Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Face of Water

Craig Gilliland, "Fogbank LL"
 Oil on canvas, 6'x4'
Last year while out at sea with ACCESS, a research partnership between PRBO Conservation Science and our two local marine sanctuaries, Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank, I had trouble concentrating on the story I was reporting because the surface of the water captured my attention and wouldn't let go.

A few days later I put a soundtrack to the feeling: 2Cellos play Cold Play's "Viva la Vida"

Painter Stephen Ehret, who has lived in an anchor-out boat on Richardson Bay since the early 1970s, has painted nothing but the "face" of water for over a decade. "Water is very emotional," he says. "It goes through different phases and repeats different faces everyday depending on the wind and sun."

Stephen Ehret, "Early Morning Rain"
Graphite & acrylic glazes on canvas, 6' x 8'
"I try to capture a certain moment of light on the water," he says. "This is one of the faces of water. It has a certain quality or gesture to it. It speaks somehow, has an emotion."

Ehret is one of the artists showing work in The BiggerPicture: 7 Artists Paint Large to Support Coast Cleanup, an art show at the Bay Model in Sausalito from September 12 to 29, 2012. The other artists are Chris Adessa, Jennifer Fearon, Craig Gilliland, Victoria Mimiaga, Thomas Wood, and Kay Young. For the show, the seven artists have painted large (at least 6 feet) to honor the beauty and mystery of the ocean, and to recognize the importance and challenge to keep it healthy. A portion of the sales will go to the San Francisco chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

Chris Adessa, "Sheltered Beach"
Oil on canvas, 60" x 72"
Meet the Surfrider Foundation on September 22 from 1 to 2 p.m., and stay for a reception with the artists from 2 to 4 p.m.

Bay Model Visitors Center, Sausalito
Contact: or (415) 302-1320

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Portrait of a closed California State Park

On Memorial Day, I hiked at Castle Crags State Park in Northern California. The park was one of those slated for closure in July, but the sector superintendent had to close early due to lack of funds. He let go nine seasonal employees (one of whom had been there for 12 years), and built a gate where none had been before, but closed gates didn't keep people out.

The couple on the left drove down from Oregon. The father and daughter team on the right were on their way to Tahoe where she was starting an internship to model earthquakes. The four in the lower right were up from Red Bluff, and the couple in khaki moved from France to San Francisco three years and joined the California State Parks Foundation. The young girl watching a caterpillar crawl across her hand was one of six kids in a large family that hiked to Castle Dome with a 2,200-foot elevation gain.

We found the district supervising ranger, C. Brett Mizeur, emptying trash and refilling toilet paper at the only pit toilet open in a park that covers 5,000 acres, and is surrounded by 14,000 more. He is leaving it open as a courtesy. He threw the garbage bags into his truck, which he would drive back to Burney Falls.

"I always tell my wife, if I win the Mega Million lottery I'm gonna save Castle Crags," said Mizeur, the only peace officer in the entire wilderness area other than sheriffs and the California Highway Patrol.

I heart California State Parks!

With its wide trails designed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, its blooming dogwood, inspiring towers, and sweet-smelling pines, the park instantly became one of my top five hikes.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Golden Gate Bridge is ready for her close-up

“What do you want me to do, start with the Golden Gate Bridge?” asked James Stewart in the opening scene of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the first movie of 25 that I watched to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge.

I had to do something to commemorate her birthday. The bridge is like an elegant elderly aunt to me, and always there when I need her.

After watching several films (and fast forwarding though a few of them), I began to look for the "Golden Gate Bridge" in the opening credits. Why not? The bridge has a body of work like other movie stars. She establishes place, is heroic in her survivor skills, serves as a metaphor for relationships, and provides an emotionally familiar site for the climax to occur. Sometimes, like a movie star, she only has to stand there looking pretty, like in Murder in the First when she serves as a respite for the viewer after warden Gary Oldham repeatedly tortures prisoner Kevin Bacon at Alcatraz Island.

For me, X3: The Last Stand takes the Oscar for best use of the bridge when Ian McKellen, head honcho mutant, uproots the 887,000-ton span from its abutments and drops it between San Francisco and Alcatraz so that Juggernaut doesn't have to wet his toes.

Another Oscar goes to Rise of the Planet of the Apes for its use of the bridge as a swing structure for the juiced-up apes to head towards Muir Woods and world domination. Austin, my 28-year-old stepson, liked Monsters vs. Aliens best (how did I miss that when it came out!). Dave, my husband, gave his Oscar to Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.

After 9/11, I feared for the bridge's safety, probably because it is so often destroyed in movies. As Hilary Swank and Aaron Eckhart travel to the inner core of the earth to get the mantle spinning again in The Core, a solar wave zaps the bridge into ash. Another giant squid breaks the bridge after it climbs the south tower to avoid electrocution in It Came From Beneath the Sea.

Even without stalled molten cores and giant squid, the bridge has longevity issues. With its 1.2 million rivets, new acrylic paint job, and the improved bracing it got in the 1950s, the bridge has so far withstood high winds and earthquakes. Knock steel.

When asked in 1937 how long the bridge could last, engineer Joseph Strauss said, "Forever!" That might sound like a proud parent talking, but Andrew W. Herrmann, current president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, agrees it is possible as long as the needed maintenance and rehabilitation is done.

The creators of Star Trek envision the bridge lasting at least another 300 years. It still stands in stardate 2286 when Kirk beams a humpback whale through time and a cosmic storm. Star Trek creators didn't include the iconic bridge in three movies and a handful of episodics because they were certain of its lifespan. They put it there to help us feel safe as we envision the future. In that way, it tethers us to a world we know as we consider a future we don't, complete with cosmic storms, giant squid, and hopefully, humpback whales.

Top picks in our house:

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Poetry and Activism Undammed

March 14, 2012, is the 15th anniversary of the International Day of Action for Rivers with events taking place in 30 countries around the world. To commemorate the event, I am posting this essay I wrote and published in 2005 about poets Gary Snyder and Robert Hass and their role as activists.

Gary Snyder says that running a river is a lot like poetry: “You’re in the flow, there’s no time to stop and think before reacting, and new vistas keep opening up. In the end you’re happy that you made it through, but not certain that you’re glad it’s over.” 

On a clear, warm Sierra day, one sunset before the summer solstice, poets Gary Snyder and Robert Hass climb into four rubber rafts with 16 other people for a combination whitewater rafting trip and poetry reading on California’s American River. The trip is a fundraiser for International Rivers, a small Berkeley nonprofit that helps people around the world protect their local rivers from large dams. Hass is an IRN board member and Snyder on the advisory board. We’re rafting eight river miles today with three large rapids. After Troublemaker, the biggest and last rapid of the day, we’ll stop for lunch and a poetry reading at Marshall Gold Discovery Park where 150 years ago, a nugget of gold sent California spinning.

“Forward paddle,” commands our river guide. “Stop. Back paddle.”

We navigate our first riffle and continue at a clip through the steep-walled canyon of metamorphic and volcanic rocks. There’s something about being in the company of a poet that makes you pay closer attention to the world. A deep channel reveals Volkswagen-size boulders that appear like leviathans on the river bottom. In the shallow riffles, a diversity of smooth, rounded river rocks coat the river floor. Dry, straw-colored grass, oaks, and a few scratchy pines cover the hills on the right, whereas the shaded north-facing slope on river left hosts a jumble of alders, pines, and white-blooming buckeyes. Willows, alders and cottonwoods vie for space with blackberries and wild grapes at river’s edge, and a merganser sits on a rock in the river with its long, red hair blown backwards like Elvis rising late on a Sunday morning.

Gary Snyder looks confident paddling in the front of his raft in dark shades and a well-worn hat. This river was the first that Snyder ever ran. “Until the 1970’s, I spent all my time on the ridges. It never occurred to me that anything interesting was going on in the valleys,” he said with a grin.

Poet, essayist, educator and intellectual, Gary Snyder has published 19 books including Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, Turtle Island, Axe Handles, The Practice of the Wild, Mountains and Rivers Without End, and danger on peaks (2004). His numerous awards include the Bollingen Prize for Poetry (1997) and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1975). Until his retirement, he taught at U.C. Davis where he helped found the undergraduate program, “Nature and Culture,” a cross-disciplinary program that has become a national model.

Snyder is also an activist. Starting with his involvement in the San Francisco Beat Generation, he has written about ecological responsibility, introduced concepts like stewardship, bioregion, and watershed, terms and concepts now commonly used in environmental circles. He is active in regional, state and international environmental issues and helped to found the Yuba Watershed Institute, a volunteer nonprofit that works on forestry and land issues in his own Yuba Watershed Bioregion in the Sierras.

“In Asia and Europe, tradition counts on poets to be public intellectuals and to speak out about political issues,” says Snyder. “Poets more than fiction writers are expected to be activists. All throughout history, poets have been engaged in society.”

Walt Whitman spoke out against slavery and nursed the wounded during the Civil War. Registering as a conscientious objector during World War II, Kenneth Rexroth helped Japanese Americans evade internment. New York-born poet Muriel Rukeyser used her poetry to protest against inequalities of sex, race, and class. Black feminist and lesbian Audre Lorde founded a group that protested South African women living under apartheid. Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz, Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca, and Octavio Paz top the list of poets seeped in social activism.

“In America, poets are not given the same role as they are in Europe or Asia,” says Snyder. “The American public isn’t aware of poets as public intellectuals not because they have an opinion about poets per se, but because they don’t think that poetry is relevant.”

Robert Hass is also a public intellectual, educator and a revered poet. His books of poetry include Sun Under Wood: New Poems, Human Wishes, Praise, and Field Guide. He also co-translated a number of volumes of poetry with Czeslaw Milosz. As United States poet laureate (1995-1997) he addressed illiteracy and promoted watershed and environmental awareness across America. He teaches at U.C. Berkeley and has been a visiting faculty member at the University of Iowa.

Hass says that a case can be made that poetry is a form of activism. If you write things down that go out into the community, they will affect change, he says. Offering the Romantic Age as an example, he says that prior to the 19th century people thought of mountains and nature as wastelands, things to be feared and tamed. But Romantic poets, composers, and painters redefined wilderness and celebrated the beauty of wild nature in their art. One of those poets was William Wordsworth. Henry David Thoreau read Wordsworth and John Muir read both. By the time Muir went to Yosemite, he had a language for what he found there, for what was beautiful and what should be preserved.

“I can also make a case that poetry is not activism,” says Hass, using George Oppen as an example. A poet and a printer, Oppen lived in New York City, where during the depression he quit writing poetry to help organize strikes for unemployed workers. For 25 years he chose not to write poems, and in 1968 gave his reasons to an interviewer:

"If you do something politically, you do something that has political efficacy. And if you decide to write poetry, then you write poetry, not something that you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering," said Oppen.

Hass likes that clarity. “Politics is politics and art is art. When I’m making art, I’m not trying to get anybody to do anything in particular. I’m not trying to change other people’s minds when I’m writing a poem,” Hass says.

Until recently, Hass didn’t have time to be socially active. In America, he says, artists are forced to have two jobs. One full-time job is their art, and the other is a job to support your art. If you add a relationship and a family, it’s difficult to do any of it well. He figured that once his kids were grown, he could give a portion of his time to political activism. And that’s what he’s doing now.

Hass first became involved with IRN in 1995 during his first year as the United States poet laureate. Supported by IRN and coordinated by writer Pamela Michael, Hass co-founded a poetry and art contest for children based on the theme of watersheds. The first year, River of Words had a few thousand entries from children within the United States, but it has since become an independent nonprofit and matured into an international contest with about 20,000 entries annually.

With the contest housed in IRN’s office, poetry and art began to infiltrate the cracks between policy papers and campaign strategies. Children’s art adorned the copy room doors and poems were read at staff meetings. “Fear was my first reaction,” said IRN’s executive director Juliette Majot. “Activists don’t like to be vulnerable. We are calculating and technical in all that we do and tend to shut out our emotions. But I’m convinced that after Pam started bringing poetry to our staff meetings, the organization changed. We paid more attention to our emotional selves. You can’t be a good activist if you are closed down. Poetry reminds us of that vulnerability.”

Looking at the work that IRN does, you can see why they don’t invite vulnerability. From a small office above a pizza parlor in Berkeley, they have delayed construction, fought for and won resettlement packages for displaced people, and played an active role in international decision-making arenas. Driving their work is the belief that human rights and environmental protection are intrinsically linked.

IRN invited Hass to join the board of directors in 1997. A formal discussion never took place about how poetry and activism would fit, says Majot. The two rivers were merely allowed to share the same floodplain, and they have since joined as a braided channel. Hass and Snyder have drawn large crowds for fundraising dinners where commemorative broadsides were sold. Before his death, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz donated his poem “Rivers” for a broadside to be sold at a dinner at Hass’s request (Hass had translated the poem).

“Poets are good low-rent celebrities,” said Snyder. “I’ve donated my time to hundreds of organizations. Many poets do. We do it because we support the work and believe in the cause.”

Troublemaker is the last and biggest rapid of the day. Although the river feels wild on this stretch of river—the nation’s most popular recreational whitewater run with at least 100,000 people floating here annually—we are actually sandwiched between dams. There are 13 of them upstream of where we put-in at Chile Bar, and downstream is the 340-foot concrete Folsom Dam. If we ran the whole stretch of river from Chile Bar to Folsom reservoir, we’d run into the slack water of the reservoir where you can feel the life of the river drain. If dam builders had their way back in 1977, there would be four more dams between Chili Bar and Folsom Dam and we’d be paddling canoes on still water. But local activists successfully fought the project.

Not all dams can be stopped. After a decades-long fight against the Three Gorges Dam in China, the floodgates closed on the Three Gorges Dam and the water is flooding the centuries-old cultural hearth of the Three Gorges valley. When the monolith is complete in 2009, it will create a 600-foot-deep reservoir that is 365-miles long (as long as mainland Greece), and is estimated to displace 1.3 million people (some of whom aren’t even born). Beneath the reservoir, which is predicted to quickly become a polluted cesspool of silt and waste, ancient Chinese poetry is carved on rock walls.

What can activists do when the dam is built, when the floodwaters rise? How do they recover from setbacks, survive defeat, and find inspiration? Hass says that poetry and art can help activists with the bigger picture. He often speaks to watershed managers at the Environmental Protection Agency who say that they get so involved with their campaigns that they forget why they’re doing the work in the first place. Poetry reminds them.

“Activists, like everybody else, need to find ways to be reflective,” said Snyder, “to look at the full frame, to be open and creative and not always caught in a single-minded linear focus. You have to step back and smell the breeze. Part of that comes with going for walks, watching birds, running a river. You can also get that perspective from looking at art, dancing, or reading poetry.”

The day ended with a late lunch and poetry reading on the banks of the river. In wet clothes and hair like mergansers, Hass and Snyder read new, unpublished poems to a small group of activists on the banks of the American River.

“It will be the local people, the watershed people, who will prove to be the last and possibly most effective line of defense,” Snyder said in Coming in to the Watershed.

Our future depends on the watershed people, and that goes for poets as well as activists. Win or lose, they are our best line of defense.

This essay by Aleta George appeared in Divide: Creative Responses to Contemporary Social Questions, University of Colorado at Boulder, Fall 2005. At the time, I was a staff member at International Rivers and had helped to launch the International Day of Action Against Dams.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Fire Drill at the Huntington Library

When the fire alarm sounded inside the Munger Research Center at the Huntington Library in San Marino, I had just finished reading a juicy letter. Not sexy-juicy, but full of juice because it provided details for my book about Ina Coolbrith, California's first poet laureate. Until I found this letter, I had only circumstantial evidence that Ina's caregiver had been acting in ways that made her a candidate for an insane asylum; now I knew exactly what she had done, and I could write a scene full of detail, a gold nugget for any book.

As the lights flashed and the alarm sounded with a decorum fitting for the library, the staff told us to exit immediately and leave everything behind. I walked away from the letter without having copied it into my computer.

Along with other researchers who pulled themselves away from centuries past, I blinked at the Los Angeles sunshine. In talking to the gentleman who shared my table that day, I didn't express concern for the tens of thousands of rare books or manuscripts, including the Gutenberg Bible, housed in the library.

"I hope the place doesn't burn down," I said. "I just found a really good letter."

He asked about it, and as I've been immersed in Ina's story for seven years, I gave him an earful about the letter and my project. I was still going on about Ina when members of the staff greeted my tablemate warmly, and he introduced me to each of them. The regard in which the curators greeted him made me take note of the name on his tag (all readers wear ID tags around their necks).

Staff announced that the alarm had been a drill, and we were allowed back in. I found my letter safe and I quickly typed its contents into my computer. Then I Googled "Tony Grafton" and learned that he was a Princeton history professor and the author of five books. His areas of expertise are the Italian Renaissance, the history of science, and classical scholarship.

Now he knows a bit more  about California's first poet laureate.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Suisun Sundays: Cedar waxwings

January 11, 2012—When I saw a smattering of dark purple poop on my front steps this morning, I thought, "Hm, the cedar waxwings are early this year." The only time I see cedar waxwings in Suisun City is when the berries on nearby trees are ripe. These beautiful birds with butter-cream breasts and dramatic Zorro-masked eyes, time their visits to feast on the berries, eating and pooping from our neighbor's tree that hangs over our front steps.

I counted 16 waxwings and 2 American robins. With the drought conditions this winter, I wondered if the waxwings were early. To determine that, I checked my Suisun wildlife journal, which I started in 2007. Here's what I found:

Jan. 25, 2007: A flock of cedar waxwings arrived and are mixing it up with American robins, busy flying in a three-tree triangle.

January 15, 2008: Small group of waxwings here eating berries. Low number of birds so far.

February 4, 2008: About 70 waxwings in the tree today, tck-tck-tck, as the seeds from the berries hit the bricks.

February 18, 2009: Two-hundred waxwings arrived today and are feasting in the bare-leaved eucalyptus tree. Only occasional bombs fall, but I can hear a constant tat-tat-tat from the hard seeds hitting the brick steps. Something spooked them as I watched, and as a flock they flew to the pepper tree across the street in a swooping circle, then back to the tree in front. All of them gone the next day.

April 14, 2010: Around 50 waxwings came through but missed the ripe berries by several months.

March 22, 2011: Around 50 waxwings in the trees at 3:30 p.m. Gone by 5:00 p.m. The berries are mostly gone and they didn't find their usual feast.

According to these observations, their migration times vary. They may be a bit earlier than previous years, but only by a few days.