Friday, March 17, 2017

Green gifts

I moved around a lot as a kid, so when we finally settled in Davis in 2004 and got a house in a cul-de-sac surrounded by other houses in other cul-de-sacs, the concept of suburbia was very new to me. I remember watching a movie when I was a kid that pivoted on the horror of suburbia, of cookie-cutter houses, of cookie-cutter lives. I didn't get it, even though the blueprint for my house was only one of a dozen blueprints for houses in my neighborhood. One of my best friend's houses was the same as my house, but flipped. When I walked into my own house, the stairs near the door climbed to the left. When I walked into hers, her stairs climbed to the right. Her room in her house was my brother's room in my house. But I never thought for a moment that those similarities were something to dislike, or something to be horrified by. Maybe it's because I was friends with kids who were Polish, and Indian, and Chinese, and Cuban, and although the outsides of our houses might look the same, the inside of our pantries very much did not. Or maybe it's because I just didn't spend much time inside at all. I was either lost in a book or lost outside. The architecture of someone's house wasn't really a factor when I had my mind on fantasies or grasshoppers or the fantasies of grasshoppers.

My bird of suburbia: the Northern Mockingbird. October 27, 2012.

When I was outside, I never paid much attention to the horizon. There were too many things to look at underfoot and overhead to waste time looking straight ahead. Why be eye-level for a human when you could be eye-level for a slug, or a robin? If you wanted to find me, you had to look under bushes, in creeks, in trees. The first two spots that I fell in love with in my cul-de-sac were both at its tail, where it butted up against a greenbelt that all the neighborhood kids ran down and biked around and whooped along in the summertime, and I explored by myself in the wintertime.

One of my favorite hide-aways was a tall conifer whose head leaned just the slightest bit over the sidewalk. My neighbor, a boy my age, was the first one to show us that it could be climbed. He and my brother would scale up into it and yell down at me and the littler kids, crowing about how tall they were. I remember staring up at them and hesitating, caught between jealousy, curiosity, and fear, until curiosity finally won and I crawled up, shaking and whining the whole time. The first few times, I only climbed up when they were already at the top, so I had to stop when I reached their feet halfway up. Eventually I gathered my pint-sized courage and climbed up alone, and discovered the adrenaline of being high enough off the ground for it to hurt if I fell. I would look up at the sky until I got dizzy with the sheer depth of it, then look down at the ground until I gave myself vertigo, then just close my eyes and sway with my tree's weight. When I finally climbed back down, my hands would be icky sticky black with sap, the kind of sticky that didn't come off for at least a day. One winter, an even stormier winter than usual, a particularly powerful gust ripped the tree right off of its stump. I walked outside the next morning and saw the men of the cul-de-sac discussing how to chop it up and realized immediately that I would never feel that same dizzy vertigo again. For years, I climbed every tree that I could find. I've never found one that made me feel like I was rooted right into its xylem and phloem like that one did.

My other favorite spot was a hole underneath the bushes opposite my favorite tree. Only a small kid could crawl under the outer bushes and into the clearing inside, so all the small kids did. It was hard to sit comfortably, but if you could find a way to sit without puncturing yourself on a branch, the whole world shrank down to just that little airy dome. The light that filtered down through the top layer of the bush dyed everything green. As interesting as it was to look around and examine all the little twigs and leaves and breaks in the bushes, it was even more interesting to listen. Here, I could hear all of the birds and bugs shuffling around me. I've never been much calmed by silence. I've always found more solace in the noises of tiny creatures scrabbling in dirt for their breakfasts, and wind ruffling leaves. Maybe I left a little part of myself in that tiny hiding spot, just listening, and breathing. I haven't tried to climb back into it in years. I don't think it would be right to try. That's a spot for kids to learn that although dragons and fairies might not be real, there are things that are even better in the bushes outside. It would be rude to try and learn that lesson again. One mustn't test the limits of the gifts that one has been given. After all, I already know what's in the bushes: sparrows, and lizards, and little kids hungrily searching for magic.

White-crowned Sparrow. January 7, 2014.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

(sour) patch kid

Last night I lay awake in bed, preoccupied with the same fidgety nonsense that I'm preoccupied with most of the time. My heart gets all stretched out and gooey and I buzz from head to toe, like a cheese stick that someone left in their lunchbox for the whole day, but the cheese stick is made out of bees. Most nights I eventually fall asleep while I'm still buzzing, and wake up to the exact same pins and needles.

But last night - I'm not sure why - as I lay there struggling to sleep, I suddenly remembered my old patch in Davis. I don't normally have a good memory, but I saw my patch as if I was standing there with my own two legs.

May 31, 2013.

May 26, 2013.
I saw it all, as clear as a summer sky. To my right, the little muddy pond where the mud is actually bullfrogs. To my left, the pipe where, one summer, I watched a Black Phoebe raise its tiny offspring. Behind me, the fence where I stalked Western Kingbirds and Northern Mockingbirds. Far off, where the fence turns to the west and the road turns to the east, and I once surprised a family of Burrowing Owls so badly that we all froze in shock. The field that fills with hungry and honking Canada Geese during migration. The telephone wires where I practiced taking pictures of Barn Swallows and European Starlings. The huge open field that alternated between huge open-faced sunflowers and grains and Red-winged Blackbirds in the long days of summer, and short-cut stalks and roaming coyotes at the end of the season.

July 1, 2013.

May 26, 2013.

June 1, 2013.

July 7, 2013.

I remembered, with all the subtlety of someone hitting me over the head with a tennis racquet, the mess of roots and weeds where I saw an alien. It was one of the very first times I had been to my creek. I remember walking along my little path and rounding a corner at just the right angle to see a brownish lump of a bird huddled at the bottom of the creek. Before I could take a picture and keep walking, the bird unfurled a neck as long as its entire body, and I lost every breath in my lungs. The world could have shattered all around me, and I wouldn't have noticed. We moved in an unspoken duo dance, I and that strange bird made of neck and long, long toes, it minding its own business and me minding its business, as well. I went home that day with a singular purpose: find out that creature's name. I read a little while ago that "it is well known that as soon as kids are given a name for something, they almost instantly become less interested in it." I don't believe that's true at all. For me, as a beginning birder, finding out each bird's name was magic. That day, I rolled the names "green heron" and "black-crowned night heron" in my mouth like grapes. As I learned more about herons and bit down on those 6 words, only two exploded into rightness. I had just met my first Green Heron.

July 18, 2012.

July 1, 2013.
And I remembered the tree, further down the creek, where I saw a single bird and it changed everything I thought I knew about the world. My mom called at exactly that moment. I don't remember what she said to me or why she called, because the words rattled out of me like the bird was rapping on my own skull: "MOM! There are WOODPECKERS here!" She was not as impressed as I was. But for little me, who thought woodpeckers were some tropical exotic species that I would never see, that single little bird was a revelation.

Every square foot of that trail holds a memory that sparkles in my mind's eye. The Western Kingbirds that squabbled at the tops of the trees all summer. The Wilson's Warbler I found right before starting my last year of high school. The Great Blue Herons that glared at me and blared with all the volume of their impossibly long trumpet-necks. That creek, with all of its mysteries, will always be my happy place.

June 26, 2013.

June 26, 2013.

As I walked along my little creek and mapped out all of its secrets and treasures in my mind, everything quieted in me. I had accidentally found just the right way to strum the out-of-tune strings of my brain. When I fell asleep, it was a quiet sleep, and I woke without pins and needles. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Stories of IBR: Part 1

Two summers ago, I was lucky enough to participate in International Bird Rescue's Wildlife Rehabilitation Internship at their San Francisco Bay center. That's a long series of words to mean that for 3 months in 2015, I worked and lived at their wildlife center in Fairfield, CA. I always wanted to write about it for this blog, but never got around to it. There is simply so much to say. So I'm starting a little series. Every now and then, I'll write up another little piece of what happened that summer, and what it meant to me. This is Part 1: where.

I applied for this internship with International Bird Rescue because it sounded like the coolest thing I had ever heard of. Past Ioana was right to think so - it turned out to be even cooler than I could have possibly imagined. The application process was straightforward, and would be familiar to anyone who has ever applied to anything in their entire life. I submitted a letter of interest, my resume, and two recommendation letters. After some time, I got interviewed over the phone. After some more time, I got the incredibly exciting news that they wanted me to join them for the summer. I moved in on May 21, 2015, only a week after finishing my sophomore year of college.

If you don't know me, this picture should give you a pretty good idea of who I am as a person. Yes,  my eyes are sealed shut in the very first picture of me at IBR.
The next morning. My first full day of work, and my first day flying the IBR logo!
When I moved in, only one other intern, Brittany, was already at IBR. Brittany had been working for a short period of time before I got there and gave me a tour of the premises, from the expansive building full of seabirds and seabird-care equipment, to the rehabilitation pools outside, to our barracks inside the administrative building. I and 3 other interns would live in rooms at the southern end of the building. Brittany had already chosen the lower bunk in one room, so I claimed the lower bunk in the other. It wasn't long before Mari moved in and took my top bunk. It took a bit longer before Julie joined us, but once she did, she completed the team of ladies who would be my coworkers, my roommates, and my closest friends for the summer.

I am the type of person who wants to have some sort of idea where I am. I want to locate myself. When I moved to Fairfield for these 3 months, I immediately hungered to understand what Fairfield looked like and felt like. I already had some sort of context because Fairfield is almost smack-dab in the middle of the two cities that I call home, Davis and Berkeley. I had driven through it plenty of times in my life, but never had the occasion to explore. Now that I had moved into this wildlife center on the outskirts of the city, I found myself somewhere familiar, and yet completely new. I remember looking out at the hills, and the railroad tracks, and the road that slithered away into trees and fields, and thinking "I'm going out there." Only 3 days after moving in, I hiked up onto the nearest, biggest hill, and found one of the places that has stayed with me to this day.

My favorite field.
To get to this field, I took a right out of the center and walked along the road that marked the border between Fairfield and its fields. I followed the road a short ways until it turned and disappeared into one of the suburbs of Fairfield. Instead of following it into the houses and schools and churches, I took a sharp right and stumbled my way through a field chock full of those nasty little spiky weeds that catch onto your socks and pants and skin and leave you covered in tiny thorny masses. I don't know what possessed me to dig my way through those weeds the first time. All I remember was feeling that there was something good ahead. It didn't take long before I pushed through the weeds and onto the slope of the huge hill ahead of me, the one that I had seen the first day I moved in and decided I needed to climb. A dusty trail cut up the slope, winding around trees and shrubs, and a dusty me cut up the trail. After about half an hour of climbing, without much warning, the tree cover broke apart, and the forest spit me out into this field. From the first moment I saw it, I knew I would be coming back through those weeds plenty of times this summer. The field was one long floor of grasses waving their shiny golden heads in the wind. They rippled with the breeze, inhaling uphill in one moment, and exhaling downhill in the next.

It was a great place to see hawks, too!
I picked my way carefully along the narrow trail that someone else had beaten out before me until I got to the top, where rocks joined gnarled old trees to make a jungle gym for dirty, weed-covered interns to climb around. It was beautiful. It was peaceful. I knew that any time I needed to sweat, and think, and sweat again, I could come back here. And even better, this field was only one of many different trails and roads and out-of-the-way nooks and crannies that I got to explore.

A different outing, on the other side of the hill.
Another view. IBR is visible as a cluster of buildings bookended by trees, to the left of the big road.

As interns, we worked 4 days out of the week, and had 3 days off. I spent many of my free mornings, afternoons, and evenings climbing and sliding around those fields and dips and peaks. One evening, I sat in my favorite field to watch the sun set over the next row of hills, and looked down at the freeway that would take me home to Davis in the east, and home to Berkeley in the west. I never shook the feeling that somehow, this internship was both a midway point, and something entirely new. It made sense to be there. It was the right time to be there. I had a lot left to learn.

Friday, February 24, 2017

On staying

I've decided to stay in the Bay Area after I graduate. I mean, technically, this is old news. I decided about two months ago. But it still feels like a big deal to me. Especially in the environmental field, there is such a push for people to travel widely, to do internships far from home, to take jobs in new states, to experience the world where they've never been before. I think there is absolutely a use to traveling and experiencing new places. I encourage all of my friends to follow their wayfaring hearts wherever they feel the call, and to make the entire globe their home. However, for myself, it doesn't feel like the right time to do so. Maybe in 5 years, or 10 years, or 20 years. I still have decades ahead of me to move to Malaysia, or England, or take a new seasonal job every... season, for lack of a better word. Right now, my biggest desire is to fall even more in love with the Bay Area than I already am.

At Asilomar Beach last March, photo by Alex Wu. 

Of course, it helps that my family and my partner are here. It would tear me up to leave so many of my loved ones behind. But that isn't the only reason. I think there is something to be said for living in the same place for years and years. I want to delve deeply into all of this region's nooks and crannies. I want to get to know all of its secrets. I want to form a truly intimate connection to this place, which, let's be honest, is the location that people in France and New York come to when they want that rush of newness and excitement. I think that after 4 years of walking the streets of Berkeley with a backpack on my back and a to-do list in my head, I've become immune to the fact that the Bay Area is one of the most famous places on Earth. I don't want to take it for granted anymore.

For example, I already love this Bay deeply. But every time I talk to someone new or take a new route home, I realize that I know only the slightest fraction of things there are to know about this little corner of the Earth. I barely know what birds there are here, and a few mushrooms, and a couple of mammals and herps. There is so much to learn about the art, and music, and history, and food, and plants, and trails, and architecture, and fish, and even the birds and mushrooms and mammals and herps of the Bay. I want to know... maybe not all of it, because I don't think I could ever learn everything there is to know. I just want to know more. I want to be astounded by my home every single day.

Like last year, when I learned there are Buffalo in Golden Gate State Park. Apparently I'm one of the last people on Earth to learn about the Buffalo, but it's not MY fault no one told me.

For me, it comes down to this: one way to challenge myself would be to leave, and go somewhere new, and be completely out of my depth, and make that new place my home. Another way to challenge myself would be to stay here, in this place that I think I know, and to realize that even here, I am still out of my depth. I want to knock myself down a few pegs and look at the Bay Area with new eyes. And that, I am sure, will take more than just 4 years of undergrad.

Monday, February 20, 2017

We keep waking up to the noise of rain in the gutters

It's raining today. It's been raining for over a month, now. Funny that the weather held out with perfect sunny days for winter break, and then break broke into the heavy, nonstop rains that usually mark late winter and early spring in Northern California. My friends who aren't from California are shocked and dismayed every time they wake up to rain. My friends and I who know California are soaking it in like we are the parched soil itself. I am trying to hold this water in the reservoir of my heart. Lord knows this state needs as much rain as it can get.

Today afternoon.

Yesterday morning.
Granted, if California's politics and infrastructure were more environmentally-minded than they are now, we wouldn't have such a huge drought problem when it doesn't rain, and such a huge flooding problem when it finally does. My heart goes out to the people of Oroville and other cities who can't be sure that their levees and stormwater systems will hold. We are a state of people caught between too little and too much. I am privileged to be among the people who are safe from the ravages of floods. But surely there must be a better way.

That is the goal that preoccupies my mind these days. Surely there must be a better way - not only for me to live, but for everyone to live. What can I do to be a levee for those who need a break, and a reservoir for those who are far too close to breaking? And how can I extend a helping hand to not only people, but the land and the creatures that I love? Now that graduation has finally ceased sneaking up on me and is simply loudly announcing its imminent arrival, it's time for me to take my next step. I appreciate that the end of college is booting me along into the next phase of my life. I'm just not quite sure what it will look like, yet. At least the first summer of the rest of my life will be a green one.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The start of an end

Yesterday marked the beginning of my very last semester of college. Isn't that a trip?

Speaking of trips, my partner, Alex, and I took Monday to drive around the Bay Area a bit. We took off in the morning with no plan other than "let's go to IHOP and then somewhere pretty," and ended up going to Treasure Island, accidentally going to San Francisco, accidentally going back to Treasure Island, then on purpose going to Land's End.

(IHOP was amazing.)

(The rest was also amazing.)

My favorite pictures from our adventures:

American Crow. Treasure Island, California. January 16, 2017.

Bay Bridge towards San Francisco, California. January 16, 2017.

Bay Bridge towards Treasure Island, California. January 16, 2017.

Alex doing her thing on Treasure Island, California. January 16, 2017.

Shipping container on Treasure Island, California. January 16, 2017.

I have a migraine so I'm not going to identify this gull, but please have at it in the comments! Treasure Island, California. January 16, 2017.

Western Grebe. Treasure Island, California. January 16, 2017.

Western Grebe. Treasure Island, California. January 16, 2017.

Bay Bridge towards West Oakland, California. January 16, 2017.

Common Raven. Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

Common Raven. Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

Anna's Hummingbird. Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

Anna's Hummingbird. Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.
Alex at Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

Alex at Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

Sutro Baths. Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

Snowy Egret. Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

Snowy Egret. Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

Snowy Egret. Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

Snowy Egret. Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

Snowy Egret. Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

Snowy Egret. Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

Towards the Pacific Ocean! Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

White-crowned Sparrow. Lands End, California. January 16, 2017.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Hello, 2017

My family went to Sedona, Arizona for Christmas. Sedona was so beautiful that I don't think that 3-syllable word, "beautiful," can properly describe all of those red rock formations, snow-covered trees, and endless skies. The Verde Valley that harbors Sedona and its neighboring cities is full of spiritual energy and centuries of history. I spent the vacation remembering how to breathe, remembering what it feels like to be a whole person. I also spent it trying to remember what it feels like to bird.

Red Rock Crossing, Arizona. December 25, 2016.

Chapel of the Holy Cross, Arizona. December 26, 2016.

One of the concierges at our hotel was nice enough to give us tips on where to go and what to see around Sedona. At some point, my mom mentioned that I like birds, and the concierge lit up.

"There's lots of birds around here! Did you bring your binoculars?"

"No," I said, "I left them at home."

Her brow furrowed. "You left them at home?"

I shrugged. "Yeah. I'm on vacation."

Now, her eyebrows rose. "On vacation? From birding? You can't take a vacation from birding."

I shrugged again.

There are a lot of reasons why I haven't been birding much in the last 3 years. A lot of reasons. They're interwoven with every single heartbreaking, but also awe-inspiring and uplifting, thing that has happened in my life since I moved to Berkeley. There's no way I can explain everything, but I can try.

Freshman year, I tried my hardest to keep up the habit of going birding every weekend. As school picked up, it became every other weekend. Then, every month. Then, a couple of times a semester.  But, I still tried my best to go whenever I could. I spent the summer after my freshman year riding buses around my new apartment, trying to learn this city that had suddenly become home. I took a 2-hour bus ride to Point Pinole. I made a few trips to the Berkeley Marina. I sat in my backyard (and what a luxury that is as a college student, to have a backyard) and learned which sparrows and jays and wrens visited my new bushes. Birding was my favorite way to escape the daily struggles and stress and impossible difficulty of school. Birding rooted me into the Berkeley soil and told me "you are here. This is where you live now. Isn't it beautiful?" But suddenly, when sophomore year started, there was too much going on for me to even try to escape. My freshly grown roots were ripped from the soil.

Everything happened at once. I began working long hours, longer than I actually physically could. I stayed late on campus to study, stayed late in the lab to research, stayed up late in my bed because it was hard to fall asleep, so I might as well watch another episode of that TV show. 

I lost one of my best friends in a fight that dragged on for a year and a half, and left me with painful memories of watching her wash dishes at midnight in water hot enough to burn, of gently telling her I would finish for her when she picked up a knife by its blade and held the blade against her palm, considering it, like someone considers which cereal to buy at Safeway.

I stopped eating.

Shit had hit the fan, and something had to give. If I didn't want that "something" to be me, it had to be birding. That's the truth of it. 

I can count on one hand the number of people who I actually told what I was going through. Nazo, thank you for being awake at every odd hour of the night when I really needed a hug. Ann, thank you for opening your heart and helping me feel like less of a monster. Mom and Dad, thank you for your constant support, guidance, and love. Sierra, thank you for helping me face moments that I thought would end me.  

They didn't end me. I am still here, and I promise you that I dug into the core of my being and called up every single tiny speck of my power to make sure I made it. It wasn't always clear if I would.

Eventually, the days became less and less painful. Now, I have gained the perspective to say that I've made it through one event horizon before, and I'll be okay if I have to make it through again. The days aren't easy, per se, but they're easier. I'm relearning what it's like to sleep, to eat, to grow roots and find shelter and nourish myself. I'm relearning how to be alive in this incredible, tumultuous, humbling, spectacular world.

I'm relearning how to look for birds.

Heermann's Gulls at Stinson Beach, California. August 8, 2016.

Brown Pelicans at Stinson Beach, California. August 8, 2016.

I'm starting small. I'm okay with seeing a hummingbird in between classes, or happening upon a junco in the mulch outside of a library, or glancing up from a homework assignment and catching a raptor soaring far above this entire city. That's what birding was for me 6 years ago - simple joy, and a way to understand what "home" means.

Maybe it can be home again.

(In case you're curious, the bird highlights of Sedona were a Bald Eagle who stared at our train as we trundled by, two Greater Roadrunners who ran in front of our car after we left Tuzigoot National Monument, and a Northern Cardinal as we checked out of our hotel on the last morning of 2016.)


Beautiful places I've been to in the last year of healing:

Asilomar Beach, California. March 20, 2016.

Sunol Regional Wilderness, California. April 2, 2016.

Yosemite National Park, California. July 9, 2016.

Bucharest, Romania. July 31, 2016.