Living in a natural soundscape

Noise pollution is making us oblivious to the sound of nature, says researcher | Science | The Guardian

It’s happening here, even in Our Fair City.

Here in Santa Cruz, just a mile from the beach, we can hear the sound of the surf, at least at 2 AM when there’s no automobile traffic on local streets.

Two hundred years ago, locals could hear the surf all the time, from anywhere in this area now inundated by roads, parking lots, houses, shopping centers and commercial buildings … and the noise they generate.

Imagine the audio landscape experienced by the original human inhabitants of Coastal California throughout their daily life. Elk whistling on the mountain slopes, shorebirds calling and chuckling on the beaches, songbirds in every bush and tree, red-tailed hawks and bald eagles surfing the morning breeze, crows, scrub jays and mockingbirds filling the air with their critical observations on the human condition. The riffle of raven feathers as they fly by. The prehistoric clack of great blue herons seeking their roosts in the cypress.

In a natural sounsdcape, one can learn the time of day, the seasons and the weather on the mix and variety of sounds wafting on every breeze.

In our noisy world, this rich natural complexity of the soundscape has been greatly simplified, reduced to automobile noise, motorized leaf blowers, car sound systems set on stun, and the ubiquitous electronic technobabble plugged into most every pair of ears. The demanding jangle of modern sounds allows no respite for thought, contemplation or even quiet enjoyment of natural sounds, soothing to ears and brains that evolved in a meaningful audio environment. Even libraries are no longer a quiet place for reading and introspection.

It’s no wonder that Santa Cruz City parks planners contemplated including a Quick Response (QR) Code on interpretive signs for the Arana Gulch Amusement Park so that children could listen to bird songs on their cell phones.

Let’s use our ears for something other than auxiliary input jacks.

Let’s listen to the natural world and learn its glad tidings.

So Long Arana Gulch!

The most egregious example of local bureaucratic cock-ups came to a head today with the ceremonial groundbreaking for the deservedly delayed and much opposed $6 million Broadway-Brommer Bike Road.

Long opposed by real environmentalists, the Broadway-Brommer project has suffered a spotty history over the last twenty years. Originally conceived as a street for cars connecting Broadway in the City to Brommer Street in Live Oak, the project was axed by Santa Cruz City officials in response to environmental opposition. Later, as a paved bike road, the project was again laid to rest by a subsequent City Council.

Nevertheless, City Public Works staff, reluctant to lose out on one-and-a-half million dollars of “free”federal money, revived the moribund project. Over the years, the B-B morphed from a car road, to a Class One Bicycle Commuter route with an enormous bridge spanning Arana Creek, to a curving, up and down bike road with bridges over Hagemann Creek and Arana Creek. Finally, donning funny nose and glasses, B-B was disguised as a “multi-use interpretive trail,” as the overwhelmingly dominant component of the yet to be implemented Arana Gulch Master Plan.

The B-B project follows the historical government tradition of “destroying the village to save it.” Since all of Arana Gulch is declared Critical Habitat for the endangered Santa Cruz tarplant, Public Works staff struggled to find some way to justify building a paved road through the fragile species’ only home. City officials had to find some way to make the project “resource dependent” to satisfy California Coastal Commission regulations for development in Sensitive Habitat Areas, such as Arana Gulch.

Thus was born the “interpretive trail.” No, it’s not a different route. Yes, it still paves over critical habitat of an endangered species. But now the project has interpretive signs that will describe what was lost when this Natural Area was drawn and quartered, north to south and east to west, by an 8 foot wide asphalt paved road with two feet of graded shoulder on either side, where nothing will grow.

The Boondoggle took it’s first wee steps this week, kicked into a mockery of life with the traditional celebratory groundbreaking. Scores of brightly bedecked bicyclists joined toothy City Fathers… and one Mother, in the bright noon sun. A massive diesel backhoe supplied the necessary technology, mysteriously idling for no apparent reason, adding it’s diesel fumes to the rapidly accumulating hot air.

To “Balance” this display of bureaucratic excess, Friends of Arana Gulch, a stalwart group of caring environmentalists who have consistently opposed the Broadway-Brommer project lo these many years, arrived in funereal black to mourn the demise of the Arana Gulch Greenbelt. Bearing signs saying, “Good-bye to the Greenbelt,” “Shame,” “Less trees, less grass, less wildflowers, less wildlife,” “Is Broadway-Brommer really needed?” and “Save it, don’t pave it,” the Friends stood in silent vigil for the animals, plants and insects who have no say in the future of their home in Arana Gulch.

The assembled officials donned unfamiliar hardhats, grabbed golden-painted shovels, and, after instructions on which end to point at the ground, posed for the obligatory photographs. They scraped meager scratches into the hard packed earth, gratefully returned the shovels to those who know how to use them, and decanted into the crowd for obsequious self-congratulations. 

Thus the fate of the Arana Gulch Greenbelt was signed, sealed and delivered. No longer a Natural Area, now an incipient Park for human recreation, and a paved shortcut for bicyclists in a hurry, Arana Gulch passes into history along with its sensitive species, unique habitat, its quiet, its open space, its true value. 

Arana Gulch is now just another anonymous feature in the urban development that has inundated the landscape from Moore Creek to Valencia Creek, from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

So long Arana Gulch! 
It was good to have known you.

How to Respect the Rights of Nature

The City of Santa Monica recently passed an ordinance, directing the City to “recognize the rights of people, natural communities, and ecosystems to exist, regenerate and flourish,” joining a rapidly growing international “Nature Rights” movement. “Nature Rights” recognizes that healthy ecosystems and biodiversity are critical to all life on the planet, including humans, and human priorities do not automatically take precedence over natural habitat and ecosystem health.
Undeveloped lands in Santa Cruz City and County are rapidly diminishing, even those lands designated as Greenbelts and Natural Areas, such as Arana Gulch targeted for development by the City, ironically in the name of environmentalism. Although Arana Gulch is designated Critical Habitat for the endangered Santa Cruz tarplant, the City has successfully argued that human desire for a paved bike route is more important than protection and preservation of undeveloped natural habitat.
It’s time for the City and County of Santa Cruz to recognize that it cannot destroy natural habitats in its jurisdiction without severe consequences to the web of life that sustains us all. There is no department in our government bureaucracy that speaks up for non-human consideration in planning development projects. Regional regulatory bodies are increasingly dominated by development interests, resulting in an accelerating loss of natural habitat. The County’s Commission on the Environment is an advisory body for the County Board of Supervisors and has no regulatory powers to protect natural habitats in the County.
In order to maintain a balanced regulatory environment, we must have City and County Environment Departments, just as we have Planning, Public Works and Economic Devlopment Departments. The job of the Environment Departments would be to see that biodiversity, natural habitats and undeveloped lands are not diminished, degraded or lost to human economic development, guided by City and County regulations similar to that of Santa Monica and other enlightehed municipalities.
Recognition of Nature Rights would not stop human development, but would place consideration of the health of non-human species on par with human economic growth.

How to Live, Simply!

I recently read, in a blog, of a writer who says he needs $5,000 a month to live. I was astonished. My mouth literally hung open.
Yes I know, many people make a lot of money, and many people spend a lot of money that they make, and many people work long hours to make the money they spend. But I never had thought of someone “needing” $5,000 a month to live.
Here’s my perspective: I live in Santa Cruz, California about a mile from the beach at the north end of Monterey Bay. The Chamber of Commerce types call this a “destination community,” meaning,  I suppose, everyone wants to come here. And they do, every day, in long lines of cars coming across the mountains from San Jose and the Bay Area. Yes, it’s beautiful, and sunny (except for three months in the winter), and warm, and there’s beaches and surfing and the Boardwalk, and all the accoutrements of a modern, upstanding, resortical… destination.
But not all of them want to live here, year round, because it’s a small community with little industry, and not many high paying jobs. So they buy second houses here, rent them out to other visitors for exorbitantly high daily and weekly rents and have a place to stay for a week or two when they’re on vacation. Consequently, the price of housing here is astonishingly high. I mean, knock you in the eyeballs, blow out your pockets outrageous. You think that mansion out at the edge of town is expensive, try to buy a two-bedroom fixer-upper on a postage stamp lot in Santa Cruz. We’re talking half a million dollars here, and that’s US not Canadian, eh?
Now to let out my secret. Don’t tell anyone, OK?
My wife and I live here on less than $1000 a month. SHHHHH! Not so loud!
How do we do it? We live simply.
This has nothing to do with Voluntary Simplicity ™, monk-like asceticism, vows of poverty or counter-culture Luddite extremism. 
We live a normal life in our 800 square foot mobile home on a 60 by 40 foot lot in a normal mobile home park. We grow vegetables in containers around the outside of our home. We have fruit trees, berry bushes and ornamentals in the soil at the margins of the lot. We have rotating compost piles to return food leftovers to the soil. But we don’t grow all of our food all year round.
We have one car, a 1972 VW Bug, my wife bought used in 1973. We drive it to the store on the weekend for groceries and wine, less than 1,000 miles a year (yes, that’s right, year, not month.). We walk everywhere else. We both work part-time, my wife just a half-mile from home. I work at home now, but when I was employed, my job was a short mile from home. We walk or bicycle anywhere we need to go around town, and rent a car or take public transportation for once or twice a year longer trips.
But that’s just living, doing the things that everyone else does. The main difference in the way we live, and I hesitate to let this particular cat out of the bag, is that we, uh, well, we just don’t buy things. I know, I know, sounds unrealistic, Utopian, impossible, but it’s largely true.
OK, we do buy a new toothbrush every year or so, and we do buy new underwear occasionally. But most everything else we consume, if that’s the word, we get for free or for next to nothing at thrifts stores.
Also, we don’t have television, so no cable bill. We do have an old analog TeeVee and a DVD/VCR that we use to watch movies from the Public Library.  (The TV was free, and OK, we bought the DVD/VCR new a couple of years ago when our old (free) VCR conked out). We each have a laptop computer, for work and environmental/social activism and we have a DSL account with our local ISP.
We use 35-45 kwh of electricity per month, and 5-6 therms of gas. Our mobile home is situated east-west, so we get solar gain in the mornings through most of the day. We supplement this passive solar gain with a small wood stove, we gather firewood on our daily walks among nearby eucalyptus groves, and we add the ashes from the fire to the garden beds and compost piles.
We don’t have cell phones, iPods, iPads, Androids, Blackberries or other electronic devices to separate us from the world. We can’t imagine what anyone has to say that’s so important that they have to check their cell phone eleventy times an hour so they don’t miss out.
Since we don’t watch TeeVee, we’re not exposed to the bombardment of ads telling us every little thing we simply must have to live a full and complete modern life, so, we just don’t know what we’re missing.
And we’re happy with that.
OK, I’m not trying to say that we’re good and everyone else is bad. It’s just astonishing that in my lifetime (I was born when Harry S. Truman was President… of the United States) life has gone from adequate and sufficient to “needing” $5,000 a month to live!
We’ve found that when we live, simply, we have more time to engage with our neighbors, take part in our community and participate in the complex web of life that surrounds us. We take joy in each sunny morning, and each evening sunset. We delight in the brilliant stars at night, the positions of the planets, the phases of the moon. We welcome the various colorful species of birds that pause by our bird feeders on their migrations, and those who decide to stay. We wake up laughing every morning and we go to bed laughing every night.
Some people think we’re missing out, but we know we’re just living, simply.

Grazing Through Climate Change

Tarplant in 2007

Today’s article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Coastal panel staff back Arana Gulch plan, includes the following from the California Coastal Commission (CCC) Staff Report for the upcoming hearing on the Arana Gulch Master Plan:

“The report notes that tarplants in the former dairy site have dropped from 100,000 in the 1980s to 32 this year. The report cites the end of grazing, invasive species and “unmanaged public access” that led to unauthorized trails.”

Tarplant numbers were not studied in the 1980s during grazing on Arana Gulch, therefore we have no baseline on which to compare current trends. A contributing factor that has not been studied is change in the timing and amount of precipitation in the area.

Tarplant in 2011

We have just come out of a multi-year drought and we are observing a significant change in precipitation patterns, for example, earlier rains in the fall/early winter season, and extended rains into late spring and early summer, in addition to increased precipitation in our normal winter rainy season. Tarplant numbers at the airport and Tarplant Hill in Watsonville, and in Twin Lakes State Park, have fluctuated in parallel with those of Arana Gulch, yet the other sites have not had large scale grazing that ended in 1989, coincident with declines in tarplant numbers. This would argue that some factor other than cessation of grazing is responsible for the decline in tarplant numbers at all of these sites.

It is more likely that the decline has as much to do with natural local climate variation as with changes in herbivory with the removal of dairy cattle from Arana Gulch.

The recent increase in tarplant individuals suggests that changes in precipitation patterns is a possible contributing factor to tarplant success or decline and would therefore influence the success of the City’s plans for industrial scale grazing on Arana Gulch..


Yes, the season continues to change. Yesterday the weather was sunny and warm, a splendid Fall day.

A lone walker enters the fog at the south end of Arana Gulch

 Today on Arana Gulch, thin tendrils of fog slipped silently among the oak leaves most of the day. There is a remarkable absence of birds about, very calm and still, all the normal sounds of the coastal prairie terrace are muted by the encompassing fog. Even the dogs and dog walkers are unusually still, wrapped in their own bit of mystery, carrying their quiet stories with them.

Arana Creek reflects the transition from fog to blue sky.

Down in the riparian habitat, Arana Creek slips softly among willow and looming eucalyptus. The rippling waters reflect a leaden sky, with wisps of blue around the edges. The reflective surface of the creek hides a world unseen by those restricted to open air. The wee creatures, plants and squirmy things that live in the creek look out in wonder at the empty spaces on the other side of the water surface. How could anything live out there with no water to breathe?

Willows give way to eucalyptus along the banks of Arana Creek.

Occasionally, a ray of sunshine breaks through, illuminating a lone willow, shining clear and golden bright against the darker forest backdrop. The fog thins, begins to lift, to pull back beyond the beach, where it waits patiently for its return in the dark of the night.

Two 8 to 12 foot wide paved bicycle routes across this fairy landscape would change the magical scene forever from one of calm mystery to the everyday world of whizzing metal, demanding deadlines, noise and distraction, the very things we come to Arana Gulch to escape.

Click here to go the Friends of Arana Gulch website and sign the petition to remove the Broadway-Brommer Bicycle Connection project from the Arana Gulch Master Plan.