Walking Stick

The Missing Ed Abbey NBC News Segment, From 1985

Towards the end of Edward Abbey’s One Life at a Time, Please, there’s a curious little essay called “TV Show” that’s loosely in the form of a television script, although I’ve always remembered it by the subtitle, “Out There On the Rocks.” When I read this delightful little essay—part travelogue, part deadpan frontier humor, part poem about our place in the world—I assumed it had been broadcast and quickly wrote a short note to Ed Abbey, care of the Henry Holt publishing company in New York City, asking how I could get a copy of this segment. Back in the days of three networks plus PBS, long before streaming video and YouTube on every cell phone, it was a special treat to see your favorite cult author on television.

When the author in question is consistently anti-television, it was even more rare. So I dropped my note in the corner mailbox and promptly forgot about it, as an earlier and very earnest letter to Ed Abbey from the high-school version of myself had been politely ignored years before.

The surprise was very real when the mailman delivered a postcard stamped TUCSON AZ many months later, with an image of City Lights Bookstore on one side and a brief handwritten message from Abbey himself on the other. (more…)

Quaking and Stormy, California Reminds Us That It’s Alive

The southern part of the state is quaking and shaking, heavy rain lashes the northern coast, and snow piles up in the Sierra. Every now and then California reminds you that it’s alive, not just the plants and creatures but the rock itself, even that dry old sky that goes whole seasons without much change.

I woke at a reasonable hour, heard the rain through the open window, and it sounded so pretty that I decided to go back to sleep for a while. By the crack of noon, I was covered by a hat and my rarely used “rain shell,” headed for the beach. Great sheets of water and temporary rivers along the sidewalks made for a beautiful vision after another too-dry winter. The neighborhood ducks were out, a mating pair of mallards, delighted by all the worms and whatever else had been awoken by the rainfall.

The beach, my fine little beach of dredged sand, was perfectly empty of people, the tide at its high point and whitecaps on the bay, thanks to the storm, which had also delivered a supply of logs, boards and other driftwood. There was a dead duck, too, still feathered, its beak pointing up.  (more…)

Good Morning, Mountain Sheep!

In the pre-dawn hour, I’m sitting at a picnic table in a little neighborhood park, a plastic kids playground behind me, thick green lawn reaching across the gentle slope to the east, all of it overlooking the bathtub-ringed reservoir called Lake Mead. Huge jackrabbits sleep on the park’s edge. On the other side, I see the soft slumbering lumps of desert cottontails.

It’s 76 degrees, before the sun rises over the brown-red mountains on the Arizona side. In the dim purple light, I see the first Desert Bighorn Sheep step daintily down the rocky hill and underneath the great metal legs of the electric-transmission tower behind this Boulder City suburban park. It’s a tall ram with huge winding horns. A half-dozen more follow him down. They cautiously look around the empty park and settle in for breakfast.

Magnificent creatures! The males are huge and sturdy, the patriarchs with thick curling horns that wrap down and around the head, some ending with ragged points from their mating wars. Long ears, horselike muzzles neatly capped in white hair, huge calm eyes, the short rough coat exactly the color of the desert rocks they call home, and here they are in a suburb.  (more…)

City living.

A Daylong Ramble From the Oakland Hills To Castro Valley

Time flies when you’re not having fun, too. I was walking my old dog around the Redwood Bowl in the Oakland hills last spring when a conversation began with one of those serious solo trail runners. Did I know that a chain of natural parks and trails connected the East Bay hills from Richmond all the way south to Castro Valley?

I did not. I knew San Francisco, but only from a 1990s urban existence: broken-glass sidewalks, rickety MUNI trains and electric buses, an occasional romantic cable car ride to an occasional office job. Now I lived in the East Bay, those green hills almost always in sight. Regular daylong hikes would become my new habit. And that was the solemn pledge I made to myself in Redwood Regional Park, on that May afternoon of 2013.

Three seasons quickly passed in the East Bay, seasons of dull work, rushed walks, and the death of that beloved old dog. Finally, I announced to my household that an upcoming Saturday was mine alone, work and kids and TurboTax be damned. It was time to walk a dozen miles down the ridgeline.  (more…)

Desperate times, desperate measures, etc.

Monks On the Desert Highway: The Greenfriar Superhero Origin Story

Big ideas come a little easier in the desert wilderness. It’s quiet and it’s severe, and there’s space to think.

I lived alongside Joshua Tree National Park for some of this century, and toward the end of my time there became friends with Jay Babcock, the editor of the underground culture magazine Arthur. Jay was furious about a “Dollar General” chain store coming to our little crossroads town, a town already precariously balanced between its funky handful of locally owned businesses and the usual plastic-letter banality of self-storage units and Subway sandwich franchises.

We were drinking wine at my house one night while Jay ranted about the Dollar General and how people had to do something to stop it, but the only good option was years of effort away: elections, incorporation, and zoning to protect the desert landscape and little town’s feel. Meanwhile, a lot of otherwise-interested citizens didn’t even know which rectangle of desert along Highway 62 had been marked for takeover by this smaller-scale version of Walmart. (more…)

Joseph Sax, American Hero.

The Man Who Proved the Land, Air and Water Belong To All of Us

Joseph L. Sax was teaching mining, oil and water law in the 1960s when he realized the plundering of America’s natural resources was wrong—that it violated the “public trust.” His research and activism led to a dozen U.S. states adopting environmental laws based on the Michigan Environmental Protection Act that he authored, “the first statute in history to authorize citizens directly to enforce their right to environmental quality.”

Even those of us who were alive in the late 1960s have mostly forgotten what so much of America was like before the environmental laws that swept the nation in the early 1970s. The skies over the cities were toxic brown, open-air garbage dumps marked the edge of town, polluted riverbanks and lake shores were barren of plants and animals. I saw my first wild hawks and eagles in the 1990s, decades after their slow recovery brought these raptors back from the verge of extinction. (more…)

The Valley of Death.

Sorry, Rocks: An Admission of a Terrible Crime of the Early 1980s

The most rotten thing I ever did in a national park was to peck a fake petroglyph into the sandstone wall of Cottonwood Canyon, on the north side of Death Valley and many miles of sandy desert wash from the nearest paved road at Stovepipe Wells.

This happened approximately 30 years ago, in the company of three or maybe four other high school degenerates. And to be clear, I did not deface any indigenous canyon rock art. In fact, I couldn’t find any rock art. Lacking modern tools such as a Global Positioning System and a functional moral compass, I figured I could just make my own little “ancient astronaut” stick figure like the one on the official Death Valley refrigerator magnet I’d purchased for $2.75 a couple of days earlier at the Stovepipe Wells General Store.

Of course my rock art looked nothing like the real thing, mostly because it didn’t have the “desert varnish” of many centuries. I had a styrofoam cup of cold coffee in the cab of my pickup, and I worked a little of that into the markings, and it looked better until the moisture evaporated a minute or two later. We have all done things that plague us with guilt, forever, and that’s one of mine.  (more…)

Hey look it's a bunch of Millennials cleaning up the beach!

Millennials Don’t Call Themselves “Environmentalists,” But They Are

Millennials cleaning up the coastline. Just don’t tell them they’re environmentalists.

Hiking, composting, gardening, camping, buying hybrid cars, bicycling to work, hitting the farmers market every weekend, and replacing lawns with native plants are common behaviors of my friends who never call themselves “environmentalists.”

Even the ones who keep backyard chickens for eggs, put solar panels on their houses, eat less meat, and only adopt “rescue pets” don’t identify themselves as environmentalists. I’m talking about people in their thirties and forties, but this lack of interest in the “enviro” tag is even more pronounced with the Millennials. A new Pew Research study says only 32 percent of young adults call themselves the E-word, and they’re reliably liberal voters who overwhelmingly support strict environmental laws. What the hell? (more…)

Mountain porcupine

What’s the Worst Thing An Iguana Could Feed Its Babies?

Not an Iguana: Photo by Hugo Fernandes-Ferreira.

The following animals were brought to the elementary school assembly on Monday: one anteater, one porcupine, one myna bird, and one iguana. My kids are often indifferent to school, because they’re little boys and school is the most boring thing in the world for little boys. But this was an event featuring exotic wildlife, and both kids were still talking about the South America critters at dinner that night.

The particular lizard they saw, for example, feeds its own poop to its babies. Well how about that, an animal specifically created to make children laugh. Here’s the story as I heard it: Whatever type of lizard it is, the first of these live specimens studied by our human scientists displayed some weird parent-to-infant feeding behavior: The mother poops and the babies eat it. And when the juveniles were taken away for solitary studies and provided with their presumed “regular diet,” they died. The poop was crucial to their survival, providing both nutrients and microbes to strengthen their immune systems.

This is a pretty good conversation for the dinner table, as long as you steer it away from some kind of free-association insanity. But also out of genuine curiosity, I asked when this startling research had occurred. My guess was maybe a century ago, when biologists were following rubber-tree barons into South America. My kids didn’t remember.

National Geographic posted an article about lizard expert Stanley F. Fox’s research on the Chilean Leopard Tree Iguana only a month ago. (more…)

Sticks: Nature's Friends.

All Three Kinds of Walking Sticks

One way we’re hoping to make a few dollars for Greenfriar is by “reviewing” different items you might use in your life of environmental stewardship and having boozy cookouts in the mountains. In today’s “gear review,” we’ll link to some stuff at a site that pays a small commission to Greenfriar when you click over there and buy something.

I have been trying to think of a product to review, but I don’t even want most of the stuff I have right now. And how much “gear” does anyone need for walking? That’s my preferred form of meditation and exercise and getting away from the computer before I throw it out the window. About the only thing I really miss on the trail, on those rare occasions when I forget it, is a walking stick. So I will review the various types of walking stick. (more…)