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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Flow of Time and Tides

Sea arch in Russian Gulch bay south of Mendocino

My buddy Al and I kayaked the Mendocino coast in mid-September, leaving the day after his Saturday stint at the local Farmer’s market. Down the Sacramento Valley, turning west to traverse Clear Lake’s north shore, through Anderson Valley (formerly famous for its apple orchards, now brimming with vineyards) and arriving at Mendocino in the afternoon. Knowing my interest in things Chinese, Al had arranged for Lorraine Hee-Chorley (author of The Chinese in Mendocino County) to meet us on the porch of the newly restored Taoist Temple two streets back from the main drag.  Read More 

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High and Low: Mt. Whitney and Death Valley

A hiker under the Natural Bridge of a canyon in the Funeral Range (!) of Death Valley

After two spring trips to Monterey Bay and the coast, it was back to the hot continental interior in mid-June, Ash and Lou summiting 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney (highest place in the Lower 48) while I camped out in minus 150-foot Death Valley (lowest place in North America). I guess we’re a family of extremes.

Ash is doing the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, and missed her bro. So I drove Lou and his buddies Liam, Chris, and Alden to Kennedy Meadows where the southern Sierra foothills emerge from the Mojave desert, to meet her at a re-supply point.  Read More 

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Monterey Bay 2: Writers and Whales

The opportunity to tour the infrequently-opened Cannery Row home of Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck’s barely-disguised inspiration for “Doc” in Cannery Row, proved irresistible, joining as it did the life and writing of Steinbeck with that of Joseph Campbell, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robinson Jeffers—with up-close humpback whales thrown in the next day to boot.

So much fun was had kayaking off Monterey Bay with my buddy Al last month, that I persuaded my wife Tammy to join me on this return visit. The tour of Ed Ricketts’ home, which also housed his Pacific Biological Supply  Read More 

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Monterey Bay 1: Elkhorn Slough, Kayaks, and Muir

A pelican's view / Of Elkhorn Slough

“Whack!” I stopped paddling. Yes, there he was, not 20 feet away. A sea otter on his back in the water, having just whacked a clam against a rock on his belly. “What?” he seemed to ask as he stared back. “You never seen an otter use a rock?”

As a matter of fact, I hadn’t. My buddy Al and I had seen maybe 50 sea otters on our paddle into Elkhorn Slough off Monterey Bay, but the famous example of tool-use had eluded us—till now. I gazed slack-jawed at my furry friend, until he tired of my poor manners, took a last bite of clam, and flopped over and swam away.  Read More 

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A Tale of Three Gardens

A garden in Suzhou: shan and shui

The Huntington Library, Museum, and Gardens in Los Angeles now have a first-rate Chinese as well as a Japanese Garden. Tammy and I visited both several weeks ago, and they reminded us of pleasant times in Claude Monet’s Water-lily Garden in Giverny, France in 2008. All three are superb, but in dramatically different ways, that reflect much about the cultures that gave rise to them.  Read More 

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A Strange Case of Sherlock Holmes and the Rose

Jeremy Brett's Sherlock

We did a lot of traveling to the Bay Area this past month—February—and I was struck by how many trees were flowering all over northern California. Rarely were we out of sight of the glorious treat of a tree full of blossoms, usually almond, cherry, or peach of the early-blooming Prunus genus. All creation seemed to be bursting with beauty, and even the hard-bitten scientist that I am could understand those who come to the conclusion that not only is life good, but that surely there must be a higher being or force lavishing his (or her?) love on the world via the flowers.

And this in turn reminded me of one of the most bizarre incidents in the entire Sherlock Holmes canon: Holmes’ soliloquy in The Naval Treaty, in which he proclaims moss roses in particular, and flowers in general, as proof of “the goodness of Providence.”  Read More 

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Bones of Jade, Souls of Ice

Wang Mian's "Blossoming Plum"

On my bike ride through Bidwell Park this afternoon, I noticed the first several blooms on one of the dozens of Wild Cherries scattered amongst the bays and oaks of the woodland. Only a couple of flowers on one spindly branch, mind you—but they made my heart sing. You may be in the middle of winter, but when the Prunus trees begin to blossom, it’s a promise from the universe that spring is beginning its slow amble toward your part of the world.

In Japan, of course, the Japanese Cherry ( Prunus serrulata) is the center of national attention in the spring, as its bloom is tracked from Kagoshima on the southern tip of Kyushu island northward up the entire island chain, with thousands of people thronging the parks and Shinto shrines featuring this harbinger of spring.

In China, for over a thousand years the blooming of the Chinese plum ( Prunus mume) has been eagerly anticipated in January and February.  Read More 

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King Tut's father and Moses

The young Tutankhamun and his queen

One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing historical novels, for me, is the interesting things you bump into during the research phase. I’ve just finished a major revision of my second Sherlock Holmes novel, set in 1923, in which Holmes is called to Egypt to unravel whether the co-discoverer of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, Lord Carnarvon, is being poisoned. (The historical Carnarvon in fact died of “blood poisoning” four months after entering Tut’s tomb with his archaeologist, Howard Carter—thus originating the “Curse of the Mummy” phenomenon.)  Read More 

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Darwin's Champion in China, Part 2: An Evening with Ye Duzhuang

Helper, Ye, Ye's wife, Barnett, Zhou, and Yu

I knocked on the door of Ye Duzhuang's apartment at the Academy of Agricultural Sciences compound on Beijing's northwest edge.

Ye answered the door himself. Before me stood a tall man, over six feet, lean, with jet black hair above a calm face with a strong nose. He was 70 years old, but still alert, and moved with little trace of his age.

“Dr. Ye?”

“Come in, Dr. Barnett, come in!” he said affably. I walked through a short hallway. A small room opened to our right, Ye’s study.  Read More 

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Darwin’s Champion in China, Part 1: The Turbulent Life of Ye Duzhuang

Ye Duzhuang

Chinese intellectuals and artists suffering abuse at the hands of the state have been much in the news these days. The blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, avant-garde artist Ai Weiwei, and Nobel Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo have received the most prominent press, but the shameful list certainly must include also Hu Jia (AIDS and environmental advocate), Zhu Yufu (“It’s Time” poet), Gao Zhisheng (dissident rights lawyer), Wu Yuren (installation artist), and Chen Wei (advocate of a “jasmine revolution”). And there are many others. The drum roll of imprisonment and intimidation reminded me of an evening I spent in the spring of 1984 with a most remarkable Chinese scientist. Read More 

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