I arrive at New College bundled against the cold night air and feelings of impending doom. A half-dozen people, mostly middle-aged and already on familiar terms with the X-Plicit Players, sit in the lobby, reading the newspaper and chatting. After a few moments, a tall, woolly-haired man appears in the theater doorway naked and unabashed.
"In just a few minutes, we'll be inviting you to come inside," says the naked man, director Marty Kent, with a warm smile. A white-haired gent to my left tells me that this is an "X-Plicit greeting." Minutes later, co-founder Debbie Moore appears -- naked except for a headset and a battery pack strapped around her matronly waist -- and we follow her into the theater, where a soft mat covers the floor. We are asked to remove our shoes and "continue the walk that brought us here." Circling the mat, we wave our arms and wiggle our heads, trying to "make the space our own." To the right of the center of the mat lies a nude man with his limbs awkwardly strewn and his wheelchair sitting a few feet away. The sound of low, palpitating percussion emanates from a machine stationed next to an electric guitar. I'm worried. A videographer in dark goggles checks his frame. We circle, joined by a couple of other naked Players. I'm suddenly aware of body smells, redolent, mature, and inescapable. I look at the network of ropes hanging from the ceiling.
"This is a wilderness journey," says Moore in a soothing voice as she twirls around the mat. "But the wilderness we explore is our bodies, not the forest." We circle. "Can you feel the space between yourself and the person in front of you? Can you feel how much your knees are bending? Have you made a decision?"
Kent asks us to claim a piece of the mat. Half our number lie down, while the other half sit cross-legged, blinking unsurely. Kent asks us to move toward the center, until we are touching someone else, until we become "linked." I place my sweater-sheltered forearm in someone's palm and hide my face in my lap. "Can you feel the energy passing from person to person?" A low, growling moan flows across the floor. Things are not going well. Moore rises and winds through the bodies, blowing on a didgeridoo.
"In a little while we will bring out blindfolds," says Kent. "We'll be putting aside the habit of looking and learning through touch."
This is, according to Kent, a philosophy class of sorts, taught through feeling, rather than thinking, a place where the "typical urban sophisticate" is asked to abandon "habitual agendas" of body consciousness. Players are encouraged to touch each other with their heads, chests, and legs, rather than hands; to challenge routine associations with the body; and to set aside societal discomfort.
Kent rises and places the top of his head against the abdomen of a nearby man. Moore folds her naked body around another, draping her arms over his chest. That low, undirected moan moves across the floor again.
Remembering that discomfort and discomfit are action words, I gather my shoes.
"We are going to move away from the city into nature ..."
And step into the city.
"This is a very intense experience," explains Supervising Ranger Gary Strachan at the Año Nuevo State Reserve, located just 55 miles south of San Francisco. "Outside of Africa, it may be the most intense wildlife experience a person can have."
Stepping into the 4,000-acre reserve, I am greeted by the delicate trill of 100 or more Red-Winged Blackbirds that blanket the roof of the visitors' center. Sand dunes and pale mudstone stretch out to meet the hoary terrace of sky and sea, a ragged panorama that caught the eye of Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino in 1603. I follow a sandy path through layers of wild strawberries, lupine, lizardtail, and coyote bush; a small rabbit scurries through a deep-rooted willow thicket, and the smell of mock heather overwhelms the salt in the air. At the trailhead of Año Nuevo's 300-acre dune field -- one of the few remaining active dune fields on the California coast -- visitors poke at the small skull of a California Sea Lion and at the much more formidable brain box of a Northern Elephant Seal. A chalkboard reveals the current elephant seal population at Año Nuevo as 1,210 females, 374 males, and 438 pups.
Docent Jason Davis mentions that these are low numbers for this time of year. "The storm we had last week washed a lot of pups out to sea," he says matter-of-factly, and a few visitors murmur their discontent. Fellow-docent Christina Saur reminds us that 10 percent of the pups won't survive breeding season, and 50 percent won't make it through their first year.
"This is a natural reserve," Saur reminds as she lowers the chain that bars the way to the breeding grounds. "We don't interfere."
At one time, the Ohlone Indians lived on this stretch of land, competing with Grizzly Bears for food. The bears usually won, until the late 1700s when Europeans brought guns (as well as religion and certain terminal ailments) to the area. By the Gold Rush, bears had been wiped out in this area, but a loss for the bears was a gain for another species that, by the late 1800s, had also been hunted to near extinction.
In 1892, only one small northern elephant seal colony remained in the world, and without the threat of grizzlies, the seals discovered Año Nuevo to be a perfect breeding ground. That single colony is the progenitor of the world's current population of 160,000 northern elephant seals. The first pup was born here in 1961 and, during the 1994-95 breeding season, approximately 2,000 pups flopped around in large puddles of rain trying to get their sea legs.
Saur smiles, doling out information as we struggle up the sand dunes: "Most male elephant seals never get a chance to breed in their lifetime. They come here to compete for dominance, and the winning alpha male will take a harem of 50 to 100 females. He guards them from all other males.
"The females arrive and give birth almost immediately to a single offspring, from last year's mating season. She will not eat for the entire month she's here and only has enough milk for one infant. When she goes into estrus, she abandons her pup, is mated, and goes out to sea again. Weak and famished, it can take her hours to get out to sea as other males will try to mate with her along the way. The males will go without food for three months."
As we drop into a valley of dunes, forms begin to distinguish themselves from the sand: huge, seemingly lifeless mounds of gray flesh. These, which Saur calls "loser bulls," are old males, not competing for mates. We stop to eye one of the beasts -- 14 to 16 feet long and weighing as much as 2 1/2 tons, with a gnarled, elephantlike proboscis and flippers he uses to toss sand. The bull turns in his sleep and heaves with breath that makes his trunk vibrate with an old man's snore. Although the sleeping seal seems benign, we are warned that it can move as fast as we on sand. As a matter of fact, Ranger Strachan nearly had his shoulder ripped off by such a bull, stumbling upon him unexpectedly at dusk.
As we mount another dune, the actual breeding ground unfolds before us: hundreds of aquatic carnivores, lying nose to breast on the shore; an alarming cacophony of high-pitched screaming, grunting, and earth-shaking growls drowning out the surf; and the not-unpleasant scent of brute creation filling my nose.
"Down there, the scent would be nearly unbearable," says Saur, and I nod knowingly.
We watch as a bull tries to mount a cow, lumbering after her in the sand, biting her neck, and pinning her with a huge flipper. The female, not yet in estrus, screams in protest, trying to get back to her pup and escape the bull. The bull holds her for a time with his flipper draped over her back as they both collapse in exhaustion; then the attack continues. Near the breakers, two huge bulls battle for supremacy, slamming their chests into each other, bellowing, and biting. The battle rages for a pitiless moment, given that neither animal has eaten for more than a month, and finally one backs away, revealing the scars left on his chest from previous years. Even in the harems, where goings-on seem slow, a closer look reveals a maelstrom. Females fight for beach space or cover themselves with sand and nurse their young. Pups search for their mothers (the storm has displaced family members, and lost pups probably won't survive), squalling loudly amid the multitude of blubber. A young male lumbers toward a harem with his nose hidden in the sand in an attempt to deceive a nearby alpha male.
"If you're lying down, you're considered mating material," assures Saur. "If you're standing upright, you're a threat." Neither seems a good option.
In the ocean, elephant seals move with a grace that is uncontestable, diving at depths only challenged by the Sperm Whale, feeding on squid, bottom fish, and small sharks. On land, they move with the ungainly power of a bulldozer.
"We believe elephant seals descended from land carnivores," says Strachan. "Perhaps bears that took to the sea, like what we see happening with the polar bear. Eventually, they may become fully aquatic. Or maybe they'll come back on land.
"We'll be long gone, of course."
Take that on your next inner wilderness walk.