Monday, October 19, 2020

My Octopus Teacher

If you don't find octopuses endlessly alien, fascinating, and splendid, well, there's not much I can do for you. But if you do, you will enjoy this Netflix original. The footage of the plucky, clever, and apparently affectionate octopus protagonist is simply exceptional. I was less enthusiastic about her smitten human documentarian Craig Foster and the film's questionable narrative style. Still, there's little doubt that Foster is a remarkable creature in his own right: Here's a guy who refuses scuba gear and instead snorkels (without a wetsuit!) in the bracing and shark-infested waters of a South African kelp forest to interact with his special octopus friend. 

It's well known that octopuses are extremely intelligent and curious, that their whole body is essentially a brain, and that their physical abilities as shape- and color-shifters are almost beyond human comprehension. Our octopus hero is in constant danger, especially from sharks, and she has a big bag of tricks up her tentacles: instantaneous camouflage coloration; forming herself into a rock shape that can slowly scuttle across the ocean floor on two tentacle legs; releasing distracting ink clouds during jetting escapes; wrapping herself in kelp or seashells for protection; and, perhaps most mindbogglingly, escaping from the jaws of a very violent and persistent shark by– well, enough spoilers.

The problem is, I'm sorry to say, dishonest storytelling. For example, it is just not plausible that Foster, who is after all holding his breath for every filmed encounter, could follow the octopus over an extended shark chase scene in the water, out of the water, and back in again. 

One may charitably allow this as narrative license. But given the undeniable beauty, suspense, and pathos of each one-breath encounter, it seems unnecessary at best. And the human side of this story– that somehow the love of an octopus gave Foster back his own life and ability to love his own family– is just too schematic and poorly developed to be anything more than sentimentalism.

All that said, watch it. If nothing else, you'll be less inclined to order that grilled tentacle next time you see it on the menu.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

East Bay native plant nurseries

I was in the market for a Quercus kelloggii (California black oak) to replace a walnut we had to take down, and discovered it in the inventories of two native plant nurseries I had not visited before: Oaktown Native Plant Nursery, in Berkeley, and East Bay Wilds, in the Fruitvale district of Oakland. Both are excellent native plant nurseries, each with a solid selection of some of the standards, plus some unusual plants you don't find very often, and friendly and knowledgeable staff. At Oaktown I picked up a few things, including several small pots of Tellima grandiflora, a plant I love to find growing trailside– we'll see if it can take my suburban conditions and neglect. Oaktown's oaks were not what I was looking for, so I headed to Oakland! East Bay Wilds had several very nice specimens of black oak, and the one that called out to me was raised from a Castro Valley acorn. The person who helped me seemed a little reluctant to part with that lovely little tree. $25 for a healthy tree in a 5-gallon pot... the price is right. Cash or check only at East Bay Wilds, but the corner store nearby has an ATM.

Go native!

Friday, October 9, 2020

October on the Hamm's Gulch Trail

Windy Hill OSP. Despite the incredibly dry time of year, the buckeyes are covered in lush moss, thanks to the old Douglas-firs, which harvest the fog near the ridge and create their own moist microclimate. Lovely.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Sonora Pass country

I camped up there for a couple of nights last week. The high country along the Pacific Crest Trail is now pretty desolate, the snow largely gone, but the rocks, lichens, and chilly blue lakes remain impressive. Little plants eke out a living, including thistles, gentians, and Whitney's milkvetch (Astragalus whitneyi), a prostrate legume that produces peas in a funny ballon-shaped pod. 

Down the hill to the west, a hike from Kennedy Meadows to Relief Reservoir is a nice workout up a Yosemite-worthy granitic canyon, carved by tributaries of the Middle Fork Stanislaus River. The reservoir itself, filled behind a 1910 dam and part of PG&E's hydroelectric system, is in a spectacular setting, although artificial lakes in beautiful canyons make me sad. The Kennedy Meadows Resort is the kind of place where you see a lot of oversized pickup trucks, enormous RVs, State of Jefferson signs, and not too many masks. I'm sure folks there are friendly. I didn't hang around long enough to find out.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Black-eyed peas

 Freshly shelled, from Full Belly Farms. I like the picture and I like the peas.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Two down, two to go

The Story of a New Name
Elena Ferrante

I finally got around to reading the second of the Neapolitan novels. I didn't like it quite as much as the first, but it is excellent throughout. The personal is political, big time. Once again, Ann Goldstein's translation is so good, you would think it had been written in English.