Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Survision goes to the Birds

Well, Dear Readers, I did it. Yesterday morning I was up, dressed and driving down the mountain at (gasp!) 6:30 am. My husband calls it "sparrow fart" — that is, waking up just as songbirds release gas from their little birdie bodies. In other words, EARLY. My destination: The Ventana Wildlife Society's Ornithology Lab at Molera State Park. Mission: to band birds in their annual spring-time migratory bird tracking project.

As the sky lightens and I roll down the ridge road and onto the highway, I begin to hear birdsong. Oh, No, I say out loud, go back to sleep, little birdies, not yet, not yet! I'm hoping to pluck them out of VWS's mist nets, hold their delicate forms against my heart as I walk them back to the lab, blow on them, ruffling up their feathers (to determine gender) band them and release them back into the Molera riparian corridor.

But it was not to be. There was no banding happening yesterday morning, the lab's office door shut tight, a bench stacked with several pairs of rubber wading boots beside it. The VWS staff? Sleeping cozily in their nearby trailers, I suspect.

Revising my plan, I start a long-overdue, contemplative walk to Molera Beach.

There's no one else on the trail. Aside from the dawn chorus of the awakening birds, all is quiet. A gentle breeze caresses my face, my stride feels strong. I stop to wander into a meadow, and remember, many years ago, reclining with my husband-to-be there, and breathing together. When did we stop having time to do things like this? Life's such a mystery.

"Everything is simple and obvious." These words float into my mind, and I repeat them to myself as I walk beside the river (surprisingly close to the path, a storm-induced dramatic slice into the meadow some time ago.)

The stillness at the beach is startling in its purity. I sit in the perfect spot and close my eyes, letting the gentle surf and the singing bird nearby fill me up completely for a few moments.

As a modern creature, I wish I'd brought my digital recorder to capture this spontaneous concert. I could post it to my blog/facebook/twitter site! I could figure it out, make a technology project out of this experience. What did the ancients do, instead? They felt the natural world deeply and held it inside them.

Molera is untouched, the broad strokes of its landscape the same as what the indigenous people saw two thousand years ago. It is raw, primal, and inexplicably tender. I could sit here forever, I muse, but of course, not being a bird, a tree or a stone, I can't.

As I walk back, a doe emerges from the forest, stops and stares at me briefly. A little farther on, I spy a tiny, bright-eyed rabbit meditating beside the trail. Although I stand perfectly still and whisper softly to it, like all wild things, it runs away.

Then, as I turn back up towards the road, a little bird starts trilling, perched on top of a coffeberry bush. There we are! My parting song. I'll just have to come back next Tuesday.

Photos by Linda Sonrisa

Monday, April 13, 2009

Quinceañera, Big Sur Style

Last weekend, I attended a Quinceañera for my friend Pepe's daughter, Christal. It was a privilege to attend the special Mass at the St. Francis of the Redwoods chapel just off Highway One, and see Christal, Pepe, her brother Fabian and mother Lupe all in their finery for this traditional celebration of Christal's 15th birthday.

Anglos, especially Anglo women that I've spoken to, are fascinated with the Quinceañera, since we have nothing similar. While a Catholic ritual in Hispanic culture today, there is some evidence that it was originally an Aztec rite of passage to celebrate young womanhood! Either way, the involvement of the whole family in honoring the feminine—Dad, Mom, siblings, godparents and community—make it especially tender.

Since Christal's birthday fell on the day before Palm Sunday, several congregants waved beautiful green ferns in the aisles. There was a lovely song about God granting us peace, which I sang as loudly as I could, and it was wonderful to see my quiet new friend Julia read the crowd from scripture, signing off with "word of God", "palabra de Dios."

With my Spanish, I could follow the church ceremony fairly well. The priest, dressed in scarlet robes, spoke about the importance of respect and tradition, of keeping God in our hearts, not just in church but in our day-to-day lives, too. He even paused to let us all listen to the bad boys chattering in the back of the assembly.

But my favorite part was the loudly hicupping toddler behind me, a chubby little guy in a brightly striped shirt. At one point we all greeted each other with big smiles and warm handshakes, something I remember from the Protestant services I attended eons ago. There's always someone new to you who pops up in these moments, and the kind face of a stranger can be illuminating.

At the end of the service, Christal gave her saffron and flame-colored roses to the Virgen of Guadalupe, and we all sang about the beautiful Mother, full of love for us all. Later, we went to the Grange Hall for an abundant feast of carnitas, frijoles, tortillas, salad and deliciously hot salsas. A 7 piece Mariachi band performed for the occasion, and everyone chatted happily at the long tables set up in the hall.

Little children ran about on the dance floor, batting each other with balloons, and small boys jumped up over and over to capture the orange and white helium filled globes that were trapped against the ceiling. Of course, you spotted them later, inhaling the gas, talking in squeaky voices. We were served coca-cola and fruit juices, but the men who ventured outside were drinking something stronger, as evidenced by the reddish tint in their eyes when they sidled back indoors.

Sweetest of all, in honor of the maiden who emerges from her chyrsallis at 15, proud papa Pepe had painted an enormous vibrant orange butterfly for Christal's throne. Joined by her best girlfriends, she reigned for the evening like the queenly young lady she is now.

La Reina Mariposa, Christal—

Next? Prima Alondra and Tio Fernando.

Handsome brother Fabian, Soccer star.

Krystal & Lupe
Kryal & Pepe
Libertad with balloon

Photos by Linda Sonrisa

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Grace Fiddler

Second generation Big Sur community member Grace Forrest began studying violin on her own initiative at 6 years old. She is a key organizer of the week-long 2nd Annual Big Sur Fiddle Camp from April 12-18 at Rancho Rico in Big Sur. Six nationally known and Grammy Award winning teacher-musicians will perform on Thursday, April 16, at 7:30 pm in Lygia’s Barn on the Rancho Rico property.

A poster child for home-schooling, Grace heard the famous Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser on the radio when she was little, and liked it so much she asked her Mom, Torre, to take her to one of his concerts. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen, about 50 fiddlers all playing together. I loved that there were people in their 80’s playing as well as little kids, 4 or 5 years old. I said to my Mom, ‘this is what I want to do’.” She went on to become even more inspired by his music camp in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Grace brought self-motivation and genuine interest to the learning process. “My parents didn’t have any expectations, so I just took lots of classes from lots of teachers, and there was no pressure to practice.” Today she plays every single day, loves it, and it shows. Last summer she performed at the National Oldtime Fiddler’s Contest in Weiser, Idaho, for the first time, and did well, though she modestly downplays the accomplishment.

Now 16, poised, articulate, and lovely, Grace is a natural for the disciplined passion that the violin requires. And yet she’s not interested in a future as a performer as much a becoming a music teacher, in mastering the process of how the human brain learns music. “A good teacher has tons of performing experience, really, really cares about the students and has a lot of patience,” she says.

Her current local teacher encourages her to bring her own interpretation to the notes, trusting her skill and feeling for music. She's excited to bring this new dimension to her playing, and is also beginning to compose. Her first composition, she says, is in B-major, because “there aren’t enough violin pieces in B-major.” Playing violin now, Grace says, "is what I do; it's just like talking." I ask her if learning and performing music keeps her focused on the present moment. “Oh yes,” she laughs softly, “it definitely does that.”

She knows a remarkable amount about the history of the fiddling, and is impressed with "mouth music," the Scottish vocal form that arose when the English, oppressing the Scots, took away their fiddles and bagpipes. She has a love for Irish fiddling, the new acoustic sounds of performer Darol Anger, and for classical violin music. “Pretty much every tradition has produced some variation on the violin,” she remarks. In India the violin is very different from say, in Ireland. How interesting that, like a belief in the afterlife, the impulse to create music on strings seems universal.

Grace met Tashina Clarridge, who teaches and performs with her husband cellist Tristan Clarridge in The Bee Eaters, at the Mt. Shasta fiddle camp. This inspired Grace to create with Tashina’s help a similar experience for advanced students on the Rancho Rico property where she lives in Big Sur. The music is loosely known as Bluegrass, with a uniquely American approach to improvisation.

This Spring's 2nd Annual Big Sur Fiddle Camp will host 53 students, with classes each day in violin, cello and voice, with time for hiking and exploring in the afternoons. Each evening the Rancho Richo “barn” (an enormous two story high-ceilinged building that defines rustic elegance) will be filled with music. Grammy award winner Laurie Lewis will teach vocals, a special treat.

Grace arrived in Big Sur when she was just two days old, and her grandfather is local patriarch Don McQueen, who fought to save his property during last summer's Basin Complex fire. Among other things, he shipped in his own D-4 Caterpillar bulldozer to cut fire breaks while the fires raged.

She remembers watching the flames creep down the face of Mt. Manuel at night, hoping that they would not reach her home west of Highway One, and will never forget the helicopters that dropped water from the ocean on the flames, watering her garden as they passed overhead.

One of her earliest memories is bringing her Dad Blake his lunch each day while he built their home. She appreciates a real sense of belonging to a great community, and feels that young people here need exposure to quality art, music and cultural programs. "I also like bringing people to the ranch to share what life can be like: the experience of living in nature, with neighbors and families," she says, "versus being in big cities surrounded by strangers and asphalt."

As we finish our talk, I ask Grace to play me her "B-major" composition, which she does, standing out on her deck in the brisk Spring wind, with the forested slopes leading down the ocean as her backdrop. Her dog Pablo ambles by to listen as well. We are both transfixed by the energy and well, grace, of her impromptu performance.

I'm struck by the dynamic balance here of a refined art form, contrasting with raw nature, in the context of a loving family. Later, as we walk out towards my car, Grace calls out to her little brother, Nandi, 9 (who also now studies violin) to put his bicycle helmet on right as he flies down the canyon road on his bike.

Big Sur Fiddle Camp's Concert, on Thursday, April 16 at 7:30 pm at Lygia's Barn, will feature performers Tristan and Tashina Clarridge, Liz Carroll, Laurie Lewis, Bruce Molsky and Darol Anger. Sponsored by the Big Sur Arts Initiative and the Land and Water School, tickets are $25 per adult and $10 child at the door. For more information about the Concert call 831-667-2398.

Photos of Grace Forrest by Linda Sonrisa