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Stateside with Rosalea: I Hear The Cottonwoods

According to Monday morning's newscast, a million people lined the streets of San Francisco to watch the Gay Pride parade on Sunday. Not me. I was camping up near Yuba Pass on the Sierra Nevada. Talk about living dangerously - I was an intern. OK, so maybe that's only dangerous if you're in Washington and have a crush on a politician. And that's probably not so much dangerous as daft.

I have a theory that internships are the US way of trying to catch up with the world's only super-educator - China. Students and researchers work for little or no money and research projects make progress. My little three-day stint at it was probably not typical. I paid 1/2 price to attend a workshop on recording nature sounds in exchange for helping with the registration and carpooling arrangements and tent assignments and getting up at 3 in the morning to make coffee for everyone so we could get warm again out in the field. It was fabulous fun and I loved it.

The Sierra Nevada is a single, uplifted block of earth's crust running about 650 km in a generally north-south direction and rising to 4270 metres. It's 95 to 130 km across and is the most prominent geological feature in California. Not only that but it looks good on postcards, its forests burn spectacularly, its snowfields have SUVs named after them, there was gold in them thar hills, and in the early days people got eaten trying to get across the damned thing. If there's one thing worse than tracing your ancestry to a convict colony it's tracing it back to a survivor of the Donner party's ill-fated winter trek. Cos we all know what they survived on. The non-survivors.

Yuba Pass is at about 2000 metres and is hot as hell at this time of year. There was a fire burning to the east of us that had been going for over a week and had destroyed nearly 6000 hectares of forest that hadn't had a fire in it for over 100 years. "About bloody time", said the conifers, many of which need fire to melt the resin that coats the seeds and cements them together in a cone.

Not only was fire a danger, but there are bears and mountain lions in the area and we were told not to have food in our tents in case it attracted an unwelcome visit from a hungry animal. A couple of weeks ago in Canada a Yellowknife high school student was chased down, killed and partly eaten by a black bear. Having had my photograph taken standing inside the arms of Ursus americanus - stuffed of course - I had a vivid mental image of just how tall and powerful these animals are. I only came up to its chest and I'm 5 foot 10.

None of those things were an immediate danger - but they were real possibilities. It was the firs and pines that were unreal - as tall as skyscrapers, perfectly symmetrical, not dense but closely packed enough that distant hillsides looked like they were covered in fish scales of forest green. And at night - the black, cold mountain night - they seemed to each point at one of the thousands of stars up there, like telemetric antennae relaying information from the soil to a computer somewhere.

Forest isn't the only habitat near where I stayed. Our first early morning field trip was to the Sierra Valley, a marshy depression to the east of Yuba Pass. As the dawn chorus got under way, mackerel-belly clouds turned orange and gold, and the sedges turned a Wyeth shade of ruddy brown. Then the cows woke up and some trainee pilots started practising their light plane manoeuvres, and that pretty much killed the nature sounds for purists.

Besides the recording field trips we had afternoon and evening lectures on recording techniques and equipment, and a couple of lectures from people with passionate enthusiasms for particular species. One person was a bat fan and the other loved his crickets, but knew lots about most insects so was able to tell me that the soft yellow moth which sleepily attached itself to my index finger when I was packing up my gear was a Tiger Moth.

He'd also been his high school camp champion at horseshoe throwing back in the 1940s so I got in a few lessons down at the horseshoe pit, while up on the balcony of the cookhouse a future audio engineer and fellow intern was playing a mandolin and wearing a Sherpa hat. At dinner one evening a Seattle sound recordist told me how hundreds of earthworms came up out of the ground and covered his lawn after the earthquake this year. And my 'roomie' - tent mate - told me how embarrassed she felt in South America when Ugly American tourists were angry that nobody spoke English.

Even the going was good. Having missed our chance to make a sandwich to take with us, the carpool driver and I found some crackers and cheese, and ate this simple meal beside the North Yuba River in the shade of a cottonwood tree, washing it down with well water from the camp. It was a cottonwood that led me to the Nature Sounds Society in the first place. Years ago I'd seen an item on TV about a researcher who was recording frogs in a pond after a drought had broken. He kept picking up a strange sound and eventually realised it was coming from a cottonwood at water's edge.

He drilled a hole in the trunk and inserted a hydrophone - a supersensitive microphone you use underwater. He later slowed down the recording and the shrill screech became a rhythmic melody. It was the sound of the water-carrying cells inside the trunk bursting as they tried to cope with the sudden change in pressure now that water was finally available. One of the speakers at our workshop had recorded those same sounds and played them for us.

Mother Nature has her sensitive little ways, doesn't she. She lets us hear the cottonwood's whispers as the wind goes through its leaves, but she spares us the cries of its dying cells. If only we be kind to her ears sometimes too.

Lea Barker
Monday 25 June 2001

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