Posts Tagged ‘harbor seals’

Seals

Monday, March 19th, 2018

waiting

Tilly, Molly, and Flynn photo by Todd

Harbor seals have spotted coats in shades of white, silver-gray, black, or dark brown. They grow to six feet in length and weigh up to three hundred pounds. Males are slightly larger than females. They are true crawling seals, having no external ear flaps. True seals have small flippers and move on land by flopping along on their bellies.

A few days ago I met the Golden Retrievers Tilly and Molly, and their Chihuahua-mix pal Flynn, along with their humans Sally and Robin at Big River Beach for a morning constitutional—walking for the humans, chasing tennis balls for Molly and Tilly, trotting along being sociable for Flynn.

Whilst flinging tennis balls for the retrievers, we spotted a big harbor seal in the waves offshore, the surf raucous, and to our delight, this seal dazzled us with expert body surfing, something I had not previously observed the seals doing at Big River Beach, though I have fond memories of watching harbor seals surfing the waves in Santa Cruz.

In California, harbor seal pups are born between February and April and weigh about twenty-two pounds at birth. Pups are born knowing how to swim and will sometimes ride on their mothers’ backs when tired. Pups are weaned at four weeks. Adult females usually mate and give birth every year, and may live thirty years.

I used to be a zealous body surfer, and I know the exact moment I gave up the sport. I was in my mid-twenties, living on Lighthouse Avenue in Santa Cruz back in the days when you could rent a four-bedroom house near the beach for a couple hundred dollars a month. When the weather was good, I would walk or run the four blocks to the beach just north of Lighthouse Point and body surf if the waves were good. Just south of the lighthouse is the world famous surfboarding spot Steamer Lane, where spectators can stand on the point and be incredibly close to the surfing action.

One late summer day I arrived at that oh-so-convenient beach, smiled in delight to see what looked like perfectly-formed body surfing waves, ran out into the surf, dove under a few breakers, and found myself caught in a powerful current that dragged me way out to sea as if I were floating down a fast-flowing river. By way out, I mean the people on the beach were ant-sized by the time the current released me. The water was very cold, I had no wetsuit, and I felt fairly certain I was going to drown.

I flopped onto my back and tried to swim back to shore, but I kept encountering that outflowing current. I tried to swim parallel to shore, but I was quickly growing too weak to make much headway. And then, miracle of miracles, my friend Bob Smith, who had come to the beach with me on that day, arrived on an air mattress he’d borrowed from a sunbather when he saw what was happening to me, and I clung to that air mattress and kicked with Bob, and we got to shore where I collapsed in exhausted ecstasy, so happy to still be alive.

Pacific harbor seals spend half their time on land and half in the water. They can dive to 1500 feet and stay underwater for up to forty minutes, though their average dive lasts three to seven minutes and is typically shallow. They sometimes sleep in the water. They feed on sole, flounder, cod, herring, octopus, and squid.

Harbor seals like to watch people playing Frisbee on the beach. One day at Big River Beach, I fell into an impromptu Frisbee exchange with another beachcomber, and a seal popped her head up out of the water to watch us. Then another seal popped up beside that first seal, and eventually there were four harbor seals in a little group watching the disc go back and forth between the two humans, those four beautiful heads moving synchronously from left to right, like spectators at a tennis match.

The worldwide harbor seal population is estimated to be 500,000, with 34,000 in California. They are usually found in small groups, but sometimes congregate in the hundreds.

My favorite connection to the seals at Big River Beach involves singing. Shortly after almost drowning in Santa Cruz, I started a musical combo called Kokomo. The group was composed of: Todd playing guitar and singing his original folk rocking bluesy songs, Jon playing violin and mandolin and singing harmony, and the occasional bass or dobro player noodling along with us. After Jon and I rehearsed a few of my songs, I called around to the various venues in Santa Cruz where such ragtag combos performed in the 1970s, lined up some auditions, and off we went.

Most of our auditions involved going into the prospective bar, pub, or café in the late afternoon and doing a couple tunes for the manager. The first place we auditioned was Happy’s, an upstairs bar in an alley off Pacific Avenue. When Jon and I arrived, there was a quartet of early drinkers at the bar and the bartender/manager on hand to listen. We launched into a groovy tune of mine called Should Be Better In the Morning, and when we finished, one of those early drinkers slapped a dollar bill on the bar and slurred, “For you do dat again.”

So we did the tune again and the bartender said, “You free tonight?”

I said we had another gig, which was true in the sense that we had to get busy rehearsing more tunes so we could play for forty-five minutes without repeating ourselves, and voila, we had our first gig: every Thursday night at Happy’s until further notice.

Then we went to Positively Front Street, a much bigger tavern, a stone’s throw from the municipal pier, and we auditioned for Terry, the owner/manager, and a lovely young woman and a handsome young man who were Terry’s pals. We played Should Be Better In the Morning and followed that with a skanky blues called Loose Woman, and Terry said, “Friday and Saturday nights, twenty bucks plus tips, all the burgers and fries and beer you want.”

The young woman and young man introduced themselves as Mouse & Timber. They had been the Friday/Saturday night act at Positively Front Street for the previous year, but they were moving on to a casino lounge at South Lake Tahoe paying three hundred a night, plus tips, five nights a week, plus a free hotel room. Timber said, “You guys would kill at Tahoe. Come on up and we’ll get you a gig.”

We never did get up to the casino, but we eventually rehearsed twenty of my tunes along with a few Hank Williams classics and a handful of other standards for lonely drunk people, and for most of the next year we were the house band on Friday and Saturday nights at Positively Front Street and the Thursday night attraction at Happy’s.

And once I’d earned actual dollars for singing, the world would never be the same. Making money for singing is like making money for being human—which can be both wonderful and confusing, depending on, as we used to say, how together you are.

Speaking of which, there I was a couple years ago, standing on the shores of Big River, inland a couple hundred yards from where the river meets the sea, and I sang out over the smooth surface of the water and a seal popped up to have a look at me. When she heard me singing, her eyes grew wide, she dove under the water, and a moment later popped up again with two friends. Ere long there were seven seals listening to me sing my song Real Good Joe, Hank Williams’ Cheating Heart, and another song of mine called Beautiful.

And though I would like to say those seven seals especially liked my songs, the truth is, just as with the mob at Positively Front Street, they favored Hank Williams. How do I know? Oh you can just tell when your audience really locks in with you.

Signs Of Spring

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Starry Starry Mona painting by Ben Davis Jr.

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2012)

“I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” Claes Oldenburg

Harbor seals have returned to the mouth of Big River, sleek silver gray cuties with childlike faces and spindly white mustaches, as curious about me as I am about them. When the wind is right and the sun is out, I will sometimes toss my Frisbee up into the offshore breeze and the disk will boomerang back to me, and the seals will cease their fishing to follow the flight of the disk to and from the sky, just as humans might watch the ball going back and forth in a tennis match.

The harbor seals of Big River are curious about singing, too. I recently had a wonderful experience singing to the seals, an experience witnessed by two people visiting Mendocino from Los Angeles. The tide was way out and the sun was shining when I stopped on the edge of the river to commune with a seal who had popped his head out of the water to take a look at me. Thinking he might enjoy a tune, I started to sing, knowing from past experience that high notes held for a long time are more intriguing to seals than low notes held briefly; and shortly after I commenced my singing, the aforementioned couple from Los Angeles, a middle-aged woman and man, stopped to watch the seal watching me.

After a minute or two of listening to my impromptu song, the seal sunk below the surface and swam away, but I kept on singing. The middle-aged woman opined, “Guess he didn’t like your song, huh?” And then she and her mate laughed. No. They cackled. At which moment, the seal returned with a friend, and the two seals listened to me for quite a long time.

The couple from Los Angeles conferred with each other about what they thought was going on, and decided to come a little closer.

Seal #1 then swam away again while Seal #2 stayed to listen, and then Seal #1 returned with two more friends, the four seals bobbing in the water close together and only fifteen feet away from me, listening intently and seeming themselves about to break into a four-part rendition of Take Me To the River. I’m thinking of Al Green’s Take Me To the River, not the song of the same name by Talking Heads, though one can never be sure about harbor seals.

Then the man from Los Angeles proclaimed, “This is impossible.”

And the woman from Los Angeles said, “It can’t be his singing. He must feed them.”

Well, I thought, marveling that anyone could doubt that these four lovely seals were listening to me sing, there are all kinds of food.

“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” T.S. Eliot

I recently received a big packet of letters I wrote to my friend Bob between 1972 and 1977, hundreds of letters. He was cleaning out his garage and came upon the cache, and since he didn’t want the letters anymore he gave them back to me. The first several letters I read so annoyed me and upset me and embarrassed me, that I burned them, the woodstove in my office handy for the swift eradication of printed matter.

But then I regretted burning the letters; and a moment later I was glad I burned them; and then I regretted the burning; but then I was glad. I didn’t like who I was in those letters. I didn’t like how I came across. I loathed how self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing I was, sometimes in the same sentence. We were having a long distance dialogue, Bob and I, but because I didn’t have his letters to refer to, I could only guess at what he might have written to elicit the various responses from me, most of which seemed insensitive and pompous and stupid and obnoxious, so much so that I marveled Bob had stayed my friend. We disagreed about many things, but we also clearly loved each other. We couldn’t find our own ways in the world but had reams of advice for the other. I was forever apologizing for being such an asshole in my previous letter, and then I would proceed to be an even bigger asshole.

In some of my letters I thanked Bob for sending me postage stamps or a few dollars. I was poor in those days and he had a job working for the state, so he had a little money and shared some with me. (This would become the pattern of our lives, giving each other money when we perceived ourselves richer than the other.) In many of these letters I wrote about being poor, and I also wrote about what I would do if I ever struck it rich. I wanted to own a house with some land so I could have a big garden and a greenhouse and an orchard. I wanted to start a collective of artists. I wanted to make world-saving movies. I wanted to be a famous writer and musician. I wanted people to truly madly deeply love my music. I wanted love and sex and understanding and sex and to be left alone and to never be left alone. Forty years later nothing has changed and everything has changed.

I read a few more of my letters to Bob, and I burned those, too, though some of the letters I burned were terribly interesting to me and full of things I had forgotten. I wondered why I felt the need to burn these letters. When my father died five years ago (two years after my mother died), I inherited several hundred letters I’d written to my parents, and I burned all of those because they were the same letter written over and over again begging my parents to love me despite my being and doing everything they did not want me to be and do.

But these letters to Bob were a record of my life in the 1970’s, and they contained bits of wit and insight amidst the bravado, as well as some fascinating remembrances. Political events, movies, travel experiences, and relationships I’d long forgotten were chronicled therein; and plays and stories and books I wrote and subsequently lost were talked about as the most important creations of my life; and tales from my days as a working musician were in there, too. Even so, I continued to read and burn, read and burn, until Marcia said she might like to read some of the letters, and her saying that stopped me from feeding more of my past to the flames—the pile diminished by half.

Today I read a letter I wrote to Bob in 1975. I imagined Marcia reading the words, and I realized that the reason I burned those other letters was because of the very thing the letters so vividly described, which was that I was ashamed of myself for not succeeding as an artist, ashamed of being poor, ashamed of not owning a house, ashamed of not building that creative collective of fellow artists I so continuously dreamt about, ashamed of having done so little of what I set out to do so many years ago.

And this shame is something I still occasionally feel, despite the modicum of success I attained now and then in the intervening years. I understood that I burned those letters because they confirmed my lifelong suffering from two huge and insanely competing ideas trying to share this one little body/mind/spirit consortium called me: the idea that I am good and the idea that I am no good. Yet when I imagined Marcia reading these letters, I realized that despite the persistent (and annoying) neurotic overlay (which she is well aware of and forgives) the letters have their fascinating moments, so why not keep them around a while longer?

Miraculously (or matter-of-factly if you can’t stomach the idea of miracles), Bob and I still correspond by regular mail, a letter a week back and forth, though we no longer save each other’s letters. We just don’t. We are still the best of friends, having gone through thick and thin together for forty-five years, having been teenagers and young bucks and middle-aged farts together—nothing changing and everything changing so fast it doesn’t seem possible—waiting for Godot but no longer overly concerned that he hasn’t showed up yet because we now know he’ll get here when he gets here. Right, Roberto?

“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” Pablo Picasso

We are nearing the end of pruning season. The plum trees, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are in their full glory of blossoming, the apples steadfastly approaching their blooming time. I’ve gotten a few phone calls from people alerted by the blossoming plums that they need their gangly apple tree pruned, their recalcitrant pear tamed just a bit; and these people want to know if I think it’s too late for me to help them this year.

I tell them it is never too late and it is always too late. There is never enough time and there is always enough time. I tell them that nearly everything we used to think we knew about pruning trees is not what we think we know now and that the secret to taking care of a tree is to listen to that tree and allow her to tell you what she needs. A few of my clients have a wee bit of trouble with the idea of listening to a tree, perhaps because they can’t imagine how a tree would talk to them, or if their tree did talk to them, how they would understand what their tree was saying; but most of my clients enjoy the concept of interspecies communication. What’s not to enjoy about a talking tree?

I wrote a novel some years ago, not yet published, the main character a man who prunes fruit trees and is also a poet. I append a poem this character wrote about pruning. I like this poem, though I would have written it differently if I, Todd, had written it. This is one of the trickiest things about writing fiction, at least the way I write fiction, and that is allowing characters to be who they are and resisting the impulse (conscious or unconscious) to make them into thinly disguised versions of the author, though one could argue that every fictional character is a version of the author, that we, you and I, are actually versions of each other, and that separateness is an illusion, not to mention the cause of all suffering, according to Buddha. In any case, here is Edward’s poem.

Pruning

Before I touch blade to branch

I walk around the tree,

stopping every step to study

the relationships of the boughs.

 

When I have gone round twice,

and know what I know from the outside,

I climb into the tree and memorize how

the branches emanate from within.

 

So when at last I begin my cutting,

I know how I will enrich

the tree with spaciousness.