Monday, January 31, 2011

Of Mice and, um, Frogs?

We arrived at Gazos Beach and found a completely different, and much smaller, pattern in the sand. The mice and other small beach denizens were out in force. But was this a mouse?

And here is a lovely bipedal hopper, with a distinct tail drag down the middle. The trail was longer than I can show with photos, too. The space between each set of two tracks was about one-half to five inches.

We spent most of the morning with our noses about a foot away from the sand.

For the afternoon, we had to get up and stretch. We walked inland, up an old dirt road, following coyote trails. We came to a spot where the texture of the road was nothing but coyote prints atop more coyote prints, but the confluence of canid trails soon dispersed again. We scouted around for more evidence of the main coyote highway, and instead found a stunningly glassy little irrigation pond just uphill.

Next to the pond, a dismembered and well-gnawed deer carcass. We wondered if it had been killed by a mountain lion or by coyotes, or was it a roadkill? And what had fed on it?

Look at that slice through the spinal column, and the chomp marks on the rib! Cats will shear the ribcage open wide to get at the choicest internal organs. But is this a neat shear or rough gnawing?

We also found this little pile of poo. It was old, and didn't hold much scent. When I poked it with a stick, it seemed fluffy, not dense, and the hair was twisted around and ropy in places. Some folks say that felid poo is dense and shaped more like tootsie rolls, while canid poo is loose and ropy and comes to a sharp point at the ends.

The two hind legs were strewn around away from the carcass and most of the meat -- and some skin and fur -- eaten. The head, neck and forequarters were still unaccounted for. The bones, too, were chewed. Would a lone mountain lion dismember a carcass? Would a pack of coyotes? Could smaller scavengers manage to drag the quarters so far?

But on closer inspection, this right hind leg shows that the femur was cleanly snapped in two, rather than crushed. That might imply a very strong blunt force, rather than the crushing bite of a predator.

We found a pretty big, goopy looking pile of short plant fibers near the pond. Next to the pile, we found stringy, membranous scraps. We thought that these were the remains of the gut contents, stomach and intestines. Popular wisdom says that cats generally eviscerate their prey and then drag the carcass away from the gut pile.

When we were done examining the carcass, we concluded that the deer had been hit by a car on the road. With at least one leg broken, it either died or was killed by coyotes and then brought up to the pond for the pack to consume. What do you think?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Before the Break

I missed a post! Before this nice month-long break, we had one other week of program. My camera malfunctioned and I couln't document the days visually, so I forgot to document at all. My apologies. In any case:

This week of December 13th, we tracked coyotes, listened to bird language, built fires, and generally horsed around. Then on Wednesday we got word that Essentials and Cultural Mentoring were going to come down to Gazos Beach, our habitual haunts, for some tracking. We agreed to host our fellow RDNA-ers at tracking stations. We got out to the beach early and wandered, finding some interesting examples of track and sign. Then we got ready for the arrival f the rest of RDNA. Two of our members placed bandanas over their faces, took hollow lengths of bamboo for breathing tubes, and were buried in shallow graves under 6 inches of sand in the middle of the beach. We smoothed the sand over our companions, set up our backpacks to hide the breathing tubes, and circled up around the burial sites as if innocently waiting. Some of us departed for the dunes to sit and watch, hoping to divert attention with somewhat obvious hiding places. When all of RDNA was assembled around our buried companions, we led a sense meditation to bring everyone into the moment. At the end of the meditation, at a code word, our buried companions burst out and clambered to standing. All around wore shocked, but pleased, expressions. Our tracking stations followed and all concerned, especially Native Eyes, learned a lot.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Coyote Blessing

A prospective new addition to NE this week: another participant, spending the week with us to see how NE might work for and with her. We met at Gazos beach again, our mission to get to know individual coyotes using the five measurements: length and width of the front foot in a walk, length and width of the hind foot in a walk, and length of the stride in a direct register trot. We greeted the coyote tracks as we entered the beach, and got down to business. But before we'd gone along the coyote trails, we found this mystery:

The head was missing, and it had been long since eaten by it's killer and by insects. The shears on the wing feathers, though, looked fresher, with the inner part of the feather less weathered.

The foot, also, had been sheared clean through, as if by garden clippers. The inside of the bone was still red, while the rest of the soft tissues of the carcass had been weathered to brown or gray.

We found this creature along a coyote trail, where the canid had deviated from it's trot into a walk to approach the carcass, then resumed it's previous path and gait past the bird.

We found that and more mysteries on the dunes. We took measurements and sketched individual tracks. We worked past lunch, then the brain burn got to us. One by one we dropped our journals, our measuring tapes, and our pencils. One of our number stripped to his shorts and took a swim in the surf. Another lay down and considered the sand and the sky. Two others had already wandered off in pursuit of a raccoon trail. I sat down and ate my lunch.

After our interlude, we came back together to play the cluster tracking game. Once we finished and were about to start up the beach, someone shouted "look!" We all looked up at the trailhead in time to see the coyote bouncing down the trail in a neat side trot. He zigged and zagged, looked nervously over his shoulder, and showed off many of the other behaviors we had been tracking! When he disappeared into the dunes we rushed over to find his tracks, shouting our thanks to the coyote.

Later around the fire, we talked with our prospective new member about the Native Eyes experience, and about the day. I was in conversation with the new person about how our group has tracked together for ten weeks now. We've seen eachother hit walls already. But it probably wouldn't take long for her to mesh with us-- we were crying in front of eachother on the first day.

Jon joined us at the fire and also took up conversation with our newcomer. I'll try to summarize the conversation.

In Native Eyes, we cry easy and we laugh easy too. Our journeys into connection with nature bring us into contact with powerful experiences that are our birthright. These powerful experiences make us quick to laugh, celebrate, give thanks, and make fun. For most of us, these experiences were stripped from our cultures in violent conquests generations ago. So this understanding also brings us into generations-old grief over what we have lost. For many of us that grief is close to the surface and can easily spill over in tears.

People may expect this program to work within the conqueror model of education that prevails through most of our culture. Compromise with the conqueror model helps those of us who grew up conquered stave off the grief of realizing what we've missed. But it also keeps us from the powerful nature connection experiences that give us back what we've been missing. Native Eyes is one program where they won't compromise. They notice that grief comes up, and keep up the coyote mentoring anyway.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Creeks and coyotes

The sun sported a halo on Tuesday as we started tracking on the beach. One group stayed by the trailhead to map the copious coyote trails there, and my group journeyed north, hoping to find another coyote hot spot.

Past the center of coyote action, not even a lone canid trail traveled the beach. Another critter was out, though, traveling oddly like a coyote in a straight line across the sand. The critter seemed to be moving in an overstep two-by-two pace.

For a while, the most prevalent tracks were tiny, three-toed blips in the sand. This little dude flew in and paced around at about the same cadence as the tracks, bobbing his head and scouting for invertebrate prey.

When he flew on to find more food, we found these tracks in his wake. The same tracks!

Just south of Gazos Creek we went inland toward Gazos Grill, checking for trails toward the grill's dumpster. A wide, low trail cut through the poison oak and was covered with little five-fingered handprints -- a raccoon's run. On the beach side of the road, the only larder we could find was a wild rose decked with fruit. A few coyote trails crisscrossed, but we found no scent marking or interaction.

The only scent post we found was this old bobcat latrine.

We crossed Gazos Creek flowing fast and cold over the beach sand, and found a raven party on the flat expanse.

Following the ravens, we found logs with interesting little burrows beneath them, full of little caches of sea rocket seed pods.

We continued for a long way up the beach. The high tide had wiped away all tracks.

As we moved further north, the cliffs to the east began dripping, dribbling and leaking water down to the sand. We wondered if that water would be safe to drink.

We began to notice coyote trails traveling north or south just under the high tide mark.

We found a bird kill and then another, with coyote trails veering through the scattered feathers but not pausing in their cadence.

The bird below had a fascinating bill.

Finally we came to another creek flowing from a low place in the cliffs and disappearing into the beach sand. Coyote trails upon coyote trails converged from the washed-out surf zone up toward and along the creek.

We followed up the creek, clambering over driftwood and mini waterfalls on a carpet of watercress.

Around a corner in the waterway, there was a shelf of mudstone. On the shelf were the remains of a seabird, the feathers gnawed and sheared at the base.

With some measurements of the coyote trails and a general mental map of the area, we returned south to meet up with our companions.

We spent the evening mapping our wander, building a fire, cooking and debriefing the day with Jon.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

On the Hunt

This past week, we began with one simple mission: to get as close as possible to an elk (possibly the largest land animal currently living in the Bay Area), snap it's picture, and escape, all without betraying our presence. Here is our instructor, taunting us with some antlers of his own. (Actually, he was signaling an elk sighting.)

We broke into hunting parties and set out. Our second objective was to create a "songline," a story or narrative that we could relate to others. The others (Essentials and Cultural Mentors) would follow our songlines the next day, so our narratives had to be accurate, detailed, and memorable. My group found many things -- whose old burrow is this? It was as tall as it was wide, with a big throw mound. Loose soil seemed to have filled it in so that the bottom was shallow and level. Greg's head and shoulder fit in easily.

With only an hour left before we had agreed to meet up again, we found our herd of elk. A big male stood in a group of females, bugling. I snuck as close as I could in a few minutes, snapped this photo, and snuck back. I chose a route back to the trail that I thought would skirt the herd, but as I crested the rise, I saw elk ears over the grass. I ducked a bit, keeping out of direct sight of the elk, and kept heading toward the trail. Finally, I could see that a larger herd had moved on to the trail. Well, I wasn't going to get back to the cars without being noticed. I stood up and walked alongside the herd, watching their body language to gauge their comfort zone, getting close but not too close. Sometimes I got tense, thinking about their reactions to my presence, and all the elk near me lifted their heads, looking right at me. I breathed the tension away, used my peripheral vision to watch the elk and my surroundings, and let go of self-consciousness. The elk went back to grazing. I walked within 15 feet of the elk herd.

Others had amazing experiences as well. One person almost tripped over an elk calf bedded down behind coyote brush. Another stalked a bachelor herd for three hours and became so focus-locked that he never noticed the coyote that was trailing close behind him. We regrouped at the cars and returned to camp to make our fire, cook our food, and share stories.

The rest of these photos come from Abbott's Lagoon, where we went the next day in search of good clear prints in the sand. We tried to follow these trails that came out of the water and cavorted at the crest of a dune, but lost the pattern in all the frenetic movement. Who might have loped and rolled and slid down these dunes by the lagoon?

We finished up the day with a cluster tracking game of our own. A group of people acted out a scenario in the sand, then the rest of the participants came over to survey the tracks and piece together the events. This game is consistently one of my favorites. Playing the game can also help one develop an eye for understanding the previous chaotic clusters of tracks in the sand.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Shadow Scouting

A former Native Eyes student returned for this week. Nobody noticed him, even though he was with us the whole time. The above photo is from his cellphone (no zoom, sorry) and is centered on two Native Eyes participants.

We went down to Gazos Beach and examined some new mystery tracks. While we huddled around the print discussing the presence of nails, number of digits, and toepad shape, our shadow watched from the dunes.

We spread over the beach to take stock of the coyote activity and our shadow followed one group from the dunes. One coyote at the beach where we entered trotted cautiously in a straddle, then a direct register. Someone suggested that it may have felt opperessed. Further down the beach, coyote trails checked scentmarks and loped comfortably near the surf.

We met up with Cultural Mentoring to wander near the Moonrocks again, looking for deer browse, cougar sign, and fire kit materials. The deer were eating a slender green plant that seemed composed entirely of stem, no leaves, and sprouted from rhizomes near the surface of the soil. We also found the above scat, composed of deer hair. Is it big enough to be cougar?

Meanwhile our scout, having ridden along in an accomplice's truck, shadowed one of the wandering groups. He trailed them quite easily in the sand and brush when they got out of sight, following broken twigs and fresh shoe prints. He hid in plain sight using brush to break up his outline, and followed all day without anyone seeing him. At our evening meal, the rest of Native Eyes were so incredulous that they thought we made up the shadow scout story.

That evening the the staff fed the participants Ghost Supper, a ceremony brought to us by the Ottawa people of Michigan. The staff served a feast of ancestral foods, told stories, and hosted visitors at a sacred fire.

The next day, Native Eyes, Cultural Mentors, and Essentials all combined into clans to host eachother and the staff at their own Ghost Supper sacred fires. The Tule Elk Clan, who I hung out with, chose a sheltered site and creatively beautified the space. When darkness fell, the feasting was on. Stories and deliciousness abounded, as did freezing temperatures and whipping wind. A rotation of fireboys stayed up all night to tend fire, and many others kept watch with them.

I've outlined the sacred fire experiences very briefly, and haven't included much subjective experience. I'd like to invite anyone who was part of either event to share their experiences, positive, negative, challenging and regenerative, in the comments section. Thanks!