As I pass the old barn and trudge up the hill, my thoughts grow darker. Honestly, it pains me to see any animal confined. Many people seem to regard captivity as normal for animals. Parrots live in cages, many dogs spend their lives at the end of a chain, zoo animals pace out their days in small enclosures. Then there is the unspeakable atrocity of factory farms, where cows, pigs and chickens -- gentle, intelligent creatures -- live out their entire lives in spaces hardly larger than their bodies. Animals are made for flight and for movement, just as we are. They suffer in confinement just as we do. If it were up to me I would break every chain, open every cage, smash every lock.
I try hard to push these thoughts away, because they bring me so much despair. Now the barn is behind us and the dog and I are crossing the serpentine prairie, a small preserve that is as beautiful and ethereal as its name suggests. Beneath the prairie runs the smooth blue-green rock that gives the preserve its name. A decade ago these grasslands were smothered by invasive shrubs and Monterey pines, and in danger of being covered by another housing development. But conservationists convinced the public of the value of native grasslands, and now this little remnant of prairie in the Oakland foothills is being restored and protected.
The prairie hosts an astonishing array of rare grasses: blue-eyed grass, purple needlegrass, bent grass, big squirreltail. Their very names are poetry. It's easy to imagine the big herbivores that grazed here during the Pleistocene epoch: mastodons, bison, camels. Herds of small native horses galloped across this very slope. All of them extinct for reasons we'll never know. Now endangered wildflowers bloom here in the spring, and tree swallows with iridescent blue feathers zoom across the grass and nest in boxes built specially for them along the fence line.
The dog is scrambling up the hill, the picture of reckless joy. I don't believe there is balance or justice in the world, but I must remember that the impulse to caretake and restore is just as human as the impulse to confine and exploit. I must remember that not all birds live in cages. Last summer I found a perfect redtail hawk feather on this trail; a gift from the serpentine prairie. That was a good day.
(Photo by Wilde Legard)