Monthly Archives: April 2016

Ring Mountain and saving the world

Mount Tamalpais from the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

Mount Tamalpais from the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

Celebrating my wild backyard in the last post got me thinking about the multiplicity of backyards I’ve had since heading out on our journey in 2011. Some of them have been spectacular: the Atlantic Ocean in Nova Scotia, the Pacific in Malibu, the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California, the red rock bluffs of Utah. But the reality of RV parks is that they are, at bottom, parking lots. Some are greener and prettier than others, some have rivers running by them, some have magnificent views when you lift your eyes above your neighbor’s motor home. In urban areas, the cost of land doesn’t allow extra space for greenery, so you’re even more dependent on borrowed landscapes.

The Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

The Corte Madera Ecological Preserve

Greenbrae, California, twenty minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is one of my home bases. RV parks like to be handy to highways for easy access, and this one is next to the only north/south freeway in this neck of the woods, Route 101, and a couple of blocks north of a small shopping center with the indispensible Trader Joe’s. I do have a fence covered with ivy and morning glories, with a big palm tree on the other side, outside my back window. Over my neighbor’s roof I see Mount Tamalpais, which reigns like a queen over the whole area. There’s a fascinating conglomeration of rackety houses on stilts just north of us, along a boardwalk taking you well into our neighboring wetlands.

Egret fishing in the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

Egret fishing in the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve

Our literal backyard is the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, a vast marshland that attracts shore birds all year: egrets, ducks, pelicans, herons, godwits, and the endangered Ridgeway rail. The preserve, sadly, suffers from a full-blown invasion of non-native plants — acacias, pampas grass, and fennel so large it towers over me — so it’s not a place for me to find native wildflowers. For that I go farther afield, starting with what I consider my backyard hike, Ring Mountain, since one of the access points is only two miles down the road. That entrance takes me to the Phyllis Ellman trail, a rambling, curving path up the steep, 602’ mountain that traverses some of the best wildflower displays in the area. The hike is named for the woman who started the movement to save Ring Mountain from development in the 1970’s.

Looking toward San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Looking toward San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

It’s easy to see what it would be like without Ellman, and the people she gathered to help, by looking at the surrounding neighborhood of large homes, high fences, driveways, lawns, and exotic gardens; the way the rest of wealthy Tiburon looks. Instead, the preserve’s 400 acres remain free of all that, with grasses blowing in the wind, enormous rocks peacefully holding space, wind-sculpted trees leaning into each other. Small, delicate wildflowers, some extremely rare, abound in spring. There’s the broad access of the fire road that runs steeply up and down along the top of the ridge, and plenty of smaller trails leading off that, some so narrow that the grasses brush your shins as you walk them. From the top there are spectacular views in all directions: toward neighboring Mt. Tam, the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge. The city of San Francisco lies to the south, often with blankets of fog rolling in or out; the Marin hills are to the north.

Looking north from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Looking north from Ring Mountain

The preserve’s rare flowers and fascinating geology deserve their own post. For this one, I want to celebrate the fact that the Ring Mountain preserve exists at all. Phyllis Ellman, and millions like her, are part of the vast movement that environmentalist Paul Hawken calls ‘Blessed Unrest’ in his book of that title. The subtitle is heartening: “How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming.”

This movement consists of people working all over the world to clean rivers and wetlands, bring fish and animals back to their natural habitat, reinstate indigenous rights to land and water, fight the dumping of toxic waste in low-income neighborhoods, renovate housing, clear the air, preserve ancient forests, save wild and beautiful land for everyone. There are billionaires involved, and there are subsistence farmers and hunters who don’t have a money economy. One person operates here, 7 people there, 100 gather in a city, one entire tribe works to preserve the rain forest, several work together to bring salmon back to the dammed rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Some organizations have millions of members, some have three. All of the groups, Hawken says, “are dedicated to creating the conditions for life, conditions that include livelihood, food, security, peace, a stable environment and freedom from external tyranny.”

Sunset behind Mount Tamalpais from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Sunset behind Mount Tamalpais from Ring Mountain

Hawken discovered the size of the movement when he set out to create a database of such groups. Speaking at the Bioneers conference in October, 2004, he marveled that there were more than 130,000 such associations. A list started scrolling behind him on a giant screen, with the names of all he had found. If the audience were to sit for the entire list they would, he said, be there for 4 days. Only two years later, when he spoke again at the conference, he said that reading the scrolling list, now including additional groups that had been identified and hundreds of thousands that had started up in the interval, would keep the audience there for a month. There may well be over two million such organizations worldwide, working on the intertwined aims of environmental sustainability and social justice.

Grassland on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Grassland on Ring Mountain. This was after the dry winter of 2013/14.

I first heard a recording of Hawken’s second speech of at one of those organizations — my beloved Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey. I was there in the summer of 2007, taking one of the last of the Earth Literacy courses the farm offered. I loved his idea that the earth itself was gathering all of us, inspiring and working through us, for her own regeneration. We are her immune system, tending wounds — so many truly grievous —that we have inflicted through strife, misuse, misunderstanding, greed, tribalism, and all the other isms that limit our vision of ourselves, our fellow beings, our world, and our profound interconnections.

I’m not easily discouraged, but I feel a lot of pain for the damage our planet and its beings, including us, have suffered. Whenever I remember the fact that it would take a month to watch those names scroll by, I’m cheered. And that was 10 years ago; many more people have gathered together by now. I’m writing this the week 175 countries are signing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It has been long in coming, and there are a lot more steps that need to be taken, by all of us. But getting that many separate, sensitive, self-protective nations to agree on any program is an astonishing accomplishment, and a sign that those two million groups, all those dedicated immune cells, are at work healing the world.

Looking east over the San Francisco Bay from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Looking east over San Francisco Bay from Ring Mountain

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The call of wild beauty

September beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey CrawfordI lived for many years with a great deal of beauty outside my windows. I was looking at acre on acre of wetlands, salt marsh, patches of meadow, shrubs and trees. Beyond that was the estuary the land bordered. Except for a few flowering shad trees in the spring, and a scattering of vivid autumn color from native blueberry, there was nothing pretty about this. It was full of wildness. Deer moved through the forest of plants, and bedded down in their midst. Red-tailed hawks, and the ospreys nesting along the shoreline, glided above it, occasionally chased by a  flock of nesting swallows. Redwing blackbirds announced spring from the tops of reeds. Rabbit and fox burrowed into roots, alternating years of prosperity. For several springs, glossy ibis stopped on their way north to rest and pick through the wetlands with their long, curving beaks. And always the overarching sky, the clouds, the moon, the sunrise pouring itself over the entire expanse.

Winter beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

Winter sunrise in 2001. The meadow was just beginning to give way, in the distance, to the resurgent trees and shrubs.

It was gorgeous in all seasons, spangled with snow or dew, splattered with fall color or spring bloom, in the rich green of summer. But much of it was made of up things that were not in themselves beautiful: gawky native cherries, subtle bayberry, sober, dark green cedars. Plants that belonged there, grew for eons there, on the sandy spit of land left over when the last glaciers pulled back 11,000 years ago. Plants that knew how to grow in that nutrient-poor soil, that knew how to cope with the buffeting winds and the flooding tides of the Atlantic Ocean that surged beyond the harbor and the outer bay.

Late summer beauty on a meadow in Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

My all time favorite picture of the meadow! Dating from the 4-year-old, this would be 1991.

When I first moved there, a neighbor was pasturing horses on the land. Before that, her grandparents and great grandparents had harvested salt hay there. Because she mowed it once or twice a year, it stayed a meadow, a vast sea of switch grass and blue stem, green in spring and early summer, gold in late summer and autumn, silver and copper in winter. Their light, feathery tops moved in nearly constant waves in the slightest wind. After some years, as she boarded fewer horses, she stopped mowing those acres. The shrubs and trees that had been dormant for generations, perhaps centuries, immediately began to push their way up. Though I kept a section of it going on my own property, I was sorry to lose the vast meadow beyond, and amazed at how quickly the plants waiting for their turn shot up. But the resulting mix of grass and shrub and trees had a richness of texture and an abundance of life that the meadow, in all its gentle, undulating splendor, did not have.

Summer beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

This was taken by a drone for the real estate listing when it was time to go. The near water is Accabonac Harbor, beyond the spit at the top left is Gardiners Bay. The straight cut into the primary wetlands (the flat green areas) was part of a plan for mosquito control.

Living on that ancient and vital landscape for twenty-five years had a profound effect on me. It was my call of the wild. Beauty, said the Irish philosopher John O’Donohue, isn’t ‘just about nice loveliness.’  To him, with his youth spent in the untamed Burren region of Ireland, it made a huge difference whether, when ‘you wake in the morning and come out of your house, you believe you are walking into a dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you’re emerging into a landscape that is just as much — if not more — alive as you, but in a totally different form.’

Stormy beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey CrawfordIt was that wild aliveness that called to me, day after day, every time I looked out the window, every time I walked out of the house. When I stood on the edge of the meadow, my feet rested on the pebbly, sandy soil that the tail end of the Wisconsin glaciation had pushed there from farther north, sculpting the 100 million-year-old Cretaceous layers as the massive ice flowed over them. There was a large glacial erratic twenty feet into the meadow, a boulder captured from who knows where, then dropped and embedded in the soil as the ice melted northward. Six feet below the ground under me ran fast moving streams, feeding the harbor and the sea beyond. I’d seen one when we hoped to install a dry well to cope with water in the basement. There, at the bottom of the hole, a small, shallow river flowed rapidly east, connecting me to the estuary I could see, and then to the vast waters beyond my vision.

October beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

Beyond the fall blooming groundsel (Baccharis halmifolia) is the flat stretch of primary wetlands, where two types of spartina (alterniflora and patens) dominate.

The ecstatic pulsing life of that land — growing, flowing, flowering, proliferating, changing from season to season and year to year — filled my soul every single day. The ancient bedrock and old soils grounded me. The deep, steady, green breathing of plants sustained me. The line of wild turkey chicks scooting along behind their parents on summer mornings, learning to strip the tops of the grasses for their seeds, filled me with delight. The red fox quietly emerging from the wintry brush in one place, going back into the density in another, its tawny tail disappearing last into the snow, reminded me that fierce and tameless mysteries were lived everywhere around me.

The beauty of a morning mist on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

Comparing this misty morning in 2006 to the 2001 winter scene above, you can see how fast the shrubs and trees grew after the mowing stopped.

The Greek word for beauty, kalon, is intertwined with the word for call, kalein.  Beauty both rises from a call in us, and calls to us, perhaps even more so when the beauty is wild. We are connecting to something deep, primordial, a place on the planet that speaks to us of its vast depth, its power, its radiance. An allurement that beckons us far beyond ourselves and our often strange concerns and rickety constructs. Beauty is a transfer of life, the cellist Yo Yo Ma once said, and living on that land was continual heart-to-heart resuscitation.

When it was time to leave, it wasn’t just because the energy to keep the house, the gardens, the business, the life had waned. It was also because, as the call of that land grew, its very wildness transferred itself into me. It was now in my bones, moving my muscles, beating my heart, seeing through my eyes. Propelling me onward, toward more wildness and more beauty.

the beauty of an eastern tiger swallowtail (papillo glaucous) on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

An eastern tiger swallowtail visiting the deck.

 

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.