Black Mountain trail camp

More and more, I’m coming to believe that if organized religion is going to help fix global climate weirdness, we have to get out of our buildings more. Not that we should get rid of our buildings — we need our indoor spaces to accommodate a wide range of human person, including elders. But we also need to do more outdoor ministries.

Last night, group of youth spent the night at the Black Mountain trail camp, in Santa Cruz Mountains behind Silicon Valley. The hike in is two miles, with a total elevation gain of about 500 feet. We got to the camp, set some tents and made dinner.

After dark, some of us took a quick walk up to the summit of Black Mountain (elev. 2,800 ft.) and looked down at the bright lights of San Jose and Silicon Valley on one side, and the mysterious fog creeping up the valley on the other side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Come to think of it, that image could serve as a metaphor for the role of organized religion in understanding humans’ place in the universe: if we wanted it to, organized religion could be the metaphorical high point where we could see both human-centered life on one side, and non-human-centered life on the other side.

Back in camp, some of us slept in tents, and some of us just slept out under the stars. The moon was really bright, so I slept restlessly. I awakened before dawn, and snapped this photo of our campsite:


Dawn from the top of Black Mountain was beautiful: orange sky at the horizon and pink clouds above. After a breakfast of bacon hot chocolate, and more bacon, we hiked out, and were back in Silicon Valley by about ten. It was a short trip, but short trips fit in well with the busy schedules of our teens.

Pescadero Marsh

Pescadero Marsh

I went for a walk in Pescadero Marsh for the first time today. It’s a pretty remarkable place. It encompasses a variety of habitats, including pickleweed salt marsh, freshwater marsh, riparian corridor, sandy beach, old sand dunes, etc. Birdlife ranged from birds typical of beaches, like Sanderlings and Black Turnstones; to birds typical of freshwater marshes, like Marsh Wrens and Common Yellowthroats.

There were signs of other resident animals as well. Along the edge of Pescadero Creek, you pass by what look like big piles of sticks, but they’re actually houses built by Dusky-footed Wood Rats (Neotoma fuscipes). In the photo below, the tape measure at lower left is extended to 12 inches (300 cm); so this particular wood rat house is about four feet high (1.3 m).

house of Neotoma fuscipes

From a little further down the same trail, you can see a Great Blue Heron rookery. Their nests look like big piles of sticks, piles that may be three or more feet from bottom to top, that somehow got stuck high up in the branches of dead trees. I counted at least eight herons sitting on nests — four foot high birds roosting on three foot high piles of sticks thirty or forty feet above the ground.

immature Phalacrocorax auritus

On a secluded part of the beach on the other side of Highway 1, an immature Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) was too stupid, or too dazed, to move away when I walked past it. It stood quite still while I took its photo (above). The other birds and animals I saw were far less trusting than this cormorant: as soon as humans came into view, they flew or scuttled away out of danger. Except for the fifty or so Elephant Seals I saw lying on the rocks out beyond the beach: they did not seem to pay any attention to the humans walking on the beach; but then, they were well out of reach of any meddling humans, protected by a couple hundred feet of surf and slippery rocks.


This afternoon I was walking in Purissima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, through Douglas Fir woodlands, along a ridge that was about 1,400 feet aboe sea level. I happened to look down at my feet, and there was a — well, no, it wasn’t a lizard, it was some kind of salamander.

Sometimes it pays to walk slowly and deliberately. I got down on my knees to look more closely.


I haven’t seen seen a salamander since I moved to California more than five years ago, so I stopped to watch it for a while. I placed a quarter on the ground, to give a sense of scale in the photos I was taking. The salamander obligingly stepped right on the quarter:


It was fun to watch it walk — it had that rolling, deliberate salamander gait, so very different from the quicker-than-the-eye sprinting done by lizards. Eventually, it walked off the trail and disappeared into the leaf litter.

When I got home, I looked on the California Herps online identification guide. I’m pretty sure it was a Rough-skinned Newt (Taricha granulosa). Another possibility would be the Red-bellied Newt (Taricha rivularis) — but the eye of my newt showed some whitish yellow, while T. Rivularis has uniformly dark eyes.


The middle school ecojustice Sunday school class got approval from the Board for installing a rain barrel at church. Last night, Buzz and I rushed to put a downspout from one of the roof drains into the rain barrel, in anticipation of today’s storm. It looks like our rushing was worth it: we’ve had over two and a half inches of rain since then.

I just took a little walk around our neighborhood. San Mateo Creek was filled with rushing brown water, but the water level is still ten to fifteen feet below the tops of the banks. The ground is pretty well saturated, and I could see puddles everywhere. But the storm drains are still working and the streets aren’t flooded around here. And I can see jetliners flying through the low clouds towards the airport, so it looks like SFO is open.


Above: San Mateo Creek at about 3:45 today, from the Delaware St. bridge. Those trees on the right are usually well out of the water.

But according the Twitter, other places around the Bay area are experiencing flooding. For example, Highway 101 south of San Francisco is flooded in places, and traffic is just a mess. I feel lucky that I was scheduled to work at home today.


A couple of years ago, Carol discovered the Really, Really Free Market which meets on the first Sunday of the month in Redwood City. The first time she went there, she got some rubber stamps and a couple of potted succulents which bloom at the tail end of the winter wet season. The plants produce small vividly pink flowers on astonishingly long stalks — the plant is all of ten inches high, the stalk extends twenty-four inches from the nearest leaf to the farthest blossom, and each blossom is an inch to an inch and a half in diameter. The flower in the photo is one of sixteen buds or blossoms or seed pods on one of the stalks. Each blossom seems to last a day or two before it fades, and then another bud near it comes into bloom.

Close-up of flower

Today, the day after Mother’s Day, would have been my mother’s ninetieth birthday; I’m pretty sure the flower I photographed was in bloom yesterday, so its blooming will cover both these days.

California drought

Good photos of the ongoing Clifornia drought, and summary of long-range forecast possibilities, in a January 25 post at the California Weather Blog.

Here in San Mateo County, our drought level is classified as “extreme,” second highest of the five possible drought levels. The hills of the Coastal Range should be bright green right now, but instead they are dull gray-brown; needless to say, the fire danger is high. We haven’t had any significant rain in over a month, so the air is filled with fine particulate matter. And with a declared state-wide drought emergency, we’re all expecting mandatory water restrictions in the next few months.

On the plus side, we’ve had abnormally sunny and warm weather, with temperatures often in the seventies. while we need bad weather, at least we can enjoy the good weather while we’ve got it.

Sunny and seventy

I’m getting ready for the Christmas Eve candlelight services at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. It’s over seventy degrees and sunny, and while the sun was hitting my office window it got warm enough that I had to have the door open to cool off. At this point, some of you who live in places where it is now cold and dark and maybe snowy might be saying to yourselves, “Warm and sunny? That doesn’t feel like Christmas Eve!”

Ten years ago, I spent a year working part-time as the religious educator for Church of the Larger Fellowship, an online congregation that serves religious liberals around the world, including in the tropics and in the Southern Hemisphere. On my first week on the job, the senior minister and the administrator both warned me to remember that given our congregation it was a mistake to draw parallels between Easter and springtime, and between Christmas and the winter solstice. If I did so, I was further warned, I would be sure to get complaints from our members in places like Australia and New Zealand and equatorial Africa. That’s how I learned to be able to separate Christmas from the seasons.

Now that I’m in the Bay Area, however, I’m living in a so-called Mediterranean climate, a climate that is similar to the climate of Bethlehem and Nazareth (though we are farther north so we have much longer nights at this time of year). Our seasons correspond reasonably well with the seasons of ancient Judea. We’ve had a very dry year, so this year at Christmas because it’s sunny and warm we’re praying for the winter rains to hit — like the people of the Ancient Near East, we’re less concerned with snow and crackling fires and short nights, and we’re far more concerned with where our water is going to come from.

So this year here’s what I’m humming to myself:

   I’m dreaming of a wet Christmas,
   Just like the ones in El Nino years,
   When the treetops glisten
   And children listen
   To hear raindrops falling near….


Michele, my voice teacher and friend, sent out an invitation to some caroling in her neighborhood. Even though she lives way over in north Berkeley, I decided to go — I didn’t know anyone who was going to go caroling near where we live, and I wasn’t up to organizing caroling on my own.

Close to twenty people gathered in Michele’s living room yesterday evening. We introduced ourselves, and ran through two carols where we thought we might sing some harmony — “Silent Night” and “Deck the Hall.” Fortunately there was another bass there who helped me through “Deck the Hall,” and I was able to help him once or twice in “Silent Night” — it’s always easier to sing your part when there’s someone else singing with you.

We headed out into Michele’s neighborhood. Michele said we would only sing at houses where we could see Christmas decorations. There were half a dozen children with us, and they ran ahead to scope out likely houses. We’d gather on the sidewalk in front of the house, Michele would quietly tell us which carol — “‘Frosty the Snowman,’ page 3 of the packet!” — the kids would ring the doorbell, and as soon as someone showed up, we’d sing.

Some people listened to us while standing indoors; in one case because there were dogs that desperately wanted to get out; in other cases maybe because it’s a little weird to have a score of people standing in front of your house singing. Other people came out and listened. Reactions ranged from politely tolerant to very enthusiastic. One woman, who had a foreign accent (maybe Middle Eastern?), was really very touched by the singing; we sang her another song.

After an hour, we were getting cold, and some of the younger kids were getting a little bit tired. So we all said “Good night!” and “Merry Christmas!” and dispersed into the night; the younger kids probably heading for bed. As for me, I had some errands to run in downtown Berkeley; but I found myself humming Christmas carols all the way home.