Natural History

One Year After Our Big Fire

Since the firestorm of 2020, I’ve witnessed both the rebounding resilience of nature as well as post-fire human responses that have ranged from truly awe-inspiring to bewildering. When the fire first struck, I had a harrowing 10-day amateur-firefighting experience. I well recall the panic – and the portentous moment when toasted tanoak leaves floated down from the smoke-darkened sky. Soon thereafter, the march of head-high flames incinerated everything on our farm that we couldn’t save with just us two people and our heavy fire hoses. After the smoke and flames – and through the entire year since – there’s been so much change.

This story starts last August, when we endured three days of wilting heat. Then, a hurricane hundreds of miles south of us went rogue, splitting in two, half of it raking quickly across the length of California. I woke to that half a hurricane – a massive silver-gray cloud-wall steaming and rolling north along the coast and a 10-minute-long 70-mph wind gust accompanying devilish sheets of whole sky-enveloping lightning and unbroken thunder. Soon, lightning-ignited small fires in too-remote areas joined together into a monstrously huge and fast-moving firestorm. State firefighters could not gather resources quickly enough to fight it and called for evacuations, and all but one person escaped with their lives. Non-humans fared less well. The smoke and flames took a month to dissipate, allowing thousands of evacuees to return to what, if anything, might be left of their homes.

The fire left a landscape of blowing ash and a hundred shades of charcoal gray with sporadic patches of toasted brown vegetation and very few areas of green plants that somehow escaped the flames.

Before the fire, lush redwood forests had dripped fog onto carpets of ferns and sorrel. Under high conifer canopy, Pacific wrens whistled away the days in brilliant, wandering sunrays. Daylight transitioned into forest-hushed nights with owls hooting and woodrats rattling their fleshy tails. Those same forests, after the fire, were spires of high, blackened, tree-trunk pillars with few branches remaining. These towered over ankle-deep, white, fluffy ash and patches of crunchy charcoal. All the animals were gone … many had roasted alive.

Before the fire, the ridgelines above those forests had been dense chaparral. There were millions of 10-foot-tall, lush, green pines erupting through rafts of shorter shrubs – a dazzling array of colors with resinous and sweet scents and a multitude of textures. Eleven years previous, the Lockheed Fire had burned much of this chaparral, and all this life had since rebounded. In the wake of that fire – a timebomb: criss-crossed, 6–12-inch-diameter logs from killed and gradually falling pines piled up hip-high for thousands of acres and miles around. During last year’s firestorm, those logs burned so hot they left impressions criss-crossing the hillsides, each outlined in white ash and vaporizing what little soil there was into red brick. That heat cleared ridge after ridge down to the stone we call “chalk rock,” a fractured mudstone crushing easily or making metallic, pottery-shard noises when you walk across it. For months after the fire, peering closely, nestled in piles of charred rock, you could find little fingers of burned stems and twisted fists of stump-like burls, all black, seemingly lifeless.

Among these forests and in the chaparral, people were living in neighborhoods and rural properties large and small. Since the early 1900s, neighborhoods had gradually developed, woven in between natural areas and parks set aside for redwood conservation and recreation. The fire destroyed the remote Last Chance neighborhood and badly affected other neighborhoods in the hills above Boulder Creek. The fire also tore through the Swanton community and then much of Bonny Doon. These communities contained layers of history. Generations-old families shared this landscape with the newest wave of neighbors from the wealth machine of Silicon Valley. University of California administrators and professors, along with student renters, were living alongside old hippies and back-to-the-landers of all political persuasions. There were also many blue-collar tradespeople, teachers, and retailers. This was a mixing pot of politics, perhaps with more left-leaners, and all united by a love of rural living. They found ways to be good neighbors from sharing news to clearing roads and helping newcomers figure out how to settle in comfortably with the various issues unique to this part of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The fire burned homes new and old, whether they were owned by the super-rich or the very poor. There were dilapidated, barely habitable shacks surrounded by old cars, tattered furniture, and storage sheds with recyclables overflowing into the surrounding forest. And then there were the fancier estates – polished redwood decks, outdoor kitchens with marble countertops and brick pizza ovens, fancy hot tubs, and English gardens with statuary. These varied developments were all mixed up in the matrix of shrubs and trees, chaparral, and forest – one of the two most diverse natural landscapes of North America. The fire made the patches of human stuff into the same types of ash and waste: deep piles of charcoal and blowing nasty ash accented in places by unrecognizable twisted metal and piles of collapsed brick. New cars or old – it was hard to tell from the burned-out, fire-wasted frames. It was impossible to tell where the landscaping stopped, and the wild places began.

People’s responses to the fire were even more varied than their ways of life had been prior to the fire. During the peak of the fire and for the long period of smoldering and even longer evacuation period, the few brave and stalwart worked hard protecting their homes, their neighbors’ homes, their pets, and human friends wherever possible. On the edges of retreating flames, packs of looters swept in, stealing from houses burned and those that were spared. A standoff between the stalwart stay-behinds and looters resulted in a looter getting shot in the leg. Someone who lost nearly everything set aside some mementos at dusk, only to find them gone the next morning. A year later, strangers still lurk around the burned areas looking for stuff to steal. As if the fire itself weren’t enough.

The many who lost their homes were scattered. A few quite visible ones took up trailer homes along the highway in Davenport. Many moved to rentals or into homes with friends, adding to the crowded town. After a few, seemingly long months of waiting, the government-run cleanup started: giant machines scooping and scraping the charred piles of debris into convoys of trucks, hauling the stuff “away.” We were impatient and then happy for the efficiency, strength, and scale of this enterprise. No one asked and there was no news about where that stuff went, what the communities and land think of how we disposed of it, far away from here. After cleanup, some people sold out while others stayed put. It was a sellers’ market, but that meant those selling out faced grim realities for purchasing anything else in the area, and some were forced to leave. Slowly house trailers appeared on wrecked properties. A small fraction found the means to start rebuilding.

Between the remaining homes or the burned-up human stuff, some people (like me) were fascinated and relieved by the resilience of nature, bolstered by its ability to heal and rebound. To others, nature was too slow—they wanted a kind of speed healing and found many ways to apply Band-Aids to cover the fire’s wounds. Some know nature heals but wanted to help it along. Others had no sense of nature and acted like alien gardeners on some other planet. Others were never much at tending the land: they had never been much interested in such things. County-hired contractors hydroseeded burned building sites and surrounded them with straw bundles to contain toxic runoff. RCD employees were heroes, working ceaselessly to help stunned property owners prepare for post-fire rains, erosion, and slope failure. Meanwhile, people were tossing around native wildflower seed mixes to hopefully brighten land. Others, wanting more instant and positively perky landscapes, dug in thousands of roadside daffodil bulbs to persist and spread for centuries, a long-lasting and sad legacy spurred on by a well-meaning community leader.

Along roadsides and powerlines, orange-vested, hard-hatted officials spray-painted numbers on thousands of dead or damaged trees, and then the saws and grinders got going. Months of chainsaws and chippers whined and roared, shaking the earth and sky, filling hundreds and hundreds of trucks, hauling more stuff to yet unknown fates and destinations: “away.” People already traumatized by burn damage faced another shock as workers removed patches of forest in what was left of their yards, forever changing their historic views, removing their remaining privacy … all in the name of road or utility safety … or perhaps liability.

The first spring after the fire, the forest surged with life. Most redwood and oak trees that had burned resprouted. Some sprouted from their charred trunks, while others sprouted only from their bases. Understory herbs filled the spaces between the trees – twining vines, prickly thistles, and carpets of wildflowers. In many places, the forest floor was brighter than we had ever witnessed – dazzling flowers! Splashes of cream or blue iris bloomed profusely alongside extensive rafts of pale pink globe lilies. Animal life returned, too. Hungry deer shortened tanoak sprouts by the mouthful. Fish biologist “snorkel surveys” spotted surprising numbers of steelhead in the burnt and newly sun-brightened streams. Shortly after the fire, great horned owls hooted from recently cooled trees. A few more healing months and then pygmy owls also were cheerfully hooting away from the scorched forest.

The chaparral mostly rebounded, too. First there were many bush poppy sprouts…and many, tiny seedlings. Then, very slowly, the many fewer manzanita burls began pushing up sprouts. Chaparral oaks, madrones, and chinquapin joined the resprouting. In late April, the diverse fire-following flowers were starting their famous post-fire show. Massive patches of whispering bells carpeted hillsides – ferny foliage and pale-yellow bell-shaped flowers along with an odd scent that some people enjoy. An intrepid bunch of botanists I hiked with discovered a new population of small-flowered blazing star. And, we found previously undocumented areas of pink-purple stinging lupine, as well as sweetest-scented, tiny phacelia with yellow and pink flower mounds, and one new patch of the sapphire blue–flowered twining snapdragon. By midsummer, I could still walk easily through extensive areas of chaparral in the bare spots between resprouted 2-foot-tall shrubs and trees. Big patches of bright yellow bush poppies were feeding innumerable bees.

I could find only a very few pine and manzanita seedlings, so the chaparral will look a little different in the wake of this fire compared with the last fire. The cooler burning Lockheed Fire created massive thickets of knobcone pine seedlings – extending for miles outside of the fire footprint, where seeds were blown on the fire wind. With the very dry winter following this more recent fire, along with fewer pine cones and a short-lived seedbank, many fewer knobcone pines may regenerate this time around. With the aforementioned piles of Lockheed Fire–killed knobcone logs, the ground temperature got so hot that many ancient manzanita burls were destroyed. So, now fewer manzanitas and perhaps more open space (more weeds, more grasses or wildflowers?) will characterize the next generation of this chaparral.

Wildlife has recovered in the chaparral areas. The deer were most evident – I found bedding areas nestled into the protective, denser patches of burned-out pine shoots; they had also been browsing off the diversity of resprouting shoots. I was surprised to see gopher mounds – they must have been hungry for a long while awaiting something fresh to eat! Solitary bees were creating patches of burrows in the rare areas with soil, in between the chalk rock. Other pollinators were buzzing busily between the many post-fire wildflowers.

I am wondering now … what will happen next? In the hominid realm, I predict that this fire is in the process of creating a shift in the hill cultures. Cultural shifts occurred in Santa Cruz after the University opened in 1965, then again after the 1989 earthquake, and again after UCSC admissions policy changes in the late 1990s, and yet again with Silicon Valley gentrification accentuated by COVID remote-working policies. And, while the fire changed some minds as to attractiveness of rural living, it also has probably permanently displaced people who were economically marginal before the fire. Like downtown and the University, these rural areas are already taking a giant step towards having less “character” – the numbers of tinkerers, artists, and oddballs will plummet to be replaced by “normal” people of much greater economic means. I hope there will be enough critical mass of those people staying to continue the culture of rural, peaceful living, and cross-cultural welcoming and kindness. Already, I see people helping others in recovery, in bearing through the many jumpy instances – tedious smoke scares, power outages, and road closures. Our farm is so grateful for the outpouring of donations and physical support for recovery; many others have experienced the same generosity.

I predict that the attitude towards nature in general will shift from what has been more natural towards the more manicured, non-native, unnatural landscapes currently found more often in suburban Southern California. This trend started with the mass plantings of “cheerful” daffodils and will continue with greater numbers of fire-proof “garden beds” full of red lava rock gravel, trucked from torn apart hillsides miles away, accented by well-spaced foreign, pink-flowering daisy bushes … trellis arches of bougainvillea pouring over hummingbird feeders by tiled patios with huge propane grills and circles of ornate metal lawn furniture. More of our endangered chaparral will be bulldozed to dirt, forests will be chainsawed farther away from “civilization.” Where once red-trunked manzanitas were festooned by honey-scented clusters of pink flowers through winter, where once there were sprawling, lichen-covered live oaks full of birdsong, there will be lifeless mats of 2-inch weed stubble, the product of three or four times a year of mowing, for fire safety. These weeds will carry fire quickly nevertheless, when comes the day that fire returns.

I find the predictable response of the general population only somewhat offset by a few people with greater things in mind. This past year, I’ve seen signs of more of my community learning to live in this fire-prone place during these increasingly hot and dry times. Friends I visit are doing more safety clearance around their homes. I see Bonny Doon Firesafe Council’s and others’ advertisements of well-attended workshops for “home hardening” – an odd term that means making it harder for fire to burn your house. Across our region, volunteers are training together to use “good fire” to clear fuels that would be more dangerous during uncontrolled wildfire. The Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association has even started burning areas using well-trained volunteers who are gaining more experience. Just this past year it has become common knowledge that the only way to really live in this state is to use prescribed burns over millions of acres, and that’s going to take a lot of work.

Fire is part of ecological restoration in California, but forests that haven’t been tended since Native People’s times require a lot of fuels reduction before “good fire” can hit the ground. Conservation lands managers with the San Vicente Redwoods, State Parks, and Swanton Pacific Ranch have all been awarded State funding to prepare their forests for prescribed burns. In the coming few years, we will be able to witness the largest-scale restoration work our area has experienced in more than 200 years, since the native peoples were forcibly removed from this land.

We can all take part in this restoration effort. We can volunteer with the Prescribed Burn Association or with invasive plant control teams. Neighbors to wildlands can do their part to protect their homes and to keep fire from spreading from built areas into the wildland while still restoring native species. Through these coming times, if you have the wherewithal, it is important to document what happens. The year before this past fire, I began organizing a “ten-year retrospective” from the Lockheed Fire. I searched to find anyone who could speak to what we had learned or what (even more simply) change they had documented over that decade. I could find no scientific studies, no documentation at all. Jim West took hundreds of photos immediately post-fire in the Swanton area, but no one followed up to see how those scenes changed over time. Without documentation, without trying to learn from our experiences, how can we improve how we live on the land, how we restore nature, or how we respond the next time fire scorches the landscape?

With this fire, though, I know people who have initiated post-fire research. For instance, there are now two studies examining fire effects on our local forest soils. And, mainly because of the Montecito landslides, teams from United States Geological Survey and the California Geologic Survey mobilized quickly, before last winter’s rains, to learn how to better predict slope failure and debris flows. Ongoing marbled murrelet and mountain lion research will no doubt incorporate fire effects into their analyses. The Federal Fish People have been studying how salmonid populations changed after the fire. This post fire report after the fire is all I have seen that analyzes firefighter response; there may be other internal studies.

What’s next with our rebound from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire? Timelines for rebuilding will necessitate a continuation of the housing problems – people in trailers or displaced to rentals while they organize for rebuilding. Hundreds of people who had no prior experience with home building, and all of the permitting involved, will continue their steep learning curves and patience development. They are lucky for the leadership shown by the Community Foundation who sponsored a fire-wide debris flow study, which would have otherwise been burdens on each individual landowner to fund, separately, for each house rebuild. The County has enacted some building review and permit streamlining processes, but experiences have been mixed.

While we really want more rain this winter, we will worry about landslides. The winter rains will bring lush regrowth in the burned areas – any remaining patches left bare by the fire will be covered with luxuriant plants. Rebounding and lush, miles of newly sprouting shrubs mean lots of food for lots more deer … which will be good food for mountain lions. The blue-blossom ceanothus that sprouted from millions of seeds after the fire will bloom this spring, creating drifts of sweet-smelling lilac flowers and clouds of bees. Some woodpecker populations will skyrocket, but acorn woodpeckers will be having a hard time from the loss of all the oaks. With much of the hazardous trees removed along roads and utility lines, that kind of noise will be slowly replaced by hammering and sawing of anything that can be rebuilt.

The future is uncertain. I wish the best for nature and for those who need to heal, to rebuild, to settle into their new communities, to fall in love again with new pets, to learn to live with new neighbors and new landscapes, to learn and grow from past trauma and new fear. I also am so happy to be a part of a community of brave and stalwart protectors, skilled makers, musicians, healers, restorationists, cooks, and land-tenders. I wish my community the best, to live long healthy lives and to stick around, working together to settle into becoming indigenous with this beautiful land.

Note: if you have observations from the post fire Aug 2020-Aug 2021 to share, please leave them as a comment here. I want to collect stories of what we’ve seen.

Golden Crowned Sparrow Returns to Central California

GoSp

Bold markings on this golden crowned sparrow indicates a ‘powerful’ individual.

Weary Willie’s distinctive call is waking up our neighborhood for the first time in five months.   Last night, during the full moon, the first Golden Crowned Sparrows arrived here in Davenport from their migration to British Columbia or perhaps Alaska.

Nicknamed ‘weary Willie’ for their call – “I’m so weary,” – this sparrow is our wintertime friend here, with ~20 bird flocks returning to exactly the same small shrub patches they inhabited last year here at Molino Creek Farm.  Well, at least SOME of the birds return, and some of those with their young which were born perhaps as far north as the ‘Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.’  Way up north, the a male feeds his mate as she incubates eggs.  Between flying back and forth, making a nest, feeding each other, fledging and raising young, they’ve been very busy since they left.  I’m fascinated with them because of their social structure and their tendency, like me, to be ‘home bodies.’

Bruce Lyon, a professor at UC Santa Cruz has been studying flocks at the UCSC Arboretum.  He finds up to 50% (or more!) of the birds returning in fall migration.  He has confirmed what many have noted – ‘high site fidelity’ – with the Arboretum birds.  Bird banding makes all that possible; I wish I could recognize individual birds well enough to do that from memory.

Individual birds are recognizable, and their plumage can tell you how high on the pecking order they reside.  Lyon has also noted that the size and color of their golden crowns, the patches of yellow on their heads, varies with their status in their flock.  The bigger and more striking the yellow, the more dominant the birds…including yellow patches on females that are dominant over duller males.  Taking the time to distinguish and even name individual birds in our flock is fun and helps me to understand a little of what is going on in the yard.

In past years, I have noticed that the birds ride the first winter cold fronts around Fall Equinox, perhaps taking advantage of the winds to help carry them.  I also wonder if they migrate more during the darker moon phases that intersect with those cold fronts, though this year they arrived during Full Moon.  I understand that many birds migrate mostly at night to avoid predation.  A small group of us sometimes place bets on first rain date as well as first golden crowned sparrow arrival dates.  This year, they came right on time…

Welcome back Golden Crowned Sparrows!

I’ll keep track of arrival and departure dates (with a few notes) from various years here, starting this fall:

Arrival: 9/21/15- first posted this post on that date.

Arrival: 9/21/21, full moon, day before Equinox, directly after N Cal atmospheric river event

Robin Irruption!

 

American Robin

Licensed under CC: Photo by Flickr user Lucina M. All rights revert to originator.

Thousands of robins are visiting California’s central coast: lots more than usual, an ‘irruption.’ Unfortunately, I lack records of the timing of their arrival, but many people are talking about their astounding numbers, including: Feynner at Big Creek Reserv
e in Big Sur and Brock Dolman in Occidental, Sonoma County…and birders with the Monterey Bay Birds list serve. Feynner’s says maybe they came this way to avoid big burned areas inland and North. I counted 200 in about 10 minutes, flying in squeaky-talkative groups across a North Coast Santa Cruz field. This has been a daily occurrence for many weeks.

I have spent a little while standing among flocks of hundreds of robins in the fields and orchards at Molino Creek Farm, watching them. They scratch the mulch under the apple trees or poke at the ground in the fields, each bird holding their own few square feet. Some birds rest, alert high in nearby branches in two’s and three’s. I hear the crackle crackle crackle-squeak of a perturbed bird chasing away another, too close; they chatter their beaks by clicking them together rapidly when they seem especially territorial in a favorite food spot. These birds are apt to live up to the cliché, a worm hanging sideways out of their mouths.

Robins were Rachel Carson’s indicator species for the ‘Silent Spring.’ In 1950’s Michigan, researchers documented that elm leaves containing a pesticide applied to battle Dutch elm disease were digested by earthworms, and the earthworms by Robins. Pesticide poisoning made the Robins’ egg shells too thin, and they faced reproductive failure at a landscape level.  Mornings got quieter and quieter in the Great Lakes states as the friendly dawn chorus of Robins quickly faded. Thanks to Rachel Carson and a host of others, America woke up and stopped large-scale broadcast spraying of pesticides.

Robins seem especially wise. Their gaze is intent. Someone once saw an American Robin sweep leaves aside using a twig- tool using intelligence. I imagine their vocal chatter is carrying lots of information. Their friendliness towards me suggests that they know I don’t eat them- people once hunted them for food. They are still food, but for other species: while hiking the other day, I walked towards a cacophony of Robin voices. As I do for all flocks, I spoke gently saying “don’t worry about me!” But, they wouldn’t stop and, after another dozen strides at my feet was a freshly dead Robin, neck broken, just killed…probably by a Cooper Hawk. Cooper Hawk and Sharp Shinned Hawks must be well fed this winter.

I’m pleased to have witnessed this Robin irruption, reminding me that terrestrial ecosystems of the Western United States can still produce bird abundance. This is the third irruption in recent years. 2014 was the Varied Thrush irruption. Winter of 2012/2013 was a Red Breasted Nuthatch irruption. What next? Don’t miss this one! Take time at dawn or dusk in the fields around the Central Coast to see the many Robins and hear their “chock chock” talk. (Check out their big beaks, too!).

Santa Cruz County’s North Coast is Amazing, Naturally

Shark_Tooth_Rock_&_Davenport_Beach

Licensed under CC: photo by flickr user Elaine with Grey Cats. All rights revert to originator.

Santa Cruz County’s North Coast is an outstanding natural area because of climate, geology, unique species, rare habitats, and unusual natural processes. The North Coast combines two climatic features that shape its biological splendor: proximity to the cool Pacific Ocean and an adjoining Mediterranean climate. This climate drapes across the Franciscan Formation, a mélange of geological formations creating diverse soils and topography. Climate and geology alone could explain the many interesting and unique species, but North Coast richness is also due to the Santa Cruz Mountains having been evolutionarily isolated by ocean, bay, or extensive freshwater wetlands/river systems. All of the aforementioned combine to shape many rare habitats, in close proximity. In turn, Santa Cruz’ North Coast produces ecological phenomenon, processes, that we are only just beginning to appreciate.

The North Coast’s climate is found in few places of the world and is unique in North America. The roasting of interior California pulls cool, foggy air across the coast. Fog helps plants and animals make it through the dry summers. The wet winters combined with the very dry summers make it possible for moisture or arid loving species to coexist. With the right prevailing winds, mountains close to the ocean make rain. At 2660 feet, Ben Lomond Mountain is the backbone of the North Coast, assuring that the North Coast gets first dibs on rain from the winter storms which normally blow down the coast. During long droughts, fog and Ben Lomond Mountain’s claim on winter rains have maintained species that would have otherwise gone extinct. And so, we have extraordinary species diversity along our foggier and rainier coast in comparison to inland.

Besides weather, Ben Lomond Mountain is also responsible for our geology. The ‘basement’ of the Mountain consisting of granitics, schists, and crystallized limestone, pushed up through younger sandstone, mudstone, and shale. The diverse rocks create diversity you can easily experience:  granitic stream boulders…craggy schist and sandstone cliffs…inland sand dunes…soil-less mudstone ridges contrasting with wide, deep soiled mudstone terraces…extensive subterranean limestone caverns.

For all of the above reasons, the North Coast affords many different species good places to live. More than 50 rare, imperiled, threatened or endangered species depend on this relatively small area (see prior blog, this website). This is why Santa Cruz County is known as a biodiversity hotspot: this small county has many species of Federally or State-recognized rare ‘herptiles,’ insects, and plants. A host of species are only found locally. For instance, the North Coast has two Manzanita species only on the North Coast. And, the caves of the North Coast are home to a host of species found only in North Coast caves. Even more widely distributed rare species, such as the California red-legged frog, probably depend on the North Coast for long-term survival on Planet Earth. My list of fifty sensitive species from the North Coast will grow because: 1) I haven’t added bats and mushrooms, yet, and; 2) Randy Morgan’s insect collection at the UCSC Natural History museum includes numerous new species, especially of bees, that have yet to be described and may exist only locally. So, more to come…

The habitats of the North Coast are wonderfully diverse. Redwood forests, dunes, grasslands, chaparral, oak forests, wetlands, beaches, cliff faces, streamside forests, lagoons…so many habitats, so close together! Many of these habitats are rare, and all experience a mix of fire, grazing, soil disturbance, and wind storms that shape them. Coast redwood forests are only in a narrow band on California’s coast, dripping fog moisture that supports lush understory plants through the summer. Dunes at the bigger beaches blossom year round with native plants, roots deep in the sand. Forty-five or more types of coastal prairie blanket flat uplifted marine terraces, cap rocky outcrops, or hold up vertical wildflower-covered slopes. Chaparral here, a.k.a. “maritime chaparral,” is like no other scrubby habitat, with many shrub species in poor soils, fed by networks of diverse fungi. Hundreds of species of fungi can be found under a single shrub in maritime chaparral. Stands of coast live oaks on the edges of grasslands are quintessential North Coast scenery. Less recognized are the dark green Shreve oak forests, acorn-strewn tan oak stands, patches of stately canyon live oaks, or shrubby interior live oak covered ridges. A very few natural, but many man-made, ponds are a-bob with amphibians; more common are the ephemeral wetlands on the terraces, or on top of rocky ridges…replete with odd algae, mosses and liverworts. Beach habitats, though nearly obliterated by human feet, still hang on along the less trammeled fringes. Above the beaches, and framing steep canyons, are the many nearly uncharted cliff habitats – so many mysteries. And, then there are the willow and alder forested canyon bottoms. Downstream, lagoons pulse fresh to salty with the changing tides and wave action: nurseries for salmonids, home to silvery goby fish and ducks. This diverse habitat-scape contrasts strongly with the grassy rolling plains of the Midwest or even the forests of the East Coast, where one habitat stretches for miles in every direction.

The biologically-produced ecological processes that this landscape supports are my real fascination, where the stories get richer and the mysteries abound. One story unfolding is with the coastal marine terraces, supporting an ecological staircase with more and more ancient soils, stepwise with each elevation gain travelling away from the ocean. This ecological staircase has been important in understanding how soils develop from bedrock. And, each terrace supports different types of habitat; first coastal terrace grasslands are extremely rare because that’s where we farm…fourth coastal terrace grasslands are rare, too, for other reasons. The higher terraces have 226,000 year old soils, probably the oldest soil communities in North America. The plant diversity of these grasslands has been produced through eras of changing climate and changing animal interactions. Pleistocene megafauna (camelids, mammoths, lions) gave way to more modern grazers (elk on the North Coast, mooo!) and then to very modern livestock: all stewards of the prairies, keeping brush at bay. Native peoples burned and tended this wildscape, a careful examination of even our current landscape will reveal their refined landscape management and agricultural practices.

Another ecological process story that is being told is about North Coast predators. Big cats, pumas, as apex predators are shaping much of the rest of the wildlife communities. Puma presence makes for fewer coyotes, more fox, and all that those shifts mean for bunnies, bobcats, and ground nesting birds. And, puma hunting changes deer behavior, with as yet untold affects on forest understory and streamside plants. My hypothesis is that the big, orange blossomed lily that you can occasionally view (Wilder and Laguna Creeks, for example) should be re-named ‘Cougar Lily’ – indicating the wariness of deer, which would otherwise trim those bouquets to the ground.

Other stories have yet to be told as we explore our curiosity. How important are the processes that move oceanic nutrients upslope to the poorer and poorer, ancient soils? Marbled murrelet carrying fish inland to tall redwood nestlings. Cojo salmon spawning upstream. Nutrient-laden fog drip moving inland. How crucial are these processes to feeding the plants that keep North Coast hills from more quickly eroding? Woodrats, mice, and voles – not just food for the predators, but also architects and builders: how does their nibbling contribute to: keeping grasslands open fields; making flat-topped gnarly trees, or; trimming shrubs to make room for others, creating diverse Manzanita glens. What is missing without grizzly bears tearing at stumps, breaking tree branches for acorns, digging up prairies for gophers?

The North Coast has so much to reveal through its naturally amazing, living systems. It is teaching us how to be indigenous by showing us how we can be better stewards. More people can see these stories by accompanying naturalists on tours, learning to recognize at least a handful of tree and shrub species, and by just plain observing, spending more time outdoors. Challenge yourself to tell your friends new ecological stories about the North Coast: where you see the wildlife, what shrubs are in bloom, what was swimming in the stream, colors of flowers at the beach. Sharing these stories will bring people together, help them cherish what they have, and create dreams about what is possible.

Rare wildflower: the Point Reyes Horkelia

Horkelia marinensis Pt Reyes Horkelia

Licensed under CC: photo by CalFlora user Vernon Smith.  All rights revert to originator.

The Point Reyes Horkelia is a delicate rose-sister with finely fragranced foliage forming drought-hearty dark green patches in California’s remaining coastal prairies. This species, like other close relatives, has strong horticultural value; when only slightly watered in the driest of months, it forms a beautiful, resilient, fire retardant ground cover. White five-petaled flowers form starburst patterned over-stories to a leafy silver carpet. Plants are strong, long-lived microshrubs with deep, woody taproots. Given ideal conditions, mature square meter-sized Pt. Reyes Horkelia clones support extensive root systems, capturing nutrients and rainfall, sequestering carbon, and stabilizing slopes. Across the 25-odd distinct patches of coastal prairie that support this species, Horkelia clones are nurturing increased soil ecosystem diversity.

The Latin, Horkelia marinensis, references Marin County, California, the heartland of the species’ distribution. There are outlying populations elsewhere along California’s central coast.  A few plants live in a meadow on the Moore Creek Greenbelt, more live in prairies near Twin Gates, upper UCSC campus and Wilder Ranch State Park.  More recently discovered populations are at the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve, San Vicente Redwoods, and on the Cotoni Coast Dairies Preserve.

How rare is this wildflower? Should it be given legal protection under the State or Federal Endangered Species Acts? The criteria are not transparent for awarding threatened or endangered status to this kind of widely distributed plant, which mostly grows in ‘protected’ areas including heavily-used public parks. Some have suggested that if a plant were to have fewer than 16 populations, and if a significant number of those populations are substantially threatened with extirpation, and if a petition were submitted to the government and authored by a legitimate  source…. then perhaps the bureaucracy would rule in favor of conservation.

There are dramatic swings in the annual number of new species protected under State and Federal Endangered Species Acts. Do we have a good system for adequately capturing the urgency of protecting particular species? Experts with the California Native Plant Society agree that the Point Reyes Horkelia is indeed endangered – biologically. These experts routinely reassess their recommended status for species, and make recommendations based both on close scientific observation and the knowledge of experts. Discovery of so rare a species in our hard-pressed midst merits at least an immediate population survey, without which we can’t begin to address its conservation status. Even when this rare species is on public lands there is no government botanist available to collate surveys across the range of the species. And so, surveys and documentation are left mainly to volunteers.

As just such a volunteer, I am pleased to offer what is already known about Pt. Reyes Horkelia distribution in our area. The Santa Cruz County populations of Pt. Reyes Horkelia live on many differently owned and managed lands, with varying management attention. The southern range limit for the species is currently believed to end on the Moore Creek Greenbelt. Santa Cruz City Parks Department has been spending some attention to managing the parks’ beautiful meadows, where the Pt. Reyes Horkelia and other rare wildflowers have been restored through carefully managed cattle grazing. UCSC land also includes a few patches of the species, in moist meadows mainly near Twin Gates, on both sides of Empire Grade in an area known as Marshall Field. The University occasionally does good things for those meadows, like prescribed fire and mowing to maintain native plant species, but the area with this species has been largely neglected for the past decade, so it may be declining. The BLM hasn’t really hit the ground with any kind of targeted meadow management aimed at conserving native plant species on their Cotoni Coast Dairies Preserve. The consortium of land trusts owning the San Vicente Redwoods know about the species being on their land, so they would presumably be careful with any of their timber, fire, or recreational management. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve has a single small patch of plants, but no management or monitoring to maintain the species.

Horkelia marinensis Pt Reyes Horkelia

Licensed under CC: photo by CalFlora user Jorg Fleige. All rights revert to originator.

While some of these patches are in good hands, others are under daily threat from disuse or overuse. The impossibility of cooperation across such broad swathes of countryside renders survey work on the holdings of amenable or accessible landowners more urgent. Stunned as we may be that work of this nature is barely funded for the government agencies tasked with oversight of such matters, there are things we can do to help this plant out. For instance, join the California Native Plant Society, which is the most effective native plant conservation organization per dollar invested in the state. Also, every time you hear about plans to increase access, adding trails and visitors, to the meadows of our area…weigh in on native plant conservation with the lands managing entity involved. Mostly, those weighing in are vocal users- mountain bikers, especially…people not inclined to also care about rare native plants. By speaking for, caring about, and investing in our rarest native plant species, you will be contributing to the possibility that future generations will have the chance to experience the fine, rose scented foliage of this beautiful, rare wildflower.

Many thanks to Wes Harman for editorial assistance.