California

From Sea to Sierra (SFO->EWR)

If you haven’t been to the San Francisco Bay Area yourself, and if you wonder why I’m always so happy to get home to it; or why visitors to SF and the bay area so often rave about it — a good place to start is to take in the photo just above. I’m still working my way through photos I took last year, before I headed over to Bangui, where I’ve been now for more than two months. I shot all of the photos in this post during a take-off from SFO en route to EWR last year, in May — but what I’m posting are just photos from the bay area and up til the time we reached the still snow-covered Sierra Nevadas. Since it was nearly a year ago, and this year hasn’t seen as much snow — just remember: it’s last year! Enjoy!


Consolation of the Arts: In Oakland for an Exhibition

In November, I had the great pleasure of participating as a tour guide in the Forced From Home exhibit, which in 2017 toured five different cities in the west. This provided me with a chance not only to explore a few corners of Oakland more thoroughly than past visits, but also to meet a bunch of other MSF colleagues whom I’d probably never meet otherwise, unless we happened to be in the same mission at the same time. (Which was not the case for any of the interesting and fun fellow tour-guides I met during this stop on the tour.) The exhibit itself happened just across the street from Lake Merritt, right behind the beautiful Oakland Civic Auditorium aka Henry Kaiser Auditorium. The building itself has been closed for structural reasons for more than a decade – but the outside is still beautiful.

But the most important thing the tour gave me was a chance to share a more realistic taste of what life is like for many of the patients and communities we work with, than I can do just speaking in front of a classroom or to friends when I get home from an assignment. I’m always looking for ways to capture what’s similar and what’s different, between the wealth of most US communities and what’s normal for so many people where I work. People who grew up where and when I grew up take so very much for granted that they often seem to actually believe it’s a hardship to not be able to get the next release of an i-phone the day it comes out. (I know poverty is present in the US – but even the poorest states and towns will still usually have paved roads in the town center, a public electricity grid that’s very stable by global standards, a municipal water supply, local and national governments with sufficient income to maintain a fairly reasonable level of civil order, and so on.)  In any case, I spent about 10 days sharing stories and examples of what displaced people all around the world might face – and it was an honor and a pleasure. It’s interesting to sort and look back at these photos and remember the questions my tour visitors asked, now that I’m back at work in a country with something like 25% of its citizens displaced from their homes due to violence.

I’ll let the photos, of the civic center and the tour, of downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt in all their glory, speak for themselves. (Do read the titles on the small photos from the auditorium, above – you’ll find how I titled this post.) And I’ll share three public links, the first about this year’s plans for the Forced From Home tour (it’s well worth a visit if it stops near you), the second an article about the exhibit which quotes me, and the third a recent public statement relating to the work I’m doing at the moment, to keep things in context. As you know I can’t really talk about the current work on this personal blog…but public statements are public statements.

http://www.forcedfromhome.com/about/

https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Immersive-exhibition-on-the-plight-of-refugees-12327880.php

http://www.msf.org/en/article/central-african-republic-survivors-describe-mass-rape-ordeal-outside-bossangoa


China Camp State Historic Park

On a warm, bright day last May, I for the very first time took the freeway exit which would lead me, Amy & Nancy to China Camp State Historic Park on the shores of San Pablo Bay in the northern reaches of the greater San Francisco Bay. All along the freeway north of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, one sees signs for state parks, state historic parks, significant historical or architectural landmarks…and too often one simply drives past with the internal monologue that says “I’ll visit next time.” It’s rather like New York City residents who see the Statue of Liberty out their subway window during elevated portions of the ride from Brooklyn into Manhattan but may actually visit the island itself only once a decade when visitors from out of town express an interest. In any case we three did finally visit on that bright morning in May, exploring a few short trails and enjoying the visitor center’s historical displays about the local shellfish harvesting done mostly by Chinese immigrants, and the local community and commercial culture that grew up around these camps. Yet another sad fact in the history of the western US is the sheer historical forgetfulness of too many anglo types around the essential, critical role played by so many non-anglo communities in making these places what they are today. This little park does its bit to remind us all, and I for one found it well worth a visit – try it yourself some time! And for anyone who’s curious: yes, I’m now back in the heart of Africa, writing this fairly close to the shores of the Oubangui river and I’ll just let you guess where that places me, if you don’t already know :-). At some point I might find a few things I can photograph and post from here, but for the time being I am still using my limited personal free time to dig through photos from some of my favorite outings during my extended inter-mission last year…I hope you enjoy them as they pop here every now and then in coming weeks, as the occasional lazy Sunday morning with sufficient internet bandwidth permits. Peace, health, thanks as always for visiting the site and sharing my photos with me … out.


Marred, Scarred & Marvelous Mountains of Sonoma County

Singing the mountains and valleys, trees and rocks, grass and flowers and even the loud wild turkeys that surround me in my adopted home here in the North Bay. As most readers and friends know, this adopted home town of Santa Rosa, where I’ve hung my hat any available moment between assignments or family-and-work trips elsewhere since 2014, was caught up in a devastating fire which then became a complex of several enormous fires in October of last year. As noted in a few previous posts, I’m trying to watch the process of decay and new growth which nature is pushing forward as the rainy season has rolled from November through now February here. We’re still far too short on rainfall for the rainy season, and must hope for many more inches in coming months if we’re to avoid further devastating fires and water restrictions later on. But for the moment, the grass has greened the hills and gentle steady rains have revived many plants whether burned, dormant, or both. Burned patches scar many of our mountains as seen from a distance, while burned trees and rocks remind us on walks and bike rides that we’re fortunate the fires ended when they did. I’ll soon be off to a new assignment, in a portion of Africa which rarely makes the global headlines, and where the opportunity and luxury of taking photos will rarely apply. So to remind myself of the beauty for which I’m so grateful every time I come home…I’m popping a whole ton of photos (yes, I know, way too many) up on here. Further down you’ll see galleries with tree-and-rock level detail of charred tree trunks still standing and bravely putting out new leaves and shoots; you’ll also see three months’ worth of photos of my fire-scarred rock in its gully and be able to compare the process of regrowth. It’s rather like watching the scar from my own small surgical procedure last December: each month, that scar seems to recede. Mine is only a small scar, unlike many of our mountainsides whose scars still astonish with their size and brownness, even in this relatively green time of the year. Enjoy the photos – click on individual pictures in each gallery and you might see why I included it once it’s a bit larger. (For example, a tree scarred at the bottom but still alive higher up.) Here’s to a year of healing wounds and finding new growth, for me and everyone reading this :-).

 

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Hope & Slow Regrowth

Look closely at this post’s first photo, and you will notice drier, browner patches in the mountains on the far side of the valley. Those are from the Tubbs fire, which in early October burned such a path of destruction in and around Santa Rosa. When that fire struck I was on the east coast visiting my mother, who’s had some health issues of her own. In early December, I got out to Anadel again with a good MSF friend & colleague (see photo below). She had recommended that I pick a specific view or area to photograph as I get out and about in Santa Rosa and watch the process of regrowth. (Anadel is the state park affected by the Nunns fire, which was separated at one point from the Tubbs Fire only by the valley you see in that first photo.)

I’ve followed her advice – did so, in fact, the morning we took this photo. Further down you’ll see a gallery of square photos, three in a row. You’ll notice a rock there with a clear burn mark across the moss: I plan to photograph this rock any time I’m up there in the coming year or so. As with these two, I’ll title the photos with dates, so I and any interested readers can watch the process of regrowth. It seems nature is faster at rebuilding — it seems to happen…well, naturally there. The many destroyed homes I bicycle past when going about my appointed rounds seem to still be under review by claims adjusters, and a friend who lost his home tells me there are various safety requirements to be met prior to fully launching a rebuild. (In particular around possible toxics from burnt homes in the soil, I think?) Still, though, I figure we’re likely to see a significant building boom by the middle of the new year.

The BBC tells me that Prince Harry (he of UK fame) recently did a radio show where he spoke with (among others) President Barack Obama, truly a class act whom I and millions of Americans miss greatly. Harry asked about finding hope when times are tough. I’ve found myself talking about the same topic a lot with friends at home — friends whose homes burned, friends who had to evacuate. All of them friends who, like me, find the dishonest bully currently in the white house quite distressing and depressing. I take comfort in signs of growth and connection where I can. I choose to believe that there is at least as much generosity and kindness in this country and this world, as there is sadness and loss. May 2018 prove me right for us all on this blue ball spinning through space :-).


Art in Nature (Sonoma County)

Do I need to spell it out? Or are the photos, all taken in the past two weeks, enough? More soon, I promise (almost). Hugs & happy holidays!


Vulnerable, and Grateful

 

Last Friday I stepped out my door, lurched down the stairs in my building, and went for a walk. Within the first 100 steps, I experienced new and strange emotional reactions to something so terribly simple as going for a walk down my block. I feared I’d fall, I feared a kid on a skateboard would bump into me or someone might beat me up, I feared a bicyclist might hit me or a dog might leap up and put its paws on my stomach. So many fears for one small person taking a simple walk down the block!

As I walked, I grew more familiar with my new limitations, aches and pains. I also slowly felt my envelope of of pain-free and reduced-fear activity expand ever so slightly. In the end, I walked more than a mile into downtown Santa Rosa and bought myself a ticket to the matinee of the new Blade Runner. (It’s very contemplative; so relieved in this ADHD-age someone is still doing slow & contemplative on the big screen.) And I probably grew a bit as a human through this process.

Both above and below, you see how fast the fire moved: notice the fence post burned at the bottom but not at the top.

 

Seven days ago I had hernia-repair surgery. The walk, two days later, was the first time I’d been out and about on my own with my newly-sore, cut-open and compromised abdomen. Every movement I made (or tried to make) reminded me why we call this our ‘core’ – my abdomen came into play when I tried to blow my nose or sneeze; when I tried to walk faster to catch a traffic light so as to cross an intersection; any time I tried to roll over in bed or sit up or go to the toilet. It was a newly-humbling experience, to feel so very vulnerable. I’ve spent something like 1/5 of my life in places with poorer resources and support for the vulnerable and weak than right here, yet it’s here that I experienced one of my most jarring moments of fear and vulnerability.

A good reminder to take nothing for granted. This, for me, calls forth a response of gratitude & appreciation for all that I do have. Especially since I know my friends, colleagues & interlocutors in other settings don’t have many of these blessings and advantages. At the start of November, I spent a week being tour guide with the Forced From Home exhibit, in which I and other staff who’ve worked in field positions with MSF guide small groups around several stations depicting the realities of having to flee one’s home, and what one might encounter along the way. Before we opened, most of us tour guides seemed to agree that what we most hoped our groups would take away from the exhibit was an abiding sense of appreciation of what we do have. (Shout out to all the clinical colleagues who take care of me & keep me safe during my most vulnerable moments in the field, btw…)

(If curious, check out this article with a quote or two from me:

http://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Immersive-exhibition-on-the-plight-of-refugees-12327880.php

– I’ll have some more photos up from Oakland me doing the tour thing, at some point in coming weeks/months…)

That week guiding tour groups through the exhibit in Oakland was especially poignant for me, because my home city of Santa Rosa is still in the long and painful process of recovery from the wild fires. Like me, several local friends have commented that we are reluctant to drive (in my case, bike) around the most-affected zone – or take photos there. It feels almost voyeuristic, and possibly disrespectful of direct human pain and loss resident in those areas. My surgeon’s office is in one of the large buildings that survived the first, most destructive fires. A week before the operation, I biked the eight miles from home up to his office for my pre-op consultation. This post is mostly full of photos I took that day – along Redwood Highway north of downtown Santa Rosa. The burn-related photos were taken on November 14, five weeks after the first fires struck. At one main intersection (the photo just above), the buildings at three corners were destroyed while a gas station at the northwest corner stood, as did the construction site immediately west of it. This was all visible from the waiting room in my surgeon’s office. And I saw an unusual number of people who, like me, were standing to look out the windows from this higher vantage point, scanning the hills and taking stock.

The fires, like my surgery, remind me of my own vulnerability and human frailty. They also remind me of my many blessings, friends, gifts and joys. One of my best friends dropped me off & picked me up after surgery – he and his extended family also hosted me the following day for Thanksgiving surrounded by three generations of kids, parents & grandparents.  (The photo just below is of a woozy-looking me with Howard, at my apartment after he brought me home.) My mother is recovering wonderfully well (knock wood) from her own, far more serious surgery. And I have fundamentally safe streets with sidewalks down which I can stroll, appreciating fall foliage and now all the displays of Christmas decorations going up, as I steadily rebuild my body’s strength and capacity in preparation for what I firmly expect will be an enjoyable end of year holiday season with friends and family. My Unitarian-Universalist congregation has focused on faith, this month: in what do we place our faith. I choose to have faith that the sun will continue to rise, that seeds will continue to sprout, and that it is always good to be kind and generous to those around us. Even if this makes me wildly crazy in the eyes of the pessimists among us, I find it simply so very much more enjoyable to be kind than not. I hope you’ll join me 😊. Peace.

Above, me on that vulnerable first walk after surgery and some of the red fall foliage that I’m so over-the-top in love with; below, Cardinal Newman HS athletic fields with a burned hillside behind. Below that, two photos from the Ft Ross area which I just happened to have on hand from a trip with another visiting friend a week or two earlier. For those who don’t know: Ft Ross is a totally cool state historic park documenting the southernmost imperial Russian presence on the west coast of North America; including this rebuilt Russian Orthodox church. SO cool.


Walking The (Fire) Line in Annadel

The cal-fire site tells me that the Nuns fire complex ultimately burned 56,556 acres. The final report date on the site is November 6, which I suppose means it was 100% contained or fully extinguished on or before that date. Earlier, I’d assume, since the superintendent of Annadel State Park allowed parts of the park to reopen for hikers, bikers and runners on the 5th if I understood the signs well.

My last post contained all the photos I’d taken in Sonoma County between returning from Haiti (late April), and the day of the post. Today, I’m posting almost entirely photos taken yesterday in my beloved nearby State Park. Annadel is a gem on the eastern edge of Santa Rosa which has been a key source of recreation and mental-health management for me here in Santa Rosa. The fire burned through about 2/3 of it, and if the wonderful fire fighters (see thank you signs from my last post) hadn’t stopped it where they did, then it would have destroyed many homes near the park, and I guess there was a very real risk this fire complex would merge with the Tubbs complex, which had already destroyed so much to the north in Santa Rosa.

With many of the trails open, I got out there again yesterday to appreciate the park and take stock of the damage. I try to find silver linings: that it WAS stopped here is a silver lining; that green shoots are already sprouting among the charred grasses is also good to see. (See the round gallery a little lower down.) The rainy season has come – it’s sprinkling as I type this – and so we must hope for enough rain to allow plants to re-grow strong…but not so much as to cause too many land slides in all the newly-vulnerable areas whose trees and grasses have been burned.

If you look closely, you will really see how rapidly the fire passed through (burned areas surrounding unburned patches), plus the stark line where they stopped the fire: trees charred on the south side, still green moss on the north side. Rocks the same way. Since I already wrote more in the last post, I’ll leave it here for now. Gratitude, shock, slow return to regular life, I guess. Peace, everyone. Most photos have titles that’ll tell you what they are or why I selected them.

Can you spot the photo in the gallery above is not taken in Anndel? It’s this entry’s tribute to our first-responders. 🙂

In a post last year, I did a selfie while taking a breakfast break lying on one of these two tables, at the junction of Marsh & Canyon trails. Canyon was the fire line through this portion of the park — the photo above, here, with straw over where fire fighters had widened the line is on Canyon trial, west of this point. To compare then and now, check this link or others labeled Annadel, or Sonoma County, or Napa & Sonoma (I need to work on my tags…) — https://somuchworldsolittletime.com/2016/08/19/dry-hillsides-live-oaks/


Fall Foliage, Fire, Fear & Faith

For a lot of reasons, I tend to hide the personal me on this blog – focusing instead on the remarkable people I’ve worked with & places I’ve been. The personal me is by nature a fairly private individual, even if I occasionally manage public coherence when speaking about my work experiences. With this post, I’m making exceptions to a few of my usual rules: I’m taking photos out of order, so as to include photos taken this very morning (rather than continuing to work my way forward from late May, when I took those last photos I posted from Beacon, NY)…and it’s more than usually about me and the community I’ve called home since 2014.

The place I call home is Santa Rosa: county seat and geographic heart of Sonoma County, a lovely small city nestled between mountain ranges, surrounded by parks (state, city and county), blessed with farmers who plant and grow the most delicious fruits and vegetables and bring them to us at year-round farmer’s markets, with vineyards that produce fantastic wines, with so many breweries & brewpubs that it’s an embarrassment of riches. We’re blessed with bike paths, with urban planners who let the traffic lights notice the small profile of a biker as well as the larger profile of a car…meaning I can make a left turn without having to get off my bike and press for the walk signal at most intersections.

…look closely in the  photo above and you will see some blackened patches, not far from roofs of houses built up against the edge of the park on the lower slopes of those hills. I’ve had camera trouble (an SD card went haywire) so I had to re-do these photos with the wrong light and I can’t get back out there again soon when the light’s better…so, sorry for the lower quality of today’s photos.

Here in Santa Rosa I’ve been able to hop on my bike, take to the hills and work through whatever stress and sadness have accumulated through the work I do. I’ve grown accustomed to working in places which are in the headlines – a year ago, I was living in Port au Prince when hurricane Matthew struck; just two months ago, I was in Sierra Leone when a landslide & flood killed hundreds in an instant. I had not thought to have friends texting and writing to ask if I was safe at my home in Santa Rosa – but that’s what happened, Monday the 9th of October as I sat with my mother in a doctor’s office on the other side of the continent. First, friends called to ask if they could offer my apartment (empty, since I was away helping my mother with some medical challenges) to people suddenly evacuated because of the literal fire storm which with shocking speed consumed homes, lives, hotels, and businesses overnight from late on Sunday the 8th into the 9th. Then other friends began texting, to ask whether my own home was affected. And there I was, a few thousand miles away with other commitments.

I returned home six days ago, and have been taking stock of this city & county I’m so happy to call home and pay my taxes in…since, after all, it’s those wonderful county taxes which support our wonderful firefighters and responders, I assume. I’m offering here a range of photos, all taken between late April (when I returned after the end of my assignment in Haiti) and this morning. Each photo has a file name which will tell you what it is – and usually when it is. 171027 means this morning, 2017 – 10 – 27, and so on.

Since I have reading friends and followers around the world, let me explain a bit: California (especially the coastal parts, but really most of the state) gets all of its (limited) rain in the months from October to April. Usually it’s really November to March. Our plant and animal communities – from the famous redwood trees to our mountain lions and California poppies – have evolved around these extremes of wet and dry, with fire as a critical part of the ecostystem. Redwoods, I believe, thrive on flash fires – which clear away their competition in rapid brush fires which they can easily survive. Caveat: I’m not an expert on this stuff, but am trying to remember what I’ve read in park signs and articles. I’m quite certain that fire has been part of the native ecosystems here since long before even the first Native Americans arrived in what’s now Sonoma County – let alone before the first Europeans interlopers arrived just a handful of centuries ago, when most redwoods still standing were already mature.

The first photo in this post was taken in Annadel State Park in late April – at the end of the wettest rainy season we’ve seen in many years. Of course, that rain meant we had lots of new growth this year. And of course, we had our usual dry season which led to the brown hills with dusty green of scrub oaks and lots of dry new growth, which you’ll see in other posts. Look closely at the photo just below, and you’ll see how the grass burned on the hills of Annadel just above a city park where I often play tennis. It’s fairly common for parks to burn, this late in the dry season. It’s not at all common for a firestorm to erupt and spread so very rapidly under heavy winds. Friends who were here at the time, and who were evacuated, tell stories of going to bed aware of heavy winds, waking up to the sound of neighbors knocking on doors and/or loading their cars with family and pets then driving off, at 3 in the morning. I do not have the heart to show the destruction to property and homes: those photos are already out there, and for me to pile on feels disrespectful to the  members of my adopted community who have lost so much. I am worried about one of my favorite farmers, who grows in the northern part of Santa Rosa where the first fires were at their most intense. (It’s her produce you see in one of the photo galleries further down – from figs to aubergine/eggplant and peppers.) I hope when I next make it to the farmer’s market, I’ll learn that she and her farm and family are all OK.

This is already a longer post than usual – and as you see, I’m throwing in a range of photos I’ve taken throughout  Sonoma County since returning from Haiti in April. Why? I’ve been fearful about the health of people I love, from my mother to friends here in Santa Rosa, to a dear family friend who passed away last month. And I’ve certainly been fearful for the homes and lives of my community here – including my own home, which has remained untouched (knock wood) but was much too close for comfort.

At the same time I have been heartened, as always, by the magnificence of fall foliage both on the east coast (New York, New Jersey) and here in Santa Rosa. By the enduring refuge of nature and the cycles of our planet which so greatly outstrips my own small life and experience. I take comfort from understanding myself as one transient element of a planet and a universe I find beautiful and enduring, and which I hope future generations will enjoy long after my own molecules have reassembled elsewhere. I also remember that at most times, even in places affected by great crisis, most people are doing their best to get on with life, feeding their kids and wiping their noses. 

A thing I’ve loved about Santa Rosa & Sonoma county since first introducing myself here is how warm and friendly people are. This is reflected, I think, in the fact that I see signs everywhere thanking our first responders: the fire, police, emergency-response and support professionals who have deployed from communities near and far to limit damage, hold fires back from property and lives as much as possible, and help everyone react and adjust as well as we all can. I interpret this not only as gratitude that they’ve helped save so much, but also as refusal to give in to fear, insistence on seeing hope and opportunity rather than only loss or worry. These are, in the end, individual choices each of us must make: live in fear or live in hope? My favorite park is closed until further notice – but I’ve learned again how many of us love that park (see the sign with heart saying we love Anndell, noted on a fence not far from me). Being redirected to other bike paths and parts of town also helps me see and learn anew – for example, that our city has provided a fly-casting pond  where folks walk their dogs and practice their fly-casting techniques for their next trip to the trout streams. So, despite a worried heart about people at risk or dealing with loss, both near and far…I find faith that the sun will rise again tomorrow, that we’ll find our way through these difficult patches, and that somehow we’ll rebuild and restore balance and harmony, first in our community and then, perhaps, elsewhere on a fractious globe. Peace, out.


Spring -> Snow -> Beach – In the Air

After that last visit to Amsterdam, I flew home to California in late April, the end of a wonderfully wet and snowy rain season on the west coast: which meant lots of much-needed snow even in the mountains of California! As always, I aimed for a window seat and kept my camera handy. I no longer remember the precise route, but I think we went about 1/3 of the way up Greenland and across northern Canada, then angled down around the mountains between British Columbia & Calgary in Canada, and across into the US south of there still angling southwest. The four big photos (above, below, and after the gallery) are out of order — look closely and you’ll see the Hollywood sign on the hills in the photo of LA just above, as the plane flew inland then swung around and line up for the southern runway’s approach route. And I’m fairly sure the photo directly below is from Greenland.  (Yes, a thing those from the East Coast of the US may not know is that when flying from the West Coast to Europe, one usually flies over Greenland, as opposed to just south of Iceland which I usually seem to do when flying from NYC.) The shots in the gallery are all in order. I think we crossed the Sierra Nevada south of Yosemite and I was seated as you see on the left of the plane, so I didn’t see Mt Whitney or Yosemite from the air, more’s the pity – the few times I have, my camera has not been handy. Oh well…next time :-). Enjoy!