• Gambolin' Man

THE EAST BAY UNKNOWN: Top 10 Overlooked Gems, Ignored Beauty and Hidden Splendors in Old Familiar Ha

Hidden gems, and thoughts on what it means to find beauty and exploration in nature. Click here for the full article! -Victoria

"We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

T.S. Eliot's oft-quoted line from Little Gidding reminds us that the places near and dear to our hearts may harbor secrets yet teased out. Jaded by years of familiarity, we may dismiss our favorite backyard hiking areas as "ho-hum" and our cherished views, vistas and venues as "same old, same old," consigning the tried and true to some mental dustbin of "been there / done that / seen it all." But pray tell let us hope not!

Constantly seeking something new and better, are we, in our repeated wanderings, barely able to notice subtle manifestations of natural beauty before unseeing eyes? If only we might, for a moment, set aside preconceptions of what constitutes "precious beauty." If only we might redefine what fun is and what adventure means, and take a second, deeper look at old familiar surroundings, we might be surprised at what we've missed. Right in our back yard, right under our nose, right in plain sight.

For in our haste to seek out the the prettier other, the more charming alternative, the grander elsewhere, how easily we fall for the fallacy that the "commonplace" is merely that - a common place absent of magic and mystery! But far from it! We are all sorely in need of a timeless lesson imparted by Ralph Waldo Emerson - "the invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common."

On closer inspection - and it does require getting down on all fours or putting your nose up against a tree trunk - it turns out that our most familiar stomping grounds are replete with novelty; our most pedestrian locales shelter tiny miracles yet disclosed to a searching, discerning eye. Where every nook and cranny has been (seemingly) explored, and every square foot of hiking terrain (seemingly) exhausted, and every view (seemingly) like watching a rerun again and again, what could possibly be left to exult over? But, ah, what magic awaits, if only, as Tolstoy exhorts, "in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you."

Look around you, where wild aura and character abound in special little places that unexpectedly turn up, places that have been right under our noses, within eyeshot, all along. In well-trafficked areas, just down a hillside, over an "off-limits" fence, up a trail to an obscure knoll, around a never before explored bend of "simple" creek, a scramble up to a normally arid cliff face above a placid lake now pouring forth an impressive discharge of run-off. Places to find solitude. To stumble upon expressions of implausible beauty in the most unexpected and overlooked venues. Places to appreciate a swathe of open space somehow missed all these years. To marvel at a stretch of creek winding through a landscape reminiscent of rural Oregon. Places to gaze upon familiar landmarks with a fresh perspective, affording a revitalized view of Mount Diablo, or an exotic backside panorama of the Berkeley Hills.

Places out of mind but in plain sight and largely devoid of people. Because, after all, what is of possible interest in a dried up old creek bed? (Maybe a fox skull or deer antler?) What compelling reason to detour over to that weedy meadow overrun with thistles? (Maybe wild turkeys or an exotic little bird?) What remote impulse to explore that unremarkable rise of land next to the Tilden Golf Course? (Maybe two big bucks rutting with a doe and little fawns looking on?)

Such places of under-valued recognition and little-noticed beauty are guaranteed to not be on anyone's must-see / must-do bucket list, not being on maps or tied to GPS coordinates or referenced in guide books or written about in nature blogs, being mere local places, unheralded and understated, that cannot possibly compare in grandeur, scale or scope to - to what? The John Muir Wilderness? Some amazing national seashore? Enough!

Because most of us live an urban existence, we can't always enjoy the transcendent pleasure of finding ourselves in the John Muir Wilderness. And so our daily options are to arrive where we started, to seek out the presence of small miracles in unexpected settings in and around our city parks and, especially, the East Bay Regional Park District's amazing land holdings where surprises and beauty await in over 50 parks and 200,000 acres. Sure, anyone can experience the grandiose, appreciate the Yellowstones and Yosemites, but, ah, the small miracles in unexpected settings, that takes a special set of senses to detect what at first glance may seem like "nothing" or "boring" to jaded or unappreciative eyes.

But on closer inspection, a deeper connection will alter our perspective and allow us to apprehend novelty all around, allow us to let go of comparisons to bigger and better and more whatever places, allow us to get inspired by delving deeper into an old familiar lover. The joy of discovering a new view, a fresh perspective, is the perfect antidote to banality and complacency. As Henry Miller put it, "The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself."

A lesser known line in Little Gidding explains why such places are free of human intrusion, left untouched, unnoticed by the hoi polloi - "Not known, because not looked for. . ." And so, at the (seeming) end of all our exploring, here are some of my favorite "known, because looked for" places that keep inspiring me to return to where I started decades ago and know - truly know for the first time - the intimate charms of places no longer refusing to be seen by unseeing eyes, places I now return to to discover hidden, overlooked gems with the simple awe of a child finding a minnow in a drying up pond or the unexpected delight of chancing upon a four-leaf clover in an old horse meadow.

May you be similarly inspired to seek out your own indescribably magnificent and awesome worlds wherever they may be found: in the beauty, magic and mystery contained within an "insignificant" blade of grass, a trailside feather, a fallen nest, a bullet-shaped acorn, a heart rock, a flitting butterfly, stringy moss hanging from a tree, lichen on bark, impressionistic designs decorating a decaying sycamore leaf. A world within a world within a world. All yours. There for the enjoyin'. Simply stop for a moment, look, listen, and see.

To read Gambolin' Man's top 10 hidden gems, click here!

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