It’s been an exceptionally beautiful Autumn this year. Something about California’s Indian Summer always comforts me like the warm, offshore winds it brings. Each day brings new surprises among the landscape – a hint of fuschia here, a stroke of maroon there – and migrating birds add a festive flair. The prospect of upcoming Holidays excites my heart, with family members making plans to reunite. I’ll also attend my 20 year Acalanes High School reunion after Thanksgiving, which I’m looking forward to.
I’ve been doing physical therapy for my groin and hip, and will be having an MRI in about a week to determine what exactly is going on. I hope it’s nothing requiring any serious action (i.e., surgery), but am eager to get to the bottom of it after almost a year. Fortunately, I’ve been able to ride and run, with lots of stretching and some rest days in between. Happy there is progress!
Happy Fall, and enjoy the gorgeous colors!
Here’s a couple videos of mountain biking upper UCSC this weekend.
The Santa Cruz Mountains in California are known for their tacky dirt, rife with redwood duff. The loaminess varies from place to place, and some trails hold up better than others during the rainy season. We had our first rain of the season yesterday, and today Ron and I went for a ride at a place that holds up quite well after rain: the Sandhills. These are ancient seafloors, uplifted by the San Andreas Fault over millions of years. It’s like going to the beach in the middle of the mountains, and it’s one of the few places that are rideable during the rainy season.
Sandy soils drain quickly, and firm up nicely during Winter. As a general rule, it’s best not to ride about a day for each inch of rain, depending mostly upon the soil type and slope. I try to minimize my erosion by staying off muddy trails during the Winter until they dry out. The Sandhills, however, provide a constant playground all season long. Sand is also a fun medium to ride in; it’s all about controlled sliding, friction, and counterbalancing. It’s a great place to work on flowing with grace.
I just got some new tires – the Maxxis Assegai (29″ x 2.5″) in the front, and Aggressor (29″ x 2.5″) in back. They are killing it – floating over the sand with a wide footprint, and a noticeable increase in surface area than my previous Minion DHR II 2.4’s. I feel way more in control, and solid in my roll. Thanks to Kyle at Scotts Valley Cycle Sport for the recommendation and set up of these tires! I absolutely love them.
Here’s a video of today’s Sunset ride at our favorite sandy spot, Bear Mountain, only five minutes from our house. With my groin still healing, we shuttled and skipped the climbing. We have done this trail many times, and our love for it just keeps on growing.
There’s been a song playing over and over in my head for the last few days, its chorus instantly recognizable:
“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away, and know when to run”
Written by Don Schlitz and performed most famously by Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler” is the song that sums up my life right now. For the first time in a long time, I had to fold ‘em on something my spirit so earnestly wanted to do: mountain bike racing.
And it hurt. It was a real pain in the groin, to be specific.
I’ve been dealing with an awful groin pull for the last ten months or so. As you probably know, the groin refers to a combination of delicate muscles in the upper thigh and pelvic region. I’ve fastidiously researched the muscles, tendons, and bones involved since, as they have come to dominate my life as of late.
It started with a soccer game in November; I did a sudden sprint that instantly had me limping off the field. My left hip flexor felt fragile and tight, but I stretched it that evening and thought nothing of it. I did the same thing the next game – a quick, sudden sprint from standing that left me feeling like I could barely walk.
But I kept on playing…and riding my bike almost everyday, and running. Everything but resting.
Then, snowboarding season began. I was skating out of a deep powder run at Kirkwood, my left front foot strapped in, and my back right leg pushing behind me. There was a somewhat established path from others who’d met the same fate and lost their speed like me, but the powder was still deep and I was postholing. I should’ve just unstrapped my board and hiked it, in Perfect Retrospect Land.
I caught a patch of slick ice that sent my left leg forward, while my right leg sunk thigh-deep into powder. My left groin and hip flexor felt like they tore in half. My glute felt like it was pulling forward to try to grab my thigh as it lunged forward. It hurt hike a branding iron – searing, driving, and leaving an unwelcome imprint on your future.
It was the most awkward, uncomfortable position to get out of, trying not to make it worse by moving too suddenly. I gingerly shimmied my way to unclip myself and relieve the splits I was in. But I was aching. I was set back a few days from this one.
For the first time, I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I could not lift my leg to get up out of bed; it was terribly disabling. Claustrophobic, actually. It would take minutes to gently roll out of bed, and then it would hurt even worse to sit down on the toilet; my hip would make an audible clicking noise from my cold muscles. I felt like my entire inner upper thigh and hip flexors were incapable of even the slightest stretch, let alone use. Hot showers and stretching helped to warm it up, but my mobility was worsening.
I took a good week off of exercising, but soon got back to riding and running. I started doing more yoga, hoping the stretching would be a good accompaniment. But mornings were still a grizzle for another month or so.
Then, in March, I was moving classrooms and reached up for a box that was high on a shelf. My left hip flexor felt like a snapped guitar string, from taut to limp. And so felt my entire left leg. This was the one that got me limping around slowly like a woman older than my years. I felt like I couldn’t lift my leg to even walk. I realized how tight my entire hip area was, from the inside out.
I’ve lived most of my life feeling like I was eighteen years old, physically speaking; no major ailments or complaints with one exception. When I was 23, I had an accessory neo navicular bone removed from my left foot; they had to reattach my posterior tibial tendon, and I was off my feet for eight weeks. The atrophy was almost the hardest part; it took months to regain strength. And I pulled my left groin for the first time shortly thereafter at my local climbing gym. I often wonder about the connections to what I’m experiencing now. I wear arch supports and good shoes, and my foot is better since. But now, for the first time in my life besides that surgery, I’m feeling limited by my body. I’m not healing as fast as I used to; I am getting older.
But I love mountain biking. Taking any longer than a week off leaves me antsy beyond measure. So I kept riding on the days I felt like I could, and pushed myself to try on the days I felt I couldn’t.
I began CES strong, winning first place at the first race for Sport Women 35+. I had a rough second and third race, as I wrote about in an earlier blog post, though still got second and first. My times were fast; I was happy with how I was riding. Something was different this season, though, and I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. I felt over it. Like I just didn’t care anymore about the races; I didn’t care about winning, or losing. I wasn’t as inspired as I’d felt last season when it was all brand new.
I missed the fourth race for a scheduled family camping trip at Lake Cachuma, and though I was riding, I was still having issues with my groin and hip. It was a full three-hundred sixty degrees of discomfort. I saw my doctor in early August about it; I had an ultrasound to rule out an inguinal hernia, and was given physical therapy exercises online to do, which were similar to the yoga poses I was already doing.
I wasn’t physically 100%, but I was excited for the fifth race at Northstar. I love Northstar. I got a few days in riding there this Summer, and was feeling really confident for this race going in.
But on the drive up to the race, I was again feeling that over it feeling again. Strong. Like I really didn’t want to do the race. It wasn’t nerves; it was a sort of instinctive aversion. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling this way. I love mountain biking, but I wasn’t so sure about the racing part anymore. I just wanted to ride my bike.
Sitting in the car for four and a half hours is the last thing that helps my hip feel better. I was feeling super sensitive during practice that day before the race. Even on the downhills, I was having trouble gripping my seat and balancing my weight. I ride left-foot forward most of the time on descents, same as my regular snowboarding stance. The slightest jerk or slip on the pedal can feel like the cut of a razor blade, sharp and debilitating. I knew I wasn’t feeling up to par, but I was there, and was going to give it a shot.
That evening, I camped at Prosser Reservoir outside of Truckee. It was gorgeous – the waxing gibbous moon rose over the lake, reflecting a family of mergansers who swam in unison. Though Ron stayed back in Santa Cruz to teach his surf lessons, I was happy to be there, even alone. I love being outside!
But something seems to keep happening when I go camping on the weekends…loud campers! I am not getting that old, but I would just like a good night’s sleep. Every time I’ve been camping this Summer, if it was on a weekend, there were super loud partiers. I understand wanting to let go and celebrate with family and friends. But when it’s 1 a.m. and you’re still woo-hooing as you line up more tequila shots?! Shut the heck up, Dude! Which is exactly what I barked at them from my tent at that hour, having spent the last two tossing and turning to my fan-app on my phone. They responded by laughing and partying for another hour or so, as I contemplated driving down the road and just sleeping in my car.
When I woke up on raceday at 7:30 a.m, I was exhausted. I limped to the bathroom, glaring at my hungover neighbors’ tents. My groin was awful. I was Cranky. And darn it, I was feeling that over it feeling again about the race. Just didn’t care.
By the time I’d met up with a few teammates and friends to start climbing up, I’d already said out loud, “My groin is killing me. If it becomes too painful, I’m just going to quit and DNF. I’m not going to destroy myself for this race.” My words would become prophetic.
At the start of the climb, my brakes were rubbing and whining. I stopped at the Santa Cruz Bicycles Tent at the base of mid-mountain, and they kindly adjusted them. I did the first lap, winning that stage for my category. Then, I made the mistake of not reading the course description well enough. I asked the race director at the CES tent if I was supposed to ride the chairlift or climb for the next stage. He was, understandably, busy and doing a thousand different things. I got “Chairlift” for my answer, and off I went up the lift to the next stage.
I saw nothing but a sea of men when I got to the stage start. I took a rest in the shade, assuming the other girls would be soon behind. But a good half hour passed before some girls started trickling in. I greeted some of them as they arrived, sweating from just climbing up.
That’s right – climbing.
How had I gotten that messed up?! Was I not clear about the stage when I asked for clarification? It didn’t matter; it was on me for getting it switched. The girls told me to just climb for the next stage; to go back to the race director I’d just spoken to and explain. I felt like a total dumbass, though.
I also explained to the girls how my groin was bothering me, and there I went throwing out that “DNF” threat again. I was so sure that I could just quit the race if I was hurting.
Starting the next stage, I knew it was a long one, about thirteen or so minutes. I came across a couple of riders soon into the trail; presumably a mechanical from one of the riders. But I passed one of the girls, and kept charging down the trail. I was nervous, though, knowing what a long stage we were on, and that she may end up passing me. I wish I wouldn’t have even thought about this and just kept focused on the riding, because I think it distracted me enough to make me fall on a section I’d cruised the day before. It was a pretty mellow fall; I was totally fine physically, and I thank my pads for that. I quickly got up to keep going, but saw something I’d never seen.
Falls are pretty common in mountain bike racing. When you’re pushing your speed, you increase your risk for falling. Most of the time you just get back up and keep going, maybe lose ten seconds or so.
But on this particular fall, I happened to hit a rock in just the right spot – right on my derailleur hanger that attaches my derailleur and chain to my bike. It’s designed to break so that your more expensive derailleur doesn’t, and it did its job; it was cracked in half, but still attached. The real problem was my bike was unrideable. My chain and derailleur were in a loose pile, attached near the hub in such a way that they would tangle in the spokes should you try to spin the wheel in any way. I quickly realized I couldn’t run my bike down the trail because my chain and derailleur were smacking against my frame and spokes. I lifted up my bike, holding my chain awkwardly as I tried to jog down the trail. There wasn’t a lot of space on the singletrack to lift up my bike, hold it, and try to run down the rest of it, and I knew I had a long way to go.
Most importantly, I knew there were dozens of riders cued up coming down the trail in thirty second intervals, and it wouldn’t be safe if I was running along the narrow trail clogging up their runs. I needed the quickest way down to fix my bike.
At the Pinwheels, I spoke with a course marshal about what had happened. “That sucks,” he lamented. We agreed that running my bike wasn’t going to be feasible. I set off on a bumpy fireroad called Tryumph that leads down to the base, where the Santa Cruz Bicycles Tent was. That was half the challenge. Riding with only my left hand, I held my chain and derailleur carefully with my right hand to keep it from catching on my bike. I came across some racers who commiserated me. “Bummer! Hate it when that happens,” they consoled. These were the Pros and Experts climbing; surely they’d had a mechanical issue or two in their years racing.
It took awhile to make my way down without crashing again, using my front brake only. I rode up to the tent and didn’t even have to say anything.
“Oh no! Let’s get that fixed for ‘ya,” they offered. They were such nice, helpful guys. Granted, it’s their job to be there for this reason, but twice in one day? They were really helping a sister out.
They explained the derailleur hanger to me and why it broke to save the derailleur. They awesomely replaced that part for me, and within minutes, I had a working bike again. I was stoked. But I’d burned a ton of time, and I still had to ride the stage I’d crashed on…which was closing in ten minutes. I profusely thanked them, and went over to the CES tent to ask the race director what to do. Integrity is important to me; I wanted to finish the race properly and with approval. He radioed up to the top of the stage, where they confirmed they were shutting it down. “I’m sorry,” he said. “There’s not enough time”.
Gulp. I had to take my first DNF. Did Not Finish. Dude No Fun. Grrr!
Though I could keep “racing” and record my times, it wouldn’t count. I had last year’s times, when I got first place for Beginner Women, which was good enough for me. I didn’t want to race for nothing, turned in my timing chip, and rode back to my car to lick my wounds.
I am not superstitious, but I find it funny how I talked in my China Peak Enduro video about how much I didn’t want to DNF. I’d puked my way through that race, not wanting to DNF. Not because I thought anyone cared, but because I cared, for some reason. I also talked in that video about how much I hate quitting…
This time? I was irritated. Physically, I could’ve pushed through and finished the race fine. I wished I hadn’t crashed. Why did I have to fall on that one random part?!
Though I had said earlier that day I didn’t care about DNF’ing and quitting the race if I needed to, when it was actually said and done, I cried like a little baby. I just sobbed, feeling defeated and sad. I did care. I love mountain biking, and though I may be getting over the racing part, I have a competitive nature. I like being first. Conceding this race set me even further back in the series competition, and I didn’t like it.
With my hip hurting and spirit down, I counted my losses and drove home to Santa Cruz. I stopped for gas in Pleasanton, and realized I didn’t have my wedding ring on! I panicked like I’d left a baby behind. I remembered taking it off to wash my face at the campsite after I swam in the lake. To my amazing good graces, my friend and teammate Anne-Laure was camping at the same campground. I called her right away, in tears, asking her to please look on the picnic table at my site for my ring.
As I continued driving home, I couldn’t believe I’d made it so far without noticing. I always wear my ring. I was so caught up in the stupid DNF that I’d forgotten something so important. About an hour later, Anne-Laure called with some incredible news: she’d found my ring, right on the table where I’d left it! Of all the things that had gone wrong during this weekend, I was most grateful my ring was at least safe. That was my saving grace. She kindly sent it to me, and it’s been on ever since. I am infinitely thankful to her!
Northstar was done. I had two races left – Mammoth and Ashland. I really enjoyed Mammoth last year, and was looking forward to riding there this year. The course is super cool! And the famed Kamikaze delivers on its hype.
But when I woke up Friday morning, September 21, 2018 to leave for Mammoth, my groin and hip were hurting more than usual; I was having trouble just going up and down the stairs at home packing up. I made one harsh move that crippled me to the fetal position and near tears, and in that very moment, something strange happened: I gave up.
You are not racing this weekend, I heard my Mother say in my mind. I knew she was right. Driving six hours to Mammoth and riding hard for two days seemed impossible. Repeating that in two weeks for the Ashland finale seemed laughable.
I do not quit easily. But my body was speaking for me, loud and clear. You can make up for lack of gumption with spunk and fighting spirit, but you cannot make up for injuries that heal on their own timeline.
Sometimes, you’ve got to know when to fold ‘em.
Just like that, I was done. My body had chosen for me. It seemed like it had been trying to tell me all season. That over it feeling kind of made sense. I knew it was the right decision.
I sold my Ashland race registration, and wrote off Mammoth. Though I had the spirit to be there, hurting my body was not worth a race.
But I do hate quitting. I nearly drove up to Mammoth twice that day before really accepting it was off the table. I cried; I felt like my body had failed me.
Something had to give. It was time to let go. I made another doctor’s appointment, and committed to staying off my bike for at least a full week. That’s a long time.
I could get over the CES races. Yes, I was bummed about not winning the series. As it stands, I’ll finish third place overall. I’m not sure what the future holds for me and racing at this point. There’s a big part of me that doesn’t care anymore. It’s not like you do the races for fame, but despite winning several races and the series Beginner last year, I don’t think I was ever mentioned in a race report. For all the talk about “getting women more involved in mountain bike racing”, you would think there might be some acknowledgement and encouragement. But as I hear the Pro’s above me lament, it’s few and far between. Who am I kidding with my delusions of grandeur either? I’m not doing anything exceptional. I realize how self-absorbed I must seem blogging about my races. Yawn. Thank you for reading, or not – I don’t blame you.
But not riding my bike? This is what really matters to me; this makes me sad and forlorn. I know I need to rest, but it is like pulling teeth to stay away. The very thing I love is what’s hurting me. An identity crisis presents itself. It’s like I don’t know who I am when I’m not on my bike. It’s my life, my passion, what I do with most of my time. I have other hobbies, but this is my main love. Not being able to go for a run is just as hard. Who am I when not in motion?
Though I love a mental workout as much as a physical one, it’s usually best enjoyed after a good, long ride. And I get kind of depressed when I don’t get that regular endorphin dose. Exercise is medicine. It’s always been a part of who I am, and I feel kind of lost without it.
This weekend dragged on like cold molasses, as I tried to keep busy with birdwatching, reading, gardening, guitar, hanging out with Ron and Beau, and doing lots of yoga. It’s hard when you can’t do the things you love, but I ought to be grateful for all the other things I still can do. It’s even harder when you can’t live your life in the simplest of ways – getting out of bed in the morning, climbing the stairs to your morning coffee, bending down to tie your shoelace. By the end of the weekend, though I had tons of energy left to burn, I was sure I’d made the right call to rest.
This injury is a real wake-up call for me, and I want to do everything possible to fully heal this time. I’ll be back to the doctor in two weeks, and keep up the rest and yoga in the meantime. I hope it’s only a matter of time before I’m able to spend my afternoons riding around the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains I’m lucky to call home. I might have to sneak a shuttle run in from my hubby though…because nothing else puts a smile on my face like riding my bike, even if it’s just for ten minutes.
Katrin’s Kernels is a new series of book reports offering pithy kernels from books I read. While certainly not a replacement for reading the entire book, I hope to give readers a snapshot into its overall message, and inspire them to read it fully themselves. I enjoy reading non-fiction and Science books, especially related to human impacts on the environment. I look forward to sharing more books in the future, and please send me your suggestions if so inspired!
Katrin’s Kernels Book Report #1: “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert
In a short period of time, humans have manipulated the planet like no other species in recorded history. The gargantuan footprint of Humanity on Earth is unprecedented, and our technologies further the complexity of our influence on the future. Though we live in an age of great productivity and innovation, we are undoubtedly part of one of the most punctuated mass species extinction in geologic history – what Elizabeth Kolbert masterfully describes as “the Sixth Extinction”.
I hope to present you with some of the leadweight facts and findings from her beautifully written book. Her writing style made even the saddest subjects shine with dignity and grace. I cried, questioned out loud, and stood up out of my seat while reading this book; it certainly moved me in every sense of the word. I tried to summarize the highlights that spoke strongest to me, and I am skipping over a lot! This book is rich with statistics, figures, and information that all support her thesis. I highly recommend reading her book in full, and then try to think of new ways you can help, too. We need all hands on deck.
(Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History. New York:Henry Holt and Company, 2014. Print)
To gain a context for this book, it’s important to first review the “Big 5” mass extinction events in Earth history. The first was the late Ordovician, about 450 million years ago (mya), likely due to changes in sea level and glaciation. Then there was the late Devonian, about 365 mya, where some 75% of species were lost from possible volcanic ash, and eutrophication from algal blooms in the ocean. The third was the Permian-Triassic, about 250 mya, when 96% of life perished as a result of massive volcanic eruptions that altered the atmosphere and acidified the oceans.
The fourth was the Triassic-Jurassic extinction, beginning some 200 mya, and lasting for several millions of years as a proposed combination of volcanic flood basalt eruptions and an asteroid impact were to blame. The fifth happened in the Cretaceous-Paleogene, about 65 mya, from an asteroid and volcanic eruptions, wiping out dinosaurs and ¾ of species on the planet. Bottom line? The Big 5 Extinctions happened over a long period of time, and were brought on by natural phenomena, not the direct consequence of one species’ actions. Over 100 species have gone extinct since 1980, the year I was born, and dozens are threatened. Of all threatened species, amphibians top the list.
Fighting for the Frogs
Author Elizabeth Kolbert is quick to explain the title of her book The Sixth Extinction. She references a pair of early authors to first publish an essay using the term “sixth extinction”. Authors David Wake, of UC Berkeley, and Vance Vredenburg, of San Francisco State University published an article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Are We in the Midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction? A View from the World of Amphibians”.
David Wake studied the decline of frogs in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, where in his lifetime he had known them to be populous. Suddenly there were die-offs everywhere, and scientists have continued to document overall amphibian species loss regularly. They are known as an “indicator species”, for their sensitivity to subtle, and not so subtle, changes in environmental conditions; their reactions to toxins often indicates how other larger species, like we humans, may be impacted.
What’s killing the frogs? It’s Bd fungus, short for Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, and it has ravaged frog populations beyond the Sierra Nevadas. Its relative Chytrid fungus is decimating Panamanian golden frogs, among many other species, in Central America.
Kolbert traveled firsthand to see for herself what was happening. She went to a frog sanctuary in central Panama, El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC), where biologists are racing against time to preserve many different species of frogs. Ultimately, their goal is to repopulate the native environment with healthy frogs, but, as Kolbert writes:
“Everyone I spoke to at EVACC told mt that the center’s goal was to maintain the animals until they could be released to repopulate the forests, and everyone also acknowledged that they couldn’t imagine how this would actually be done” (Kolbert, p. 14).
Volunteers toil tirelessly for a mission that seems more impossible with each dying frog. I am in awe of their determination, steadfast morale, and daily efforts to make some headway on this daunting fungus. These funguses can be thought of as invasive species, as they have spread their way across the world to populations maladapted to their wrath.
It’s Not Just the Frogs…
For some perspective, a key concept called “background extinction rate” is introduced in this first chapter. “It is the rate of which a species goes extinct in ordinary geologic times: no volcanic eruptions, asteroids, or dramatic, punctuated event. Depending upon a complex set of factors that vary from species to species, mammals may have an extinction rate of about ¼ per million species-years…since there are about fifty-five hundred mammal species wandering around today…you’d expect – once again, very roughly – one species to disappear every seven hundred years” (Kolbert, p. 15). Amphibians’ extinction rate has yet to be determined, as their fossils are so rare, and are required for determining its rate; however, approximately one amphibian species in the world may go extinct every thousand years or so.
Amphibians are the “most endangered class of animals, though; it’s been calculated that the group’s extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background rate. But extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels. It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion” (Kolbert, p. 17).
Let those statistics sink in for a second. Now visualize them in your mind.
One Third = 33 ⅓ % = .3
That’s one out of every three corals at risk for extinction.
The ramifications are nothing short of catastrophic for life as we know it. With fisheries already overtaxed, it’s no joke that we may not have fish to eat in our lifetimes. That’s a big problem not just for the billions of people who depend upon fish for their main protein source, but for the multitude of species that make up a complex, delicately balanced ecosystem that is completely dependent upon biodiversity. It’s outright depressing, simply for the sake of so many species at risk for extinction. I care about us, but I’m mostly sad for the animals.
One of the biggest threats to healthy, diverse populations of organisms worldwide comes from invasive species. Kolbert explains some likely avenues for Bd’s introduction to the Americas: the “Out of Africa” hypothesis, in which shipments of African clawed frogs used for pregnancy detection in the 1950’s were spread worldwide; or the “frog-leg soup” hypothesis, in which the introduction of North American bullfrogs to other countries is to blame.
“Either way, the etiology is the same. Without being loaded by someone onto a boat or plane, it would have been impossible for a frog carrying Bd to get from Africa to Australia or from North America to Europe. This sort of intercontinental reshuffling, which nowadays we find totally unremarkable, is probably unprecedented in three-and-a-half-billion-year history of life (Kolbert, p. 18).
Species are being exposed to foreign pathogens that they can’t evolve quickly enough to build immunity against. Invasive species outcompete and edge out native species that play vital roles to long-established cycles within the ecosystem. It is a balancing act that is held in harmony by its diversity, and a growing laundry list of invasive species stand against it.
Hunted to Extinction
Kolbert explains in great detail the history of extinction, speciation, and evolution in chapters two and three, including how Darwin not only discovered new species, but in his lifetime saw the extinction of an iconic European species: the great auk. Great auks were large, flightless birds about two and a half feet tall, with small wings adapted for swimming in the ocean. They were eaten into extinction by Icelanders, on the island that served as the last death knell of the auks. Once widespread throughout the world, their numbers quickly plummeted as they became a primary food source for humans, in addition to serving as fish bait, feathers, and even fuel (Kolbert, p. 60).
A preserved great auk serves as a totem of its tragic demise, with the inscription at its base: “The bird who is here for show was killed in 1821. It is one of the few great auks that still exist” (Kolbert, p. 57). The last pair of auks was killed off on the Icelandic island of Eldey in 1844 by a trio of men arriving by rowboat.
A British naturalist, Alfred Newton, had hoped to witness a sighting of the elusive pair of auks; upon learning of their slaughter, he wrote in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science:
“‘The bird that is shot is a parent. We take advantage of its most sacred instincts to waylay it, and in depriving the parent of life, we doom the helpless offspring to the most miserable of deaths, that by hunger. If this is not cruelty, what is?’ Newton argued for a ban on hunting during breeding season, and his lobbying resulted in one of the first laws aimed at what today would be called wildlife protection: the Act for the Preservation of Sea Birds” (Kolbert, p. 67).
The Great Auk can, sadly, be added to the list of species plucked – quite literally in this case – to extinction. Newton’s environmental activism, on the other hand, set an admirable precedent.
The Anthropocene Epoch
In Chapter 4, Kolbert gracefully leads us through a detailed yet relatable summary of Earth’s geologic history, and in Chapter 5 discusses the “Anthropocene Epoch”, a term coined by Paul Cruzen, a Dutch chemist and Nobel Prize recipient for his research and proactive measures to protect the ozone layer (Kolbert, p. 107). The term embodies human dominance over Earth, including:
Human activity has transformed between one third and and one half of the land surface of the planet.
Most of the world’s major rivers have been damned or diverted.
Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems.
Fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the oceans’ coastal waters.
Humans use more than half of the world’s readily accessible freshwater runoff. (Kolbert, p. 108)
He was also quick to note human’s alteration of Earth’s atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. Our current carbon dioxide levels hover around 400 ppm, which is higher than any point in the last 800,000 years, if not longer; if current warming trends continue, we’re predicted to top 500 ppm, or twice pre-Industrial levels, by 2050 (Kolbert, p. 113). The effects of such warming are numerous: changes in climate with more extreme weather events; sea-level rise from warming oceans, and melting ice-sheets; acidifying oceans, killing many species; changes in native ecosystems from invasive species; and those are just several.
As Kolbert snorkels among beautiful coral reefs, she and others lament their visible decline, and more commonly, demise. With the pH of the ocean lowering as acidity rises with the absorption of carbon dioxide into the ocean, pteropods, corals, and other shelled creatures who depend upon a delicate chemical reaction of calcium carbonate are literally dissolving. In Castello Aragonese, a small island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Kolbert dives with researchers studying ocean acidification; they have a natural source of carbon dioxide from an active volcanic vent beneath the sea. Check out a short video of it here.
It provides for a perfect laboratory to study varying acidity; the areas closest to the vents have the highest carbon dioxide, and the highest acidity. As you move away from the vents, there are varying pH zones. Scientists study the organisms in each zone, how they’ve adapted to their unique environments, and experiment with species to see how they react to changes in preferred acidity. In the pH 7.8 zone, three-quarters of the missing species are calcifiers (Kolbert, p. 122). Today, we’re at about 8.1, but that number is expected to drop.
Kolbert continues to The Great Barrier Reef to delve into the effects of ocean acidification on corals. I was curious to learn about what’s called the “saturation state with respect to calcium carbonate”; it’s basically how much is available in a given amount of seawater.
“Prior to the Industrial Revolution, all of the world’s major reefs could be found in water with an aragonite saturation state between four and five. Today, there’s almost no place left on the planet where the saturation state is above four, and if current emissions continue, by 2060 there will be no regions left above 3.5…Eventually, saturation levels may drop so low that corals quit calcifying altogether, but long before that point they will be in trouble” (Kolbert, p. 137).
J.E.N. Veron, a former scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, wrote: “A few decades ago I, myself, would have thought it ridiculous to imagine that reefs might have a limited lifespan. Yet here I am today, humbled to have spent the most productive scientific years of my life around the rich wonders of the underwater world, and utterly convinced that they will not be there for our children’s children to enjoy”.
A recent study by Australian researchers found that coral in the Great Barrier Reef has declined by fifty percent just in the last thirty years (Kolbert, p. 138). Furthermore, a study published in the journal Science in 2008 found more than a third of 800 reef-building coral species to be in danger of extinction (Kolbert, p. 142).
This was one of many moments in the book that made me cry.
It’s not simply because I may not be able to snorkel among the vivid reefs I’ve explored before; it’s the collapse of a long-established ecosystem, and its hundreds of dependent species that worry me. It’s happening in our lifetime, and faster than we think.
Kolbert travels to the rainforests of Manu National Park in Peru, and the Amazon in Brazil to witness changes in biodiversity from deforestation. Then, she’s back to the US, where bats are fighting White Nose Syndrome, a deadly fungus that has made its way to the Americas, and is decimating bat populations. This is part of the species “reshuffling” that’s happened with invasive species being shipped, flown, driven, and sailed across the continents. And at this point in the book, it’s easy to see how their impact is all-encompassing.
An Informed Sendoff
After guiding us through some difficult topics to read about, Kolbert wraps up the book with an emphatic call to action. I’ll let her words speak for themselves:
“To the extent that we can identify the causes of these revolutions, they’re highly varied: glaciation in the case of the end-Ordovician extinction, global warming and changes in ocean chemistry at the end of the Permian, an asteroid impact in the final seconds of the Cretaceous. The current extinction has its own novel cause: not an asteroid or a massive volcanic eruption but ‘one weedy species’. As Walter Alvarez put it to me, ‘We’re seeing right now that a mass extinction can be caused by human beings’. The one feature these disparate events have in common is change and, to be more specific, the rate of change. When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out” (Kolbert, p. 266).
“Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have – or have not – inherited the earth” (Kolbert, p. 269).
I knew this would be a difficult book to read. Learning about a multitude of hopeless, tragic cases of animals dying isn’t for the light-hearted. I cried several times while reading this book, my heart heavy with the guilt and anger of what we’ve done to our animal companions. This book also reminded me that I’m not doing enough to help improve any of the problems I’m so upset about. Like most people I know, I fastidiously recycle, reduce, and reuse; I donate to a few charities that are fighting for the very causes I’m concerned about. I work hard to educate my Seventh grade Science students about the state of our planet, and hopefully that creates a ripple effect. But overall, I feel like I ought to be doing more. It is painful to just stand on the sidelines watching a tragedy unfold, and I feel like we all – as in all 7.6 billion of us – should be doing more to help.
I realize not everyone may care about the state of our environment as much as people like Kolbert do, or like I’d like to think I do. We all have different calls to action. Some issues concern some more than others. Sometimes we get overwhelmed by the severity of them all. But it’s important to stay in the loop, know what’s happening, and be proactive with that information. There are many things we are doing to make progress on these issues, and we ought to try everything possible to ebb the destructive tide we’ve risen.
I hope you read this book in full, and I hope it inspires you. It takes a world of smart, creative humans like ourselves to solve our way out of the crisis we’re in, and we all play a part in the solution.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park, in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, is famous for its old-growth redwood trees. As the oldest state park established in 1902, it has drawn visitors from around the world to stand beneath its towering, majestic giants. Some redwoods are over 2,000 years old, and command the forest floor like marshals on patrol. They certainly command awe and respect.
Big Basin is also known for its 13-mile Skyline to the Sea Trail, which meanders from the park headquarters down to Waddell Beach at Rancho Del Oso. I backpacked this trail about fifteen years ago, sleeping overnight midway; it was a gorgeous, surprisingly remote adventure. Though we’re so close to Santa Cruz and “civilization”, it feels starkly desolate out here. Wildlife abounds, and inspiring views surround you.
While not known particularly for its mountain biking, Big Basin offers a network of fireroads for riding upon; single-track trails are off-limits. Today, I decided to try my first mountain bike ride here on the Big Basin Loop, a 13-mile loop climbing about 1,700′ in elevation. Only about a 25-minute drive from my house, it is close enough I should come here more often! This year, the first ever Old Growth Classic will take place here on August 25; if I weren’t already racing the CES at Northstar that day, I would be doing it.
Starting off at the Park Headquarters, you climb up Gazos Creek Fireroad for nearly seven miles. There are some downhill, flowy segments on this trail, and then it returns to climbing. At the end of this trail, turn right on Johansen Fireroad, which skirts a very unique mountain property with a treehouse and tepees. This is the steepest climbing on the loop.
After a few miles, you’ll reach Ocean View Summit at 1,685′; as the name implies, it’s a sweeping view West over the Pacific Ocean. Due to all the wildfires burning across the state, it was especially smoky today, and you can see it in the video. I also felt it in my lungs.
Middle Ridge Road was the funnest downhill of the ride, dropping quickly from the summit back to park headquarters over a mix of sandstone and redwood duff. Though nothing on this ride was exceptionally challenging, the gorgeous scenery and flowy fireroads provided enough motivation to make the climbing worth it. It was a good workout, about two and a half hours riding time.
I finished with a short walk through the Redwood Loop back at the Park Headquarters, appreciating the grand redwoods we are so lucky weren’t logged back in the 1800’s. Though it may feel like “wilderness” out here, it’s easy to see how much this land was ravaged for its valuable resources only a century or so ago. I can only imagine how this forest must’ve looked when it was full of these beautiful, old-growth giants.
Enjoy this video summary of the ride, or better yet, go try it yourself! You won’t regret it.
Subjectivity. Personal preference. Different strokes for different folks. Our perspectives are inherently built upon the fabric of our character, circumstances, and choices in life. There are many lifestyle preferences that may be questioned by family, friends, and acquaintances throughout our lives, but there is one question people won’t seem to stop asking:
Are you going to have children?
It’s a simple question, really, and a relatively fair one to ask while getting to know someone better. But at age 37, I can tell you I’m tired of hearing it from those I already know – which is why I’d like to take this opportunity to say, Thank you for not asking.
Thank you for not asking if I’m going to have kids for the umpteenth time. I don’t mind the occasional check in, but when it becomes as regular as morning coffee, it starts getting old. Thank you for not reminding me that, at age 37, my fertility is declining each menstrual cycle. Thank you for not assuming that I must be incomplete with my life since I don’t have children of my own. Thank you, most of all, for not looking down on me in pity as you wonder how I could be married and not yet have kids.
Because I’m out here having the time of my life, thank you very much.
Since you asked, however, I’ll take the time to answer your question thoroughly.
My first serious thoughts about whether I would reproduce began as a Senior at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California, in 1998. The world was approaching a population of six billion people, and I was learning about a myriad of environmental issues from my passionate, informative teachers. I was concerned about overpopulation, and humans nearing our carrying capacity. If it weren’t for all the people demanding so much from the planet at once, we may not be having the same plight of problems. What if there were a way to reduce the population to a more sustainable size? What if some three billion of us were to all of the sudden just die?
Disregarding the morbidity of thinking about billions of people dying en masse, it was a simplistic, fleeting idea I thought about one day in my U.S. Government class. While I soon moved on from that idea, what stuck with me was the real problem of overpopulation. From my Netscape browser in our new computer lab at school, I researched Zero Population Growth, the simple premise that if every couple had two children or less, Earth’s population either plateaus or declines over time. It seemed like a logical solution to an overtaxed, overburdened planet that was bleeding resources faster than it could replenish itself. If I were to have kids, I would stop at two, I decided at the young age of seventeen.
I understood why and how families could have more than two children, certainly; as the youngest of three sisters myself, I am the increase in population from my parents. My two older sisters negate their lives in the longrun, while I am the additional resource-sucking human; the growth in population.
Then I majored in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz. It was a phenomenal, rich four years surrounded by constant information, inquiry, and mental aerobics that fired me up to do something about all the problems I was upset about. I graduated feeling a mix of informed, enraged, and inspired to change that which bothered me so much. Yet I still felt like overpopulation was at the root of many of our problems.
Today, there are some 7.6 billion people on Earth. I worry about overpopulation, and a heartwrenching laundry list of environmental issues. I vacillate between feeling faithful about the future, and completely despondent. Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to bring children into the Earth we live in today.
Then there are days when a student says something so inspiring that you wonder how you couldn’t have known it all along; or you see your niece and nephew laughing with pure abandon in a hammock on a Summer day. These moments give me some faith in the future, and definitely tug at my heartstrings to have kids.
But do I want to bring children into the world? I have a blog and share my life pretty openly; I have nothing to hide. I don’t take myself too seriously. It’s possible no one will read this, anyway. I firmly believe that none of this will matter in a hundred years, so might as well share my authentic, imperfect self. That includes when I’m ambivalent about something.
After all these years, I still am not 100% sure if I want to have children of my own. My husband Ron feels closely the same. Every time we are out having fun on a mountain bike ride, snowboarding trip, or playing at the beach, we both feel grateful for that time together. We are living out the most passionate, greatest romance we’ve ever known, growing stronger after twelve years together. Despite everyone’s advice that you can still do all the things you love with kids, I’m sure there is some sacrifice of this time, especially in the early years. It’s hard to just give it up.
It can be challenging to feel so unsettled on the topic. Most of the time, I know exactly what I want, and go for it. This is a decision that has sat on the shelf without a clear directive for years. Deciding whether to procreate isn’t like changing the paint color in your bedroom, of course. The philosophical ramifications of adding a human into your life have definitely kept me up a night or two. And yes, I know I’m running out of time, which adds to my growing sensitivity from those who keep asking…so thank you for not asking.
Again, it all comes back to whether we want to or not.
It’s okay not to know the answer. And it should be okay with everyone else in my life, too. I’d like to think most people couldn’t give two cents about the issue, and would like to extend a warm thank you to all of you who haven’t continually asked me about the subject. I appreciate it beyond measure.
Then there are those who ask, with worry in their eyes, if I am ever going to have children?! I feel like I’ve disappointed them before I even answer. I understand their curiosity on the subject, especially since Ron and I are both getting older. I’m not angry they’re asking; it’s a fair topic. But at this point, my answer hasn’t changed.
You know we’re still not sure about that, I shrug.
It’s like they’ve just watched a mother bird lose her baby chick. They look at me with a quizzical, let down, mildly sad look in their eye as I scramble to offer more justification.
We’re so happy as it is. It’s wonderful having freedom, you know, I try to overcompensate.
Don’t you know you’re over the age of thirty-five? they counter, terror in their eyes at uttering such a statement. Worse, they’ll question my athleticism. All those bikerides can’t be helping…
And this is where I’m over it.
I’m not sorry if my lack of children makes me not good enough for you. That’s on you, not me. If you look at me and see an incomplete, unhappy spinster, then fine. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter if you don’t see me, because I do. The joke’s on you if you think I’m missing out. While you’re wasting breath judging me, I’m laughing on the way to my next adventure.
It carries a little more weight when it comes to my family asking about kids. Though they hide it well, I know my sisters are hoping I have children to add to their brood. They have been undyingly supportive of me as I ponder this decision. It is hard, though, when I see them sharing experiences only two mothers can share; when I see their children play together, creating memories only they will remember. They’re in the Mom’s Club, and I’m not. Sure, it makes me want to have kids more when I see them with their own.
My parents are, understandably, so proud of them and their families. There are times when I question how proud they are of me, despite their love toward me over the years. I know it must be hard as a mother to want your own daughter to become a mother herself, to join that “club” that only mothers can be in. I see the genuine love she has with her five beautiful grandchildren; I see my Dad beam as he plays with them. When I see my parents light up talking about their daughters, I know they would be as proud if I had children, too. And who wouldn’t want more grandkids? I wouldn’t have kids just to please my family, of course, nor would I because I thought I was supposed to.
I can’t control what other people think, and it doesn’t change my life if someone thinks I have a perfect life or not because I don’t have kids. But I am human, and there are moments when I feel unrecognized for who I am today, like I’m not truly seen. When someone doesn’t seem to care about what I’m up to, except for the fact that I’m not having kids anytime soon, I can feel passed over – ignored, with a hint of not being good enough.
Anyone care to hear about my latest adventure in the mountains? Sometimes, I wonder, do you see this badass mountain biking nature girl, cultivating a blooming garden on the property she bought? Do you see the peace of mind that I have, the contentment I have to just sit in stillness with myself, free of stress and worry? Do you see the books I read, the quiet miles I run through the forest, or the compassion I show to others in my daily actions?
Do you see that I am happy? Though I may seem “selfish” in your eyes spending all this time doing what I love, I’m actually spending most of that time getting outside of myself. I’m not trying to focus on myself so much as I’m trying to use myself as an instrument to experience and learn new things. Can you see that? Do you seeme?
While some may assume I’m living an incomplete life without kids, I’m busy building my life – carving out my own path, following my passions, and becoming a fuller, better human being in the process. I’m improving myself, growing into a wiser, stronger woman in the process. Someday, should I decide to take on that sacred journey of Motherhood, I will be that much more interesting of a Mother, that much more experienced of a guide, and beat with that much stronger of a heart to love with. And I’ll have a lot of damn good stories to tell.
There is so much to do in life, but it’s impossible to travel every single path. Including motherhood. I can never know what it would be like to not ever have kids, and become a mother. I will have to choose, or biology will choose for me.
So why stress about the one path I cannot take? I only have this one life to leave my footprints in the sand, washed away by the tides as soon as I’m gone. What I know for sure is it’ll be okay whether I have kids or not. Once I’m gone, I won’t know otherwise. The world will keep on, and these words will fade away into the ether.
So thank you for not asking. Surely you weren’t expecting to read all of this for the answer.
Here’s a video of the mountain biking trails Airborn, Sick & Twisted, and Magic Carpet Ride in the upper UCSC area of the Santa Cruz Mountains, California. We begin with Airborn, a trail known for its steep, loose descent over redwood roots. This time of year it is especially dry, and today I noticed the braking bumps had grown at least a few inches since my last run down it. But it’s still good fun, of course!
Flowing down steep hillsides like this one requires a balance of keeping momentum while not sliding out of control. Though I try to mostly use my rear brake on trails like this, your front brake provides that stopping power that you need to slow down. It becomes a controlled slide, at times. Keeping your weight back, and your center of gravity balanced over the bike, helps keep you from falling forward over the bars as you hold on and just slide down that slope until it lets up. It’s fun to ride on this edge of composure and chaos.
I focus on keeping my four points of contact firmly intact: hands committed to the bars, feet solid on my pedals. Maintaining these points of contact, while balancing your center like a gyroscope, helps absorb some of the bouncing and bumping that is inevitable on steep trails with lots of features. Dynamic, split-second reflexes, are part of the fun of this dance. Mountain biking is a lot like dancing; your bike is your partner, and you must keep a firm, constant frame with each other in order to flow with grace across the dancefloor of the forest floor. You must stay completely aware; the word present is an understatement. It can become meditative, despite the speed and stimuli involved.
Sick & Twisted is a short trail that feeds into one of my longtime favorite trails, Magic Carpet Ride. I love this area with all my heart, so much I often say “Thank you” at least once during my ride. Thank you for my legs and body to ride out here; thank you for the awesome, natural beauty that bathes me in its gentle, scattered sunlight. Gratitude is inspired from doing what you love, where you want to be. For me, that’s flowing with grace on my bike among beautiful, natural places. Blessed with another day to do just that!