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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.