Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

On a Real Wild Goose Chase

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November 19-20, 2017
San Luis and Merced National Wildlife Refuges, Near Los Banos, CA


Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 34 photos

One with Sea and Wind: Kitesurfing

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Waddell State Beach, CA. July 1, 2017

The wind was stiff and pummeled all the senses. It was risky to take a camera into the blowing sand-filled air but I couldn’t resist. The conditions were also perfect for kitesurfing. There were about twenty kitesurfers on the water at any time and an equal number on the beach, resting themselves and their brightly colored wings.

At times the flying kites looked like a dozen crescent moons filling the sky. Some kitesurfers disappeared offshore while others preferred to play in the breaking waves near the beach. Most surfers raced across the water’s surface, but a few took it to the next level, leaving gravity behind and becoming airborne.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 17 photos

Carrizo Plain National Monument – March 2017


Carrizo Plain National Monument, CA
March 2017

The main event was yellow. Pale yellows, golden yellows, lemon yellows, schoolbus yellows. Acres of yellow carpeted the wide flat plain, yellow crowned the foothills, yellow stretched up the mountain sides, yellow was underfoot everywhere. It reminded me of the spectacular autumnal display of yellow aspens in the Rockies and Sierras but here there are no trees, the color flows along the ground.

The next color in competition was green. There were at least fifty shades of green (and much sexier than gray.) It was our first trip to Carrizo Plain but I knew that green is not its usual color. Most of the year it is dry, dusty and brown. It is semi-arid natural grassland (the last great stretch of it in California) and the annual rainfall is only 9 inches per year.

Other shades of the rainbow were blooming too, if you looked closely. Purples made a show of it and highlighted the yellows. One hillside was painted sky blue with baby blue eyes. Pinks, oranges and whites were scattered about. Below the taller plants, tiny many-colored flowers vied for their place in the sun close to the earth.

After an exceptional season of rain and previous years of drought, it is a superbloom of tremendous proportions. In the Santa Cruz Mountains where I live, this rain brought down trees and power lines, washed out roads and triggered land, mud, and rockslides. We are gradually cleaning up the mess and rebuilding our roads. But in the deserts in central and southern California these rains created great masses of flowering plants. The most stunning superblooms are supposedly in the deserts much farther south, but we could only fit in the four hour drive to Carrizo Plain.

I was in my bliss and glory among the blossoms!

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 46 photos


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From Crestone, we wound our way through western Colorado, dodging storms over the mountain passes. By late afternoon we drove by Four Corners. The gates were closed; we had missed our opportunity to stand in four states at once. I have a photo of my mother, sister and I doing just that in 1969. In the distance, Shiprock beckoned to us just as it had to other travelers over centuries.

It was dark by the time we reach the campground at Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”). I feared it might be full but there were only a few people there.

This National Monument is a partnership between the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation. All the employees are Navajo and you can only enter the Canyon accompanied by an authorized Navajo guide. Many individuals and small companies offer their guide services. Four wheel drive is required and the vehicles range from small jeeps to large transports that carry eight people in the back bed. After exploring the Visitors Center we wandered outside unsure about how to go about arranging a trip into the canyon. Then we saw a man parked in a rickety old jeep and figured he was looking for customers. We approached him, bargained the price, and made arrangements to follow him to the entrance of the Canyon where we would leave our camper truck.

The weather was cool and the dark sky threatened showers. The red dirt roads were wet, muddy and deeply rutted. We fishtailed in spots and occasionally the tires bogged down in the muck. The ride was rough, bouncing and tossing us in all directions, making it seem like more of a wild adventure than it was. If this jeep had ever had shocks, they were long gone. Some of the other guides had fancy SUVs, new and shiny, large and well outfitted. I liked the intimacy of traveling in our small decrepit, patched together jalopy. When rain started, our guide John stopped to attached the ill-fitting cloth roof, like a hand-me-down from some other vehicle.

John told us stories of growing up in the area. As a child he spent the school year above the Canyon but during the summer he lived with his aunt at her small homestead within the red canyon walls. His recollections of summers in the Canyon where not particularly happy. His aunt was stern and he was lonely with few peers to play with. Pointing down one of the side canyons, he showed us where he had spent so many summer many years ago. Today no one lives in the canyon full time. Some farming is still done on small plots and cattle and horses are grazed throughout. The big industry are the tours.

We stopped for petroglyphs and cliff dwellings, for striking views and short walks. John said that normally it would be busy this time of year. But we saw only a few other visitors in the canyon. He did not know why tourism was light.

The most intriguing story John shared was about an encounter his grandfather had in the canyon. He claimed to have seen and spoken to a mysterious ancient tribe of diminutive people who lived hidden in caves. They are supposedly still there today, unseen and untouched by modernity. I imagined them there, peaking out at us from dark openings in the walls as we drove by, waiting for moments to emerge and live freely in the embrace of this beautiful red earth valley.

Later, after dinner, we drove the rim road to see the Canyon from above. The sun was disappearing quickly, it’s last rays illuminating the clouds and painting them orange, pink and purple. The clouds also shone from within by the occasional bolt of lightning. As it became still darker, I resorted to long exposure shots to capture any last bit of light. We barely caught a glimpse of the famous Spider Rock before it disappeared into complete darkness.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):


This gallery contains 38 photos

Time and Transmutation

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Time and Transmutation
Petrified Forest National Park
August 2016

Last August we drove through the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Unlike most national parks there is no lodging there or even close by. It is a day trip park. Two visitor centers bookend the 28-mile tour through a diverse landscape.

Now a stark desert, it once was a lush jungle, watery and verdant. Large trees and ferns populated the area as well as prehistoric beasts such as the huge crocodile-like phytosaur. In these barren hills, geology is exposed and is remarkable in its naked beauty. Colorful pink painted badlands, layers of textured earth from changing epochs, dried river beds silently winding their way to the horizon. I was visiting for a brief moment in the vast expanse of time. But perhaps I contain molecules that once were in the needles of a ancient living tree or were in the blood of a mammoth amphibian who swam here 225 millions years ago. I superimposed the green image of a primeval forest over what I actually saw, and was awed by the contrast and endless potential of nature.

Petrified logs were tossed everywhere as if only recently felled and sliced into sections by loggers. But the organic woodiness of these fossils has long been replaced by quartz and other minerals transforming them into multi-colored boulders. Originally buried in mud and volcanic ash, the changing climate and millennia of erosion have brought them to the surface again.

Along the route, ravens greeted us at most scenic stops. Clearly they associated humans with handouts. A favorite bird, we took advantage of their curiosity for photo ops. (I was recently pleased to discover that an early meaning of my Irish surname Brennan, is raven. Perhaps they were the ancient animal familiar of the Brennan Clan.) Preparing for a nap after lunch, a friendly and talkative raven amused us with his conversational skill at the picnic table. He gave the distinct impression that he was trying to communicate something important to us. To see his video go to:

Millions of beautifully colored petrified wood shards littered the ground. I had to hold back my rockhound and jewelry-making instincts and refrain from gathering any. It is illegal to take fossils from the park. At one end of the drive, we were grilled by a ranger to make sure we had collected none. I did buy several polished legal pieces from the gift shop and have since transformed them into necklaces.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 40 photos

The Ghosts of Solstice Past – 2016

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During my years of study with John Milton, Sacred Passage and The Way of Nature, there was a particular emphasis placed on the power – dare I say, consciousness – of stones. At his sanctuary near Crestone, Colorado, John had discovered that the jumble of rocks scattering the land were not all random. Many of these arrangements of stones had been realigned and altered by ancient shamans to help create deepened states of awareness. During two separate one-month solo wilderness retreats there, I meditated atop these unique configuration of boulders as part of my daily routine.

Early in my move to California, I delightfully discovered that not far from me, was a site of stones sacred to the Ohlone. It is a place aligned to the winter solstice and is part of their creation story. After being initiated into the “wisdom of the Stone People” one begins to stumble upon these sacred rock assemblages all over the world, many hidden and forgotten by modern people.

“The Ohlone, who consisted of more than fifty groups native to the Bay Area, have one account of creation that coincides with the winter solstice. The record goes that, before humans and other animals existed, the turtle’s shell contained the souls of all the living beings. At sunset on the winter solstice, the sun’s rays shone directly into a round boulder atop a sacred spot in the Santa Cruz Mountains. As the boulder cracked from the sunlight, the turtle’s shell split open, releasing the captive souls. Every year on the winter solstice, the Ohlone celebrated special rituals at the holy rock, which is now part of Long Ridge Open Space Preserve.”

For several years now, Bloom of the Present Insight Meditation has organized a winter solstice sunset hike to witness this annual alignment. It is a ten minute walk from the trailhead up a hill to the holy stones. The rocks are along side a well-worn trail on the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains which run from Monterey to San Francisco. Some solstices are foggy, windy or rainy and the sunset is completely obscured. Those years, we may be the only people who make it to the rocks. We have learned to keep the trip short since, even though the weather may be pleasant at sea level, it becomes raw and bone-chilling above.

This 2016 solstice day was bright and clear. The temperature was mild in Santa Cruz but at the trailhead the wind blew cold off the ocean. Some of our group had already headed up the trail while I waited for the bulk to show. About ten of us then climbed the muddy trail the quarter mile to the sacred site. The stones face west where the view is vast and splendid, displaying layers of green hills, grassy meadows and dark oak copses. The peaceful expanse of the Pacific Ocean shimmered beyond.


The winter solstice is nature’s new year. And the origin of the many holidays associated with this time of year. Even though our culture encourages a frenzy of activity during the holiday season – shopping, parties, entertainment – traditionally, in earlier times, this is a season of simplicity and for counting our blessings. We prepare for the lean months ahead. It is a time of generosity so we can help our family and community survive. Although the worst weather is still to come, the soon-to-be lengthening days offer the kind promise that warmth and abundance will return. A promise to be celebrated.

In the meantime, nature invites us to withdraw, conserve energy and focus inwardly, the perfect conditions for spiritual renewal. Through honoring the longest night of the year, we can embrace, rather than fear, the qualities of the dark. To face the inner and outer night requires courage. The dark unnerves us because it turns our attention to the shadowy spaces, toward what cannot be seen and what is still unknown.  But it from that darkness that all possibility arises.

. . . Time to go into the dark
Where the night has eyes
To recognize its own.

There you can be sure

You are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb


The night will give you a horizon

Further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.

The world was made to be free in.

Give up all other worlds

Except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet

Confinement of your aloneness

To learn

Anything or anyone

That does not bring you alive

Is too small for you.

– David Whyte

In its journey north to south, south to north, along the horizon, the sun takes a rest as it lingers at each end – at the solstices, the “solar standing still.” We can follow its example and also take a sacred pause, a deep breath, interrupting our senseless preoccupations for a moment and . . . just listen.

“The world we’ve made scares the hell out of me. There’s
Still a little bit of heaven in there and I wanna show it
Due respect. This looks like a good spot up here. You can
Try me on the cell, but most places I wanna be it doesn’t
Work. Sometimes you got to listen hard to the sounds old
Mother Earth still makes – all on her own.”
– Greg Brown, from the song Eugene


My hope when bringing people to these old stones each year is that an atavistic memory will be ignited, if only for a blazing moment. A memory of something ancient and true, something essential, forgotten long ago. Something so deep and real that it jars us out of our cultural haze of distraction, disconnection, and dulled senses. We have forgotten who we are and what we are part of.

Maybe hearts will be broken open and freed by the simple beauty of this place. Or by gazing into the endless expanse of sky and sea. Or by coming together in a sacred way to pay our respects to the cosmos. Maybe a big shot of silent wonder will provide the antidote to indifference and depression. Or maybe by witnessing the golden orb that sustains our life disappear, the breath-taking mystery of existence will be felt. Or maybe the spirits of this place and the ghosts of solstice past, will intercede, tweaking our perception to reveal that everything is alive and holy.

We can know that we belong once again, as much a part of this earth as these mighty stones. The air in our lungs, the water in our veins, and the minerals in our bones are the earth’s, nature’s, not ours. Once this is experienced directly, the true magic, the joy, of being alive is set on fire.

I also hope when we gather at the sacred stones, that grief and appreciation arises for the original people who lived with reverence on this land, the people we displaced through violence, neglect and disease. May we honor the Ohlone by loving the land and all the beings here.


The sun gently sank in the sky, dropping between the “V” of the 3-foot high solstice stones, shining its golden light onto the large rounded “turtle shell” behind. Perhaps the souls of the original people were released once again, pouring out before us, yet unseen by our eyes sullied by modernity.

Eventually the sun was swallowed into the sea. The others who were gathered there, picked up their belongings and began to descend the hill to their cars. We – about 12 of us – made a circle in the growing dusk, standing on the same ground as have many have before us.

I placed a pinch of tobacco in each hand to be offered as a blessing to this place and the spirits there. Some brought poetry to share. One by one we gave our gift of gratitude.

Carolyn Dille, poet and fellow dharma teacher, shared her poem with us, written not far from the spot where we stood together.

Through the Santa Cruz Mountains

on the Way to Compassion Light Temple, 
Late Winter

Ten wild turkeys, black and red feathered,

rainbow iridescent, cross
the road in the rain, unhurried,
another thing we share

among the acacias pouring gold

pollen over the ground.  I have
nowhere to go but further
into these mountains.  

Afterward, about half the group met for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Boulder Creek, telling stories and laughing heartily, keeping each other company for the long, uncertain season ahead.

This gallery contains 5 photos

The Butterflies Are Back!

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The Butterflies Are Back!
November 4, 2016

They flew from tree to tree in their black and orange Halloween colors, like itinerant flowers temporarily adorning wherever they landed. They’d gather together in bouquets only to suddenly disassemble and congregate elsewhere. The weather was sunny and warm, even hot, causing the over-wintering monarchs butterflies to be exceptionally active, fluttering by high above our heads.

“Those monarchs are mating!” The docent jumped forward and pointed as people scattered, rearranging into a circle around the insect pair. The butterflies had landed on the deck of the observation platform allowing all the tourists to witness their no longer private coupling. They tussled with each other and rapidly flapped their coppery wings. A boy of about eight talked excitedly about how they were fighting, while his grandmother corrected him. They were not fighting, she said, “they were very good friends.” He would have none of that; to him this was an epic colorful battle.

Eventually the end of their abdomens were properly joined and they paused their frantic movement for a few seconds. This, I guessed, was when the bodily fluids were exchanged. They would stay stuck together for hours or even overnight. The males next task was to fly up into a tree, bringing the female with him underneath, like a groom carrying his bride, to wait in greater safety until their bodies naturally separated. This male had trouble getting lift-off and the conjoined butterflies merely hopped along, falling off the deck and into some brambles. They were still near the ground when I left.

The roar of big surf could be heard distinctly in the butterfly’s glen so I hiked to the Natural Bridges State Park beach to check it out. The waves were foamy and churning and had rearranged the topography of the beach so that it was now mostly a salt water lagoon. Three snowy egrets waded and pranced through the water, searching for and finding small crustaceans and other goodies.  A whistle from above brought my gaze to the sky where two osprey soared overhead. Local crows hassled them mercilessly until the big raptors finally disappeared.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):


This gallery contains 31 photos