dunesAfter parking our big rig near the entrance to the gun club at Manila, I got out and went around to the back of the large truck to let my crew of ten California Conservation Corps members out. They seemed to move a little slower than usual, so I barked, “Let’s go! Put your gloves on and circle up!” Every morning starts out with a safety circle discussion, and I already knew this morning’s talk would need a motivational element as well.

From the circle of brown-uniformed youth, I looked up over many tall spruce trees to see something that can only be described as a fogbow. It was fog arched perfectly like a rainbow with an iridescent hue, and looked to be about two hundred yards long. I asked the corps members what they thought was at the end of a fogbow?  One young man looks at me cynically and answered,

“Europeon beach grass, no doubt.”

The rest of the crew laughed. His answer stole the magic from the mystery, and the fogbow seemed to become just another low cloud under a patchy sky.

An hour earlier that morning, when I arrived at work, they already had our large rig equipped to go. Some of them call it “the prison bus” because most people associate this type of large truck with the California Department of Forestry’s prison crews, but our rig is white, not red. We are a different state agency too, the C. C. C. and the youth here chose to join in order to further their education, earn a scholarship and work their butts off to restore California’s more denuded landscapes. Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions, and more is our motto, and the corps members reaffirm each other of this whenever we do some of the more tedious restoration projects, like pulling Europeon beach grass (Ammophilla arenaria) from the Manila dunes.

There were a few sighs and some “darn its” when I announced that we would be returning to the beach to pull the much reviled grass from the wind-swept foredunes. They all know it’s a necessary and honorable duty, but as one corps member put it, “..it’s a job fit for mindless robots.”  Day after day at this mundane and repetitious work would feel more rewarding if the job didn’t seem so endless. The invasive grass dominates the coastline along many parts of Humboldt County, and it looks to be years before we can say that we’re done with our eradicating efforts. Searching for encouraging words that might help the crew see beyond the monotony, I heard myself instead say, “Load up and let’s go.” Not very motivational, but I needed more time to find inspiring words. I hoped I would discover them at the beach.

After the short drive in the noisy rig, here we were, lined up at the trailhead, less than a mile from breaking waves, but I still didn’t feel any closer to inspiration. I shouted, “Move it out!”  They all picked up their shovels in one hand, and followed the blue hard hat in front of them.  Swarms of mosquitoes motivated us to hike down the winding, forested trail at a bite-avoiding pace. The crew marched along the trail without exchanging words, except for the warning shouts of “Low branch”, or “Watch your footing” that would be heard ten times as it was passed down from each crewmember from front to back.

At the site, I lined them out to work along the foredune, and we started digging at the steep-sandy slopes. They pulled out roots and shoots and busied themselves talking about MTV and fantasy role-playing games. No one seemed to notice that it was low tide, the fog had disappeared, or that once flowering sea rockets were now heavy with succulent seedpods.

I gave up encouraging and focused on digging up the invasive grass myself, imagining beach primrose and the pink flowers of dunes buckwheat instantly sprouting up out of the sand where the invader had once been. The repeating calls of ravens finally pulled my attention to the beach, where I saw many of them competing for a spot around a dark mound in the smooth, yellow sandscape. They hopped on and off of it while thrusting beaks aggressively at each other, dueling it out like they were vying for king of the mountain. My eyes couldn’t distinguish what the mound was, but I hoped it was a seal so that my young crew could see one close up.

It was lunchtime, I gave the crew ten minutes to gobble up sandwiches and gulp down some water, lined them up, and we walked down the beach to where the ravens ate their lunch. The closer we got the more the mound seemed to change shapes. At a distance it looked like a seal, a few yards closer it became a decomposing man, a few more yards it was a rhinoceros, and then great antlers seemed to jut up out of the mound and it became and stayed an elk throughout the closing distance. The giant bull lay on its side, half buried by sand, with the prints of many ravens’ feet spiraling out from its body like stars around a black hole in a galaxy.

“Whoa! It’s a big-ass elk!” announced one voice.

“Let’s take its antlers!” exclaimed another.

“Eeew, it smells horrid,” another complained.

We stood on top of the ravens’ tracks, and looked down at the fallen elk, his hide torn wide open revealing the source of the stench that shimmered like red and green

Jell-O in a basket made from hide and bone.

“How do you think this elk got here?” I asked.

“Well, it’s rutting season, maybe he was fighting another bull on a cliff where he was thrown off and died upon crashing into the rocks. Then he was washed here by the current,” answered one excited voice.

“Or maybe he was hit by a car somewhere up north, and drug himself to the beach where the tides pulled him out to sea and ended his suffering” added another.

“No, it looks like someone slashed his side open with a light sabre” another said. They all laughed, pulling at its antlers in hopes of dislodging them from the bull’s skull.

They walked around the great beast eewing at the stench and creating scenarios of the animal’s demise. Lunchtime was waning; we lined up and headed back towards the task of grass pulling. The event didn’t spark the fire I had been envisioning, but it did steal the conversation away from sitcoms and computer games long enough for me to feel like we found the moment.

We were half way back to our shovels when I heard,

“Look! The kelp is moving.”

I looked out west over the ocean when the same voice said, “No the other way, on the beach!”

I turned my head east to the wave-placed kelp and dried, brown eelgrass clumps that appeared to move in response to our approach. A closer look revealed hundreds of small brown birds. We stopped and scanned the surroundings. The birds numbered in the hundreds on all sides of us, connecting and disconnecting isolated clumps of dried algae as they moved. Their dark backs blended in with wet sand and the dried kelp clumps; only their movement gave away their presence.

“What are they?” someone asked.

“Sanderlings” I answered unsurely.

Suddenly, a group of 100, or so, came off their feet as if one of them yelled, “Jump!” They flew towards us changing directions in unison-flashing white bellies at us.

“Wow!” the young man behind me shouted, his eyes squinting as if blinded by an explosion. Then another group flew over us maneuvering to the left, then to the right, their bellies shining like bright stars under a blue sky, landing behind us, and disappearing again. We continued on in silence with group after group of small birds revealing themselves by the many white flashes of their bellies, flying harmoniously as many parts of one being, then disappearing again onto wet sand or into a mosaic of beached kelp.

With shovels back in hand where we started, we dug for a few minutes stopping occasionally to look around to see if any of the lifeless clumps of brown behind us might suddenly move, rise up and fly, or turn into a dead animal.

“How do those birds know how to turn or land all at the same time?” a young women asked, wiping sand from her sun burnt face. I remembered a couple of theories that I’ve heard to explain that phenomena, but decided it was better for them to imagine the possibilities unbiased,

“I’m not sure, what do you think?”

She hesitated, and so another spoke up and said,

“I think it’s magic.”

We continued working and talking about the cryptic coloring of the sanderlings and how a sudden flash of many white bellies might confuse a hunting peregrine. They asked many questions about shore birds and elk, predation escape techniques and rutting season. Instead of giving definitive answers, I’d only say,

“Maybe it’s this… or maybe it’s that… keep watching and share what you observe.”  The same young man who this morning answered that ammophila was found at the end of the fogbow said,

“Ya know, I would’ve never see all this cool stuff if I wasn’t working for the CCC up here. I can’t wait to come out here someday and not see a blade of Ammophilla.” He continued digging, working faster than ever.

I thought about our motto, hard work, low pay, miserable conditions and more. I imagined it written in fog across the horizon, in ravens’ tracks imprinted in the sand, in white bellies of shorebirds flashing each word-one after the other-across the sky. I wondered what could be added to our motto to more accurately describe this experience. Perhaps, we could replace the words “and more” with “and discovery.”

I never heard another word mentioned about games or TV for the rest of the day. Sighs turned to panting, complaints into questions. The day ended, and the area the size of a large house, once a thick mass of Ammophila, was cleared. A reclaimed foredune was now free to blow inland or to be washed out to sea. The restoration process of these dunes is happening simultaneously with the learning process of these youth, and both are healing.  Sands and minds are being freed to move across changing topographies of land and life. Their shared futures will be free of monotypic landscapes, and instead will thrive in rich-varied mosaics. And each day of beach grass pulling, however redundant, moves us closer to our goals. That’s why you’ll find us, here on these dunes, at the end of the fogbow.