Monday, April 16, 2007

rupa and the april fishes

I absolutely love this band from nearby san francisco. I found Rupa and the April Fishes by chance because of the san francisco Bike Mural and when I listened to a few tracks relized instantly that I had to download their entire album. In french, spanish and english, the music is like old parisian circuses and you feel at the same time like it is night in san francisco in some beautiful, alternate universe that pervades the city all the time. The artwork for their album and poster was done by muralist extraordinaire Mona Caron (who did the Bike Mural also) Her work is beautiful in the same way and apparently they had her painting a mural behind the band at their CD release party while the show was going on. Click here to see the video To make it even more interesting, their work is licensed under the creative commons.

Image from

Saturday, April 14, 2007

local waters

This morning we begin a daylong journey through the petaluma watershed with Daily Acts, a ecology organization based right here in town that leads facinating eco-tours around the north bay. Today's topic is "water" and when we rise in the morning it is cloudy for the first time in weeks. As the tour starts at the top of the downtown parking garage, giving us an overview of the town and watershed, it starts really raining and keeps on raining as we hear about the source of our city's drinking water: the Russian and Eel Rivers to the north, from which the water is piped over to us. Petaluma used to receive its water from within its own watershed, in fact, the Adobe creek headwaters (our previous water source) on Sonoma Mountain, on the property known as Lafferty Ranch, are still owned by the city of Petaluma.

We board a never-used-before, brand-new city bus in the rain and ride to Trathan's house on sixth street right in the center of town, where as a renter in one of three units in a house, he and his wife Mary have transformed the entire yard into a permaculture paradise. Part of the lawn still remains, reminding us of what was once everywhere else. There are hundreds of plants here and it is only early spring but the yard is alive with leaves and flowers. Even in the one-foot wide strip between the sidewalk and the street, all kinds of plants are bursting forth, including peas trailing up a recycled wire fence attached between a phone pole and a tree. Raspberry and blueberry plants peek out of pots, kale, collards, herbs leap out of the ground among edible native plants I recognize from last week's journey into the wild fields and forests of bolinas. Bees zip up from their hive to look around for something to pollinate, a cat walks lazily by and the compost worm bins are overflowing with beautiful soil.

Trathan's talks are fun and postive and he is always looking for the upbeat angle. We talk about spirals in nature and the benefits of copper tools, compost and rainwater catchment contours. He explains how taking out a lawn is one of the best things you can do to save water because most of household water usage is on outdoor landscaping. And you don't need a lawn to have a beautiful (and functional) yard—the way to landscape without too much work is permaculture. Working with nature itself helps you save not only water, but time. Layers of plants from low growing groundcover plants to mid layers like lettuces to bushes to trees, to vines all can exist in one place, stacking functions. Contouring the land creates places for water to meander and rest and sink back in to the earth instead of rushing into the street and storm drain where it then has to be treated at the wastewater plant. From Dave, a Petaluma water department city employee, we learn how to read our water meters at home and how to check for leaks which account for 12-15% of water usage in almost every house—eek!

As the drops begin again like a blessing from the sky, we ride our city eco-bus to the next stop, a straw bale house with solar panels, native landscaping, and a pond in back to catch water. The more we talk about water, the more comes from the sky—it is pouring in torrents now relentlessly, and we cheer it on and gather under overhangs.

It is like a modern day rain dance, a ritual based on our current contemporary culture. What are the ancient rain dances if not communities praising and relating with water, talking about where it comes from, the benefits of it and giving gratitude for it. All of us coming together to praise the importance of water today and talking about conserving and respecting it and making every drop meaningful is actually the same thing and meaningful for us—and the skys open.

We end out at schollenberger park near the wastewater plant, where a new trail has been started off to the south that will connect schollenberger with the new wastewater treatment wetlands park. The wastewater will be treated as it goes through through spiral forms, UV light and a marsh that is also an environmental art project by artist Patricia Johanson. This wetlands park will be an educational public resource, (will not have the odor of wastewater) and will expand the already enjoyed shollenberger park.

As the tour comes to a close, the skys begin to clear and I still wonder about saving water when our savings just end up enabling the city to approve more subdivisions. But I am more aware that the path of conservation is simultaneous with the path of awareness about our ecological environment. I can see for the first time that we can possibly conserve happily and abundantly while we also work on ways to measure those water savings and then let the savings stay in the river, not to be used except by the large salmon that used to swim in the Russian River, so many salmon that the river ran silver during spawning season, many years ago.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

plant ideas

When I was a little kid, my sister and I played outside constantly. We’d play until it was night and our mom would call us in saying “it’s dark, come in!” and we’d say “It isn’t dark yet!” and to our eyes it wasn’t— it was more blue than dark—and we’d play a little longer before the idea of dinner drew us in. 

In those days, we were entranced by plants. I recall spending hours picking wildflower bouquets, especially from the abundant wild radish, which came in many color variations, mostly a light pink-purple but also white, and various shades of gold, red-ocher (my personal favorite) and purple tones. We picked mustards and lupins and many other flowers and greens. Low growing plants with white or peach flowers were intriguing but didn’t work in the bouquets, while dandelions had to be just at just the right open yellow flower stage or we couldn’t use them. We counted ten California poppies before picking one. We didn’t know the names of any of the plants except the poppy but it didn’t prevent us from loving them anyway and making salads of them that we never ate because they might be poisonous but we pretended to eat them because they just looked so good. We harvested and mashed in mortars acorns that we were forbidden to eat. We dug clay out of ditches and made sculptures and pots. We wove non-functional mats and baskets from creek-side reeds and watched deer and squirrels and rabbits, following their tracks in the mud. Once, when we were very quiet, we heard the deer talking with each other. We made forts in trees and mazes in the tall grassy fields and swam in the creek we weren’t supposed to swim in. One day, we dammed the creek trying to make a bridge across it with rocks, and learned what happens when you do that, quickly dismantling our bridge and instead constructing one that water could flow through. My sister found an arrowhead and we mused on what the first peoples of this land did here. I wrote a “book” on colored construction paper called “How the Indians Managed” which is a funny title because today I know that is indeed what they did, they managed the forests and meadows for maximum abundance.

I have long wanted to know these plants better, with regard to their names and uses. And yesterday I finally had that door open a crack. My husband Scott and I travel out to Matt Berry’s wild plant workshop at The Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas, where I meet many of my old friends the plants and some new ones. We start the day with douglas fir pine needle tea. We learn that, yes, you can throw wild radish flowers into salads and eat them! And we learn about plantain, dock, mustard, miners lettuce, chickweed, nettles, wild onions, cattails, snakeweed, and many more.

For lunch we eat potato and greens soup with new zealand spinach (a thick leafed coastal plant that has a salty flavor), enjoy a fully flavorful miner’s lettuce and chickweed salad gathered by us a few minutes earlier, topped with different flowers including radish and calendula. We munch some cattail shoots, and elderberries, and spread onto fresh green leaves a mild, sweet goat cheese infused with figs and calendula petals made earlier by classmate Sequoia from the milk of the resident goats.

In the afternoon, we climb the hill and learn about lichens and trees, and even more plants abundantly growing all over the place. From the hill, the Pacific Ocean is visible, the Farrallon islands emerging ghostlike from the fog.

Later in the day, we make wild food bars, consisting of pulverized sunflower seeds, dried flours of wild mullein, nettles, and lemon balm, along with cooked elderberries and their syrup, all from the landscape we are immersed in. With a few golden flower petals on top and some rice syrup they are a hippie’s dream come true, and also delicious and infused with the energy of the place and about a million vitamins and minerals.

At the end of the day, I am exhausted and exhilarated, (and also allergic, from all the pollen flying around in the springtime wind) and while I have learned a lot, it feels like I barely know anything. The main thing is that my surrounding landscape is now a more open, understandable place. Some of the familiar plants I’ve lived with my entire life now have useful information assigned to them. If I can find an unpolluted source, there is a neverending supply of salad and berries and nutrient-rich, green flour.

Many of these plants are only found here and by using them, we have a unique experience particular to this region. Far from glamorizing the first nations people and their practices, these workshops provide this partially forgotten connection to place. No one is above using the vitamix to grind flour instead of the mortar and pestle or cooking elderberries down on a gas stove, even though the skills for firemaking and firecooking are known and used also. The point is to know the most sustainable ways of landscape interaction, add to them continually and use them in the wisest way possible.

There are more weekends coming up (click here for the schedule at that focus on acorn processing, hide-tanning, basket-weaving, and many more things that connect people with landscape and bring us a little closer to our unique place.

Click here for a video of Matt explaining about the uses of cattails

west marin oaks (photo by scott hess)
cattail shoots (from rdi website)
wild food snacks (from rdi website)

Thursday, April 5, 2007

art or vandalism?

The Lenbachhaus Museum is in the former stately villa of Franz von Lenbach, a conservative German artist (somewhat like the man about to be surprised walking into this gallery in the Lenbachhaus) in the late 1800's. Imagine what he would have thought about having all these Blue Rider artists like Kandinsky being exhibited here. Imagine further what he would have thought about the art piece that was made of this gallery, with all of its crazy spraypainting of colors all over the hardwood floors, tasteful gallery walls and even over a painting (but not really). I have to say, when I walked into this room, it was shocking-feeling, even to me.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

i can't stop talking about the streets

Here are some images of the bike lanes we encountered in Germany. The first one is a mid-size street (two lanes each way with side parking) in Munich where cyclists have a separate lane in the sidewalk area. (Where they won't get hit by cars!) The second one is a similar sidewalk area two way path except along a main arterial street with three lanes each way and parking on the sides of the streets. The third shows how they deal with the crosswalk, including bikes in their own bike crosswalk section. It is assumed people are riding bikes when streets are constructed! For anyone in Europe reading this, it is not assumed here in the US and therefore everyone has to drive a car whether they want to or not.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Reverence (a state of revering)–the missing piece

Before sunset on the Vernal Equinox we climb the wooded hillside across from Heidelberg castle, ascending the trail to an old stone amphitheatre. Emerging behind the round stage, we cross the grassy stone-rimmed platform and head up the hillside center aisle to the upper rows of the theatre. Then up the next trail towards old monastery ruins topping the hill where a former roman temple once stood. The sun is almost setting in the west, directly to the left of the ruins. Two corner towers remain and we can see the old layout of the monastery, the foundations and some walls are intact and different rooms are apparent. The ancient temple that the cloister was built over has been indicated on the ground and it is right in the center of the monastery floor plan. It is small, much smaller than the monastery, and was dedicated to whom, I wonder, standing in the temple outline near the top. I wonder also what significance the temple placement might have held, especially on an equinox. “What is this?” I say out loud, looking up at the white flakes that begin to fall from above. My sister laughs at me. I seriously wonder what they are at first, these white pieces of fluff are so large and soft and the sky is so clear, it couldn’t be snow. Before long, the enormous, lightweight flakes of snow have covered the ground completely and it is becoming very cold and the air is dark blue. A full soft blanket of bluish white covers the hilltop as we gaze out over the valleys from the top of the centuries-old tower. It seems benign, yet cold and powerful, this large flaked snow, and we can see each crystal snowflake clearly—perfect sparkling six pointed snowflakes, just like the drawings one sees of snowflakes.

This spot is the site of a roman temple with a monastery built on top of it. Both are long gone. I don’t know the particulars of what happened to the temple, or the monastery, but many have considered this a spiritual place, for whatever reasons. Possibly because it was a good lookout, or maybe something else. I shiver a bit, not just from the cold.

As we descend the hillside back to the amphitheatre, it continues to snow thick and white on the ground. The amphitheatre looks completely different from when we arrived. The snow has come from first the north, then the south, then east and finally from the west as we go down the hill. When we move through the theatre, the snow begins to subside, and tapers off completely, leaving a quiet, sparkling luminescent nighttime behind and we look down into the low valley where the little village of Heidelberg lies, emerging into view from behind clouds of fog, the enormous ancient castle glowing gold in the night across the river.

The entire idea of “power spots” is an emerging mystery these days. Long gone are the days when cultures purposefully used them in reverence, although many are unwittingly used today anyway. In most cases, it seems to be Catholic churches and monasteries built on old temple sites. The Catholic Church has been diligent in absorbing ancient traditions into itself wherever it goes, whether Europe or Central or South America. The Protestants don’t seem to do this and therefore, in North America, it has not happened much, but knowledge of the places can sometimes be found through old stories, others by chance or direct intent. Our very own Sonoma Mountain is an area were Native Americans went for stories. Mount Tamalpais, on the other hand, is sometimes said to be a mountain that white people had a hard time finding a guide for because no first nations person wanted to climb it. In any case, places give stories. Some places more than others.

An area’s unique attributes can be discovered and amplified through knowing the landscape. It used to be a matter of survival, now it has been reduced to exploitation of natural resources and forget about the source of the knowledge and the wisdom that comes with it. But this doesn’t last long. Seven generations, is the usual amount of time given in the old stories to think ahead to ensure there is no system failure. And it does seem to have taken about that length of time of consistent environmental exploitation in North America to incur serious environmental damage that poses a threat to the natural systems that sustain life.

I think we are beginning to see that the metaphorical stories of indigenous peoples are just that; they are truths spoken in beautiful metaphorical language, as opposed to our absolute language with all our verbs and states of being. The stories about the land are not just fanciful tales but practical maps for living that may sound fanciful to us because we do not usually speak in metaphor. They hold the keys to stewardship of the place.

We are seeing a collapse of the bee population meaning no pollination and therefore a sketchy food supply in a few years. We are seeing a situation where almost all water is polluted, where ancient trees are all being cut, where land is paved over where food used to grow and animal populations roamed. Our technology has grown faster than the wisdom that is supposed to go with it. And stories from our own landscapes that show us how to live in a way that sustains all of us are missing.

The stories in each landscape (yes, even ours) can help grow the wisdom part of the tree that has been suppressed for so long. Technology will not fix what technology has broken. Careful listening to the land is not magic. Although it can feel that way, like a sudden snow on a hilltop feels magical, understanding relationship, causes and effects is just pure common sense, and its subtleties and lessons will be necessary to bring our culture into balance.

amphitheatre looking down
monestary ruins with outline of temple (the little arch near the left is the top of the outline)
amphitheatre after the snow, looking up from the stage
view of Heidelberg with glowing castle and river
all images by Scott Hess