Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

March 2015 • Mt. Madonna, Watsonville, CA

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In March 2015 I attended a six-day meditation retreat with Tibetan teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche at Mount Madonna. The retreat center is perched high along the summit ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains and looks across the Pajaro Valley to the Monterey Bay.

During the breaks I wandered the campus practicing mindful and meditative photography (is there any other kind?) Spring flowers were in bloom attracting birds, bees and butterflies. At sunrise each morning turkeys gobbled a loud wake up call while a small herd of deer silently grazed the greenery nearby.

Gophers are big problem in the West. They usually remain unseen; only the extensive damage they wreak is visible. But as I sat resting on a stone wall a fat and curious gopher emerged from his earthen home and casually surveyed the above ground world. After checking out the sunlight landscape the gopher closed up his tunnel entrance and disappeared.

Mount Madonna has a pond (quite low because of our terrible drought), an outdoor temple and several water features. One man-made stream and waterfall has a small alcove behind the cascade. Sitting in the cool and damp recess, I shot through the sheet of shimmering flowing water.

This gallery contains 46 photos

June 8, 2015 – Coastal Terrace Prairie, San Mateo County, CA

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I love visiting the coastline because it is is never the same. Nothing anywhere is ever the same, of course, but the seaside is in obvious moment-to-moment dramatic flux and the cast of characters is new each time. You never know what birds or marine animals will show themselves, or how the changing beaches and weather will appear.

The coastal prairie is a flat extension of land that drops off at the ocean’s edge. These native Californian grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems in the country. They are being destroyed by development, agriculture and the spread of invasive plants.

I first hiked a shorter trail to a small cove. Once on the beach I noticed the bobbing heads of two harbor seals, apparently a mother and pup. One seal was slightly smaller and grayer than the other. They played together and often nuzzled each others faces. They also appeared very interested in me. Coming closer to shore, they spent most of their time watching me watching them. Marine mammals are notoriously difficult to photograph. You can usually only see a small portion of them above the water and for only a few seconds. I tried my best.

Hiking down another longer route to the beach, I noticed ample scat littering the trail from coyote and fox. This grassland is no doubt a good hunting ground for them with plentiful rodents and rabbits hidden in the fields. I hoped I might see one but didn’t expect to. Then suddenly, a distant coyote came into view trotting parallel to the shore, turning its head at regular intervals to survey me as it passed through its territory.

As I stepped onto the beach, a small snake appeared out of the dense greenery. It slithered into the shallow trench surrounding a beach stone and remained still while I photographed it. A handsomely colorful serpent, some kind of garter snake. When I tried to identify it later I discovered there is an incredible plethora of garter snake species in California – at least 18. I’d hoped it was the rare San Francisco garter snake (only found in San Mateo County and on the endangered species list) but it lacked the blue stripes. It was either a Coast Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans terrestris) or a California Red-sided Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis) – they look very similar.

Stranded on the beach were many Blue Sail Jellyfish. It has been consistently windy here and the Blues Sails are a casualty of the weather. They float on the surface of the ocean, like their cousins the Portuguese Man O’ War, and have no self-propelling capabilities. They truly go with the flow. Just blowin’ in the wind. And thousands die on the beach every year.

This gallery contains 25 photos