Tag Archives: nature

Hyperion – they don’t come bigger than this!

Hyperion. To some the legendary father of the sun, the moon and the dawn. To some, the tallest tree in the world.  To the millions who live in Los Angeles, it’s the sewage treatment plant at the end of the pipe. And to me, it will forever be a place that brings two parts of my life together.

Mayor Garcetti opens a new education center at Hyperion
Mayor Garcetti opens a new education center at Hyperion

On September 16th 2006 I schlepped Steve Sillet’s crossbow through the woods as he set out to document this record-breaking redwood for the first time. Until that point no-one really knew how tall the tree was. Steve’s work documented it as a record-breaker at 379.1 feet tall (that’s 115.55 meters). What was remarkable about the tree is that it narrowly escaped being cut down before being protected in Redwood National Park in 1978. I clearly remember being sat in that remote grove as Steve and his team went about their painstaking work. It was a magical place. So quiet and remote with beautiful trees all around.

Roll the clock forward a few years and on September 16th 2013, I found myself sat out by the beach under a hot sun with Hyperion — the municipal sewage plant for LA at my back. It was my first day on the job at Heal the Bay and I had come to where it all started. I was part of the crowd of city officials, environmentalists, and citizens come to watch the new Mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti, dedicate a brand new education center at what I learned is the second largest septic plant in the United States.

Back in 1985 a group of concerned citizens were tired off the endless pollution pouring into Santa Monica bay, killing fish and sickening people. Organized by Dorothy Green, they founded Heal the Bay, which for 28 years has worked tirelessly for clean beaches and water in Southern California.  Their first fight was to stop untreated wastewater from Hyperion being dumped into the bay. They won that battle and many more since then.

Today, the greatest threats to our coastal waters and watersheds, and to all of us – both human and animal – that rely on the ocean for pleasure, income or sustenance, come from urban and stormwater runoff, plastic pollution, and the ever-increasing stresses to our marine environment from over-fishing and climate change.  Together, these threaten to impair the bay and ocean just as untreated wastewater from Hyperion did all those years ago. Unfortunately the solutions are no longer as simple as as a new septic plant. They require us to be thinking and working throughout the watershed and at policies at both the local and state-wide level.

When I need inspiration,  I will return to this day and to Hyperion that brought so many threads together. From the towering redwood to the sewage treatment plant. At their core both are a story of how people stood up to protect places they care about and in the process changed the course of history.

Muir Woods

What’s that bug?

No blog yesterday as I spent the day with my son’s kindergarten class as they took a field trip to Tilden Park — one of the original parks in the East Bay Regional Park District. Chatting with the other parents this morning I realize that it was not just the kids who learnt something knew — it was the parents as well.  And it gave me a new perspective on the role a park can play as an outdoor classroom.

Dip, Dip, Dipping!
Dip, Dip, Dipping!
Bugs in the brambles teach about batesian mimicry
Bugs in the brambles teach about batesian mimicry

My hat goes off to our naturalist, Trent, who day in day takes out classes of kids excited to be out of school with their friends. He gets each group for maybe one hour during which time he has to keep them safe, calm them down, and hopefully impart a sense of wonder to his young charges. He had three simple rules: stay behind me; respect all living things (including your class mates); and have fun. He soon had the kids shouting out, “have fun” – which was itself fun as he pointed out.

His sense of wonder and enthusiasm was infectious for all of us. Who has ever really looked at a fly? Not only did Trent catch one and pass it around, he talked about how it uses “batesian mimicry” to pretend it’s a hornet. That led to an enthusiastic discussion of snakes and other animals that use similar techniques — what young kid doesn’t love a snake in disguise, especially one that looks poisonous? All that from a simple fly.

Bugs and snails and all sorts
Bugs and snails and all sorts

By the time we got to the pond the kids were ready to take charge and explore on their own. What appeared to be a stagnant pond covered in “scum” turned out to be a rich ecosystem teeming with life on a small scale — perfect for eager young naturalists. Larvae, slimy newt eggs, water snails, side-swimmers that look like shrimp, and of course the ever popular backswimmer that breathes through its bottoms.  The kids were soon  dipping their nets and emptying the contents into their explorer trays (in reality TV-dinner trays cleverly repurposed).  There’s nothing more exciting that discovering a water snail or unknown bug for yourself.

During my time at Save the Redwoods League I helped provide the funding to get thousands of kids out to the woods on naturalist-led hikes. This was the first time I had been along as a participant and watched it all unfold through the eyes of a kindergartener. I can think of no better way to start learning about the natural world than spending an hour dipping a pond teeming with life. I will certainly remember this trip for a long time.  For me it also underscored the importance of having parks close to where our kids are — and not just parks with swings and slides and ballparks. Parks with ponds and brambles and trees. You don’t need a Yosemite-sized park to introduce kids to nature. Just a spot that has been allowed to run a little wild.

Learning to Dip
Learning to Dip

The nature pocket

On the walk to school this morning, my son tugged my arm and pulled me back. He’d spotted a large pine cone laying in the gutter — “its not even sticky,” he yelled as he picked it up, “can we put in in the nature pocket?”

Pine Cone


Plane seed

The nature pocket is what you or might know as a water bottle holder on his backpack. Since there are two pockets, one can always double as a collectors pocket for my budding naturalists. I think this is a much better use! Today it collected the pine cone and a prickly seed pod from a plane tree. But it’s no stranger to redwood cones, leaves, flowers, feathers, sticks and the odd rock — all collected on our short walk to school. Sometimes they might stay in there for days, going back and forth until we remember to empty it out and admire the natural treasures that he and his brother collect. It’s like a nature table, only more portable.

They find the hunt endlessly fascinating and I am surprised by how much nature is hidden in what to me looks like an ordinary concrete sidewalk. One day perhaps we’ll hit it big and find an elusive turkey feather. That would be a day to remember!

Bracing for Rain

Rain drops glisten on a fence post after winter rain.

For millennia the redwoods have stood tall, facing west as they look out across the vast Pacific Ocean—an ocean that brings fog in the summer and rain in the winter.  Earlier this week the first storm of the season rolled into northern California, and with it came the feeling that summer has finally come to an end and winter beckons.  I’ve always loved this time of year—pumpkins in the store and the promise of a wet walk among the glistening forest.  There’s nothing quite like walking in the woods after the first rain.  It feels like the forest is relaxing and giving itself over to the long winter months to come.  The dust has gone and the forest comes back to life as the rain hydrates one leaf and frond at a time.

Hiking in Big Basin State Park.
Hiking in Big Basin Redwoods State Park

It makes me want to travel to northern California and be among the big trees.  But, closer to home in the Bay Area, it’s a great time to visit Big Basin Redwood State Park and enjoy the miles of trail that you’ll likely have to yourself.  Wrap up warm, lace up some good boots, and perhaps pack a thermos of tea (or flask of whiskey!) and enjoy the forest coming back to life.  Where do you like to head once the rains have started?  I’d love to know!

[originally posted on “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, October 23, 2012]