field notes:


In Response to a Question

The earth says have a place, be what that place
requires; hear the sound the birds imply
and see as deep as ridges go behind
each other. (Some people call their scenery flat,
their only picture framed by what they know:
I think around them rise a riches and a loss
too equal for their chart--but absolutely tall.)

The earth says every summer have a ranch
that's minimum: one tree, one well, a landscape
that proclaims a universe--sermon
of the hills, hallelujah mountain,
highway guided by the way the world is tilted,
reduplication of mirage, flat evening:
a kind of ritual for the wavering.

The earth says where you live wear the kind
of color that your life is (gray shirt for me)
and by listening with the same bowed head that sings
draw all into one song, join
the sparrow on the lawn, and row that easy
way, the rage without met by the wings
within that guide you anywhere the wind blows.

Listening, I think that's what the earth says.

--William Stafford
Stories That Could Be True

posted by Lisa on 4:00 PM link |


We've had a bit of a break between storms, but it looks as though another one is heading in today. It's just begun to drizzle.

Saturday en route to town to pick up some cheeses I was forced to pull to the side of the road. The rain came in a biblical torrent and blinded me. A ten-minute downpour had the streets flooded, waterfalls roaring, ditches running madly towards creeks and streams.

Just before that storm hit I had been to the beach and stood out on the end of the pier to get as close to the middle of the bay as possible. I felt that I really could be blown into the water. Gulls struggled upwind, deep wingbeats gaining them ground, then beautifully turning into the wind for a thrilling, northward downwind ride. Oh, to be a bird for a moment like that. There is an impossibly free moment in a hang-glider when you run off a mountain, or step off a cliff and you first feel the wind take your wings. You can feel your body loose itself from the earth's pull. The elation is unforgettable. I'd imagine that after the first few fledgling attempts, a bird's flight would become routine. But I like to think that on these high-wind days flying still holds some thrills for birds brave enough to let go their branches.

posted by Lisa on 11:18 AM link |


Another day of rain and the forecast calls for at least five more gray, wet days. What price greenery, this. What gifts it brings...

I took a walk in the state park between here and Shell Beach this morning. A great place to be in the rain. Loamy earth, mossy trees, and some shelter from the biggest drops. Surprisingly, I wasn't alone there. The woods were filled with mushroomers carrying baskets and paper bags. I found a nice run of oyster mushrooms which we'll saute with some garlic for dinner.

Mushrooms. Rain's gift, earth's mystery: sweet morsel or poison dagger. Either way, a fungus worthy of words, maker of tragedy and fable, and object of passion. Frodo and company have a close call with the dark forces while following the call of the mushroom. Cautiously, I've limited myself to eating these from the wild: oyster, bolete, and chanterelle. For now.

I'm intrigued by another mushroom: the candy cap. It has a sweet odor when fresh, and is used in desserts. Last year, my friend brought me a handful which I dried and sat near the woodstove for a sublte maple syrup smell throughout the winter.

Silver and gold and a fine cloak--
these are easy to send with a messenger.
To trust him with mushrooms--
that is difficult!

How beautiful,
beautiful indeed,
The poisonous mushrooms!

posted by Lisa on 4:28 PM link |


I kept an audio journal while I drove back and forth to L.A. for the holidays. I haven't played it back yet, but I'm looking forward to hearing it: article ideas, reminders, what's on my mind, what I'm listening to, and a great little riff by my return-trip passenger on aikido and energy.

I've made this trip, journeying up and down highway 5 through the central valley, close to a hundred times since getting my driver's license and a car. I've often wished I could record my thoughts. This time I remembered not only to pack my tape recorder, but importantly, fresh batteries and blank tapes.

I can trace my adult life along this highway, along the length, the belly of California. I've made the trip with boyfriends, best friends, a brother; I've done it without a radio and with audio books; and I've done it high. Mostly though, I've driven alone, through the night, sober. The six or eight hours feed me. I may arrive at the other end tired, but I've certainly been somewhere, I've seen something, I've achieved a piece of clarity. These trips punctuate the text that is daily life, providing a long intermission where reflection is served.

My life lies in the northern half of California, my past and my family live in the southern half. My life consists of stitching these two quilts together, of rectifying the split. I've tried to live there, but have found it too difficult. The lighting isn't quite right: I can't take too many days of the white glaring sky that often covers the L.A. basin. But I can't live too long without seeing my family. I need the love and the attachment to the earth and to history that they provide me. I miss them.

So I drive. I move my self up and down the state alongside truckloads of goods, following the California aqueduct which delivers northern water to the south: a one-way flow. The valley used to be wet -- goods were moved by barge -- but that is hard to imagine now. The land is dry as bones without piped-in water paid for with political might. The valley has been sucked dry and the only visible waterway is as artificial as the highway. Have you seen Chinatown? Then you have an inkling about the nasty history and politics of California water stories. Los Angeles is a natural desert which supports 9.5 million people. The water has to come from somewhere.

Mostly, I don't stop on these trips. Or rather, I stop only for gas fill-ups, for letting the dog out, or for an occasional nap on the overnight trips. I've changed all that. On this trip I stopped extensively both south and north bound. On the way back my friend Nancy and I stopped just as we climbed up the Grapevine and passed Pyramid Lake at a place called Happy Valley. It's State Vehicular Recreation land. We were early enough to avoid the four-wheeling crowd. The sand was icy and crunched underfoot and the moon still hung high in the blue sky. From a mesa we had a big view of a shallow basin muted by high-desert colors. The water in my dog's dish froze while we picked a dry bouquet that graced the dashboard for the rest of the drive: juniper berries and sage.

Until now, I've only known the highway as a connective artery. I never explored the byways, the coastal ranges between the highway and the sea, the BLM lands, wilderness areas, the creeks and lakes. I didn't veer from the road I knew. But as long as it is my destiny to drive this state, I might as well enjoy the ride. I might as well explore the Sespi Range, take shortcuts and lunches on creeksides, find mapbound lakes, bird the walnut groves and pick wildflowers, leave my footprints on this land.

posted by Lisa on 11:14 AM link |


I'm on Christmas vacation in southern California...little time for getting out into nature, and little time for reflection. But I'm inspired to share this from the imagination of Loren Eiseley:

It began as such things always begin -- in the ooze of unnoticed swamps, in the darkness of eclipsed moons. It began with a strangled gasping for air.
The pond was a place of reek and corruption, of fetid smells and of oxygen-starved fish breathing through laboring gills. At times the slowly contracting circle of the water left little windrows of minnows who skittered desperately to escape the sun, but who died, nevertheless, in the fat, warm mud. It was a place of low life. In it the human brain began.
There were strange snouts in those waters, strange barbels nuzzling the bottom ooze, and there was time -- three hundred million years of it -- but mostly, I think, it was the ooze. By day the temperature in the world outside the pond rose to a frightful intensity; at night the sun went down in smoking red. Dust storms marched in incessant progression across a wilderness whose plants were the plants of long ago. Leafless and weird and stiff they lingered by the water, while over vast areas of grassless uplands the winds blew until red stones took on the polish of reflecting mirrors. There was nothing to hold the land in place. Winds howled, dust clouds rolled, and brief erratic torrents choked with silt ran down to the sea. It was a time of dizzying contrasts, a time of change.
On the oily surface of the pond, from time to time a snout thrust upward, took in air with a queer grunting inspiration, and swirled back to the bottom. The pond was doomed, the water was foul, and the oxygen almost gone, but the creature would not die. It could breathe air direct through a little accessory lung, and it could walk. In all that weird and lifeless landscape, it was the only thing that could. It walked rarely and under protest, but that was not surprising. The creature was a fish.
In the passage of days the pond became a puddle, but the Snout survived. There was dew one dark night and a coolness in the empty stream bed. When the sun rose next morning the pond was an empty place of cracked mud, but the Snout did not lie there. He had gone. Down stream there were other ponds. He breathed air for a few hours and hobbled slowly along on the stumps of heavy fins.
It was an uncanny business if there had been anyone there to see. It was a journey best not observed in daylight, it was something that needed swamps and shadows and the touch of the night dew. It was a monstrous penetration of a forbidden element, and the Snout kept his face from the light. It was just as well, though the face should not be mocked. In three hundred million years it would be our own.

Loren Eisely
from The Immense Journey
An imaginative naturalist explores the mysteries of man and nature

posted by Lisa on 9:57 AM link |


This weekend the West Marin bird count took place within a whopper of a storm. I was part of a team that covered an area from the Environmental Education Center, down the Coast Trail to Limantour, across the beach to Coast Camp and back to the Center. On most winter days on this piece of earth there are so many birds -- endless birds. But in the middle of a storm that brought 10 inches of rain to our county in one day, a storm that saw 78 mph winds, the birds were scarce. I'm sure they were around, but huddled somewhere hanging on to a branch, a shrub or a piece of dirt for dear life. So the ensuing list isn't even a list of birds we saw -- many of them were birds we heard.

pitiful, really:

audubon's warbler

townsend's warbler




gold-crowned sparrow

song sparrow

fox sparrow

white-crowned sparrow

northern flicker

red-tail hawk

turkey vulture

downy woodpecker


hutton's vireo

ruby-crowned kinglet

chestnut-backed chickadee


scrub jay

wren tit


sharp-shinned hawk

california quail


ruddy duck

pie-billed grebe

canvas back


brown pelican






























We had results like this count-wide: low species count and a really low bird count. Not a great showing for one of the richest birding spots in the world. Oh well, we did have fun. After all, a bird count is a great excuse to dress up in your rain gear and tramp around in a storm, looking into bushes and saying "phush, phush, phush" or clapping your hands and hoping to hear a sora rail.

We never got to bird the beach at all. As we neared the eastern side of the dunes the sand was pelting us in the face with hurricane force winds. We simply couldn't walk any further without masks and goggles. Birding is serious business, and birders are pretty geeky, but that's going a bit far.

The storm was epic and shut us down early. We were of course at the furthest point from our cars when the heaviest rain began and by the time we got back we were completely wet. We never made it back out after heading to a local house for lunch.

The bird count dinner was held at the Dance Palace, our local community center. We ate by flashlight, enjoying the wine, the tally, and the great stories of downed power lines, falling trees, few birds and intrepid bird lovers.

Just another day in paradise: west marin.

posted by Lisa on 4:38 PM link |



Beauty sweet enough to make you cry. Fear and joy. A world of grace and surrender. This is the new show Varekai at Cirque du Soleil.

Every day, I admire the beauty of nature, but last night I fell under the spell of something more sublime than what nature can offer. Nature is. It exists. Animals and birds exist for their own sake, they survive, environments thrive or don't. But man creating art purely for the sake of adding beauty to the world -- that cultural beauty is more stunning.

Watching the show I sat in awe of the forms as the artists leapt through the air, disappeared into holes in the floor; interlocking human forms engaged on a swinging trapeze; a single man twisting in sweet undulations on a sheet of woven rope hanging in the center of the tent; illusory fireflies dancing throughout the darkened arena; and a final orgiastic dance of flying men and women flung from seesaws into outstretched sails. This morning, the images play in my mind, but more than that they have marked my soul. Looking out the window watching simple crows rise in a thermal, and reaching the top, glide out across the treetops below me has been transformed into a dance, a work of art that engages my heart.

The same birds in the same flight yesterday were beautiful to watch, but there is an added layer today in my seeing. It's not a new idea that nature would not be beautiful without the addition of man, that there is a greater beauty in the culture that exists at the intersection of man with nature, but until now I didn't know this. Now I do.

[thank you to Katt and for their generous review of field-notes]

posted by Lisa on 9:23 AM link |


You have to get off the beaten track to find skulls. I've got four of them on my mantle, all found when I ventured off-trail in pursuit of mushrooms, shortcuts or solitude. Deers are different, they're often found dead trailside because the carcass is simply too big to be carried away to a more private place for eating, and besides, mountian lions are the highest order of the food chain around here so why bother hiding. Last week we found a deer by a well-populated trail that was stripped of flesh and whose ribs were broken indicating that it was a mountain lion kill. A very graphic reminder: a lion was here.

But I'm more interested in the smaller skulls. I think the skulls I've got are a river otter, a skunk or badger, a fox and some kind of gull. I'll let you know when I get positive id's.

I'm surprised that my friends and I don't find more skulls. A day doesn't go by here that I don't see at least one bird of prey; they eat often and have been doing so for eons, the ground should be covered with skulls, the ground should crunch with them. I need to find the roosts for owls and hawks and prowl around under them.

Friday we attended the Skull Exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate park. Thousands of skulls, from a tiny shrew to an elephant.

Skulls fascinate: at once a sign of life and of death. To hold in one's hands the fragile remainder of a wild being that has come and gone is to be reminded of the steady progression of life -- one generation following on the heels of another, slowly changing, giving way to the forces of time. The skull reminds us of the the slip of time we inhabit; the mineral composition we share with the rock under our feet; the biology that we forget in the rush to make a mark or to take our pleasure from the culture. In the end, a skull is only a temporary mark on our passing, for given enough time, that too will find its place in the earth.



laughing rhinos


posted by Lisa on 5:20 PM link |



On a beach a few hundred yards up the bay from here, an olive ridley sea turtle emerged from the water and hauled out onto shore on Thanksgiving day. Remarkable, because this turtle should be in Mexico or Central America at this time of year in water that is twenty degrees warmer than the 55 degrees that Tomales Bay is; remarkable, because sea turtles don't normally come up onto the beach unless they are nesting; and remarkable because one of the bay area's few sea turtle biologists was at the beach with his family that day and had his camera with him.

I watched a green turtle lay her eggs in the sand one night when I lived in Nayarit, Mexico. It's quite a sight. They aren't really equipped for walking on land, and the process is called 'hauling out' for a reason. They struggle to pull their enormous weight up the sand on ungainly flippers. They need to build their nest high enough above the tideline to be safe. First they scoop out a big hollow using their flippers. Then they dig a more concentrated gourd-shaped hole into which they drop their eggs -- usually around a hundred per nest. After this labor they attempt to cover the hole and the signs that they've nested, a gambit they're ill-equipped for. There is simply no way to cover up their tracks without the help of the next tide.

The turtles are in danger when they come ashore -- easy prey for hunters on land. The eggs are targeted by poachers, crabs, raccoons and other critters. Their nesting grounds shrink constantly as we develop more and more beach-front property. And finally, sea turtles are often caught and killed as by-catch by net fishermen and most especially by shrimpers.

Sea turtles are old and mysterious. We still aren't sure where the turtles who survive being vulnerable hatchlings spend their first year. I swam alongside a giant turtle off Kona once. I had little idea then how endangered and beleaguered they were, and wasn't interested enough to identify the exact species. But I did know that it was a privilege, and I think of those few minutes often, they beckon to me from the warm blue waters of memory.

posted by Lisa on 8:37 AM link |


Afternoon with Brown Pelicans
-Jean Monahan

A packet of brown and white
pelicans delivers itself
onto my wedge
of beach, sandbar
where a crowd of gulls
stands mesmerized by a stray cloud.

When I sidle close, the pelicans fasten
their clothespin faces
more tightly to the sand,
sage and suspicious.

One dips
a violin bow
over its shoulder
and commences to fiddle.

Another shrugs
its head
onto its back.

In a kind of yawn
one then another then another
distend their lower bills

in a gust-pouch,

bubble-gum bubble
they struggle to control
as they stand and gargle
the wind.

I did not know
what made air flow
supple and strange through
the world, what changed it from

to yawn,

every animal lung humming
vibrato of pelican,

wind's waterfall
slung into pelican pouches
across the beaches of the world
and wrung out as air:

light, new, breathable, pink.

As if nothing remarkable had happened,
the birds bring
the slide trombone of their bills
in close, lower pouch

A dog barks, a surfer shouts.

The pelicans lift and I hold my breath.

Oh, everything, everything we have is borrowed.

(as published in Orion magazine.)

posted by Lisa on 7:59 AM link |

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005 Lisa Thompson. All Rights Reserved.

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