Nature Connection | Deborah McArthur

Writing – Consulting – Education

Getting to Know a Mountain

4amDebz&Ronja.jpgThe wake-up call came at 2:45 a.m. Time to layer up in thermal underwear, wool socks, snow pants, ski jacket and gloves. Hat, hood, headlamp. We strapped spiky crampons on freshly beeswaxed leather boots. A leash around the wrist attached to an ice ax is a reminder that this is not just a backpacking trip but a mountaineering adventure. An alpine wind whistled through our 8,300-foot basecamp. By 3:15, the 9 in our expedition party were on our way up the steep slope toward the stars.

lake viewTwo days before, we admired the brilliant snow-covered Mount Shasta while swimming in Lake Siskiyou on the west side of Interstate 5. The snowy summit at 14,179-feet graced the deep blue afternoon sky. Call it “mountainlust” – a desire to feel the terrain of a distant landscape, to set foot on the snow and understand the mountain.

The Clear Creek route to the summit, on the southeast slope, is considered the easiest and least technical approach. Even the first week of July, we found snow by our trailhead at 6,390-feet. The trek to basecamp started in a red fir forest; snow patches made following the path a bit of a scavenger hunt. Emerging out of the forest, we met the ridgeline and an incredibly scenic view of Mud Creek Canyon and Falls and the majestic Shasta above the snowfields.


We tripped and slipped in the sun cupped snow. It was crusty in the shade, slushy in the open and tinted watermelon pink with algae. We made basecamp on a gravel outcrop among bent and twisted krummholz whitebark pines. A few anemone flowers bloomed in the volcanic soil. Beetles, gnats and moths brought the early-season alpine to life. Birds called from the pines. A hummingbird zipped by.

melting_snow.jpgEvening clouds built up around the mountain, greying out any sunset. We melted snow for dinner, looking out over the southern Cascade range to Mount Lassen. We talked about the next day, debating what time to wake and start the ascent, what should be a turnaround time and who would buddy with whom.

The mountain affects everyone in different ways. Some take it slow and steady and reach the summit. Some feel the draw of a warm sleeping bag at basecamp and decide they have gone far enough. For others, the altitude and exhaustion force descent before the top.


While having seen Mount Shasta over a dozen times driving along Interstate 5, finally spending time getting to know this magical, potentially active volcano satisfied that “mountainlust.” Traversing the snowfields, sharing time with friends and watching a spectacular sunrise made this an incredible lifetime memory.


Special thanks to Sean for organizing the Shasta trip, to Stacy and Marty for mountaineering leadership, to Kai and the kids for the family support, to Thomas and Leif for waiting for us in town. Huge gratitude to Ronja for being my ascent partner and an amazing and courageous companion!

Contemplating Canine Companions

Summer is a prime time to travel. It’s also an opportunity for our family to dog sit as our friends go abroad. As different doggie personalities mingle with our lifestyle, we study their traits and behaviors, similarities and differences.

Luna1Luna is a small, blonde terrier. She follows her favorite family member like a shadow. She gets upset when her favorite person shows affection toward another – wanting to be the focus. She’s reluctant to trust just anyone. Following her terrier breeding, she is fantastic at sniffing out the rodent trails through the garden. Her big brown eyes are adorable and make everyone smile.



Dottie is a labradoodle. Instead of locking onto one favorite person in the household, she is happy a belly rub and spending time with all the different members of the family. She enjoys sitting in close contact – her favorite place is the couch. A good listener, Dottie tilts her head with understanding at key words “beach” or “walk.”

The dog species, Canis familiaris, is thought to have branched off of its closest wild relative, the wolf Canis lupus, some 14,000 years ago. While wolves have a genetic inbred fear of humans, domestication has been selecting for social and useful behaviors. The big boom in selective breeding has been recent – the last 200 years – resulting in nearly 350 recognized breeds worldwide. It’s amazing to think with all the diverse looks and behaviors among dog breeds (the “genetic phenotypes”), individuals of C. familiaris have very little variation in their DNA (the genotype).


As our family prepares to adopt a dog again, we consider the key aspects of what we value in a canine companion. We will need to find a dog that fits our style: outgoing and adventurous, attentive and smart, mellow and affectionate. We know the huge responsibility to select a breed (probably a working/herding dog) and personality that we can handle. We accept the time it will take to train; establishing the alpha role as the pack leaders, to keep the hound and others in our community safe.

As a dog owner, respecting nature is a huge consideration.  Not chasing wildlife, managing excrement (not leaving plastic bags of poop along a trail for another to pick up!) and respecting land use boundaries and regulations demands constant awareness and effort.

While the energy investment is significant, discovering how a domesticated Canis fits into our human landscape is greatly rewarding. And it can help us balance our own wild versus tame instincts.

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Weekend summer getaways

The long days of summer beg for adventures in nature. Santa Cruz has amazing options for day trips and weekend getaways. Here are a few suggestions to kickstart planning some river, lake, ridgeline, redwood and coastal escapades.

creek 1For a river adventure close to home, nothing beats the full immersion hike and swim up Arroyo Seco creek through the magnificent “gorge.” Water shoes, drybag, wetsuit and sun and wind protection are all recommended for the trek up this slot canyon in the Ventana Wilderness of our closest National Forest. Start early and plan for the whole day to reach the waterfall at the end of a 150-foot swim.

For lakeside relaxation, visit our local Loch Lomond reservoir. Pack a hammock, fishing pole, and picnic basket and set up a hub for the day at a picnic table along the shore. Hike the 4.3-mile loop trail through the surrounding woods. Rent a paddle, row boat or a canoe to explore the little island and lake shoreline. The only downside is no swimming in our city drinking water – accept the view of sparkling sun on the water surface as a fair trade-off. With some imagination and humming a tune “I’ll take the low road and you take the high road…” you might think you are in Scotland. Keep an eye out for osprey.

To adventure into the oak and chaparral habitat and along the ridgelines of our coastal range, plan a day in our closest national park. Pinnacles is spectacular for its caves, high rocky peaks, wonderful views over the Salinas River valley and home to our recovering California condors. Splashing in the creek, finding seasonal wildflowers, gawking at the lichen and moss diversity on the rocks and scrambling up the sandstone boulders included.

redwood_trailRedwood forests keeps everyone cool in the summer. To escape the crowds coming to the coast, plan to get deep into the valleys. Make an overnight reservation and backpack out to the trail camp at Butano State Park. A loop trail in the backcountry rewards you with a quiet peace and solitude in the embrace of these millennial giants.

wavesBeach camping in the summer is tricky when sites are reserved months in advance. A favorite way to sleep by the shore is to strap a tent and sleeping bag onto a bike rack and pedal the coast to New Brighton State Beach. If you arrive on two wheels, a handful of bike camping sites are available – no reservation required.

Commit to your weekend nature adventures now before the calendar fills up. Enjoy the long days of summer!

Rock Skipping Mindfulness

Reconnect with Mother Earth this week by getting in touch with the stones underfoot and the wonder of physics on our planet. Take a little time to break down the elements of how to make a rock bounce.

my_kind_of_rock.jpgPicking a rock. The search for an ideal rock to skip engages deep observation skills. What is your personal ideal size, shape, weight, texture? Do you prefer one as thick as a sandwich or as thin as a pancake? Honor an irregularity along the edge – a notch allows for a good grip. Turn the stone around in the palm a few times and flip it to test how it sits. Do you prefer a lighter density disc the weight of a tennis ball or one with the solidity of a baseball? Ponder the origin of the rock and look for minerals, crystals, layering, color. Is it chalky, smooth, muddy, sandy to the touch?

Preparing for the throw. Consider the elements of the throw before the wind up. A fast rock will go the farthest as each point of contact will slow it down. How can you get the most velocity out of the throw? Do some stretches to warm up the shoulder, the elbow, the wrist. Give thought to the spin. A good wrist snap and rotation – like with a frisbee – will give the rock stability and help it lift. How many rotations per second can you achieve with an ideal throw?

Now contemplate the angle of attack – around 20 degrees above the waterline is a good goal. You’ll have to stretch out the legs and knees now too to get a good, low lunge position. Like a practice swing with a golf club, try out a couple of side arm throws around the height of the knees to see how you can get the angle just right. Next to consider is how far to aim for the first touch. Do you want to keep it close – 5 feet – or will the first landing be 15-20 feet away?

skipping rocks_beach.jpg

Observe the wind and waves on the water’s surface. Consider which direction to aim – perpendicular or at an angle to the wind? Do a quick scan of the surrounding, acknowledging the beauty and peace of the moment. Then take a deep breathe, wind up and let it go.

However the rock flies, practice non-judgment and acceptance. That was a unique rock and throw and it was perfect in it’s own time and place!

May you find some time be grounded and add the satisfaction of an epic rock skip to your celebration of Earth week.

round and flat.jpg

Bugs in Rome

We woke up to the chiming of church bells tolling outside the window of our rental shutters_rome_bugs.jpgapartment in Italy’s capital city. We looked forward to making an espresso and exploring the sites: the Forum, Colosseum, and Vatican Museum. Opening the shutters to let in more light, we noticed a dot about the size of a tomato seed and just as flat, moving across the crisp white sheets. Recognizing it at once, we grabbed our bags, shook out our shoes before putting them on, and left as quickly as possible.

This is the second time in our traveling days that we have met bedbugs. While not pleasant, by understanding them, we could quickly gather our wits, problem-solve and move on from the unfortunate encounter.

hemiptera bugsBedbugs are in the order Hemiptera along with cicadas, treehoppers and aphids. While most of the “true bugs” in this group suck plant juices, some are hematophagous (blood sucking). Two common species feed on humans: Cimex lectularius – the common bed bug – (lectualarius meaning “bed” in Latin) and C. hemipterus.

Pliny the Elder wrote about the medicinal value of bed bugs in his work Natural History in 77 A.D. in (ironically) Rome. The insects were recommended to treat snake bites and ear infections. Aristotle also referenced bed-bug-origins-pliny“those insects which are not carnivorous, but live upon the juices of living flesh” in book five of The History of Animals around 350 B.C.E. Archaeologists have found fossilized bed bugs thought to be 3,500 years old.

The buggers aggregate in a shelter – called a harborage  – a crevice in a bedside table, crack in the wall, even an electrical socket or a laptop computer until dark, which makes them hard to identify when first inspecting a room. Like mosquitoes, they are attracted to CO2 and warmth. When they bite, it’s often in a line of small red dots – their “breakfast, lunch and dinner.” A bed bug can actually survive for over a year without feeding on blood.

Dogs’ sensitive noses are used to sniff out the pungent odor – described as rotting raspberries – of the Cimex species. Related, the word cimicine means “smelling of bugs”.

Other animals deal with cousin parasites. Bats, swallows and chickens have their species specific roost and nest invaders. Genome sequencing shows that bats are the ancestral host of the bed bug species that affect humans – most likely from times when humans and bats coexisted in caves.

The bites, while annoying and unnerving, gratefully do not transmit disease. Fear not. Know thine foes. Be vigilant. Sleep tight…

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The colors of rain and light

Kaleidoscopic streamers across the bay. A polychromatic half circle stretching from peak to peak. A pair of matching arcs exploding from the horizon. This winter’s rainy weather has been wonderful for sky watching and rainbow connections.

Raindrops act as prisms. As a wave of white light enters a sphere of water, it refracts, or bends, separating the white light into its rays of color – each with its own wavelength. Blue light takes a shorter wavy path and bends the most; red light has a longer wave pattern and bends least. The spectrum of ROY G. BIV colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) reflects off the back of the raindrop, sending the light to our anxious eyes.

What we see depends on the kind of storm and time of day. Light sprinkles – as small as 0.5mm in diameter – produce a faint rainbow apparition, whereas large raindrops – as big as 5 mm diameter – create brighter and more intense color displays. The angle of the sun hitting the raindrops affects its appearance. A mid-day rainbow, the sun high in the sky, highlights the blue and purple spectrum. Sunrise and sunset rainbows with more red and orange light waves reaching our vision, create dramatic crimson illusions.

double rainbowDouble rainbows form when the light reflects twice within the raindrops. The lower, or primary arc, is brighter than the secondary arc. Notice in a double rainbow how the lower arc has the red as the top band and violet on the bottom and the upper or secondary bow has the colors in the reverse order from violet to red (VIB G YOR)!

When double rainbows appear, there is the sinister, dark gray area of unlit sky between the primary and secondary arcs. This is called the Alexander’s band – honoring the Greek philosopher who first described the phenomenon in 200 A.D. The raindrops between the two arcs do not send light to your eye, so it appears dark.

Another rainbow spectacle to the meticulous observer is the presence of supernumeraries.jpgsupernumeraries. Look for extra purple, green and pink color bands like fringe that make the rainbow appear thicker on its underside – most common around the top of the bow.

May you enjoy the interludes between rain showers. Take a walk on the beach or a hike on a ridgeline to see the horizon and experience a rainbow connection.

Amazed by Molluscs

A hand-strung shell bracelet jingles on the wrist. Each delicate pinkie-nail sized bead is unique, like a snowflake. One has a white center that spirals into a light pink. Another starts tan then blends into a brown and white checkerboard pattern. A third has a hole in its top, weathered while washing up and back in the waves.

The shells are void of the living inhabitants that define these molluscs. Mollis in Latin means “soft” – counter intuitive when examining the bracelet of hard shells without the squishy snail bodies curled up inside.

The phylum Mollusca is the second largest in species diversity in the animal world. Our recent travels to the tropical waters of the Gulf of Thailand has given us a renewed connection and appreciation for this varied group.

tridacna-giant-clam-from-koh-phangan-thailandFrom the shoreline where we collected the tiny bracelet shells, we snorkel out to the reef and see the snails’ soft-bodied cousins, the giant clams. These molluscs reveal their presence in brilliant blue, green, purple and yellow sine-wave mantles. The clams’ double-shells are imbedded in the rocks so only the opening with the siphons show. One boulder may host several different colored curvy smiles of clams. A shadow or movement causes them to close up like a kiss. of underwater exploration are the “naked” molluscs – the nudibranchs or sea slugs. Typically only as long as a finger, these creatures come in an amazing array of striped and spotted patterns and wild color combinations. A perfect example of evolution through natural selection, nudibranchs often match the sponge and anemone substrate in their habitat, camouflaged. Once you spot a nudibranch, the added bonus is finding its eggs in a frilly rosette or spiral ribbon.

THAI SQUID SALADAlso within the Mollusc phylum are the cephalopods: octopus, cuttlefish, nautilus and – frequent in our day-to-day Thailand travels – squid. Each night, off-shore boats with green LEDs illuminate the horizon. The light draws plankton – and consequently their mollusc predators – to the surface. Plahmuk (Thai for squid) is a prevalent ingredient in street food when we enjoy squid in fried rice, pad thai, and curry noodles.

Traveling is a wonderful opportunity to compare animal diversity with species at home. Familiar molluscs in the redwood region and Monterey Bay include the infamous banana slugs, abalone, California blue mussels and the Pacific giant octopus.

May we always work to preserve biodiversity and understand the connections among species at home and around the world!


Kitchen Chemistry

Cookie-making is a favorite part of the winter holidays. This year, we took on a kitchen chemistry challenge: to identify the materials and ingredients involved in the baking process down to the level of some of the elements and molecules. Like marking off a bingo card of letters and numbers, we characterized twenty elements involved.

Our cookie making starts with a stainless-steel bowl made from an alloy of metals ssbowlincluding iron (26Fe) with some chromium (24Cr) and nickel (28Ni)*. We measure out our flour made up of carbon (6C), oxygen (8O) and hydrogen (1H) chains. Our glass measuring cup is made mostly of silicon (14Si) with some calcium (20Ca), magnesium (12Mg) and aluminum (13Al) added for strengthening and heat-resistance. (*Note: the number before the element’s symbol is the atomic number = how many protons are in the nucleus.)

baking sodaThe addition of baking soda checks sodium (11Na) off the list. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) – most important to make the cookies fluffy when it reacts and forms carbon dioxide gas bubbles.

Flavor-enhancing table salt adds chloride (17Cl) to our mix. Table salt crystals are also known as sodium chloride (NaCl).

A teaspoon each of nutmeg and cinnamon are organic carbon-hydrogen-oxygen molecules which add that holiday flavor and float into the air when baked as a fragrance of the season.

Our second mixing bowl is made of glazed ceramic. Its origin may include silicon, aluminum and some of the alkali metals – sodium (11Na) and potassium (19K) – and alkaline earth metals – calcium (20Ca) and magnesium (12Mg).

320px-saccharose.svgWe measure out the sugar (C12H22O11) and then the triglyceride a.k.a. butter which includes a very familiar molecule – H20! Water is trapped in butter’s solid fat matrix.

Then to crack a nutrient-rich egg which adds calcium (20Ca), iron (9Fe), phosphorous (15P), and zinc (30Zn) as well as vitamins and minerals containing nitrogen (7N) and sulfur (16S). Mix it all up with a wooden spoon (long chains of carbon-hydrogen-oxygen atoms).

Seasonal fruit such as persimmon adds potassium (19K). Pumpkin is a source Iron (9Fe), magnesium (12Mg), Phosphorus (15P) and Copper (29Cu). Some nuts contain selenium (34Se) and calcium (20Ca). Add some oats – a great source of manganese (25Mn).

And what would cookies be without chocolate? Theobromine C7H8N4O2 is the chemical formula of this important compound.chocolate

Does this simplistic breakdown make the cookies taste better? Yes! But don’t forget to supplement your cookie diet with truly vitamin and protein-rich vegetables and wholesome foods this season. May your 2019 be full of awareness, curiosity, understanding and connection (and even more cookies!) Happy holidays.

A Visit to the Recycling Center

‘Tis the season of Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping deals. 12-year-old guest columnist Ronja McArthur reflects on a field trip to the Dimeo Lane Resource Recovery Facility and encourages thoughtfulness this holiday season.

Have you ever had a can that you get at a birthday party filled with lemonade? You take a long sip and it tastes so refreshing and good, but then it is empty. You search the bottom for a last droplet and then walk over to recycle it.

A couple days later a truck comes and takes it to the recycling center. The truck drives around to where they dump. A school group in orange vests watches eagerly as the driver opens the hatch. Part of the truck rises into the air and all the recycling comes pouring out, including the lemonade can.

recycling2The school group follows their guide up the stairs to see the recycled items pulled up and churned by giant gears. A conveyor belt transports some of the recycled items to a group of workers. They sort some things that go to the landfill (a term we learned called “wish cycling” where people put things in the bin just hoping it can be recycled) and they let the items to be recycled go by.

Suddenly, there is a beeping sound and the conveyor belt stops. The school group gasps. A worker cuts away a cord of plastic that jammed the wheel. The tour guide talks about how long strings damage the machine.

As the school group goes on, a can speeds down the conveyor belt and gets sucked up and dumped into a bin filled with other cans. The cans travel to a big machine that compresses and binds them into huge cubes to be shipped somewhere to be made into something new. The school group plays “I spy” as they find plastics and other things that don’t belong with the aluminum. The sorting process is not always perfect. The students move on, seeing a mountain of metal and a hill of glass.

After going through the tour and learning more about the process of recycling, I learned that each recycling center accepts different things. You can’t recycle a lot of items even if it has the three arrows triangle symbol on the package.

Try to make good shopping choices. Pre-cycle and buy fewer packaged products. Refuse plastic straws and bags that could become harmful to the environment. And the next time you go to buy lemonade for a party, instead of getting individual cans, try making your own. You can change the world by helping to reduce, reuse, and recycle.


Middle school students from Alternative Family Education (AFE) don hardhats, orange vests and radio headsets to tour the Dimeo Lane Resource Recovery Facility and learn how the city sorts and sells recyclables. Photo by Leslie O’Malley, Waste Reduction Educator, City of Santa Cruz Public Works.

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