In September 2010, I was lucky enough to visit French Polynesia. I stayed on the islands of Tahiti and Bora Bora. The fanciful cuisine of the former — particularly the long-standing food truck tradition — was certainly a favorite memory. But it was only off the shores of Bora Bora that I got to scuba dive. And I do love nothing more than being underwater. Whilst immersed in the almost too perfect turquoise seas, I swam with pregnant manta rays and big fat lemon sharks. Gifts from the gods, to be sure.
I hadn’t completely forgotten about the dives, but almost two years later, they were far from my mind. And then, about a month ago, I got a message from an old dive buddy — a Frenchman who lives near Avignon.
“I was watching a documentary about mantas in French Polynesia and I saw you,” he wrote. “Did you see this documentary? I can try to capture few pictures for you if you want.”
And then it all came back.
It so happens that a French film crew was on my dive boat that September, and they were making a documentary about the manta rays in the motu. They filmed the briefing, the dive and then interviewed me afterward. Miracle of miracles, I made the final cut.
The film, “Les reines du lagon” (The queens of the lagoon”) is by Dominique Martial. Mon ami francais sent me a screen shot and some video clips. Apparently, I sound way more sophisticated in French! The parts I saw were magical. Hope I get to see the whole documentary one day.
I had saved some cookie tins from the resort in Bora Bora where we stayed while diving. They were the tastiest tropical butter cookies I’ve ever had! I poked drainage holes in the bottom of the tins, filled them with soil and then planted a trio of succulents in each.
Now, whenever i water them, I will be thinking of Bora Bora and my magical moment with mantas, en francais!
Succulents come in myriad shapes, colors and textures (including the spiny cactus) and pepper the planet in locales as diverse as India, Madagascar and the California coast!
They’ve been all the decor rage for the past few years, as they are both easy on the eyes and hard to kill. Though air plants — the fiercely survivalist tillandsia – are becoming “stiff” competition, particularly as wall art, succulents are still spreading their fleshy leaves at an ambitious rate. Surpassing the simple flower pot, they are showing up as floral arrangements, wreaths and framed hangings.
It’s crazy how plants can be trendy, but then there is the infamous tale of the tulip… I can’t say I know of any fortunes that have been won or lost over these fun little flora, though the local nurseries are probably making out quite well. (Succulents regenerate themselves at an amazing rate, with hardly any work on the part of humans.)
I’ve been busy propagating my little thick-leafed friends for some time. Some of the parent plants were purchased, while others were plucked from obliging flower pots or pinched on a hike. You pick a little plant or just a part, leave it to dry for a few weeks and then, once roots start to reach out, plant the new sucker in some soil.
Finding the right containers is almost equally as fun. I peruse secondhand stores, sale bins and my own cabinets for candidates. (What better retirement plan for a chipped mug or bowl?) Fishbowls are a present favorite.
I recently redid a few planters, as I hadn’t given them proper drainage on my first try. Now, with a bed of rocks in the bottom and a layer of charcoal just below the sandy soil, the roots should have plenty of room to breathe.
If you’d like to totally geek out on succulents, follow the goings on of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America (CSSA), at www.cssainc.org.
And if you’re curious about the tulip wars, an apropos analogy for our troubled economic times, check out “Tulipomania : The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused” by Mike Dash.
Made my third annual pilgrimage to Ano Nuevo State Park in early January. My friend Tony and I have been coming here every year since I moved to California. It’s a very apt and beautiful place to start the New Year.
Ano Nuevo Point was named by a Spanish chaplain on January 3, 1603. He spied the coast from the deck of explorer Don Sebastian Viscaino’s ship and, though he never stepped foot on the land, named it honor of the New Year. (Read more about Ano Nuevo’s history.)
The state park also includes Ano Nuevo Island. Only open to researchers, the island and its long-deserted Victorian house make for a striking addition to the coastal views. (Read more about Ano Nuevo Island Light Station.)
At this time of year, thousands of female northern elephant seals give birth and then nurse their young. The males spend their time defending their harems or plotting sneak-attacks in hopes of capturing and impregnating another’s female. (Not exactly romantic, but, since the elephant seals are thriving, this method seems to be getting the job done.)
In March, the adults return to the sea. After having spent three months on land with no food, they have lost up to a third of their body weight. The pups remain behind and have a few more weeks to hone their swimming skills before they, too, will leave the land.
Returning seals have to get past the bevy of Great White sharks that thrive in Northern California’s coastal waters. If they survive and make it into the deep blue, their yearly cycle will begin again.
Elephant seals can dive up to 5,000 feet (1,524 m) and stay down there for as long as two hours. The females tend not to hunt as deep as the males, as they’re partial to squid. The boys are, naturally, bottom-feeders and live off the likes of skate and crab.
I also re-read “Elephant Seals” by Carole and Phil Adams (1999) each year before my visit. You can purchase the book via the FES online shop, as well as in person at the Ano Nuevo State Park store.
If you want to see the Ano Nuevo colony, you must sign up for a docent/ranger-lead tour. You’ll get up close to the seals and support a good cause. Reserve far in advance, particularly for weekend slots.
Sea lions bark! They have whiskers and cute little ears! They’re playful! Need I say more? Oh, well the photography bit …
This was my first time out with my new telephoto lens (Canon EF 70-200 mm f/2.8L). I saved money by scrimping on the Image Stabilization feature. (It was still an expensive lens!) Thought I was being crafty, as I’d read enough reviews saying it wasn’t quite necessary.
But then I bet those folks weren’t bobbing on a boat, trying to photograph fidgety sea lions, who are themselves on a bouncing buoy. As you can imagine, this makes for a lot of blur. Oh well, at least a few of my shots turned out OK!
I’ve been sailing on the San Francisco Bay quite a bit this year. It’s amazing how quiet it can be when you switch the motor off — just the sound of the wind whipping the sails above and the water slapping the boat beneath. It seems nearly impossible that you are floating just off the shore of a major metropolitan area.
Still, sometimes the prettiest sights are the ones that greet you on your return. The Berkeley Marina tends to be a surprise stunner at sunset!
Hummingbirds remind me of my late mother. They’re small, beautiful and extremely quick — alive and abuzz with energy.
I shot this photo over the summer and have been meaning to post it ever since. It’s not the most technically superb of images, but I was proud just to have snapped a clear view of one of these little birds.
|I can imagine, in some otherworld|
|Primeval-dumb, far back|
|In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,|
|Humming-birds raced down the avenues.|
|Before anything had a soul,|
|While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,|
|This little bit chipped off in brilliance|
|And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.|
|I believe there were no flowers, then,|
|In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.|
|I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.|
|Probably he was big|
|As mosses, and little lizards, they say were once big.|
|Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.|
|We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,|
|Luckily for us.|
Heron’s Head Park sits near the southeastern edge of San Francisco. You can see downtown’s skyscrapers in the distance, but they truly feel worlds away. The 24-acre-park is home to salt marshes and a small ecological center with a living roof and sustainable water system. It used to be Pier 89, and remnants of its former life scatter the park grounds. But despite the hulking cranes, stacked box cars and strips of industrial landscape that sandwich it on either side, the Heron’s Head has the fresh smell of California’s coastland. Gulls and ducks and, of course, herons linger in the water. The winding sandy paths feel desolate and beautiful all at once.
One of these days, I will tire of shooting flowers. But that day hasn’t come yet. “Too easy!” you say. And, yes, it’s true. I’m a sucker for beauty.
It’s hard to tire of the California Academy of Sciences, even with the throngs of children milling about … I particularly love the rainforest. Tropical weather makes me feel at home.
A Noiseless Patient Spider
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
— Walt Whitman (from Leaves of Grass)
Shooting flowers feels a little like cheating … I mean, they’re beautiful, colorful and hold perfectly still. It’s hard to totally mess up. But who doesn’t like a nice petal pic now and again? And it can make you feel like you’re not such a crap photographer after all.
I still haven’t found the right “love” poem to read at my friends’ wedding. Last night I stayed up a bit too late attempting to mine one of Norton’s anthologies for potential candidates. Let me just say this: the modern poets weren’t high on love. I may end up giving in and buying one of those 100-Best-Love/Wedding-Poems books. But for now, the search continues, and I’ve been inspired. Here’s another great non-wedding-appropriate love poem by Margaret Atwood, whom I worship — nay, adore.
Variations on the Word Love
This is a word we use to plug
holes with. It’s the right size for those warm
blanks in speech, for those red heart-
shaped vacancies on the page that look nothing
like real hearts. Add lace
and you can sell
it. We insert it also in the one empty
space on the printed form
that comes with no instructions. There are whole
magazines with not much in them
but the word love, you can
rub it all over your body and you
can cook with it too. How do we know
it isn’t what goes on at the cool
debaucheries of slugs under damp pieces of cardboard? As for weed-
seedlings nosing their tough snouts up
among the lettuces, they shout it.
Love! Love! sing the soldiers, raising
their glittering knives in salute.
Then there’s the two
of us. This word
is far too short for us, it has only
four letters, too sparse
to fill those deep bare
vacuums between the stars
that press on us with their deafness.
It’s not love we don’t wish
to fall into, but that fear.
This word is not enough but it will
have to do. It’s a single
vowel in this metallic
silence, a mouth that says
O again and again in wonder
and pain, a breath, a finger
grip on a cliffside. You can
hold on or let go.
Two friends recently asked me to read a poem during their wedding ceremony. So I’ve been on the prowl for poems about love, scouring my college copy of Norton’s Anthology of Modern Poetry and back issues of the New Yorker … Read this Tennessee Williams poem in the April-4 issue of the latter, and it has been hanging in my head ever since. I suppose this would be way too dark a choice for most folks on their wedding day, and so the search continues. But, despite its post-apocalyptic nature, I must say that I find “Your Blinded Hand” most beautiful.
Your Blinded Hand
everything that greens and grows
should blacken in one moment, flower and branch.
I think that I would find your blinded hand.
Suppose that your cry and mine were lost among numberless cries
in a city of fire when the earth is afire,
I must still believe that somehow I would find your blinded hand.
Through flames everywhere
consuming earth and air
I must believe that somehow, if only one moment were offered,
find your hand.
I know as, of course, you know
the immeasurable wilderness that would exist
in the moment of fire.
But I would hear your cry and you’d hear mine and each of us
the other’s hand.
That it might not be so.
But for this quiet moment, if only for this
and against all reason,
let us believe, and believe in our hearts,
that somehow it would be so.
I’d hear your cry, you mine—
And each of us would find a blinded hand.
Spent five days at Shoshoni Yoga Retreat, an ashram in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. It was serene, beautiful and challenging. Along with eating vegetarian food, meditating and practicing yoga, I took daily walks into the woods.
I loved the signage marking the trails. There was the red path, which led to blustery Rollins Peak, a steep outcrop that overlooked its namesake town. From the top you could curl up between rocks and gaze out over the distant snowcapped mountain range. And there was the blue path: A milder hike with a lower grade, the trail opened to a vista of a tree-filled valley. Painted rocks and cairns decorated this small shelf, where a rock wall sheltered you from the wind but not the warming rays of the Colorado sun.
There was no wrong route to take. The only thing that mattered is that you followed the signs and stayed on the path. I think that makes for some fine advice in life, as well as in hiking.
While canoeing along the southern end of the Everglades this past March, I came across many little islands in the making. These islets, often in the form of one or two lonely red mangrove trees, struck me as a symbol of hope.
Despite the vast sea stretching endlessly before them, floating seed pods willed themselves into a sandbank somewhere, harnessing the powers of great tidal shifts, forming themselves a new home. In the spirit of exploration and even of the persistence of life against all odds, these lone trees turned themselves into lone islands … And where lone islands form, other life is sure to follow.
High in the treetops of narrow inlets and the tiny, well-rooted trees all around us, birds would perch and, sometimes even nest, forming silhouettes against the colors of a sky transitioning into darkness. How glorious that in five, ten or twenty years time, I may be parking my canoe on the banks of one of these “lone tree islets,” now independent islands in their own rights, and spending a night under the stars.
Snapped the photo above after taking a walking tour of my neighborhood with SF City Guides. I’ve lived in Noe Valley for less than a year, but I’ve been coming to visit for almost a decade and figured it was time to learn about the truth behind its many charms.
Once again, I am part of a gentrifying sweep, moving an old working-class neighborhood with an appealing low skyline into the ranks of the less affordable. This reminds me of my old Brooklyn neighborhood, Cobble Hill; so do all the cute boutiques, eateries and baby strollers.
But … It was great to have my eyes opened to all the architectural details they would normally gloss over. And now I can proudly distinguish a Stick House from a Queen Anne or an Edwardian. One sad note is that Nelly Street was once Orient Street, but they changed the name during World War II. People are silly, aren’t they? But whoever Nelly was, I am sure she was happy to get her own street.
Tours by SF City Guides are free and happening all the time, all around the city (schedule). And you can catch the latest buzz about lovely Noe Valley on this fun local blog, noevalleysf.blogspot.com.
In this day of crowded flights and eternal commutes, it is refreshing to get somewhere by the mere strength of your limbs. Canoeing eight miles out to the barrier islands off the Florida Everglades felt like exploring another world. I couldn’t help but be amazed and inspired by the fact that we managed to get four people, three days worth of food and water, and enough gear to provide clothing and shelter for us all out to these uninhabited islands without so much as a drop of gasoline.
As we paddled through increasingly choppy waves the last hour of our first day, I suddenly felt a new awe for those explorers who—before sailboats, steamships, compasses or even GPS—loaded up friends, family and supplies onto outriggers and canoes and headed deep into the wide unknown sea to find new places. They must have been incredibly brave. They also probably had amazing abs.
A fantastic piece by Nadia Drake of MercuryNews.com on the sounds of the Northern Elephant Seal:
OK, I guess one would be hard-pressed to call my back staircase a garden. But we must make do with what we have. And though the view is only of my neighbor’s adjacent building, this is San Francisco after all, having a bench seat for one and a pocket of sunshine just off my kitchen is truly a joy.
When it’s not raining and storming like today, I sit and have my morning coffee with Gnome. We stare blissfully at our pots of succulents and herbs, as if they were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
We have great plans for our little space, which we plan to fill until we all but crowd ourselves out. We’ll have hanging plants and boxed plants and plants mounted on the walls in burlap sacks …
But for now, nous somme content. And that is the whole point of this little “garden” after all.