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Nature is Stressful, Bruh

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A dried shell of a former living creature at Lake Folsom.
A dried shell of a former living creature at Lake Folsom. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Among all my other work, I haven’t sat down and written a column in nearly a month. Writing droughts are natural, and I’m in the thick of one.

Leads for potential stories are piled up in my inbox. Anxiety is kicking my ass. Plus I’ve got this back pain that’s causing my left arm to go numb when I sit down. An inflamed muscle is putting pressure on a nerve near my neck, the doctor and chiropractor both tell me; likely a byproduct of bad posture and built-up stress.

So I’ve been stretching, icing my back, and taking meds. Oh, and spending time in nature.

I love nature. Luckily, my “backyard”—Northern California—is home to landscapes that look like the images on postcards they sell at gas stations. Unfortunately, this land also seems to be as flammable as newspaper dipped in kerosene.


The peril this region faces due to drought, lack of investment in infrastructure and man-made manipulation of the environment is already one of the greatest stresses of our lifetime. And when you’re paying attention to the issues facing your outdoor weekend hike, finding relief in nature becomes a convoluted idea.

One of the many redwood trees in the Muir Woods.
One of the many redwood trees at Muir Woods. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Following last month’s official announcement from Governor Newsom that California is indeed in the throes of another “drought,” the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board published a piece proclaiming, in essence: this isn’t a drought, it’s the new climate.

As if on cue, over the weekend the National Weather Service issued the first red flag warning of the year—a rare occurrence for as early as May. Sure enough, a number of small fires popped up around Northern California.

These are the things I think about when I’m out in the Bay Area’s enclaves of nature. Especially when I’m reminded of the bigger, global issue, through news of President Biden upping the ante to cut America’s greenhouse emissions before it’s too late, or this Grist article about the way that wildfires, melting polar caps, and greenhouse emissions work in tandem to push one another to a globally destructive tipping point of no return.

Do you see why nature can be stressful?

Folsom Lake life guard towers in the foreground, way int he distance is the lake's water.
Folsom Lake lifeguard towers in the foreground. Far in the distance is the lake’s water. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

A few days ago I went to Folsom Lake, where water levels have receded so much that if you’re looking to engage in some water-related activities, you’ve got to drive along the dry lakebed for a couple minutes in order to get close to the remaining pocket of water.

Meanwhile, the park is attracting hordes of folks, iPhones in hand, who come for the lupine super bloom, a wildly gorgeous royal purple flower that’s only growing en masse because the water levels are so low.

A few days after visiting Folsom Lake, I called a park official to check about the water levels. They told me this is the lowest they’ve seen it in the 17 years they’ve worked there, and this is the tail end of the “rainy season,” with a dry summer to come. That’s not a good sign.

A field of wildflowers bloom on the side of the road near California's Lake Barryessa.
A field of wildflowers bloom on the side of the road near California’s Lake Barryessa. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

About 95 miles west, near Lake Berryessa, wildflowers have blossomed where wildfires ravaged the ridges last year. The sight is a bit of a relief: Maybe nature can heal itself. Or, as I’m quick to think, maybe the new foliage is fuel for the next fire.

I moved to the middle of this state in 2019, driving up and down I-80 regularly for the past two years (you can see why my back hurts). Around the midpoint of my trip, there’s a hill in Vacaville that I look to as a random barometer of how dry the area is. The hill was green for all of eight weeks, and has since turned caramel-colored. The fires are coming, and we haven’t even recovered from the flames of yesteryear.

The grass on hill near Cherry Glen Road in Vacaville, turning from green to brown.
The grass on hill near Cherry Glen Road in Vacaville, turning from green to brown. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

At this point, I might be hypersensitive to anything nature-related. I’m an arts and culture reporter obsessed with nature—because it’s beautiful, sure, but because I also know it dictates my areas of coverage.

So now my ears perk up when I hear about the rising water levels in East Palo Alto, or how people still await payouts from PG&E for the utility’s role in recent wildfires.

Earlier this week on 510 Day, I made it a point to take a walk with my kid and romanticize this magical piece of land known as the East Bay. We hit that trail near Lone Tree Point in Rodeo, just to look out over the Bay as the sun set. But my whole “pride rock” moment of enjoying everything the light touches was interrupted by the thought of how, not too far from where we stood, over near the Carquinez Strait, toxins are leaching into the bay from a contaminated area with each wave that crashes up against the coast.

We’re gonna have to pay for that. We are paying for that.

A clearing in Muir Woods

I don’t think I have biophobia or anything. I love being outside too much. But I can’t stop thinking about nature, and not in a good way.

Last Friday I went to Muir Woods for the first time. Jaw-dropping. It’s like a theme park where the main attraction is… trees. The air is fresh, the trees are ancient and you’re there caught in the middle, reminded of just how insignificant your time really is on this big spinning rock.

Most impressively, the trees tell their own stories. The way they lean, the burn marks from fires, the nibbles from insects and pests. The rings at the bottom of the fallen trees mark years of drought and heavy rain. Real writers, those trees are, publishing history every year—no writer’s block there.

I stood under the canopy and wondered: How long this will be here? What will happen to it in my lifetime? And what can be done so that nothing happens?


It’s not a fear of nature that I have, it’s the fear of what will come of nature. And thus, what will come of us. All of us. Stressed yet?

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