Posts Tagged ‘nature’

Owls, unmediated

April 30, 2012

For a few weeks I’d been hearing about the famous Berkeley owls of Claremont Canyon. A pair of Great Horned Owls had built a nest right along a popular hiking trail about two minutes from the Claremont Hotel, and were raising one or two chicks. They had become avian celebrities, delighting hikers and dog-walkers even as they would swoop down at passing dogs whom they perceived as a threat to their young.

On Sunday morning, Sam and I headed over to take a look. We joined the little crowd of paparazzi ogling and photographing the nest. It was in a eucalyptus right next to the trail, and a chick was easily visible even without binoculars. It took a while to spot the mother owl, who was keeping watch from a tree about twenty yards away, but we eventually found her too.

“Didn’t the owl in Winnie the Pooh have a sign pointing directly to his house?  Don’t they all have that?” joked my friend Susie today when I was giving her directions on how to find the nest.

It struck me that nearly all of us urban Americans — myself included — are much more familiar with fictional, cartoon or designer owls than we are with real ones. Think about it. Owls are common in children’s books (Sam and the Firefly! Hedwig in Harry Potter! Owl in Winnie the Pooh!) and marketing (from the low-tech owl on those old bags of Wise potato chips to the high-tech, stylized owl logo of Hootsuite). Most of us come up with an image of owls based on these caricatures rather than on the actual bird.

That’s true for a lot of nature — even spilling over into food. I consumed a lot more cherry Life Savers than actual cherries when I was a kid.  And Cherry Life Savers taste nothing like actual cherries. In fact, they taste nothing like fruit.

Yet if you asked me as a child what “cherry” tasted like, I would have immediately thought of the Life Saver. I still sort of do. Ditto for a bunch of other fruit flavors… pineapple, grape, lemon. Even though a grape Popsicle is a far cry from what an actual vineyard-grown grape tastes like.

I know this isn’t the biggest deal in the world. Civilization isn’t going to rise or fall because most American kids have seen more Disney birds and animals than real, living birds and animals.

But still, it’s a little unnerving.

We all think we “know” animals and birds and plants and the food we eat.

While in reality, that “knowledge”  has been filtered and mediated and refracted through the pervasive fun-house mirror of mass media and marketing.

Knowing a place, and its nature

March 24, 2010

We spent the weekend at Stinson Beach, a little town tucked between the steep western slopes of Mt. Tam and a 3.5-mile-long strip of sandy beach. Until last year, I could count the number of times I’d been to Stinson Beach on one hand. Since January, though, we’ve been there three times. 

I’ll be spending even more time there in the future. In December we bought a house at Stinson, jointly with two other families. So our family has use of the house every third week. 

Stinson Beach

It’s all still new enough that we don’t have routines yet. (My uncle and his wife visited on Saturday and kept asking things like, “So is it usually windy in the afternoon?” and I kept giving non-answers:  “I have no idea what is ‘usual’ — yet!”) 

Both Saturday and Sunday mornings, I walked down to the northern tip of the beach, where it ends at Bolinas Lagoon, about an hour and a half down and back. 

The beach was the same both days. I mean, this wasn’t a Yahoo! home page that changes every  ten minutes.  Same houses. Same ocean to the west. Same mountainside to the east. Same lagoon at the end. 

But there were also all these little differences. On Sunday  I saw a flock of 13 tiny shorebirds skittering at the edge of the incoming waves like ball bearings, their legs a blur. On Saturday the waves had carved out a kind of basin in one section of the beach, where water calmly pooled between a sand bar and the shore. Both days I found a lot of sand dollars. Other times, I haven’t found a single one. 

Now, I grew up in Manhattan and have spent virtually all of my life in urban landscapes. I think a lot about how I – and most Americans – are well versed in the sensory cues of urban industrial life.

We can discriminate among a half-dozen brands of sneakers by their wordless logos. We hear a police siren, or a cell phone ring tone, or a truck backing up with beeps, and we know exactly what it is and how to respond.

Just as our hunter-gatherer ancestors could identify a hundred different kinds of plants, we can identify Oreos and Rice Krispies and Paul Newman dressing and Big Macs with just a split-second glimpse of their packaging. This is the information that we inhale with the air as we grow up; no less than our ancestors’ knowledge of the difference between poisonous berries and nourishing ones, this is the information we need to survive. 

By contrast, when I walk down the beach at Stinson,  I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe what I see. There were four different kinds of shorebirds on Sunday. I knew that some were willets, from their mid-sized bills and their white-striped wings in flight. But the others – curlews? dowitchers? godwits? sandpipers? I need to fetch the bird book and teach myself the names and signs. 

Is it easier for you to tell a willet from a godwit...

... or a Coke from a Pepsi?

I look forward to having a piece of natural land – the beach, the hillside — that I come to know well. No, I’m not about to go all Annie Dillard or Thoreau. I am bored to tears by most nature writing! But I’d like to notice the daily and seasonal changes in the sand, water, vegetation. I’d like to develop an eye for quiet, small changes. I’d like to learn the names of things in the natural world as well as the industrial, commercial one. 

When I used to commute to San Francisco, I took the same walk down College Avenue to BART each day, along a pleasant strip of cafes, boutiques, bookstores and restaurants.

The shop windows changed slightly from week to week, but the walk still got boring. 

I don’t think walking the beach will get boring, even if I do it every time we visit. But it will require an eye and a vocabulary for those small, quiet changes – changes in how the sand is shaped, the shells washed up, the birds. 

On Saturday a young woman rode down the beach on a horse, so fast that she was soon a dot in the distance. Then she turned around and rode back, posting perfectly, so that the horse moved up and down and her torso moved up and down, but her head and shoulders remained still, straight, as if suspended by thin wires, looking ahead into the breeze.