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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Solstice time

In Big Valley we were blanketed in dense tule fog, while, on the hills above, the sun shone.

Pear trees in the hundreds of thousands would all be pruned by hand over the next couple of months.

With the rains comes a new cycle of life, fungi, mosses and lichens. Large mushrooms formed a semi-circle under the oaks.

The female gingko unveiled her fruit and seemed to model the very idea of Asian aesthetics.

Srub jays are apparently back to their old pre-plague numbers. Five years ago West Nile virus wiped them from the ranch.

Golden crowned sparrows are abundant fall and winter visitors.

Muscovy ducks wandered over from neighboring Shady Rock Ranch to patrol the perimeter of the field.

Shady Rock's dovecot seemed to be bursting at the seams with new dove generations.

Horses too are multiplying at Shady Rock, because Elaine takes them in as former owners can no longer afford the upkeep. Horses are offered free in large numbers these days.

To walk along the shoulder of a freeway, as I did the other day, is to enter a forbidden and harrowing realm. The costs to the land in terms of relentless noise, and collateral damage including an almost unbelievable amount of trash and debris,
and outright killing of animals, is depressing. Alexander Valley, as one speeds along I 101, looks benign. Except for the hateful, atrocious scarring of the ridge lands by the River Rock Casino and its Brutalist multi-story parking garages, the area looks like a scenic postcard of Wine Country. (As my half Ute friend, Al, says, "the Indians have gone over to the Dark Side.") But pull off the highway, turn off the motor, and one is immediately overwhelmed by the tearing noise and velocity of the traffic. One has entered a blast zone hostile to all life. This zone of death and chaos belies every bucolic fantasy that underpins tourism in the wine country and elsewhere, while at the same time making these semi-rural areas easily accessible to the multitudes.

I remember clearly when I 5 was opened up between San Francisco and Los Angeles. That road passes along the foot of the inner Coast Ranges including the Diablo and Temblor Ranges at just the point where farmland gives way to foothill grasslands.
These grasslands are home to remnant populations of some of California's most sensitive species such as the San Joaquin kit fox and the giant kangaroo rat. The corpses of white and tan, moth-like barn owls by the many thousands littered I 5 during the early years of that road. The low-flying birds on their nightly hunting forays from the barns and silos of the Central Valley up to the grasslands were easy targets for traffic moving at over 80 miles per hour. One still sees dead barn owls here and there along I 5, but the amazing numbers of the past will never be seen again.

Twice, friends have seen dead mountain lions on the roads into Lake County. Another species, which I have never seen alive, I have seen slaughtered on the roadside of the Hopland Grade, the spotted skunk.

Getting back to my experience last weekend along I 101 in the Alexander Valley... From my speeding pickup I glimpsed a luxuriant multi-colored tail on a road side corpse. A grey fox? Closer inspection revealed that it was a small coyote with a remarkable beautiful coat. For all its beauty it was dead as dead can be.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Greatest Oaks On Earth

El Roble Grande, a Valley Oak, Quercus Lobata, the biggest individual specimen oak tree on earth, stood south of Lower Lake until it blew over in a storm in 1952. Lake County still contains many great and venerable oaks. Each oak is a world unto itself, a lynchpin in a complex chain of species interdependencies. If this be heaven, then the Valley Oak is our sacred tree.

Imposing specimens of Quercus Lobata, characterize the bottom lands and riparian areas of the county. In the nineteenth century Big Valley was one vast savanna of Valley Oaks. It's interesting to search google maps of Big Valley to discover where and to what extent the ancient ones survive.

An early photograph of the Santa Clara Valley shows the realm of the Valley Oak now despoiled by suburban sprawl.

Today's Champion Valley Oak, The Greatest Oak On Earth, lives on a ranch in Round Valley, Mendocino County. Measured at a height of 4.5 feet off the ground, the girth of the trunk is 348". The trunk diameter is over 9'. The tree is 163' tall with a crown width of 99'.

By comparison the largest of the 300 to 500-year-old Valley Oaks on our ranch along Kelsey Creek, measures 171" in girth and 5' in diameter. In descending order of magnitude the next three oaks on our place come in at 150" girth (4' diameter), 131" girth (3' diameter), and 129" girth (3' diameter). These are impressive trees. They are remnant specimens of the aboriginal forest, which supported the Pomo tribe, the tule elk and the grizzly bear. To this day they support the latest generations of gall wasps, acorn woodpeckers, quail, jays, nuthatches and squirrels.

Nineteenth century painters of California often focused on the oaks.

Thomas Hill, in his Morning, Clear Lake, makes an environmentalist statement by depicting the stumps.

Granville Redmond's oaks.

William Wendt's oaks.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Birds of California

I have begun a series of large watercolors on the subject of the Birds of California. The list includes endemic species or near endemic ones like the California thrasher, oak titmouse, Nuttal's woodpecker, wrentit, California condor and yellow-billed magpie. Audubon, who never traveled to the West, was sent specimens of many California species. He painted most of them in a fairly cursory manner. He omitted others entirely. For that reason I thought it might be a good project to begin to fill in the gaps.

I think of the white pelican, acorn woodpecker, California quail, Western & Clark's grebes, and osprey as some of our flashiest emblematic species in Lake County. Characteristic of this place too are the scrub jay, Western bluebird, yellow-rumped warbler, barn owl, white-crowned and yellow-crowned sparrow, spotted towhee, Anna's hummingbird, Brewer's blackbird, bald eagle,
coot, common merganser, turkey vulture, red tailed and red shouldered hawk, and black shouldered kite.

Yesterday I drove south from Dixon to Rio Vista in the Central Valley just above the California Delta. It was a dispiriting landscape. Barely a single native oak had survived the onslaught of industrial agriculture. Where a tree existed it was invariably a planted eucalyptus - a dark hole in the habitat.

The gentle folds of the formerly wide open Montezuma Hills, which abut the Sacramento River, are now surmounted by a vast forest of towering wind turbines. It is a heart-breaking sight. It has all the charm of the petrochemical skyline of Richmond, California or the heavy industry belt of New Jersey. The design of the turbine blades is inimical to life, specifically bird life. The huge, white, whirling scissor blades are scary to behold. The menace of this weaponry is palpable. One wants to flee.

Only a few years ago it was easy to dream in the Montezuma Hills of the restoration of tule elk and pronghorn throughout that
barely compromised and rare prairie landscape. One could even visualize the extinct California grizzly roaming. One of the Bay Area's very few remaining open areas has become a sacrifice zone.

Citizens and their elected representatives in Lake County must realize that, relatively speaking, our county has thus far been spared large scale incursions of what Peter Beard has called the "galloping rot" of development. The quality of rural refuge that the county still embodies is its selling point, its strength, and its charm. Right now small scale farming and open land provide our sense of place. But the state-wide human population explosion threatens everything in its path. Only enlightened planning can save us from hell.

A map of the Northern California Mega-region graphically shows in red the rural and agricultural habitat going up in flames under the onslaught of full-tilt development over the next twenty years. Except for National Forest lands, most of Lake County is burning. Orchards and farms may soon be covered with the circuit board of housing tracks as happened so recently in valleys such as Santa Clara and San Fernando and which is proceeding apace in the Sacramento San Joaquin. It is apparent already as land supposedly preserved as agricultural sprouts new houses overnight. Open space is quickly closed. Vistas are shuttered. Our eyes are forced to turn away in search of a resting place.

One of the most striking things on this map is the juxtaposition of the broad stretch of green covering north and west Marin County with the adjacent burning red zone of southwest Sonoma County. This difference is the result of intelligent land use policy in Marin, where strong agricultural protections have been put in place. The result is that on any visit to West Marin one's spirit is renewed, especially after emerging from the congestion of surrounding areas.

Another map of the Mega-region shows the areas accessible within a two hour drive of the big cities. This includes southerly parts of Lake County. But, by driving over the speed limit, one can drive a heck of a lot further.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Leaf Management

Kelsey Creek pulsed with new waters, which cut through the ford at Renfrew Crossing in late October. There were only two months, August and September, this year in which our section of creek was dry. Blackbirds gathered in the hundreds to drink and bathe at the breach.

The new flow contained hitch fry which had been sequestered in permanent water upstream. Mergansers discovered the minute
fish at once. Merganser feathers matted a rock above a pool.

For reasons I have yet to comprehend creek beds in California are invariably used as roads.

Barn owl feathers scattered near the creek.

Puff balls and seedlings emerged from newly moistened earth.

At the ranch it is raking and sweeping season as we are inundated by oak leaves.

Sunflower seeds were harvested by oak titmice.

Ed's canning season is at an end. He has put up tomatoes, cucumber pickles, string beans, peaches, pears, and fig, blackberry, strawberry, and loquat jams.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Irruption of Migrants

On October 21 a low pressure area moved in from the Pacific. The moon was 48 hours short of fullness. For a half hour on either side of 3:30 PM these migrating birds bathed at the font:

20 yellow-rumped warblers
8 cedar waxwings
4 western bluebirds
1 bush tit
1 Wilson's warbler
1 hermit thrush
3 golden crowned sparrows
1 white crowned sparrow

This abundance in its comings and goings resembled on a miniaturized scale the activities at a water hole at Etosha Pan, Namibia. Each species appeared to defer to the other as they arrived and departed in shifts. Each animal seemed aware of the ripeness of the unfolding moment. Time itself seemed newly palpable as embodied in this awareness.

In Etosha, a last refuge for megafauna, the animal population visiting water within a half hour might typically be comprised of gemsbok, endemic black-faced impala, greater kudu, zebra, eland, giraffe, springbok, warthog, lion, elephant, banded mongoose, jackal, sand grouse, and ringed doves.

At night serval, caracal, hyena, and black rhino might share the same water hole.

On October 22 a skein of perhaps 200 Canada honkers winged their way south about 2,000 feet above the ranch.

The hedgerow of native plants is well established in its sixth year. It includes toyon, coffee berry, ceanothus, manzanita, coyote brush, redbud, gooseberry, and flannel bush. On what was bare tilled earth there is now food and cover for quail, jackrabbits and others.

The ever growing slash pile is a redoubt for quail, fence lizards, gopher snakes, alligator lizards, sparrows, ground squirrels and hares.

This week I planted more natives - buckwheat, sages, and penstemon, among others.

Settler families with roots in the East may have harbored nostalgia for high-color autumns. Their descendants planted Eastern trees such as sweet gum in the West. Lake County as a whole is still a place dominated by native plants in sharp contrast to counties such as Sonoma and Marin with their large tracts of eucalyptus, along with palms, acacia, and many other aliens.

This year's relatively short growing season for vegetables and fruit is winding down.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Fall in Big Valley

Signs of the local economy appear from pillar to post in Big Valley.

A walnut processing shed in the Northern California architectural vernacular - corrugated sheet metal. The whirring of the walnut driers can be heard throughout the valley.

Fenton hugged an oak ten times his own age, a tree which was young when Fenton's great great great great great great great great great great grandfather was alive. The tree may predate the voyage of Columbus. Think of that and the events that may have transpired in its shade, the generations of Pomo acorn gatherers, the slough-full of hitch, and the foraging grizzlies.

Fenton brought a bottle of Makers Mark bourbon along, a product of his home state of Kentucky. We toasted to new friends and to the impending backpacking trek at the Lost Coast on which Al, Will and I were about to set out. The Lost Coast, not really all that far North by Northwest of Lake County, proved to have a sort of spooky, ragged quality haunted by Roosevelt elk rather than our local Tule elk and by the shadows of Sasquatch who seems to have supplanted Ishi in the California imagination.

Standing on one of the small pocket beaches locally called dog hole ports by the loggers, one is warned not to turn one's back on the ocean. Its rogue waves are not to be underestimated. Each beach, at the mouth of its own canyon, is separated from the next by a jagged, forested ridge mounted by dauntingly steep trails, which in some cases followed old skid roads and lacked switch backs. Big-leafed maples mixed in with redwoods, tanoaks, bays, and douglas firs on the canyon flanks. Spoor of elk, bear, cougar, fisher, fox and coyote littered the trail. Stellars jays were heard often but remained hidden.

Where the Mayacamas Range meets Big Valley you might notice, in case it slipped your mind, that you are in the Golden State.

Honey bees negotiated breeze-blown sunflowers.

The four-year-old fuji apple tree bears its first crop.

Virginia creeper came West and climbed the tool shed.

Sweet gum from the other end of the continent.