Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ramble on the serpentine prairie

One of my daily rambles with the dog takes me past an old horse stable on the edge of Redwood Regional Park. Some of the horses drowse outside in small paddocks, but most are kept indoors in stalls: small, dark boxes with tiny rectangular windows that let in only a single shaft of dusty sunlight. I hurry past the barn, since it pains me to see horses confined this way. Herd animals are made to move. In the wild their foraging can take them miles each day, in the comforting company of other horses. But these horses, like many domestic urban horses, live the majority of their lives confined indoors, isolated from each other by thin wooden walls.

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)


kt glimmer said...

you speak right to my heart. thanks!

mudskipper said...


The Querulous Squirrel said...

Yes, we must remember the good, but suffering seems to outflank it, which has a lot to do with individual temperament. I was watching that wondering documentary on bird migration recently called Winged Migration, on the magnificence of birds' ability to travel thousands of miles twice a year. It was soothing to watch, until one very short passage where some geese started mucking around in some tar pits and most got away but one suddenly sunk very deeply, tried to flap, and was a clear goner. I couldn't get that goose out of my head for the next 24 hours. It reminded me of all the suffering of oil spills. But it was just one goose, and that day, for me, the suffering of one goose felt too much to bear.

Tai said...

I know. That goose haunts me, too. The only answer seems to be -- as inadequate as this feels -- is to do whatever you can to prevent more oil spills, even if it's just driving your car less, insisting on stricter environmental regulation, protecting wetlands, etc. If we are successful, then that goose's suffering won't have been completely in vain.

Apifera Farm said...

Haven't had time to visit, taking time now, this was a lovely meandering through the meadow.

Anonymous said...

Great to read you and your dog were able to enjoy Serpentine Prairie - off leash. Your ability to enjoy watching your dog running and scampering up the hill there will change in the next week or two as EBRPD Board will, in all likelihood, vote to approve the ban on off-leash access at the Serpentine Prairie.