Napa Crush: Joys of Northern California

Cabernet Grapes in Napa
Cabernet Grapes in Napa

I’m on the left coast of America and I love this fertile place beyond reason. Like the wine we sampled on our Schramsberg tour, Napa Valley contains joy that effervesces through my system, carried on the tiniest bubbles known to humans.

I lick the juice of sweet persimmon off my fingers so I can type this without sticking to the keys. Kaki, as my mother-in-law called them, hang from trees, round and shining like Christmas ornaments. I plucked one and brought it with me to our daughter’s cottage, cut the fruit into bright orange wedges and sucked the flesh right off the skin.

Persimmon at Larkmead Vineyard
Persimmon at Larkmead Vineyard

The vineyards stretch luxuriously here, the way cornfields do back home. This cottage, in fact, is in a vineyard. In October its Cabernet grapes were crushed into nectar of the gods. Now we can pick the stray blue-black orbs left behind and crush our own. My daughter’s boyfriend brings me a Mason jar of the stuff to swig and it is divine. I’m going out on a limb here saying this, but who needs the fermentation? It’s mighty fine as is. Alex will make it into “cranbernet,” his version of cranberry sauce, for our dinner. I swipe the ink of grapes off my lips and continue typing. But I am at a loss for a way to turn black and white characters into the burst of life and warmth that is California.

The smells alone undo me. Eucalyptus trees, yes. We smelled them when we went to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Then there was the straw scent of o-cha, green tea, in our cups as we sat in the Japanese Garden. But the year-round floral fragrances are what take me back to my family’s stay in Berkeley when I was four. Imprinted on me, coming from frozen Minnesota, were the flowers and fruit we could enjoy year round. Surrounding our clapboard house were fields of flowers where I wandered and looked for snails while my sisters went to school.

The California closet of my brain seems to hold potpourri from our family’s sabbatical year. Activated by each return trip, scent memories from my limbic storehouse make me goofy with delight as soon as I sniff the air. My mood is mellowed and my expectations are primed for more sensual delights to come. I feel woozy while I’m there and, upon departure, am struck by a longing the Germans might call sehnsucht and the Portuguese saudade, “the love that remains.” For the Japanese, this feeling is natsukashii, a good memory infused with melancholy, a nostalgia that is futokoro, felt in the heart.

We harvest Emily’s rosemary, marjoram and sage, to be rubbed with butter under the turkey’s skin, and carrots and peppers for my wild rice dish. Sweet potatoes are turned into latkes. I hear a buck bawling in the forest for a mate as we set the picnic table for our holiday dinner. Alex’s father serves curried persimmon soup and our outdoor Thanksgiving feast begins.

Whether in wine country or not, this state intoxicates me. My experiences of California tend to have all the elements of a memorable date: wine, succulent food, heart-stirring beauty, perfumed breezes, and scanty clothing. I feel in love and yet not committed. I will have a passionate affair, prone to quakes and upheavals, and then, honestly, I want to go back to the sturdy middle of the continent with its parkas, Sorel boots, and the smell of corn stalks plowed into the loam. Because it’s home.

(This piece is also available in the frisky and thoughtful online magazine, REALIZE.)

Golden Gate Bridge, San Fransisco
Golden Gate Bridge, San Fransisco

Faraway for the Holiday

At the gate to the National Marae (Meeting House)
At the gate to the National Marae

 

 

If you find yourself at the end of the earth at the end of November, stop before you get to Antarctica and have Thanksgiving. The Maori will feed you, as long as you observe protocol.

First, wait outside to be welcomed. By welcomed I mean that men rush toward you with clubs and spears. Try to maintain some dignity as they slap their naked thighs and chests and show their teeth. They glare at you and thrust their tongues down their black-patterned chins, but you remain calm and friendly. That’s when they invite you into their Meeting House.

Nov. 1996
Maori Haka in New Zealand

Next, it is important to notice the wooden carvings of ancestors, considered the keepers of the House. Greet them more humbly than you were greeted. In the dining area, you see leaf-wrapped vegetables and seafood lifted from an underground oven. Sit, eat, and get to know the people. You are in the living heart of this island’s culture, even if it is for the sake of your tourist dollars. You are with this land’s first people and they want you to know who they are. Give thanks, even without a turkey to carve.

Christchurch, New Zealand
Barb with carving of a Maori ancestor, Keeper of the Marae (gathering place)

After an alarming start, you relax and start to feel at home. You converse with the men and women. They turn out to be gracious and kind, yet they are tenacious enough, in governing New Zealand, to insist on upholding their treaty rights against great odds.

Lastly, your hosts escort you outside. They give you the traditional hongi farewell, pressing their foreheads against yours as if transferring kind thoughts into your brain. The moment feels timeless. When you turn at the gate to wave goodbye, you see their teeth again, but now they are surrounded by smiles.

*****

If you are like me, those smiles remain tattooed on your brain, beckoning you back to the people of Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud. Once you have crossed the bridge between hearts, distance means nothing. The end of the earth is not so far away.

Traditional hongi
Traditional hongi

Awesome Life: Take Time to Savor

2014-05-02 13.52.04

Yes, you can get high on nature.  And, doctor’s orders, you should, for your own happiness, let it blow your mind.  The humbling emotion of awe can transform your life and revise your view of the world.  About 75% of the time, the feeling is elicited by nature, according to Sierra magazine.  It is an energized pleasure that seems almost on the brink of fear, touching infinity or at least something beyond ourselves.

What triggers awe?  Flowers?  For some people, yes.  Clouds are ordinary yet can be seen as awesome, particularly at dawn and dusk.

As Scott Russell Sanders wrote in A Brief History of Awe (2006), witnessing a thunderstorm on his porch as a child first provoked the feeling in him.  Sanders is a soulful environmental writer, sensitive to both brutality and beauty.  He is as much a conscientious affirmer of life as he is a deeply conscientious objector to war.  His memoir is a beautiful study of love for the world and its beings.  His Earth Works essays continue in that vein.

Being awestruck is a good thing as researchers at Stanford confirmed and as described in this video.  I remember walking with my husband for twenty miles through a misty fern forest and emerging onto a rocky beach of a New Zealand fjord.  The view of mountains and sparkly water was spectacular.  Taking the experience clear over the top were the yellow-browed penguins nearby, hopping from rock to rock.  That was a big kind of awesomeness to be in an extraordinary place I’d never seen before with creatures that charmed the socks off us.  But I also like the everyday experiences that fill me with a sense of the sacred.  Seeing a pair of crows, common as they are, in a tree can be awesome, too.  Crows and ravens are as intelligent as human toddlers and I view them as protectors, listening for their warning calls.

Pair of crows in a white pine tree.
Pair of crows in a white pine tree.

Being grateful also has some benefits and is certainly enhanced by allowing ourselves to be awed and moved, as suggested here.  Take time to smell the roses, a baby’s head, and your dog’s paws that smell like popcorn.  Notice and acknowledge those who enhance your life.

While standing on the vast shore of Lake Superior, I take in the whole vista of sky, sand, and November breeze, and soak it in.

Lake Superior beach, November 2014
Lake Superior beach, November 2014

Then I turn my attention to the small miracles of agates and other stones along the beach.  Whether or not I reach the worshipful level of awe, I take time to savor.  And in savoring, I believe, is the salvation of the world.

Pebbles on the shore
Pebbles on the shore
Evening clouds
Evening clouds

Wilderness Act Commemorated on Lake Superior

It’s Saturday, September 27, and we are boating from Bayfield.  I’ve never seen the Apostle Islands before, so I drove from Chicago to northern Wisconsin for this chance to have a cruise with fellow Sierra Club members and some knowledgeable speakers.  It is a beautiful day to see the fall colors and  the islands of Lake Superior.

Our ship, the Island Princess
Our ship, the Island Princess

The first speaker is Tia Nelson whose father Gaylord Nelson was a Wisconsin senator and governor.  Nelson established Earth Day and his daughter is a conservationist, too.  She explains how it wasn’t just her dad who created the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness Act fifty years ago.  Many people worked together to protect this natural area.  Now, with a colossal Gogebic Taconite (GTac) mine proposed for nearby Penokee Range that will pollute land, air, and water, Tia urges us to work together again to protect our resources that are not only aesthetically pleasing but vital to our existence.

Tia Nelson talks with Captain Sherman
Tia Nelson talks with Captain Sherman

There are about 136 passengers on board.  We visit the snack table and talk with each other during our two-hour cruise.  Devon Cupery tells me about the film she produced about the mine issue.  Neil Howk, a park ranger with the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, describes each of the islands we pass.  All but one (Madeline Island) of the 22 islands are part of our National Park system, so they are no longer clear-cut for timber or quarried for brownstone but are left for wildlife and people to enjoy.  The boat pauses by Raspberry Island so we can take pictures of its lighthouse.

Raspberry Island Lighthouse
Raspberry Island Lighthouse

The last speaker, Mike Wiggins, is a compelling storyteller, painting a broad, almost mythical picture of the issues at hand.  I stop taking photos out the window of the boat and listen to him talk about protecting this rich land of fresh water, forests, and wildlife.  Mike is Chair of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe whose 125,000 acres of reservation would be hugely impacted by the taconite mine.  Their wild rice beds and Lake Superior itself, the holder of 10% of the world’s surface fresh water, would be polluted by mercury and other run-off from the mining process.  Chris Cline of GTac and the governor of the state eliminated laws and rules regulating the disposal of toxic mine wastes, following Cline’s pattern of destruction in other states and countries.

Mike calls Cline a windigo, a ravenous giant from Ojibwe tales.  He always wants more.  “Chris Cline is so hungry, he ate the state of West Virgina!  After he ruined that place, he took bites out of Illinois and now he’s coming for Wisconsin,” Mike says, explaining that windigo is the spirit of excess and can be vanquished by the powers of love and cooperation for the greater good.  Both humans and Mother Earth, he says, are endowed with an energy from the Creator, and when we call on that, there will be no mine.  Mike and the other speakers are role models for challenging the motives of greed and profit.  We can do better, they tell us.

I remember the Gordon Lightfoot song about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.  The 29 lives on board that Great Lakes ship were lost partly due to greed.  The Fitzgerald was carrying 4000 tons more taconite iron ore than it was designed to hold, making it hard to maneuver when pounded by waves in a storm.  It sank in Lake Superior in 1975.  As the lyrics go, “That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed/ When the gales of November came early.”

Will our natural resources be chewed to the bone by  storms of windigos?  As Tia Nelson said, it’s up to us to appreciate and protect what we have.  And on this September day, what we have is spectacular.

Apostle Island sandstone formation
Apostle Island sandstone formation
Cormorant on the pier
Cormorant on the pier
Mike Wiggins, Bad River Band of Ojibwe, and friend
Mike Wiggins, Bad River Band of Ojibwe, and friend

The Water is Dead: Contamination of the Kishwaukee

When the oxygen level of a lake is zero, that water, for practical purposes, is dead.  Certainly all aquatic organisms in water having less than 1 milligram per liter of dissolved oxygen perish.

You know that water behind my house I call the duck pond?  Sometimes I write about it or share pictures of the ducks and egrets there.  The Environmental Protection Agency says it may have been contaminated by a truck spill.  So they posted a warning sign (photo below) there and at other sites along the Kishwaukee River system.

We know the water is unhealthy because the EPA tested it on July 31, after reports of hundreds of dead fish, and found no oxygen in some areas.  The disaster was featured on the news.  The cause for the die-off is traced back to a July 25 semi tractor-trailer accident on nearby Illinois Tollway 90.  My husband and I saw the smoke and flames from that truck accident, but we didn’t realize that the truck was spilling a concrete curing agent called Ethoxylated C10-16 Alcohol into the ditch.

Duck pond contaminated
Huntley water contaminated

 

 

 

Below is a photo I took of the truck on fire two weeks ago.  I-90 is under construction and you can see a ditch with water in the foreground.  On July 29, Illinois EPA’s Office of Emergency Response started investigating the source of the water contamination.  An environmental consultant for the trucking company involved in the accident disposed of the dead fish, sucked up some of the pollution, and sent water samples to a lab in Singapore.  The trucking company received a violation notice from EPA.

The Kishwaukee River system includes our duck pond and local lake.  We don’t know yet the full extent of the contamination.  We’ll see what happens.  I hope our water comes back to life.

-2

 

 

I miss the egrets.

Egret on the "duck pond" before the contamination
Egret on the “duck pond” before the contamination

Adhesive Acrobats: Gecko’s Sticky Feet

Gecko face
Gecko face

One thing I like about visiting the Southwest is getting glimpses of geckos and their reptilian acrobatics on trees and buildings. They can cling to just about anything and support many times their body weight.   How do they do it and what may we learn from it? Most gecko species can defy gravity due to their brilliantly adapted feet. A vertical pane of glass or even a ceiling is no challenge for them. Those little lizards really stick to it!

Scientists and biomedical engineers have been combing through hairy lizard feet for clues to their stickiness since 2000 when University of California researchers pointed to the role of tiny hair-like structures there called setae. How do geckos gain a grip on glass? The cumulative forces of microscopic “flowing locks” put a lock on it. The setae and their little spatula pads form bonds with whatever surface they touch. The firm yet flexible tendons in geckos’ feet help maintain that bond. Contact is broken when the lizards curl their toes to take another step. That rolling motion also helps keep the foot pads clean.

According to the fossil record, geckos have been around for at least 100 million years. They adapted to their environments, on every continent except Antarctica, in unique ways. They are the only lizards with vocal cords and can chirp, click, and send messages to their fellow geckos. In fact, their name derives from gekoq, an Indonesian-Malay imitation of the noise they make. Their eyes are covered with a transparent layer that they lick to keep clean and are exquisitely sensitive to color, even at night.

But it’s their feet that get the most press lately. Who doesn’t want to have gecko powers? We wouldn’t need ladders to wash windows or change a light bulb on the ceiling. What about special gloves for rock climbing or catching balls?  More importantly, we could learn from the geckos how to make products to help injured people, such as a tape that could be used in place of sutures.

Scientists at University of Massachusetts created adhesive Geckskin, named one of CNN’s top five scientific breakthroughs of 2012. At Northwestern University, Professor Phillip Messersmith and graduate student Haeshin Lee created another adhesive material, called Geckel, that can be used wet or dry and has a super strong hold–until you release it. Like a sticky note, it can be used over and over, in this case through 1,000 contact/release cycles.

In addition to applying the principles of gecko feet, the researchers copied the adhesive proteins of mussels that help them anchor themselves underwater. Gecko power plus mussel power made for one mighty strong, reusable adhesive. More inventions inspired by nature, i.e., biomimicry, are sure to come.

Gecko foot
Gecko foot

 

This has been another installment of Ms. Tree’s Nature Mysteries: Adventures in Biomimicry by Barbara Terao.

Bree’s Dam and the Wedding Bands

Long Pond Lake
Long Pond Lake

 

The people at Omega Institute are so friendly, I am offered a boat by a returning paddler before I can drag my green one to the water of Long Pond.  I thank the young woman and climb into her kayak.  I feel like a pea in a pod in my moving fiberglass capsule.  Off I go alongside the bold strokes of the swimmers, and then beyond the roped-off swimming area to round the bend of the bay.  The rain has stopped, the water is calm, and the sun is warm on my shoulders.  A half moon can be seen between clouds.

Lily pad on the lake
Lily pad on the lake

I paddle toward the lily pads on this June afternoon.  Unlike some boats, kayaks can glide through and even over the pads.  I can go as shallow or as deep as I like.  The blooming lilies have attracted insects and each yellow petal is speckled with them.  The slick green pads relax on the surface, soaking up the sun, while the small, reddish ones underneath strain upwards for the light.  Sunfish glimmer under the hull of the boat.

My new friend, Bree, taking Nancy Aronie’s writing workshop with me, told me to look for signs of beaver on this side of the lake.  I scour the horizon for felled trees as I think about our assignment to write something about “wedding bands.”  That is our prompt to get us writing, as the title of the workshops says, “from the heart.”

I almost give up on finding the beavers’ home, but then I enter a secluded alcove rimmed by their dam. The water trickling over it makes its own song and the frogs thrum along.  I float peacefully now among white water lilies, beautiful and with no bugs.  They remind me of lotus flowers that emerge pristine and perfect, no matter how mucky their source.  Lotus plants stay so clean because they have tiny bumps that repel stains to their character.  They shrug off trouble.  I should be so wise.

My knuckles are getting bigger lately and my wedding rings no longer fit.  They feel too tight.  I took them off and left them in my jewelry box.  Coming to Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York is my first trip without them since I married my husband in 1983.  I can put on a sapphire ring I inherited from his mother when I want something on that finger, when it looks too naked.  I’m not trying to hide that I’m married.  But I don’t feel any urgency to wear the gold band and diamond ring.  I feel okay without them.

For instance, I can grip my paddle with nothing to dig into my digits.  Is this a bad sign for my marriage that I am so comfortable without the bands of our bond?  I think it’s the opposite.  The rings are a potent symbol, but they’re not what keep us together.  They are not so essential.

We seem too different to be compatible, but here he comes.  (I can almost see him on the lake though he is home in Illinois.)  My fisherman husband rows his boat and I propel my kayak and, to paraphrase Rumi, somewhere beyond right doing and wrong doing, we meet and are refuge for each other.  Donald and I met at a Buddhist meeting.  We had a Buddhist wedding, complete with sake.  Each day we sit side by side, chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and recite a portion of the Lotus Sutra.  That is our practice, thrumming along together to the heartbeat of the universe.  That is essential.

Above Long Pond, a territorial red-wing blackbird swoops by my head, so I take the hint and turn the boat around.  I head for shore.