Thursday 20 May 2010


On Saturday morning, a week ago, I was resting at what looked like the crest of the world. To my right a majestic mountain rose mightily behind hills after rolling hills on the distant horizon, to my left the Bay seemed at the grasp of my fingertips, with the San Pablo bridge spanning its bow to the Marine headlands, lying farther on and being covered in light haze. All around me was green splendour, with grass moving in the breeze like waves on the ocean and I felt refreshed and young again, taking long breaths of clean and flowery air.

The view I enjoyed was rather unusual for May since, in ordinary years, grass would already start to get brown on the open hills, underpinning the citation “The Golden Hills of California”. But this year is not normal. El Niño, hovering on the eastern fringe of the Pacific, is suckling low pressure and rain from the western fringe and spreading it over California. In the six weeks I have been here in Berkeley, there has not been a week without rain. As a result, the hills still look very much like home in the Alps, disregarding the ever present oak groves that bear witness to the hills’ true location.

But there is another reason for considering the greens to be like home. It may come as a surprise to you to that not a single straw of grass on these hills is indigenous. You don’t believe this? Then let me tell you that the true Californian per-annual grass populating these hills in the days of yore, the so called bunch grass, with roots as deep as 2 meters, never drying up and staying green in summertime, is long gone from the hills.

Cattle, originally brought by the Spanish rancheros, towards the end of the 1700s, had grass seeds from back home tangling in their hair. The cows found the bunch grass to be a delight, far preferable to their usual, less exotic and therefore drab, diet. As the seeds they brought started to grow, the new grass was generally left aside, with the cattle happily munching on Californian delights. And so, on it went, decade after decade, until all the bunchgrass was gone and the bovine race, nolens volens, had to retract to its original diet.

The authorities have started to fight back, by seeding native grasses on the hills and keeping the cows off the newly seeded areas. Gradually, there will be a revival of the good old days. But this will be past my time, I am afraid.

I see that I am starting to pontificate, as usually. Time to go back to the theme of this blog posting. Why and how did I arrive at the lofty vantage point described at the outset?

In the beginning was the word. And the word was with Dave, and the word was “Histogram”. On one of these sunny weekdays, when I was on my way to the UCB, I dropped into a nice little vegetarian eatery on Telegraph. In that place, you sit on long tables, often finding company to chat with whilst eating. On this very day, I shared the table with a couple of young white-collar workers, being engaged in an intensive discussion. The leader of the conversation was an engaging man by the name of Dave who repeatedly uttered the magic word. Now, this caught my attention, since I am an avid user of the histogram as the main tool to judge the quality of pictures taken with my trusty old Nikon. It had not occurred to me hitherto that the concept of histogram was used in other fields as well but, listening in on the conversation, I soon discovered that it is commonly used as a tool to sharpen the focus of search mechanisms in large databases. Later on I started to realise that “histogram” in general is just another word for “density distribution”.

Dave, who noticed my attentive listening, stayed on, whilst the rest of his company went back to work. He explained to me more in detail, how histograms were being used to refine the search formulas applied in databases, such as, Oracle’s, through methods having been developed by the small firm he had helped to found and which that very day was going public. Not to be outdone by the smart young generation, I responded by taking his picture and demonstrating, how I used the histogram to assess, whether the picture I had just taken had been properly exposed.

One thing let to another and it emerged that Dave, just like myself, was an avid admirer of nature areas within the Bay Area, which he often visited with his mountain bike, taking pictures along the way. Dave was kind enough to follow-up our conversation with some valid hints of places to visit and hikes to undertake. You may recall his comments under the posting “Is This Toscana?”. I was so delighted by his exact hiking proposals, as well as by the photos from the area he had sent me concurrently, that I immediately reserved a car at the closest rental station and started on my trip to the area he had suggested.

This turned out to be a regional park called Briones, located in the hills behind the Berkeley coastal hill range. It is an area of high rolling hills, broad valleys, creeks, meadows, ponds, waterfalls and forests. I had taken some hikes there 30 years ago and remembered it mainly as an area with dried out weeds, not very inviting, with oak glades and groves as only consolation. But with the frequent rains in the last months and to judge from Dave’s pictures, I hoped to find a more promising piece of nature this time. And I was not disappointed!

Briones is a large park, about as large as the Sunol Wilderness, and quite similar to it in nature and appearance. However, being very close to the Bay cities, since located just on the other side of the coast hill range behind Berkeley, it attracts more visitors, so there is less chance of seeing any wildlife, as we did in Sunol. It got its name from the original owner, Felipe Briones, who settled there in the 1830s.

Starting the hike as soon as the park opened, at 8.00 in the morning, I had first a pleasant stroll in the broad Abrigo valley dominated by the Cascade Creek, in the cool shadow of vast oak trees. But soon the valley opened up and the first vistas of high grassy ranges began to shine through the trees, with purple lupines presenting a coloured forefront to the huge green ranges I soon would start climbing up to.

My steady climbing, now with my right side pleasantly warmed by the morning sun, soon was rewarded by generous vistas over the rolling hills. In fact I was ascending the high hills myself, with their glorious, high country feeling to them – the sort of wild feeling that makes you want to break loose and run cross the rippling meadows. Far below me I started to glimpse the bunch grass annihilators, contentedly grazing the result of making their over-sophisticated choices.

But the scenery constantly changed. Whereas I initially could glimpse the Berkeley Hills on the horizon, suddently, when rounding the upper top of the hill, a completley new and far more engaging vista opened up. Shimmering in the late morning sun, as if rising from a green ocean, there a real mountain showed its face; nought else but Mount Diablo could be admired in the distant haze.

Now I was on top of the crest, feeling as described initially in this posting, but also feeling somewhat lost. There were no trail descriptions at a strategic crossing and I had no map at my disposal. Fortunately, soon a large group of fellow hikers strived along, the youngsters heavily loaded, but the more sedate leader gladly unencumbered. He enlightened me about the right way to proceed, so as not to get completely lost in this vast high country. I could of course, with the help of the sun as navigator, eventually have found my way back to the car, but maybe only after some delay.

As the fellow hiker had informed me, we were in the region of the “Sindicich Lagoons”, two rather large ponds rather incongruously placed on top of the hills. After some minutes’ hiking in the right direction, sure enough, the first lagoon blinked at me, as if inviting me to take its picture with Mt. Diablo in the background. Seeing it placed where it was, I began to understand how it had been formed. An ancient landslide must have dammed up the several small brooks running off the top of the hill and, most probably, rangers had followed-up by reinforcing the dam, since it provided a convenient watering place for their cattle.

But there was scant time to linger. I had plans for the afternoon and wanted to be back in Berkeley in reasonable time. So on I tracked on top of the crest, with the path now firmly ensconced in the greenery, leaving no doubt about the road to follow. That is, not until the next crossing, where two young ladies were glimpsed passing by, engaged in serious conversation. I sincerely hope that they took the right track.

I certainly did and arrived, after another hour’s pretty steep decent, back down in the valley, ready to engage in new pursuits. However, the intensively green colour of these rolling hills will be kept in fond memory, replacing, with a vengeance, my earlier impression of a burnt out, rather dreary pasture site.


Heidi Harman said...

Beautiful pictures, ihope i get to walk in those hills soon!

Emil Ems said...

Dear Heidi,

I will be glad to give you some hints about things to do and visit, if you are planning to go to California.

Per Wijkman said...

Dear Emil,
Many thanks for conveying my regards to Eva Meyerson Milgrom and expressing my appreciation of Paul Milgrom's co-authored classical textbook. Eva herself is doing some fascinating research which she told me about briefly when we met at Oliver Williamson's Nobel Lecture in Stockholm, last December.
On a lighter vein thank you also for raising a glass to honour Leslie Howard's many exploits - on the screen and in real life - at Berkeley Square.
I am sorry for the delay in responding to this blog but I have recently been away attending Lars Oxelheim's magnificantly organised conference in Mölle. Your friends there send you their best regards.

Elvy Svennerstål said...

Dear Emil,
I was excited to read your blog about the native green grass! You could almost feel how delicious it was for the Spanish cows, once upon a time, so we can only hope it will come back in the future. Even more exciting was your description about the beautiful scenery you were walking in. I admire your pictures from the landscapes, and you seem to be a professional photographer, too - that you master the art of writing, I knew already. What I read reminded me about my own walks in the wonderful Alps where I spend as much time as I can to walk, admire nature and enjoy life.