we’re the first of the day. We trudge out to a spot called Beetle Rock. Here the snowy landscape seems to go out for miles as the edge of the view meets the white fog below. We admire frost on leaves and mosses, we ooo and aaa at the steam coming off trees as the sun warms them, we take in the magic of watching snow fall off overloaded branches filling the forest with a fine shimmering fairy dust. At a more populated spot rosy cheeked siblings throw snow balls at their dad, an older couple that enjoyed their ski track so much that they turned and went back again, others just sit still and take in the beauty of a meadow ringed in snow covered Sequoia trees.

The past five years of drought have wreaked havoc on our over-loved, over-used, over-populated California. With so many interests and needs in the most populated state there was much finger pointing, blame, anger and fear for the future. There was also a little creativity. It started with a farmer in 2011 who intentionally flooded his grapes in winter. He hoped that this would replenish the groundwater table while not damaging his crops. His bet paid off. Now hydrologists near Davis are experimenting with this concept on other popular central valley crops. It won’t be a perfect solution across the whole of the central valley yet it shows that with some creative thinking and continued research it could be an effective way to better manage our water resource in good and bad water years.

The drought is not “over” we just have a temporary reprieve. We don’t want to play the game of “remember when it rained one year and we all went back to bad habits?”. It’ll be wise to move forward as if we still are in drought, build back up our water bank, stay creative and never take it for granted again.

Photo: Tim GillerPhoto: Tim Giller

Photo: Tim Giller


            I live in a little shack that is currently parked in a hidden hollow in the woods. It is, for the most part a beautiful place surrounded by healthy trees, shrubs, birds and other mysterious creatures that skitter and poo but are rarely seen. Nearby I hear a small mountain river when the air is still and it is relatively quiet, which is frequent. It has been a great place to delve deeper into the naturalist writing and other creations that Rachael and I have taken up and it’s tempting to feel as if I’m isolated and shielded from the larger fray that is the current state of human civilization. This is, of course, an illusion; the electronic connections that bring our affirming voices together also bring in the less admirable voices that seem to get an inordinate share of the bandwidth. There is no “outside world”; we’re all in this together. The worst air pollution in the country daily spills upward form the Central Valley into my lungs and the pores of all the guiltless life around me. The resilient Big Trees above me are monitored for the adverse affects. Even the nighttime stars are no escape. When we were living in the sparsely inhabited Mojave the deep rich darkness of space was intruded on from two sides by the glow of urban lights. The collective emissions of our civilization have triggered a global, cascading succession of a scope we can scarcely fathom. If I were a dispassionate biologist, which I am not, this would be an exciting time to study the evolution and extinctions. No less real are the efforts to take these public spaces, the buffers for biological adaptation, space that I and millions of others rely on for spiritual nourishment, out of our shared possession and put them in the hands of a myopic few. Avarice and self-interest are having their day. It is necessary that common good and generosity, for all life, become empowered to supplant them.

            This metaphorical space we vagabonds have created is meant to acknowledge wonder and beauty, primarily of wild and natural things, but also in our relationship to them. It’s the basis of my compassion for all the living things around me for I know that social justice, ecological consciousness and a vision for the better ways in which we can live together are all intertwined, just as the critters and plants around my little home have sorted themselves out over millennia and will continue to re-negotiate new balances for millennia to come. Implicit in these endeavors is the awareness of the challenges, that there is no room to take anything for granted, and that following our hearts will be more fruitful than succumbing to our fears.

            Speaking of fears to overcome, I’ve found talking out loud to the empty universe can be surprisingly intimidating. We’re jumping into the audio realm and I’ve put together a few podcasts. So far it’s my voice, but as in all things Vagabond these are inherently collaborative and Rachael can take some credit for any success here and I’ll take the blame for any shortcomings. Our latest episode is here on our Nature Walk page and it goes back to tell a bit of how we hit the road. For us it’s a story that reminds us that it is not always easy, but that anything worthwhile rarely is.


I’ve spent a goodly portion of the last two months saying over and over “Hi, Welcome”, doing my best to sound as happy as I truly am welcoming visitors to Sequoia National Park. That way when I follow up with the $30 cost of entering the park they are much more likely to feel good about paying this chunk of money towards this particular park of choice. Things have slowed quite a bit since I got here but it’s not unusual to say this a couple/few hundred times in a day. While hands down I prefer a more interpretive interaction with park visitors, I have enjoyed this position and feel grateful that we have been able to continue seeing where this NPS avenue might take us.

Today I am welcoming you to our new website. Tim put in a great many hours moving over our old blog. The format is different and so the old blogs are a little screwy with pictures that are much too large. An unfortunate side effect to what is otherwise a beautiful website. He also set up an online store of his photographs. Many of these photos are from our travels last year and from this year’s more stationary explorations in Mojave National Preserve and Sequoia National Park. These photos can be order in large format or even as greetings cards, should you take a fancy to any.

During our travels last year we enjoyed getting our thoughts onto “paper” and creating a type of road map through our writing. It felt good, was a fun collaboration and looking back at what we wrote stirs many memories that are already beginning to get buried. Many of these memories are worth revisiting, revising and augmenting with some of the larger stories involved around the places we visited. Tim has begun this process with the Nature Walk books and podcast. In a mash up of our punk rock and buddhist personalities we are moving forward by starting “where we are”. Meaning we don’t have top of the line recording equipment or production capabilities but feel that we’re doing alright with what we’ve got and hope that you all will appreciate what we’re putting out there.

Lately we’ve been saying welcome to a fresh carpet of green grass. After some much needed rain our very brown neighborhood burst alive, while at the same time many trees lost their leaves. With Tim spending half his life in California and me my whole life we’re reminded there is still so much to learn and love about this misaligned Mediterranean climate. Looking to the future we’ll continue to document this amazing planet with our photos and words. We hope that you’ll continue to follow along. Feedback is always welcome as it helps us know what we’re doing right and what we can maybe do better.