The long persistent crazy wind continued along the coast this past week, but calmer nights are full of black field cricket chorus. Chip-chip-chip, chip-chip-chip, chip-chip-chip. So tireless and repetitive as individuals and as many together mesmerizing.
A long twilight with glowing colors and the calming of the wind closes each evening. Then, a big moon rises and brightens the farm in soft tones of silver and gray. Offshore, the night glows from the bright light lures of fishing boats. On the windy days, the ocean turns turquoise dotted with white caps that we glimpse from the farm. The rain has ended, but we get touched by moist fog and dew still hangs heavy on the still green grasses in the morning. Chilly legs and cold feet…wet pant legs and soaked shoes for us early morning field walkers. The damp morning air carries the early summer sweet earthy scent from the farm fields.
It is heavy duty mowing time- the last mowing of a drying spring. I drove the brush mower over a ground wasp nest but didn’t get stung. I’ve become adept at recognizing the patterns of angry wasp flight, luckily especially evident silhouetted against the black body of the mower. There the mower sat for an hour while the wasps calmed down, and I snuck back to (heart pounding) grab the mower handle, shift it to neutral and drag it downhill rapidly away from the nest hole. Now I’m scouting more for the nests before I mow.
Yes, there are no deer. Instead of those common beasts, we are surrounded by rarities. Storey heard the elusive and uncommon house wren on the farm and she and others have been watching a group of purple martins probably settling into nest holes in a dead tree near our property line. Downhill, at the gate by the highway, crowds have gathered to see a waif scissor tailed flycatcher.
We have many a wary quail, fretful probably as their eggs are hatching and there are soon to be little clutzy puffball babies following them around. Nearby, there are new baby turkeys with watchful mothers herding them and showing them how to forage.
Tomatoes are getting bigger- the once weak looking seedings have settled in and want to start seriously growing. Likewise, spry onions are getting robust. When the fire came in 2020, we had just begun the Conservatory of Passion, an arbor with passionfruit vines with hope for hops. Those all needed to get replanted and we put in our first McGregor hops a few weeks back. All those vines are settling in and starting to look really good. We need to set up some strings for the hops to climb! The 2020 and 2021 avocado plantings are growing profusely. The earlier batch will get overhead this year as giant bushes and the trees from last year will turn less lanky soon.
On a recent breezy day, I lay down, nestled into the 3’ tall drying grass and watched amazing clouds tearing apart and scudding across the bright blue sky. The grasses around me were singing, swishing with waves of delightful whooshing. The whooshing would rapidly approach, ruffle my hair and chill my skin then pass me to dance across more distant meadows. The breeze carried the scent of sweet fresh grass and the freshness of salty ocean air. In circles around me, between the grasses, and during lulls in the wind, beige California ringlet butterflies were skipping and fluttering – a welcome sign of grassland spring.
It has been exceptionally windy and cold for nearly an entire week straight. The wind has been more than annoying, it has been nearly prohibitive to being outside. The temperature differential between the cold cranium and the warm brain makes for a very specific head pain. We put on winter jackets and wool hats. The barn swallows above the front door complain about leaving their cozy warm nest too early on cold mornings, so I don’t want to disturb them but still must go out.
Last Sunday, an unpredicted series of showers pelted down sometimes very big powerful raindrops from ominous giant patches of fast-moving clouds, and then there was sun. No matter, I thought, I’ll keep mowing…and then it rained again so hard that water was pouring off of the brim of my hat!
The barn swallows are getting so friendly that they brush past me and I can hear their wing beats. They chatter “chui chui chui chui chui…” chasing one another, expertly turning to capture bugs. I don’t know why but one sometimes will sit in the middle of the road looking around at the others flying by. Nadia our neighboring land’s Forester tells me that the Purple Martins have returned- their homes are in a ridgeline tree up above our new tank complex. Purple martins are a rare thing around here.
Two great horned owls were hooting from the roof the night after yard mowing: a promising feast of newly uncovered rodent runs. They fly silently but you can make out their weight when they land on the peak of the roof: a gentle but solid…wump! When the winds pick up, the turkey vultures play around the eddies and updrafts around the Farm. They tilt their bright red heads to follow the movement of the others in what seems like playful chase, giant wings arching acrobatically.
On the other side of the size spectrum, many chestnut backed chickadees are chick-a-dee-deeing in the trees and shrubs along the field edges. A very bright bird caught my eye as it flitted into sight, staring right at me: oh! The lazuli buntings have returned! What a treat- this one a bright blue breeding plumage male with a nice neat orange bib. I could go on and on about birds…the Spring Bird Show is going strong.
Slithering towards the Leaping
The dust on the roads and trails reveals the movement of snakes…many big snakes. The 2020 fire has opened up acres of new weeds and grasses where there used to be shrubs. The herbaceous post fire world is rodent heaven…and therefore more snakes! Someone reported a rattlesnake near downtown Davenport. No reports from Molino…yet. We have gopher snakes wending their sleek long bodies silently through the grass, shiny skin and wary eyes. Their bellies push and flatten long wavy patterns through the fine road dust.
Many tiny tawny harvest mice have been leaping away from the mower this spring. This is the dominant small mammal and there never were so many. Snake snacks. Below ground, the gophers tunnel and store food. Digging a hole for a new table grape planting, the soil gave way and out came a softball sized cache of gopher groceries: a ball of grass and weeds stowed for future consumption. Gopher hay!
The orange trees are hanging heavy with fruit and we keep trying them to see if they’re ripe. Juicy – check! Tasty – well…just okay. Sweet – no! For all that juice, you’d hope for sugar, but we have to wait longer. The limes are great, though. Not enough lemons this year: maybe next year. The one remaining mature Bacon avocado tree has maybe 50 fruit on it that are just starting to hint about getting ripe, maybe a month from now. And that’s about it for farm food except for a few sprigs of arugula or kale, snacks on nasturtiums and perhaps some nettles for the industrious chefs. The apples have set fruit that is growing rapidly while still the same tree is in flower. We hope that the prolonged flowering means a prolonged fruiting season as well!
Our hard working Two Dog Farm partners are doing just that as another season ramps up. Headlights rake the hillsides, shockingly cutting through deep dark pre-dawn; off they go to start a new farming day. Long rows of new peppers and onions are settling into the fluffy brown soil of their Roadside Field. Mark Bartle (bundled up!) was recently steering back and forth, back and forth to seed this year’s crop of winter squash into beautifully formed seed beds. He is an artist with a tractor and his sculpture grows!
The winds come and go, the nights are still chilly, and the days are getting warm again. Today it was in the 70’s. The whole world seems sparkly, extra vivid and alive. Critters are zipping about and the breezes sporadic and then, some days, ripping. The sky has been mostly clear but then suddenly fog will creep up the canyon or giant puffy clouds peek over the ridge above the farm. Many little birds are cheeping and carrying on midday, but there are occasional surprising quiet moments. Once this past week…zoom – the vultures not lazily but energetically were sweeping across the farm, chasing one another, riding a sudden new and steady afternoon wind. Some nights it has been so breezy that the house shakes, but then there was a recent night that was so quiet that you could hear a million crickets near and far.
Surprises and Singing Friends
Yes, crickets are singing at night, and many birds sing all day long. Song sparrows are making the most constant melodious songs. I flushed a snipe from the Avocado Bowl this early evening…what a surprise – for both of us. It yipped and I yelped: it was almost under foot. Off it went downhill off the farm. They say it is passing through- lots of migration happening these past weeks.
Bizarre Black Birds, redux
A while back, bicolor blackbirds changed their social behavior. Towards the end of winter, bicolors joined the Brewers blackbirds and starlings in the leafless walnut trees, raising a cacophonous symphony but somehow breaking into a hypnotic melodious chorus (and sometimes with soloists, other times with jazzy subgroups, and always with startling punctuated pauses). Then, the Brewers left the stage. The starlings took to their own flocks. And, the bicolors broke off in small groups. Now, bicolors are exhibiting undecipherable and very different behavior. As is normal, males continue puffing up with their extraordinary epaulettes. The males and females have intricate chases or face offs; I have seen very alert females clustered together, I have also seen the females apparently chasing males, and I have seen males chasing ravens, swallows, and even hummingbirds. Those guy bicolor blackbirds seem proud to bravely chirp at me staying as close as they dare – showing off?
The grasses are turning tawny even with the late rains and pollen is flying thickly. Ten minutes outside fill the corner of my eyes with dust that starts immediately itching. Before my nose fills and congests from the pollen, there is a sweet grassy scent blanketing everywhere. I want to keep smelling that but it is subtle and my nose reacts poorly to the pollen filled air. It is, unfortunately for me, indoor time lest my lungs seize and my neighbors too serenaded by the loudest of continuous sneezing until my throat is chaffed and my eyes water to streams of tears. Oh, those N95 masks are serving another purpose!
Gophers and Snakes
Meanwhile, in the soil…hundreds of gophers are tossing up small piles of earth across the farm – crumbly mounds, the fresher excavations dark and moist for a little while, sprinkled with a mess of critter cut hay. A meadow vole was midday sunbathing in some short grass next to the solar panels the other day, not even moving when approached. I got to see how tiny its ears were, folded up against its head: un-mouse like. Shortly thereafter, I was startled by the biggest gopher snake I’ve ever encountered – around 5’ long and 2” thick. This snake was almost under foot and I found myself emitting another involuntary yell, body levitating up miraculously and seemingly sky high, arching up and up before touching down and happy not to have squinched it. Yesterday, there was yet another gopher snake, this one a ’mere’ 3’ long, near the citrus orchard about to cross the road. It is a good year to be a snake and a good time for accenting the need to be present when walking, so as not to tread on them serpents.
This is the time of year that roadside wildflowers are at their most diverse. When I visit farm partners Bob and Ursi at their beautiful downtown home, this time of year there are the most beautiful bouquets of wildflowers from that roadside: lupines and poppies, deep blue globed bulb flowers, monkeyflowers…and many more. They so appreciate that beauty and it has been increasing because of their attention. They are the ones who requested that the roadside mowing crews avoid the once few lavender bush lupines. We did. Those few spread and then after the fire erupted in giant patches of color and quick cover for so many creatures. Bob and Ursi are profoundly appreciative of natural beauty and share their observations easily with bright eyes and kind smiles.
Crop Planting, Orchard Production
A variety of neighbors have been pitching in to plant the Molino Creek Farm crops this year. The first tomato plants are in the ground as of today! Onions went in a few days ago. The sad but promising rows of new crops are settling in, a hard transition from the nursery but they will soon adjust.
In the orchard, the limes are getting so ripe to be dropping from the trees, but the oranges don’t have sweetness yet. Nearly every apple tree has set fruit, and those tiny fruits are growing fast in large clusters. The cherry trees have few fruit, fewer still the prunes and apricots: late rains might have pummeled the tiny fruit or perhaps the wind? It will be a big apple year if the pests don’t get too many; there are very few jays as of yet.
The farmed and natural worlds of Molino Creek Farm change by the day, as does the world around everyone. Catch it while you can! Enjoy the changes!!
-this post simultaneously posted at Molino Creek Farm’s website.
A sometimes mysterious and much underappreciated plant family – grass. We eat it, weave it, build with it, wear it, make fuel out of it, livestock depend on it, it blankets lawns and playing fields, holds roadsides and hills in place, serves as winter cover crop in agriculture, and waves about in the prairie breeze providing bison food, grassland bird nesting habitat, and forage for the many small creatures that feed predators – wolves, coyotes, eagles, and bears.
What’s a Grass?
Grasses are all in the family Poaceae and are set apart from similar-looking plants by having a hollow stem. The rhyme goes: sedges have edges, rushes are round, and grasses like asses have holes in their stems. Patrick Elvander taught me that- he was an inspirational botany professor at UCSC who died too young. That rhyme deserves some decoding. Sedges mostly have triangular stems and leaves, with 3 edges to their leaf blades. Most rushes have round leaves and stems, both are solid, filled with a pith. Grasses have hollow stems like a straw.
There are more than 500 species of grass in California; around half are introduced. There are more than 200 varieties of grass in Santa Cruz County, so there’s lots to learn locally just with this group of plants!
Food from Grass
Corn, rice, sorghum, barley, wheat, oats, and rye are the commonly known human food grasses. You might have a hard time telling barley, wheat, oats, and rye seeds apart when they are whole…but corn, woa- what a different looking seed! Corn is a New World grass, the others are from the other side of the world. Rice is pretty different looking (New World wild “rice” isn’t related). Each of these grasses has distinct flavors.
Grain species have been bred into varieties for different uses. For example, corn has varieties divided into: flint, flour, dent, pop, sweet, and waxy. Wheat has seven such varieties. And so on.
Native peoples ate native grasses, but we’re not sure all of the ones they used. European wild oats spread so quickly that when Old World ethnographers first encountered native peoples in northern California, they had already incorporated them in their dietary repertoire.
Holding the Soil in Place
Beyond food, grasses are useful for soil conservation. Have you ever stood in a parking lot or listened to the rain on a roof during a rainstorm? It is noisy! That same heavy downpour falling on a grassland is quiet. The flexible grass blades intercept raindrops, lowering them gently to the ground, springing back up to catch the next one. If the rain is very heavy, the soaked blades fall over, protecting the soil.
People have long appreciated the erosion control utility of grasses around California. In Santa Cruz County, there was for a time a specific County-government mandated erosion control seed mix that was mostly grass seed. Alas, the well-meaning County had prescribed a host of species that were non-native and quite invasive, so I’m hoping no one uses it anymore. At about that same time a similarly poor policy was widely implemented across the state: seeding nonnative invasive annual rye grass seed after wildfires. There was concern about the species’ invasiveness, but the practice was only halted after scientists documented slope failure caused by the unnaturally weighty grass biomass and increased fire danger from tons of fine, flammable dead grass the next summer.
You probably know many interesting and useful grasses: lemon grass for Thai cooking and bamboo for stir frying new shoots and use of older shoots for plant stakes and buildings. A local woodland species, vanilla grass, has been grown in plantations for the flavoring of pipe tobacco. Many species have been woven into baskets. Broom corn, a type of millet, makes natural brooms and some midwestern towns were economically supported by this industry in the early 1900’s.
Then there is chicken scratch, cattle and horse pasture, silage for dairies, grains in the feedlots, and bales of hay in the barn: the many ways that grasses feed livestock.
Not all grasses are welcomed by livestock. Interestingly, a terribly invasive toxic perennial grass is being sold for seeding horse pastures: tall fescue. This grass easily gets infected by a fungus that is mutagenic and causes horses to miscarry! And, people seed pastures with rye grass despite its tendency to mold and cause something called ‘the staggers’ with poisoned livestock wandering around like they are drunk, losing weight and seeming quite sick.
Besides some species poisoning horses and cattle, other grasses have been bad problems. Some suggest that the collapse of the Mayan civilization was due to the invasion of their agricultural systems by uncontrollable weedy grasses (and drought). Modern agriculture is also plagued by grassy weeds. Some were enthusiastic about using herbicides for grass weeds and even genetically engineering the crops to be resistant to herbicides. Very soon, strains of Italian ryegrass became resistant to herbicides and the presence of that species on farms vastly devalued the resale value of the land.
Italian ryegrass has more notoriety: it is the most allergen filled plant known to humankind. The species proliferates with the nitrogen raining down from air pollution, and so lines highways and takes over meadows around the Bay Area. When it blossoms, everyone gets sick- even people who don’t know they have grass allergies report sore throats and coughing for the 2 weeks of its peak bloom. So, invasive non-native grasses are a health hazard – and grassland restoration and management is important for human health.
Walk in a California grassland and 80% of what you step on is non-native, mostly invasive grasses. Each year, new invasive species show up in the grasslands introduced accidently through global trade or purposefully through the nursery or turf grass industries. Once naturalized, new species evolve to become better fit and can be even more invasive.
Did you know that bunchgrasses move around? Many of our native perennial grasses are called bunchgrasses because they grow in clumps, without runners. And yet, the stems of each clump might die on one side and new ones might sprout on the other side, so the grass clump can move around. Long term studies have monitored meters of movement in bunchgrasses over decades.
Soil Carbon and Perennial Grasses
There has been a lot of bogus hand-waving about the differences between native perennial grasses vs. non-native annual grasses. I have been hearing a lot recently that native perennial grasses have much more extensive, deep, carbon-storing root systems in contrast to exotic annual grasses. These distinctions miss the troubling invasion of non-native perennial grasses into our coastal prairies…some of those species are more robust than native perennials. Also, native perennial grasses come in many sizes with many different morphologies- some are teeny tiny (Blasedale’s bent grass, an endangered grass of Santa Cruz’ North Coast), others are very medium sized (meadow barley). I would wager that an annual exotic oat grass on rich soil would have a larger root system and sequester more carbon than the native perennial meadow barley growing alongside it.
This hand waving seems to me to be unnecessary jingoism for soil carbon sequestration via restoration of a very few species of big, burly native bunchgrasses. This is dangerous because our prairies are so much more rich than those few species of large, common native perennial grasses. Planting/stewarding just a few native grasses will cost us a wealth of other species diversity and potentially the resilience of the prairie ecosystem as a whole.
The wintery weather continues if only with some clouds, cool air, and gusty breezes. The days are noticeably longer and the sun has some heat to it, but it has been chilly sweater weather in the mornings. What’s left of the ridgetop trees have been ‘talking’ – a groaning wind has been pushing across the ridges and dancing across the grasses on our hill-protected farm. The giant sets of waves send roaring echoes up the canyons and white caps make a mess of the surface of the ocean. Is it winter leaving or are we headed to more weeks of weird deja vu for weather that should have been, but wasn’t, in January?
Excited by Flowers
The bees know it is Spring with swarm after swarm landing in the beehive traps. The apple trees buzz with honeybees, the lupine fields bob with bumbles; avocado flower clusters rustle and whine with a myriad of flies, butterflies flit from calendula to radish and onto flat-topped yellow lizard tail flower clusters. Flower biomass is at its peak here and across the hills- especially if you count grasses (achoo!). The farm fields have long sported weeds and cover crops in bloom, and now the wildlands have erupted in color. Monkey flower, weedy brooms and vetches, colorful native bulbs and paintbrush, lupines and honeysuckle – all in bloom from the oak groves to the steep brushy hills. Grassy fields are 100 shades of green, oak groves are turning a dark green as the leaves settle in, and all else is adorned with patches of yellow and orange, lavender and blue…with accents of red or bright white – an astounding naturally artistic landscape.
Recently, I mentioned in this newsletter the entrepreneurial two lithe deer. I thought they were just passing through, but they settled in nearby the farm, but are still quite shy. These two are graceful and thin and healthy and golden brown and jumpy. Great new additions to the community of playful farm creatures. April is normally reptile month: earlier it seemed to fit, but later in the month the reptiles have been interested but barely able to move. Huge alligator lizards drop lazily out of mulch piles as we move them. A massive momma lizard sat immobile in the road waiting to warm in the midday sun. Snakes are hiding somewhere for warmer times. The gophers and mice celebrate the cold predators- there is more rodent herbivory than anytime recently. If there were more rabbits, they would be getting well fed- we just have a handful after last year’s sudden dearth. I found a giant dead mole (stinky) just lying on the ground next to a tree I was weeding. The persistent truck beeping backup noise of the local pygmy owl is incessant, from the nearby forested canyon.
The final set of deciduous trees on the farm are leafing out. The so light spring green of the black walnut trees is always magical, set off more so from the dark brown bark background. The winter skeletons of those trees, so prominent across much of the farm is now being lost to a summer of seemingly subtropical canopy.
On the drive out to the coast, the meadows have grown in green again, healing from the wintertime drought. The winds make waves of mesmerizing nodding grasses. Far off, the grass flanked fields, hills, and ridges make a soft mat resting the eyes and mind- it seems so right.
The Production of Food
Two Dog Farm planted their first row crops of the season: rows of baby padron pepper plants are settling in to the harsh reality of life under open sky, in the wind and wavering temperatures…so different than their greenhouse lives of the past months. They will quickly turn darker green and get sturdy, but they look so pale and fragile right now.
The orchards are setting fruit and flowering. Where we can, we have left understories and rows of cover crops to grow more and bloom. The apple blossoms waft elusive hints of dusty rose scent. Lupines and now profuse bell bean flowers delight our noses with rich and heavy purple-grape perfumes. We are suddenly finding ourselves in the OCD fruit thinning program. After work strolls – can’t help but stop (an hour passed??!) but thin some apples. Weekend irrigation management and then, whoops, stopped for too long to thin some pears. Etc Etc. We’ll soon be in round two of mowing with new sickle bar blades making the work easier for a change.
The cherry fruits and plums are shiny plump and growing…what promise!
Hoping you are letting your mind wander in the Spring Clouds – there is so much there.
I received lots of great feedback from my column a couple of weeks ago, maybe in part because people resonate with the need for raising our children with love and respect for nature. When we see people damaging nature, we must redouble our efforts to make sure we avoid making new people like that – by reaching out to children, to teach them well. This made me wonder what are core lessons we need for children (and adults!) for being good to nature right here in Santa Cruz. I hope the following is a good start- please send me more ideas for a future, more in depth publication.
News: Apocalypse Cancelled
The most damaging words I hear regularly about nature is how we are doomed. Even generally well meaning and educated people I know enter into what I call the apocalyptic mindset. You’ve probably heard it…maybe even participated in such a dialogue. It starts with, for example, how can we ever address global warming…its such a huge lift…governments aren’t doing anything…oil companies have too much power…people are greedy…the planet is going to be uninhabitable…the human race is going to disappear. This type of conversation seems to always end with ‘the human race is going to disappear,’ sometimes due to disease, sometimes nuclear war, and now sometimes global warming. Maybe we avoid this story with children, saving it for adult conversation, but if you entertain such notions at all, you can bet the children catch on. This story is magical thinking, and the rationale for such stories is beyond my expertise (but, please: ask yourself “why?” if you hear such things). Humans have survived very hard times – through plagues, terrible wars…through ice ages, famines, massive volcanoes, long droughts, etc: it is a safe bet that there will be people around for a very long time…long enough for us to tell a different story, so we think about a longer term presence and the need for earth stewardship.
A Better Story
The different story is supported by evidence near at hand. Go to Pinnacles National Park and watch a condor soar. Take a whale watching boat and see a blue whale. When you drive across Pacheco Pass or tour Pt. Reyes, see the tule elk. All of these species were ‘doomed’ but people decided that they were worth keeping…we changed our behavior, and they are recovering. The better story is of the inherent compassion of humans and our ability to improve how we live with nature. If your better story has people living alongside elk, whales, condors, and mountain lions in a world with grizzly and polar bears, elephants, giant pandas, and coral reefs, then it will inspire us to work together to make it so.
Stewarding Soil, Air, and Water
There are, of course, other things to teach the children, such as care for soil, water, and the air. The science of soil formation has been taking place on Santa Cruz’ North Coast for a while, so we are fortunate to be proximate to the story of soil, and how incredibly slowly it is created. The Dust Bowl lessons are long forgotten and chemical fertilizers have been hiding the need for soil, but all the same- soil is sacred and everyone should know that soil loss is a terrible thing, that prime agricultural land is precious to conserve, that soil needs stewardship. All children should know where their food comes from. The same goes for water; I wonder how many appreciate where their water comes from and the care that must be taken so that it isn’t contaminated…thanks to government and rules. And, it is similar for the air. That we have good soil, water, and air are again testaments to the good that humans can do when we work together. But, we can all use some education about what we can do to help keep those situations improving.
For the soil, water and air lessons, here are some field trip ideas. Next winter, go for a walk at Wilder Ranch and see if the soil is covered or if it is washing off into the ocean. Take a trip to Loch Lomond then to an auto repair shop upstream in Ben Lomond; discuss the dangers of petroleum ending up in drinking water. Watch road runoff in ditches next winter and think about what that oily sheen means for water quality and how it might be captured. Stand next to a busy street and smell the air, talk about what is in tail pipe emissions and where that stuff goes and what it does. To have these kinds of conversations might take some homework- how many of us can have informed conversations about these simple and everyday situations? If children knew more about these things, would it help?
Children should know about living well with non-human animals. Often, kids are introduced to domesticated animals…and too often they share their parents’ misconceptions about how best to care for and train those pets. Perhaps family time discussing well vetted videos about living with pets is in order. Meat eaters have an obligation to have some honest conversations about how livestock are raised and how they come to the plate. Field trips may be in order on that front. A little more on the wild side is the need for children to understand the host of issues from animals that aren’t domesticated that tag along with human civilization – termites, Argentine ants, roaches, stray cats, rats, mice, pigeons, starlings, etc. Just around the corner is another teaching subject: native wild animals which are doing perhaps too well at adapting to human ecosystems, such as ravens, crows, gulls, jays, racoons, etc. By learning about these and the invasive animals, perhaps children will learn to be more tidy and perhaps they’ll figure out other ways to mediate the impacts of these species. Into the real wild, children need to learn about the needs of wildlife – for habitat, landscape connectivity, peace, respect, and for the science needed to better plan for conservation.
Children Becoming Citizens
As age appropriate, children will one day be old enough to need education about how the above concepts enter the civic world. They will need to understand how land management agencies do or do not protect open space for wildlife. They will need to understand how clean air and water regulations are promulgated, incentivized, and enforced. And, it would be good to teach them how to critically think about the environmental issues they encounter and how to seek credible information to inform their thinking. Are these issues addressed in schools adequately? How else might we help children to understand these issues so that they are engaged citizens?
Nature brings peace, so perhaps the most important lesson for children is how to experience nature. I see families taking talkative strolls with children, but few parents sitting quietly in nature with their young ones. With luck, children should be able to witness a bird building a nest and feeding its young. They should see tadpoles and then tadpoles with legs. We all feel delighted to see a fox or coyote pounce on prey. There’s a fascination to watching the dusky footed wood rat taking a huge mouthful of twigs to its 4’ wide stick home. There are salmon swimming upstream to spawn in nearby creeks during the early winter. Giant whales are lunging into schools of anchovies close to boats that leave every day from local harbors. None of these things are easy to see as chance encounters. Like all good education, it will take some work, but it is worth it.
The more time we spend with children sharing these types of lessons, the better the chance of future generations saying ‘we are sure glad that people figured out how to restore beavers!’ or ‘wow- look at that tule elk!’ Richer lives and a better planet require us collectively to raise children who are eco-literate. Please do your part, even if you aren’t a parent.
Last Saturday night, the bright full moon shining from the clear cold sky, set off the grassy fields into a sparkling hoarfrost that lingered in the low, shady spots well after sunrise. That same startlingly clear sky graced Sunday with a cool light breeze, inviting my gardening self to expose sun onto skin for too long: my back burned red to ouch, now itchy painful. Following that temptation was not too smart! The week plugs away with echoes of last week’s email: drizzle, sun…warm…repeat. But, now the National Weather Service says it will really rain tomorrow and Friday, so our orchard irrigation rounds will be delayed once again. The rain has been just enough for a while to keep up with the increasing demand for soil moisture from the leafing out orchard trees. The forecast looks like it will get dry again soon- maybe next week will begin the long, dry summer? So hard to say. We are extra thankful for the late rains re-wetting everything. As we learned a couple of years ago, drought makes for extra heat and then fire! The late rainfall boost will make a lag for the heat, pushing it further into the summer and reducing fire danger a little longer. The clouds sneaking southward in advance of tomorrow’s storm were particularly ominous- perhaps hinting at the predicted ‘instability’ and perhaps marble (!) sized hail.
Out in the recently-burned forest around Molino, the understory is bursting with flowers. The iris are still thick with blossoms- around here, a pale yellow or creamy white, but higher on the mountain all the way to rich blues. The local pink version of globe lily has just come into full bloom with especially many plants post fire. There are yellow or white violet flowering carpets. Native sweet pea and checker lilies are fading but the woodland tarplants are blossoming and, in moister places, there are many sprays of white, sweet-smelling false Solomon’s seal. The forest understory never faded from the drought in January and February and it is especially lush and green now with the recent return of rains. Madrones aren’t flowering anywhere near as thickly as last Spring. The creeks are singing their watery songs.
Some may recall Drake Bialecki’s patient revival of burned trees last year…his skill with the summer grafting of avocados and cherries. After he was done, we kept an eye on the cherry bud grafts and watched as they slowly healed into the rootstock stems, splitting the grafting tape and pushing forward as if to say ‘we made it!’ Few of those buds did much last season. But now, we’re watching them burst out with promise of making new trees. We’ve never seen this work before, so stay tuned as we document what was a dime-sized bud become a branch then get comfortable being a trunk and on up to the sky. I have a hard time guessing how big these might get this year- the roots are huge and established for full-sized trees…might these get 6’ tall and around this year? They’ve got all they need from water and finely stewarded soil.
The lime trees are popping with nearly ripe fruit, the lemons close behind, but the oranges a ways behind. The early apples have set their first fruit, now wanting to be thinned. Avocado blossoms are opening, some getting past- alas, few trees are mature enough to bear fruit this season (or the next). Some of the avocado trees we thought survived the fire are showing themselves to be zombies as their basal bark peels off to reveal lifeless and fire-girdled stems. Similar things are going on with many of the fire-surviving trees: their expanding trunks are revealing large dead portions of trunks near the ground- ah, shoot!
Respect yer Elders
On the field margins and in a far part of the North Orchard: elderberries! Elderberry flowers are opening. The California native elderberry plants that George Work donated to the Farm in 2008 sprouted vigorously after the fire and are large, lush bushes adorned by many flower clusters. Then there’s the herbalists’ patch of exotic elderberries quickly establishing but not yet blossoming.
For the row-crop farming, all eyes are on the greenhouses where the starts are getting big enough to plant – planting will start soon, the soil is prepared and waiting. The field enterprises are multiplying with a new organic vegetable seed growing partner on a quarter or so acre in the Brush Field.
Another crop has identified itself: wild nettles! Anyone want to harvest them? The wild miner’s lettuce is fading, but the nettles are going strong.
Here Today, Gone Tamari
Chewing on these wild things are the migratory deer. Two lithe brave but wide-eyed teenage deer loped up the main road a few days back, stopping here and there to gaze at the deer fence, sizing it up to see if they dare test it but then running further along. The fat female has gone missing. No bucks.
Other missing wildlife: turkeys, kestrels, red tailed hawks…bobcats, harrier hawks…skunks….But, some expected are here: there are more than 18 band tailed pigeons eating walnut catkins. They aren’t any braver about nearby humans even with the higher numbers.
PS: there is no tamari, only today, he added saucily
-this post simultaneously published to the Molino Creek Farm website as my weekly blog.
Succulent carpets sporting pale yellow, rich magenta, or light purple flowers blanket the bluffs and hang over the cliffs along the coast of California. Joining oleander and cotoneaster as historic roadside plants, ice plant has been dropped by public works landscapers for many good reasons. Several species of ice plants are quite invasive in parts of California, spreading 3’ a year, wiping out rich assemblages of native plants and changing wildlife communities.
Native Ice Plant??!
When my mentors taught me the native flora, they wanted me to recognize the difference between the ‘native’ and non-native ice plant species. However, the ‘native’ ice plant turned out not to be native, proven by a clever scientist who sleuthed for a pollen record in pond sediment from an ancient pond in Marina, California on the Monterey Bay. The trick is to find an old pond, drill into the sediment with a hollow tube, and pull out a long plug of mud: deeper muck is older. Scientists can reference ash layers from volcanoes in the sediment and use carbon dating of bits of organic matter to index the history in the sediment core. In that pond sediment, they discovered ice plant pollen beginning in the 1800’s and occurring steadily in the pond sediment ever since. That was the age of lots of Old World species’ arrival…a time when invasive grasses and herbs spread rapidly across the landscape. Some species spread faster than the invading people so that the first Old World botanists didn’t know whether something was native or not. How did ice plant get there?
South Africa: Iceplant Home
South Africa is home to many ice plant relatives. That Mediterranean region is a biodiversity hot spot for many interesting plants, including plants in the ice plant family. Many ice plant relatives have stunningly bright colors and thin, reflective petals. There might still be a patch of ice plant relatives in the South African collection at the UCSC Arboretum. When I worked there, I came across that patch on a sunny spring day and was mesmerized by the color, gazing at first one intensely bright color and then the next. Peeling my eyes away from those flowers, I was shocked to find a world of temporarily muted color (a world of gray!). Something in my eyes had been overloaded and it took a while to get normal colors back. Only a few of the South African ice plant relatives have become weedy in California- not to say that more won’t in the future, should they find their way via the nursery trade.
Scurvy is a horrible disease of malnourishment caused by too little Vitamin C. Part of the ‘success’ of the Imperialist British Navy is due to the recognition of the need to pack limes on board ships, earning those sailors the name ‘limeys.’ Some sailors might have been better called ‘iceys’ but that term doesn’t appear in the history books. The term for ice plant seed pods was “Sea Fig,” and the fruit was packed aboard ships to combat scurvy the same way limes did.
Ice plant fruit is ripe when the pods are wrinkly and shriveled, having narrowed from their once plump shiny tautness just after the flower fades. If you try eating one too early, it is very disappointing. Wait a while and you get to enjoy sweet, tart, and salty fruit loop flavor. Like figs, ice plant seeds are on the inside of the fruit, suspended in a sticky, stretchy slightly slimy gelatinous goo- that’s the tasty stuff to harvest out of the pods. I am pretty picky about where to harvest the fruits because of what I’ve seen dogs do on ice plant carpets. The biggest flowering of ice plant is under way now, so you have to wait a while for the pods to ripen.
Us bipeds aren’t the only ones who like the ice plant fruit- they are favored food for all sorts of small mammals. The moisture in the fruit might be attractive, but the protein-rich seeds are nutritious – so much so that all that food elevates small mammal populations above what might normally occur. Ground squirrel, rat, and rabbit numbers increase, and herds of these animals scurry into areas surrounding the ice plant patches and graze down native vegetation, making way for still more ice plant with seeds dispersed in the critters’ poop. Sit on some of the large cliff-erosion combating rock piles near West Cliff’s ice plant carpets some evening and watch the cracks between the rocks. You will probably get to see part of that ice-plant fed thriving rat population.
Salting the Earth
Feeding the ice plant gardening small animals is one way that the plant is clever, but there’s an even more genius method of invasion: salt. Ice plant is very salt tolerant. As it grows it concentrates salts in the soil under it, creating more saline conditions than much of the native ocean bluff flora can tolerate.
As I mentioned above, there once was a fondness for ice plant for stabilizing soil along roads and railroads. Many older readers probably recall ice plant lined roads; CalTrans maintained at least 6,000 acres of ice plant in the 1970s. Native plant enthusiasts never really liked that ice plant landscaping, long recognizing the species’ invasibility, and so they rejoiced when an iceplant pest made it to the New World and started killing ice plant patches. The scale insect was taking a serious toll on highway and railroad plantings, and native plant conservationists were transporting sick ice plant to new areas to spread the pest. Others regarded the pest with disdain, and they ended up winning. Cal Trans funded and UC Berkeley launched a biological control program to fight the ice plant pest. UC researchers found a few species of wasps that controlled the scale insects and released those wasps in masses. The wasps established and now control the ice plant destroying pest.
Don’t worry: ice plant is controllable! Volunteers for the California Native Plant Society and other groups have embarked on ice plant pulling sprees to protect particularly rich areas of dunes and ocean bluffs. While the plants are quite heavy, they aren’t particularly well rooted, so are easy to yank. Pulled up parts of the plants are piled high and slowly decompose. You have to keep coming back to make sure some of the piled plants don’t re-root, but that follow up work isn’t very hard. And, one typically finds a few plants that were so small they got missed the first time pulling in an area. Ice plant is easy to recognize, so you might get to know it and pull it when it is out of place. Turn a pulled plant upside down, roots in the air, and it will probably die. After a while, the bare patches left from pulling ice plant might grow native plants. Often, old patches of ice plant leave behind a thick carpet of dead leaves and salty soil that takes some time to get back to something that can support native plant species. Hopefully, this essay will help prevent more people from planting ice plant in new places!
HOT (85F), then cold and massively windy (wind damage!) … then drizzle…now gap (cold)…drizzle tomorrow gap…drizzle Saturday (cool): what an odd April! The April showers bring May flowers adage isn’t supposed to work here in California, or at least it hasn’t for a long time…but then again, it Does Work! Way back in March, the prairies were turning brown and the grass was stunted and dying. Ranchers were selling their cattle quickly to get in before the big sales rush later in the spring, when they would make even less money. Now, the grasses are growing again, and the prairies are mostly green where they were brown. Weird. The big lupine year here on the Farm will be prolonged maybe into May if this keeps up. If it keeps up, maybe we’ll have the plump tasty handfuls of native blackberry that we got last year with the late rains….that would be wonderful. Some nearby got an inch of rain this last round, where we were promised only two tenths. Roof runoff rainwater buckets filled entirely, which normally suggests a good soak.
There is very little food on the farm, unless you like to eat lemons and limes or to harvest wild nettles. The cover crop pea shoots have been mowed and/or tilled in. It has been too dry for mushrooms, though the recent rains could promise morels if it warmed up and we looked hard. It is too early to harvest the very few Bacon avocados fattening on the trees. Very little of last season’s kale remains that hasn’t bolted. It’d be a good time to turn to eating bugs if you had to forage just on the farm. Canned food season continues. Oh, how we long for the produce of summer!
I saw as single deer running across the farm this past week, the first for a long time and too far away to know what sex. But it was nice sized and alone, very nervous…kept moving. A few fox barks emanated from the Vandenberg Field area one evening. Not much predator poo around. Gophers, though- very common! And the voles are starting to make a comeback. The Big Winners are the mice – the harvest and deer mouse populations are burgeoning right now. They leap and scurry in front of the mowers and hoes, and if you stand still too long in the grass they run over your shoes- it’s that kind of mouse year.
I spied on one of the bluebird boxes yesterday and watched a momma feed babies which were sticking their hungry maws out of the hole to get the dangly long caterpillar from her mouth. Cheep Cheep! Cheep Cheep!
The band tailed pigeons are the newest entertainment. Our big flock is back eating walnut catkins, an annual ritual. They sure are nervous, flapping noisily away when you approach a walnut tree. I am transported to the tropics when I see them- they trigger past parrot sightings in my memory, being a similar size and shape.
Adan is back on the tractor. So is Mark Bartle, who has been equally energetic with the big machines. The fields are mowed and a subset are getting tilled. Adan has rototilled the first field, so smoothly turned around, a special kind of soil beauty. Mark mowed the vineyard this past week and the vines opened their fresh light green delicate leaves; they are well trellised and starting to look like an established crop for the first time, their third spring of growth.
The orchard folks got caught up on watering and then with the drizzle can take a bit of a break. Soon the Maserati of Mulcharts will be going 185 with big piles of mowed up mulch to feed the trees.
The blue, blue-blue native bulbs have burst into their small tight globes of flowers on the road into the farm, complimenting the other patches of white-and-blue lupines. Orange sticky monkeyflower subshrubs are getting towards full bloom, but Ceanothus are fading. French broom is scentfully blossoming, but we don’t like looking at it- what a scourge has been flushed after that fire! In the forest, it is peak iris time and the pale yellow flowered fat false Solomon’s seal is in full bloom (another scent sensation). Did I say iris time? Its really a big iris year! The poppies are in full regalia, meshing large patches of flame orange into the delightfully contrasting purple blue lupines.
We hope you enjoy some rainbows and perhaps the last rains of the season this next week. Our fruit trees will be in heaven.
Five shovels, five rakes, and ten of us sweating and smiling as we worked to restore trails in UCSC’s Upper Campus Natural Reserve. For a few years in the mid-1990s, UCSC undergraduate volunteers joined me, Campus Reserve Steward, one Saturday a month to reverse the harm that hundreds of mountain bikes were causing. We spent the most time along 7 Springs Trail and the Interpretive Trail. Both trails were off limits to bicyclists and clearly signed; they still are. These are very sensitive ecological areas replete with wetlands, springs, and highly erosive soils. They have been set aside for teaching and research, visited by classes and sites of long-term forest research. While we worked, we frequently encountered bicyclist after bicyclist, some skidding to avoid hitting the volunteers. Our team was trained and eager to inform the bicyclists about the trails being closed and why. More than half of the bicyclists were aggressive and unfriendly, unwelcoming to such an interaction. We were yelled at, called all sorts of names, and there were occasional threats of violence, and even spitting. I was thrown to the ground and stepped on once by a particularly aggressive individual. Our work to close the trail was regularly and expertly vandalized and signs frequently defaced. This is a dominant culture of mountain biking. These instances are not outliers, the behavior far too common. I have been hearing similar stories from many people for years. Once, I told a person with his son that I would call a ranger if they jumped a gate headed into a closed, sensitive natural area. He responded, “I AM A RANGER!” And I recognized him as one of the head rangers for State Parks…and off he went, a fine example for his son.
Givers Vs. Takers
I recommend reading Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael; one of the things I recall from the book is a characterization of humans as being either “givers” or “takers.” Santa Cruz County has been fortunate to have a historic giving culture. A very large percentage of the County has been set aside as parks or is stewarded by large private landowners who take very good care of their land. There is little area for urban sprawl, but now we are facing the next biggest threat: natural areas recreation, one of the top threats to biodiversity on the planet. Leading the assault are trails advocacy groups, some of which have been at this for decades. There will apparently never be enough new mountain bike trails for the funders of these groups. These groups and others like them around the world are being funded by industry through organizations such as the Outdoor Industry Association. Mountain biking trails-building volunteers working for these advocacy groups are spending their free time expanding corporate profits while repairing a small fraction of the damage they’ve collectively caused with their thrill-seeking sport. These are what Ishmael would call ‘takers.’ Together, mountain biking (aka ‘trails’) advocacy groups and the outdoor recreation industry are pressuring every public land management agency in the Bay Area to expand mountain biking trails in an apparent bid to turn every inch of natural area into a high-speed playground, maximizing profits at the expense of the wildlife and the quiet walks once enjoyed by families with small children, bird watchers, and contemplative hikers. On this subject, someone urged me to consider Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
The Corruptors’ Rule: Keep Them Stupid
I suspect that a fraction of those building new trails at Cotoni Coast Dairies innocently think they are doing the right thing. The groups organizing these events certainly won’t educate the volunteers about the dubious nature of their work. They won’t share with them the long and expertly crafted critiques of the park’s planning process by the region’s leading biologists. They won’t tell the volunteers already riding mountain bikes on the trails that a broad coalition of conservation groups oppose using the trails before a biological baseline is collected. They won’t tell the volunteers that their sponsoring group has, without expertise, testified in contradiction to conservationists during the planning process in an apparent bid to gain points, and a sole-source trail building contract, with the BLM. The volunteers, knowingly or not, have become active participants in the commodification of nature. So, they are “takers.”
Conservationists (aka “givers”) point out that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at Cotoni Coast Dairies to collect a biological baseline before trail use commences. With this baseline, we can better understand how trail use affects wildlife, plant communities, soils processes, and the spread of invasive species. The property has been very lightly visited by humans for more than 100 years. Because the property is designated as part of the California Coastal Monument and as part of the federal National Conservation Lands network, there are extensive policies that support and even require such a baseline…this level of policy support is absent with any other conservation land in the County. Do the trails building volunteers know that, through their work, they are supporting BLM in shirking critical land conservation responsibilities?
I have put these arguments to volunteers of trails groups working at Cotoni Coast Dairies and have been reminded of a series of fallacious arguments that have been trotted out for decades. The most common statement is: “It’s a done deal, trails were approved and are under way, get over it!” This statement ignores the ongoing and active appeal to the planning process by a coalition of conservation groups. And, even without such an appeal, the statement overlooks the need to manage trails forever and land management agencies’ responsibility to adaptively manage trails to avoid impacts to protected natural resources and user conflicts that would favor certain user groups (such as mountain bikers).
Avoid the Trap
In a bid to trap the unwary, some of the leaders of the trails advocacy groups have suggested that their groups are ‘conservation’ groups. If you are confused, ask the leaders of these groups about what is ‘enough’ and what is ‘too much?’ For instance, when will there be ‘enough’ mountain bike trails? What specific metric would indicate too much soil erosion on a given stretch of trail? What, specifically, is too much user conflict- such as how much displacement of families with small children who fear their 3-year-olds getting hit by mountain bikes (like one person recently reported to me)? How specifically will we know when there has been too much wildlife loss due to natural areas recreation? If the trails advocacy group truly had a conservation platform, they would have answers, created through methods of carrying capacity analysis and they would be able to offer threshold limits of acceptable change (‘enough’ or ‘too much’). I have long interacted with these groups, and this is where I see evidence favoring ‘malice’ instead of Hanlon’s razor ‘stupidity.’ With this kind of experience, one might discover which groups are primarily interested in the commodification of nature, and are, thereby ‘takers.’
In the 1990’s, one of these trails advocacy groups began their ugly but organized, well-funded campaigns to expand mountain biking trails in this region. I was at the table when the group negotiated the opening of the U-Con trail from UCSC to Henry Cowell. They promised volunteers to close and keep closed the myriad of unsanctioned trails bleeding tons of sediment into the San Lorenzo River; they said that they would post volunteers at trail heads to “self-enforce” closure. They did no such thing. I was also there when mountain biking representatives showed up at the first Gray Whale Advisory Committee meeting, having worked with State Parks for a year to prepare detailed plans for an extensive network of new trails through that property (now part of Wilder Ranch State Park) without any understanding of/interest in the extensive areas with sensitive ecology and erosive soils. Because of their intransigence at coming to agreement with Parks and the Committee, there is still no long term trails management plan and no plan for protecting critical sensitive species. A group consulted with me when Nisene Marks State Park General Plan was being drafted and mountain biking advocates were aggressively advocating for more mountain bike trails, in contradiction to permanent deed restrictions against such use….wasting extensive State and private resources and, once again, needlessly dividing our community. More recently, I countered a mountain biking group publicity campaign that sought to educate the public falsely about the ‘need’ for more mountain bike trails because of the purported paucity of such in the County. After correction, they walked back the campaign and it subsequently disappeared. These situations are, in my opinion, more evidence of ‘malice’ rather than ‘stupidity.’
We are Winning
Despite all of this, the ‘givers’ are winning, pushing forward protections for Nature in parks around Santa Cruz. We realize that the vast majority of us want healthy wildlife AND access to natural areas where we can recreate without fear. We reject the politics of division that those whose object is the commodification of nature so enjoy. Together, we won protections for Nisene Marks State Park. We expanded protections prohibiting mountain bikes in extensive wilderness areas of Castle Rock State Park. We created extensive Natural Preserves at Wilder Ranch State Park, thwarting miles of new mountain bike trails. We have (thus far) maintained prohibitions against mountain biking on single track trails at UCSC. A coalition of conservation groups has recently made great headway in improving the poor recreational planning at Cotoni Coast Dairies. With community support, the San Vicente Redwoods conservation coalition is enacting the most progressive recreation and conservation adaptive management regime our region has ever seen. Expanding awareness even forced one mountain biking advocacy group to change their name to seem more PC. And soon, we may have Congressional representative Jimmy Panetta instead of Anna Eshoo- a massive step forward in leadership to better manage the impacts of natural areas visitors to our communities and to wildlife. I have been fielding so many requests to help on these issues that I can’t keep up. Together, we are turning the tide: there is hope that future generations will be able to enjoy peaceful strolls and see sensitive wildlife in our natural areas, after all.
Meanwhile, when you consider how to spend your outdoor volunteer time, focus your attention on groups that know how to help you to truly become a ‘giver’– groups like the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, and the California Native Plant Society.