Sunset

Yosemite: I Fell into a Burning Ring of Fire …

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Despite the East Bay Bridge closure, Rim Fire and several other twists and turns — it took more than nine hours to get to there from SF — this was a most excellent journey. A whole week spent on the most amazing little 51-mile loop in Yosemite National Park. I can’t wait to go back!

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In the Garden: Memories of manta rays

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Free leftover tins from Bora Bora become planters. A nice memory, long after the cookies and the tan have been gone!

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.

A screen shot of me after the dive, from "Les reines du lagon."

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!

In the Garden: Pilferage and propagation

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A tea cup from the sale bin at my favorite Japantown porcelain store is now home to three of my proud propagates.

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.)

A second life for charity shop find. Rocks compliments of Bean Hollow beach.

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.

Picked up the beady bundle of red and green this afternoon near Alamere Falls in Point Reyes. What a lovely, though busy hike!!

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.

A bright yellow succulent in its natural habitat -- the dunes at Bean Hollow State Beach.

It’s sealed: Ano Nuevo, we meet again …

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The remains of the lighthouse keeper

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.

Friends of the Elephant Seal (FES), which supports the recently formed colony at Piedras Blancas, near San Simeon, Calif., has a nice FAQ page on the Northern Elephant Seal.

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.

Elephant seals are sexually dimorphic. In other words, the males and females grow up to be quite different in shape and size. Males can weigh up to 5,500 pounds (2500 kg), while females max out around 1,800 pounds (545 kg). The signature proboscis, for which the species gets its name, is only characteristic on male elephant seals. Their "trunk" can grow up to two feet long!

Alpha male elephant seals oversee harems of anywhere from 10 to 50 females. Beta males patrol the periphery, fighting off any would-be usurpers. Their payoff? A chance to mate should the Alpha find himself otherwise too preoccupied to care.

Elephant seals have nails on their fore flippers. They are quite adept at scratching themselves, which, at least while on land, they seem to do often.

Females and their offspring communicate through unique calls. If you see a female barking, she may be calling to her pup.

A pup barks at a meddlesome seagull. Rangers know there

Best suited for life in the chilly waters of the open Pacific, blubbery elephant seals cool themselves on land by flicking sand on themselves. The grains may also act as a kind of sunscreen.

It’s sealed: Or rather sea-lioned …

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Motel 8.

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.

Upward facing dog.

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!

Wish I was sitting over there ...

By the Bay: Sailboats and the sunset

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A sailboat races past the Golden Gate Bridge.

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.

The views of the city and landmarks, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, are phenomenal, and it’s hard to tire of whiskered sea lions barking from their favorite buoys.

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!

Sailboats in the sunset.

The view toward to Bay from the shore of the Berkeley Marina in Berkeley, Calif.

Photos and Poetry, Cont.: For the birds

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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.

Humming Bird

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.

—D.H. Lawrence

Around Town: Heron’s Head Park

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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.