Saturday, May 18, 2013

Bright afternoon with sculptures at Crissy Field

Click first image to view as slide show.

Sculpture at Crissy Field. More on this Mark Di Suvero exhibit here.

Cairns at Crissy.

Catching a wave at Ft. Point.

Under the bridge.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Woods and meadows, Mother's Day

For slide show format, click on this first image.

All images, (c) Emily Willingham

Thursday, May 9, 2013

California dreaming, redux

In 2004, we pulled up all of our stakes, stuffed everything we owned into a bright yellow Penske truck, and took off for Northern California, my first time to live anywhere outside a 100-mile stretch of I-35 in central Texas. It was thrilling. I thought that coming to northern California would light my literary fire, make me want to stand by crashing waves on rocky shores and write write write, burning with inspiration courtesy of Steinbeck, Kerouac, and Frost.

Instead, I found myself wanting to lie down on the grass in Golden Gate Park, basking like the pond turtles in the Aboretum, sunning myself in a drowsy torpor for hours, periodically extending a hand or foot for maximum sunning experience.

So it was with great reluctance in 2004 that I sat myself down to write these first paragraphs of this moving experience. There was a literal move, from Texas to California, but there were also deeper moves. Emotional moves, generational moves, life-changing moves, I-can’t-believe-I’m-living-in-the-land-of-earthquakes-and-urban-mountain-lions moves…

Our first time around in California, we lived in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, not the shadow, but it was visible and large just outside our home and the foghorns rattled the walls. I sat and wrote next to an uncurtained picture window, 10 or more feet high, which looked out onto…eucalyptus, mostly. A grove of tall, fragrant, short-lived trees planted by the U.S. Army decades ago for reasons that are murky to me. Their drooping shapes have taken over this tip of the peninsula, where it leads to the Golden Gates. 

My mother, who formed the last in a line of visiting relatives just after our move, noted with surprise that the bridge itself is not golden, but an unexpected deep orange-red, the color of smoldering sunset. I told her that the “Golden” probably refers to the arms of land that reach out from juxtaposed peninsulas, striving to touch one another’s once-golden shores across the San Francisco Bay. The shores were straw-colored with seagrass, a soft gold you can still see in areas that the U.S. Army and other improvers of the early twenthieth century didn’t cover with introduced plants.

But looking at eucalyptus through that picture window and peering through that dense grove, I could get a tiny peek at the bay. I liked to think of it as 'the sea' because that idea suited my literary pretensions better, but it’s really the bay. In the evenings, we would go to the beach, throw rocks at the waves, chase “eagulls” (as our second son, my then-one-year-old, called them) and listen to foghorns and sea lions. This trip a block from our home was a long way away from Austin's 100 percent humidity, 90 degree heat, pestilent mosquitoes, persistent drought, and a single decent hike-and-bike trail around a murky polluted lake designed to serve a metropolitan populace. 

Things are, as I thought to myself almost every minute -- and still think -- very different here in California. Bigger. Deeper. Richer. Delineated. Just like that bridge.

I noticed the first difference when I opened the morning paper. This was back in 2004, when we still took the paper, didn't get our news from Twitter or online news sites. It was the San Francisco Chronicle. Some of the writers approached the lyrical. There was an apparently endless series on wine, which I hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about, coming from the land of Shiner and Lone Star. The comics were limited, and some were older than my great-grandmother, with a sensibility that made her seem hip, even from beyond the grave. The advice columnist was Dear Abby, except it was really her daughter Jeanne. Then there was Liz Smith, whose raison d'√™tre publi√© had mystified me for at least a decade.

But it wasn't the lifestyle pages that magnetized me. It was the headlines in the front two sections. Killer whales attacking humpback whale calves in Monterey. Divers arrested for scoring too many endangered red abalone. Mountain lions wandering around elementary schools in Palo Alto. Kite surfers fearing great white sharks during an epic surf from the Farallons to the bay. This metropolis—this cosmopolitan, world-class, world-renowned city—is a wild, wild place. Back 'home', as I periodically referred to Austin, the headlines would be about the heat or the drought or maybe Spamarama, an annual celebration of a canned meat product held next to the above-mentioned polluted inner-city lake. But wild? No.

Sharks. Whales. Sea lions. Red abalone. Otters. Seagulls. Falcons. Mountain lions. Seals. As I wrote this, I was listening to a woodpecker clack against a tree. Every night, walking along the bay, we'd see a pair of sea lions that liked to hang around a pier near “our” beach. We'd see ducks and seagulls and herons in an adjacent wetland and what I think were cormorants. Pelicans flying low, in tight formation, gliding in bodily stillness over the currents.

In Austin, excitement was seeing one of the two white swans that inhabited inner-city Town Lake. Here? We might as well have been walking around with grassy straws or hay poking out of our hair, a family of country mice awed by the big city and the Big Nature, still doing the tourist thing and going to Pier 39 to ogle the sea lions. But it’s not the big city that’s the pinnacle of awesome here, although it is mighty and vivid and historic and marvelous. It’s the Big Nature. That's what left me moved.

Moved enough, in fact, to come back again, seven years after our first departure. Older, more childed, greyer, and very, very different in less visible ways. But still so dazzled and startled by all the wild around me. And still falling in love all over again every time I see that bridge, painted like a smoldering sunset.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Acting like an American in Paris

Bastille Day, Paris, 1984. I’m at the Moulin Rouge in my best clothes, throwing up under the table. My companion, whom I had met on a tour, stands up to help me, but instead throws up also, all over me. Our embarrassed driver, Ali, takes us through the streets of Paris to our bus. We vomit all the way, mocked by Bastille Day revelers. It was an embarrassment of astronomical (gastronomical?) proportions. reported yesterday on an "extremely informal" Conde Nast survey suggesting that Americans visiting abroad might not live up to the ugly American traveler stereotype. According to some of the people whom U.S. travelers encounter, anyway, we're really not "all that bad." I guess that depends on what you define as "bad." In my experience, U.S. citizens visiting other countries can embarrass us as much as any Washington political shenanigans. We all know the American stereotype—loud, boorish, uneducated. I’ve seen my countryfolk acting just that way in every country I’ve visited. As the opening paragraph must make clear, I’m certainly no exception.

In 1984, I was 16, and the Moulin Rouge serves champagne. Never should American sweet sixteen and champagne meet like that. Everyone at the table got a half-bottle each. I drank my own and my neighbor’s. My last memory just before I passed out on the table was of a semi-naked woman swimming around in a huge tank with a dolphin (I think it was a dolphin. I'm sure it was a half-naked woman). Two hours later, I awoke and put on my own eruptive performance in front of a full house of bemused tourists and Parisians. I haven’t been able to drink champagne since, but that was a tough and embarrassing lesson.

Later, as an adult, I took a group of young teenagers to Spain, joining another group of students from our area. Before leaving, we cautioned our tweens about what to wear and how to behave. Certainly, I recalled my own display years before as I discussed particulars of dress and comportment with the girls in our group. Drinking was out of the question (middle school and all). Our female students knew that shorts and short skirts would be culturally inappropriate for many of the sites we would visit, especially cathedrals. They had to order food in Spanish at restaurants. They knew how to say, “Gracias” and “por favor.”

The other group that joined our tour had obviously not had the benefit of such sage advice from teachers or parents. The students, male and female, wore cutoff denim shorts and large T-shirts with U.S.A.! in red-white-and-blue lettering. The girls often wore culturally inappropriately short skirts. They rudely talked unchecked while frustrated local guides attempted to lead our tours. Worse, shopping was their only interest. In this, they received guidance from their teacher. As we approached Toledo, her biggest worry, one that repeated itself throughout the trip, was that her students would not have the chance to shop because of siesta. The horror. Only one student in the group spoke Spanish.

A hallmark of the American traveler seems to be monolingualism. Because learning a second language still gets no real emphasis in the United States, comparatively few people from monolingual families gain facility in another idiom. In our strange education system, any intensive instruction in a second language begins in secondary school. Other countries have long recognized the benefits of early, intensive language instruction. German and Japanese students, for example, begin learning a second language (English) early in their schooling. 

Of course, language instruction and cultural instruction often go hand in hand. Understanding why one refers to a body part in Spanish using definite articles rather than personal pronouns (“the stomach,” not “my stomach”) also means understanding something about Spanish culture. Learning expressions that vary according to dialect means learning something about the geography and history that originated the differences.

Are Americans too insular in their approach to travel and learning about other countries and cultures? On the whole, I'd argue yes. I have experienced travel with students whose only dining interest was McDonalds, no matter where we were. In the McDonalds, I see other American tourists, fearful of the unfamiliar. They want the T-shirt announcing their visit—“Hard Rock Cafe, Any City”—but learning takes a back seat.

In all of my travels outside of the U.S., I find that Americans tend to want America to go with them wherever they roam. Immersion in an unfamiliar culture—in the language, geography, customs, and cuisine of a country—is a far more satisfying travel experience (to me, at least), but one many American travelers seem reluctant to explore. As always, exceptions are out there, but not in force enough to change the preconception. Perhaps my most telling experience was in China, where the American adults we encountered seemed no different from the students I observed in Spain. No interest in the regional food and very, very focused on gift shops and in particular a market where deals Beanie Babies by the bushel were of greater interest than Tiananmen Square. Beanie Babies.

Many Americans go overseas loud and rude, ignorant, and oblivious to the idea that cultures differ and offenses vary. We should know better. I should have known better in 1984. The other teacher should have known better in that summer in Spain. Those grown men and women in pursuit of Beanie Baby deals most certainly should have known better. We all should worry less about what we can buy overseas and more about what we can learn—before we go and while we're there.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Kids, cows, and country

Elmo, my grandfather who preceded the red-furred muppet by almost a century, was a huge man, with gigantic rough hands and a practical attitude born of growing up barefooted and picking cotton. Every sentence he uttered ended with the phrase, “on it,” as in, “I’m going to check that heifer in the south pasture, on it.” He raised cattle in deep East Texas, where he had a small house on a lake and a yard full of ticks. His feats of apparent fearlessness frightened and magnetized his city-bred grandchildren, my younger brother and me, who spent a few weeks with him every summer.

Brother and I were relative city folk, coming from the great metropolis of Waco, Tex., and country life left us alternately bored and trepidatious. Bored if we weren’t bumping slowly over the back roads, unbuckled in the front seat of a pickup, feeding cows. Trepidatious when we found ourselves surrounded by a dozens of cattle, mooing, lowing, and bobbing their heads at us. I always had to remind myself that cows are not carnivores -- they were just after the cow chips.

One terrifying cow encounter involved an unhappy bull that suddenly started rearing and snorting, jumping around like a mad animal. Elmo roped him, yanked the rope hard, then whapped the bull upside the head with his cowboy-booted foot in one smoothly executed high kick. Watching from a fence, we never doubted the outcome: Elmo would win. The bull paused in his fit, shook his head, and immediately simmered down.

Brother and I managed many times on our visits to highlight our city-mouse ignorance. Elmo took us fishing a few times, mostly for bluegill in a nearby creek. As he caught fish, he would string them on a line and leave the line in the creek. I was unfamiliar with this procedure. Frustrated after hours of sitting on that creek bank, catching nothing, I suddenly saw several fish that appeared to be swimming at the water’s edge just downstream. Excited, I tiptoed toward them, anxious not to scare them away. Slowly, I dropped my line -- which dangled from the requisite bamboo fishing pole -- into the water. My bacon bait swayed enticingly before the nearest bluegill.

Then, in a flash, the fish went for the bait. I had caught one! I started pulling it in, when I noticed that several other fish seemed to be following it. At first, I didn’t understand. Then, with embarrassment, I realized the truth -- I had caught a bunch of fish that had already been caught. Elmo thought it was hilarious, on it.

The realities of country living sometimes were too much for us to understand. When Brother was four, Elmo took him out to feed the cattle. On the road, they found one of my grandfather’s bulls, seriously injured. Elmo got out of the truck with his rifle and dispatched the animal in one shot.

When he got back into the truck, Brother asked him why he had done that. “He was sick,” Elmo replied, briefly, as if that were explanation enough. They got home a few hours later, and my brother asked to use the old rotary phone. When he got my mother on the line, he immediately asked her to come get him. “Why?” she asked. “Because,” he replied, “if you don’t, and I get sick, Grandpa’s gonna shoot me.”

In the end, Brother decided to go ahead and stay, but neither one of us owns a single cow today – we’ve opted for dogs, instead. Yet those were interesting times, that riding around in a beat-up truck, being the focal point of a cow’s life when it hears the horn honk, visiting the older folk who lived miles from one another (and maybe they were lonely or maybe they liked it that way), eating huge country breakfasts because you really did need fuel for the day, and talking about a special visit into “town.” I guess what we never truly understood was how difficult such a life was, taking its toll on finances and health. To us, it was a completely different world, a place to visit and learn and grow to appreciate, at least some parts, anyway. On it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Nature deficit disorder in nature

Edward Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire that Delicate Arch has “the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit.” I can only imagine how startled Abbey’s senses would have been if he’d seen the teenaged boy on a sunset visit who dropped his pants, urinated on the arch, and hollered, “Look, I’m making a waterfall!” None of the shocked onlookers threatened to strap him to a spire on the Primitive Loop for his behavior, but they probably should have.

We make tracks for places like Arches National Park to get away from people and into nature. The reasons underlying our need for escape range from the obvious (noisy, crowded cities) to the subtle (we are part of nature, too). The wilderness draws us to solitude, even though we are naturally social animals. But what I don’t understand are the people who get into the wilderness and then proceed to act like socially dysfunctional jackasses. And I still haven’t figured out exactly how to deal with them.

We’ve all seen them. They ignore the signs, feed the animals, urinate on arches. They sleep through backcountry orientation or think they’re above the rules. It makes me want to whap 'em upside the head with an organic carrot. Or at least force them to listen to a lengthy diatribe about the consequences of their behavior. We can’t beat them with carrots, so lecture is our best alternative.

Yet it’s tough to get up the gumption at the critical moment. I once saw a mother and her young son hiking on a trail in Banff National Park in Canada. As I watched, horrified, the mother, anxious for a good picture, pushed her child within one foot of a nursing elk cow with her calf. At every trailhead, park signs warned about the dire consequences of approaching these animals, especially females with young. But this mother seemed to think her child’s life was worth a good photo opportunity. Strangely, I hesitated to say anything, somehow unwilling to correct this grown woman’s behavior. Thankfully, the elk cow exhibited more common sense than the humans and walked away. 

An incident in the Grand Canyon showed that others also hesitate to step up to the soapbox. If you know how much water to carry, per person, per day on a hiking trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, raise your hand. If you answered “at least one gallon,” you know a lot more than the two fellows who found themselves stuck midway down the Hermit’s Trail on a blazing July day.

They’d already drunk the single quart of water they’d brought for their overnight trip. Their reasoning? They mistakenly believed there’d be plenty of water along the way. People charitably shared some of their own water with the parched pair. Maybe the two even learned a lesson. But they should have paid attention when the ranger said, “You need a lot of water. You’ll die without water. We don’t want to have to come after you because you didn’t take enough water.” The cost of rescuing them could have run into the thousands. But according to reports, no lectures accompanied the water handouts that may have saved their lives. 

Every year, the most popular parks spend thousands of dollars rescuing foolish people from foolish situations and remediating the damage caused by thoughtless hooligans, from the woman walking her four dogs on the Alpine tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park to the fellow who repeatedly has to be rescued off of a Rocky Mountain cliff face because he's too inexperienced but keeps going back. My radical idea? Everyone should have to swear an oath to verbally pummel anyone they catch breaking the rules. Authorizing officiousness in the backcountry could save sensitive habitat and human lives—and your lectures to the foolish would have government backing.

But even keeping the rabble in their cars and off the trails might not be enough. The worst incident I’ve witnessed in a national park occurred early one summer at Yellowstone. Bison grazed in the fading sunlight, about 100 yards from where my husband and I stood watching them. As we peered through the trees, we saw something that to this day I have trouble believing.

A car with New Jersey plates and carrying three young men drove several hundred feet into the meadow straight up to one of the bison. The driver flashed his brights on and off and honked the horn repeatedly, trying to get a rise out of the impassive beast. As the bison blinked wearily at the commotion, one of the passengers filmed the actionless excitement with a hand-held camera.

Anyone who’s ever been to Yellowstone has seen the signs that depict a bison catapulting a park visitor 50 feet in the air. Never mind the signs that tell visitors to keep their cars on the roads. As I stood in the trees watching this spectacle, I kept imagining these poor bison suddenly losing it and charging the car. Over and over, I played the scene of several of the herd closing in on the small vehicle and one by one, plucking out each young man and hurling him into the air. But it didn’t happen. The bison moved away, and the stupid young men sped off across the meadow. 

We escape into the backcountry hoping to get away from people like that. But they’ll find you out there, where they will build illegal fires, feed dried apricots to chipmunks, and use streams instead of chemical toilets. Many of us—including me—might find it hard to speak out and lecture people who look like adults, but act like children. But we should share our common sense with the backcountry Homo sapiens who lack it, for their safety and to preserve the outdoor experience. Or we could hope that they pick up some tips from other species. The elk cow in Banff walked away. The Yellowstone bison didn’t charge the car. And even a jackass knows how to behave at the Grand Canyon.