Archives for posts with tag: connection to nature

When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I often eschewed the agricultural aspects of life there. My hometown of Davis is relatively large (if not the largest) compared to other towns in Yolo County and, more significantly, is host to a campus of the University of California, for which both of my parents worked. Yes, UCD is an ag school—it was originally known as the Farm—but for us it represented the intellectual side of life and it was in this direction that I was aligned.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to better appreciate the valley’s agricultural heritage. And since starting a backyard vegetable garden three years ago, my understanding of and appreciation for farming and the industry as a whole has been steadily increasing. So, while visiting my family this weekend (we were long overdue; see October 19, 2012; October 21, 2012; and October 24, 2012 for tales of our last trip), I decided to embrace my inner farm boy and take in a couple of the agrarian attractions that the valley has to offer.

Our first stop this morning—with my brother along—was the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, the seat of Yolo County. Housed in two large warehouse buildings and connected by corridors at each end which create a central courtyard, the agricultural museum tells the story of farming in the valley through an expansive collection of farm equipment and associated lore.

The artifacts span more than a hundred years in age and include manual implements, horse- and mule-drawn plows and wagons as well as tractors and harvesters powered by steam or diesel engines. The steam-driven tractors are particularly impressive. One example has drive-wheels that are eight feet in diameter; its boiler is the size of a small shed and its chimney reaches almost to the ceiling. It must have been a wonder to behold when new.

The east building was chock-full of equipment, all impeccably restored and painted in bright colors. (The tractors would have been fun to climb on, had it been allowed.) The west building had previously housed a collection of antique trucks but its owners (who rented space from the History Center) recently moved it to another facility. Sadly (and inexplicably), I did not take any pictures.

Our second foray took us into the heart of the valley itself. The Yolo Bypass is a narrow but huge (hundreds of thousands of acres) strip of land running north-south between the cities of Davis and Sacramento. Parallel to the Sacramento River and surrounded by levees, the bypass acts as a detention pond for excess river flow that would otherwise flood the valley and its cities. After filling with water, the bypass slowly drains into the river downstream and thence into the delta.

Within the bypass is the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, almost 18,000 acres of protected wetlands which are home to a variety of aquatic and avian species. Wet is the operative word here because even during drought years (of which California is in its third straight), the bypass is periodically flooded, either to support the rice crops that are grown there or, in periodic fallow seasons, to support the wildlife.

In my memories of childhood, the bypass quickly filled and remained full—an inland sea, complete with waves and breakers—every winter. In more recent years (and, given the unreliability of my memory, probably most years), the water levels have been relatively low and the flooded areas distributed among the patchwork of rice fields that make up the bypass.

It rained all day yesterday (not great for visiting but a relief to everyone who lives here) and consequently, the ground was muddy and slippery. We could have parked the car and walked but, feeling lazy on a sunny Sunday morning, decided to drive the auto tour which winds its way along intermediate levees. It was dicey in spots and we could feel the car floating on a layer of muck. But had we chosen to walk, we would have sunk to our ankles, if not deeper.

It was calm and serene despite the fact that Interstate 80 crosses the north edge of the Wildlife Area on an elevated causeway. And lest we think that we were truly in the wilderness, the Sacramento skyline loomed to the east. Both the freeway and the city are good reminders of how California’s population is linked to the agriculture on which its success is largely based.

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Another day, another polar vortex.  It seems that the atmosphere has reached down from the northernmost region of the earth and trailed a frigid finger of arctic air across the exposed back of the northeast.

To say that it has given us the chills would be a gross understatement; the temperature was two degrees below zero this morning.  This winter is on track to become the coldest one of my life.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

Fall returned this week, like an old friend who had been away visiting others for a few months (family in the southern hemisphere, I believe).  It is good to see the autumn come around again and bittersweet to watch as our houseguest, summer, packs up and leaves.  We had some good times these past three months but we’ll have more fun with a different crowd in the months ahead.

The changing season gives me a warm feeling, even while the weather is turning decidedly cooler.  On the one hand, a swim in the pool has almost suddenly lost its appeal (time to close it soon) and I can actually wear long trousers, having faced up to the possibility a week ago.  In the morning, I need a sweatshirt when I go out for a run.

On the other hand, sleeping is much more comfortable.  The air is crisper—although not yet as dry as it will be in winter—and warms up by late morning.  It can be almost as hot as in summer, in an absolute sense, but the heat is usually moderated by cool breezes.  The sun is lower and shade is more plentiful; it provides a handy respite from the still-intense rays of light.  All things considered, this a good time to be outdoors.

Unless you are a vegetable.  Many of the plants have withered away, leaving only bare spots behind.  I’ve already mentioned the shortening day and increasing solar screening by adjacent trees (see August 25, 2013).  Now, with overnight temperatures dropping into the 50s and 60s, the vegetables’ growth rate has slowed to a crawl.  The tomatoes, green beans and squash are still producing but not as much and not as often.

The vegetables are starting to miss their summer companion and will soon be joining its exodus from the garden.

In the afternoon, as the sun—and the temperature—rose higher, we became aware of the arrival of the dog-day cicadas.  Their high-frequency, rapid-fire clicking cyclically swells to a crescendo before suddenly coming to a stop.  The pause always gets my attention (with the final staccato notes ringing in my echoic memory) and leaves me waiting expectantly for the resumption of the music, which usually follows shortly.

The song of the cicadas fills the aural void left behind by their 17-year cousins and marks (for me, anyway) the peak of the summer season.

The song of the 17-year cicadas is starting to wane.  It is not nearly as loud as it was just a week ago.  Then, the sound was the first thing we heard in the morning and couldn’t be ignored.  Now, we have to stop and listen for it.

But the cicada population is extremely localized.  We’ve heard that their numbers are greater across the river, for example, and that their music is cacophonous and distracting.  Also, the ground is littered with cicada carcasses there, both alive and dead.

Closer to home, a garden center a couple of miles down the road from us (to the south) is located in a cicada hot-spot.  The drone is still loud enough to feel as well as hear.  Also, their nursery, with its vast expanses of shrubs, hanging plants and potted seedlings, is thick with cicadas bumbling around in their clumsy way.

These large bugs are not the best fliers and will literally bounce off the walls or alight on a customer’s brightly-colored shirt.  And each plant purchased comes with a complimentary cicada or two, free to take home.

We’ve been very fortunate this year to have two featured players in the local orchestra that produces the sounds of nature.  The concerts occur daily but the new musical artists are appearing for a limited time only.

Since the beginning of June (see May 31, 2013), we have had a daily serenade from the 17-year cicadas.  They start just as the sun rises above the mountain ridge to the east, about seven o’clock this time of year.  I’m not sure whether it is the direct sunlight (the trees are in the shade until that hour, after which they become illuminated from the top down) that gets the cicadas going or the increase in ambient temperature that accompanies it (they are very sensitive, thermally).  Either way, their tune is our audible signal that the day has begun.

Once cued, they keep at it diligently throughout the full-sun hours and do not take a rest until the sun lays down its baton on its final approach to the horizon, at around seven o’clock in the evening.  That’s twelve hours of continuous music-making, every day.  Despite its similarity to sci-fi special effects, the melody—bass continuo might be a more apt term—is comforting.  It is a love song, after all.  We will miss it when it comes to an end.

Starting at about the same time each morning, birds perched in the weigela and forsythia that form a hedge between our yard and the road begin a complex aria of some of the most exuberant birdsong I have ever heard.  I suspect that there are several bird families nesting within the shrubs’ dense foliage and based on the energetic and animated chirping, warbling and trilling, they must be very proud parents indeed.  I’m not sure what species they are but these divas would put the fanciest canary to shame.

Like the cicadas, the birds carry on all day and sometimes into the evening (unlike the cicadas, they must not be unionized).  It is only when the sun is completely below the horizon and the sky has become fully dark that they tuck the little ones in and settle into bed.  Shortly after that, the orchestra now quiet, we do the same.  (When the crickets and frogs start their summertime gigs next month, I’m not sure we’ll know when to go to sleep.)

Often when I am planning a trip to a new destination (or one with which I am not very familiar), I will make a virtual visit using Google Maps.  I am a visual thinker and have found that by looking at the satellite/aerial views—often combined with Street View—of a location, I can form a preliminary mental map that will help me navigate and become comfortable in a strange environment.  Call it pre-familiarization.

I made such a flyover before coming to Hawaii.  I was looking for the condo where we stayed on our last trip and where we are staying again this time (in the same room, coincidentally), the name or location of which I could not remember (it was more than 10 years ago).  I had only a general idea of where it was—across the road from the resorts of Napili and Kapalua—and a recollection that it was near a large hotel (where we sipped cocktails at sunset one evening).

It wasn’t much to go on but by cruising (digitally) up and down Lower Honoapiilani Road a few times, I was able to home in on a potential location.  There was no adjacent hotel (I learned from our friends yesterday that it had been demolished and replaced by luxury residences in the intervening years) but by zooming down, I was able to recognize the distinctive swimming pool, memorable for its azure blue tiles.  Rachel later confirmed the location, having found its website online.

A fringe benefit of my virtual touring is that I sometimes discover places of interest that I might not otherwise have encountered.  In this case, I happened upon the Dragon’s Teeth Labyrinth on a spit of volcanic rock north of our condo.  From the air, it would appear to be a full-sized Chartres labyrinth and to occupy a potentially sacred spot where land and water meet.  This morning, we set out to see it for ourselves.  The prospect was exciting as we have always enjoyed walking labyrinths and developed one on our property (see July 10, 2011).

Public access to the coast cannot be restricted in Hawaii (even though much of the oceanfront property is privately owned) and there are many trails that follow the shore.  One such trail heads north from Kapalua Beach and winds through the luxury residences (which seem strangely vacant).  As we passed by, a rainbow appeared to the west between us and Molokai, an auspicious beginning to our journey.  When the trail reached the north end of the housing complex, it led out onto a jagged outcropping of the solidified lava that forms most of Hawaii’s coastline.

From there, the trail turns eastward, first passing through a shore bird nesting habitat and then onto a boardwalk just above the beach at Oneloa Bay.  At the far end of the beach, the trail turns back inland to follow Lower Honoapiilani Road (although access to the coast cannot be restricted, much of it remains physically inaccessible).  A short walk along the road brought us to the fourth tee of the Kapalua Bay Golf Course.

Here we paused for a moment.  Getting out to the Dragon’s Teeth would involve walking along the edge of the fairway.  We knew that we had the right to pass but many golf courses are private and off limits to non-members or players.  When we saw a sign warning of proximity to the course—and not commanding us to keep out—we started down along the hedge that forms the fairway’s border.  At one point we held up to allow a foursome of golfers to play through.  It was not the reverent approach we were expecting to make (even if the more devout golfers around us would have considered this fine course a place of worship).

When we reached the outcropping it was evident how it got its name.  The eastern edge of the spit was lined with spiky vertical projections of lava (aa, presumably) that were upturned by wave action while still molten (or so I later read).  The waves are still quite strong here and wash against the Dragon’s Teeth obliquely resulting in a fountain of water that slides along the shoreline dramatically.

Just beyond the teeth, where the jetty levels out, we found the labyrinth.  Circular in plan, its 11 concentric paths are divided from each other by stones that have been smoothed by wave action and are anchored in place by succulents growing around them.  The labyrinth clearly sees many visitors as the paths have been worn down into ruts by heavy foot traffic.  Even so, we were fortunate to have it to ourselves.

We slowly and solemnly made our pilgrimage to the center of the labyrinth and once there, performed our version of the Medicine Wheel Prayer.  We first faced east and raised our arms in salute to spring and rebirth.  We next turned to the south and paid homage to summer and growth.  Then, we faced west, acknowledging fall and the natural endings in life and to complete the circle, we looked to the north in respect of winter and introspection.  Finally, we raised our heads to greet Father Sky and bowed to show our love for Mother Earth (perhaps a sphere would be a better symbol).

It wasn’t as mystical or woo-woo as it might sound (especially with golfers putting nearby).  It was, however, a simple ritual that left us feeling centered—literally and figuratively—and fully appreciative of this world we live in and the particular paradise in which we found ourselves today.

One of the things I like about traveling west is that the time difference actually works in my favor.  I’m an early-to-bed/early-to-rise kind of guy and when I visit California, my 6:00 am to 10:00 pm day becomes 3:00 am to 7:00 pm.  This means that I can get up late, at 4:00 am say (7:00 am at home), do a workout, have a cup of coffee, and still have an hour or two before meeting the family for breakfast (not usually before 8:00 am).

Those early-morning hours are useful for touching base back home (where the workday is just starting) and also great for writing.  It is quiet, there are not a lot of people around and the phone does not ring.  The only downside (and it’s a small one) is that it is usually dark (so outdoor activities are limited).  The Saturday we were in California (October 20, 2012), I sat down in the morning to write some further thoughts about our visit to Glynwood Farm (I misplaced the pages when we got home, hence the delay).

During more stressful times, I often joke about chucking it all in and getting a job as a ditch digger.  The impulse is partly about doing something mindless—in the sense of no thinking required—but it’s also about doing something that is more physical than intellectual, activities more connected to the land (and animals, too) than to the intangible concepts on which I labor in my mind.  Our visit to Glynwood touched on those feelings.

The people who work there have definitely made a connection to nature.  Many of their day-to-day activities are governed by what is happening with the weather, their vegetables and their livestock.  They are constantly responding to their environment.  (Their work requires a lot of thinking so it does not qualify as mindless.)  They make an immediate and positive impact on their surroundings and by doing so on a daily basis (farming is a seven-day-a-week occupation), they extend their influence (through example and outreach) to a larger area over a longer time period (indefinitely, theoretically).

As mentioned before (see October 12, 2012), Glynwood has a CSA program.  They also sell their meat and poultry at local farmers’ markets and are considering the formation of a community-supported butchery (like CSA, the program would supply a weekly share of animal products for a fee paid at the beginning of the season) as well.  As described in a recent New York Times article, the community-supported approach has been applied to fisheries with additional benefits to both the suppliers and customers and, of course, the environment.

The fisherfolk commit to low quotas on popular species (such as cod) that are in danger of being depleted.  To supplement their catch, they focus on plentiful but less well-known species like redfish (their motto might be “one fish, two fish; red fish, blue fish”).  On the other side of the transaction, the customers have to learn how to cook varieties of seafood that they might not have even heard of before.  The CSF helps by providing recipes and giving lessons in filleting (give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to cook fish and he is a customer for life).

A similar tack could be taken with Glynwood’s CSB.  The types of meat—beef, chicken, pork—are well-known but instead of mass-market varieties (according to Glynwood’s Farm Manager, a conventional chicken is hardly recognizable as such), lesser-known heritage breeds are raised.  And although most cooks know what to do with a chicken breast, ribeye steak or pork chop, fewer would have any idea how to prepare chicken hearts, beef kidneys or pork chitlins.  A key to the responsible eating of meat is avoiding waste.  Using every part of the animal is the only respectful and sustainable practice.

I think the folks at Glynwood get this.  Now, I wonder if they need any ditch diggers?