Redwoods: Samhain in the Silence of Giants

Samhain, Dia de los Muertos, Halloween: This time of year, observers variously honor their ancestors and deities, or thumb their noses at the Grim Reaper while whistling through the graveyard. It’s during this season that the fading light reminds us how thinly separated are the worlds of the living and the dead.

This October we visited Jedediah Smith and Prairie Creek, in northern California’s Redwood National and State Parks – places we hadn’t seen in 10 years. The coast redwoods or Sequoia sempervirens (“ever-living”), growing over 350 feet, are the tallest trees in the world. These ancient beings seem to breathe with the centuries – inhaling our carbon dioxide, and exhaling the purest, freshest air I’ve ever encountered. They also create their own climate: Thriving in the moist coastal environment, they trap fog in their needles and transpire that water back into the atmosphere, these amazing trees holding onto carbon even long after they die.

The forest’s brilliant verdure is impossible to capture. Light rain of needles falling on us, gentle breath of giants eons old – seemingly timeless and ageless, they began in a primordial Eden, and may remain long after human folly ends. Shuffling through fall leaves, I’m spellbound as thoughts of my mother and aunt, both now gone, intermingle.

California red-legged frog (under sorrel leaves)

In these forests we saw salamanders, Steller’s jays, chipmunks, squirrels, deer, Roosevelt elk, even the endangered California red-legged frog. In our camp, two lovely foxes, surreptitiously seeking snacks in empty sites. How can such creatures exist, on the edge of wilderness, yet so nearby? The night before it poured, Prairie Creek rilling by. Our last evening, we sit by a warming fire ring, the night clear, with a scattering of stars. How is it that we live so separate from nature, that a fallen leaf seems miraculous, shafts of sunlight slanting through the trees a revelation? Maybe this is how nature renders the mundane extraordinary. Perhaps in this enchanted wood, I can find the sorcery to reunite with my beloved mother and aunt once again.

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Fall Equinox: A Kingdom of Chard

End of summer always breaks my heart. Even in the garden, I look at the burgeoning blooms and bounty as they wane and think, this is the last of this crop, that’s the last of that. So many ends of things.

Today, I was stunned to learn of the death my beloved aunt in Russia. At 95, she was my mother’s only sister, and the person (besides B.) that I love most in this world. Having lived through the historic convulsions of most of the twentieth century – losing her father to the gulag system for a decade, my mother when she immigrated, and her dear husband when he died suddenly – she was no stranger to heartbreak. Yet what I associate with her most was her merry face and bright eyes as she told a mischievous joke, took in the fresh air in her garden, and told me the story of our family – beginning with, “I was not afraid.” She was an extraordinary, towering figure in my life.

And, I’d just recently lost one of my oldest and dearest friends, a woman I met as a teenager and knew for nearly 40 years. I’m struck by how hard it’s hit me. “Please come visit; this might be the last time!” she’d say in her later years (of course none of us could know how long she had left). She was one day shy of 97, and bedridden after a broken hip failed to heal – so it was certainly no surprise. I feel as if both women have taken part of me now that they’re gone, tho I’ll always carry them in my heart.

Of course, with ends also come beginnings; without death, there would be no life. With the ends of caterpillar pupae come the metamorphoses into butterfly chrysalis; the ends of plant growing cycles bring new energy and seeds for the next season. And so it is with us, as we begin a new phase of life. As I look at the engorged pumpkins grown from seeds saved by my family in Russia, B. and I celebrate the basil scent wafting across the garden through clouds of bees, our fists full of mint and chard and beans. With the shorter days and plants going to seed and shutting down crop production – storing sugars deep in their interiors and roots over the winter, we’ll soon wind down the garden to begin the season of turning inward – now of mourning, and start preparing for the next growing year.


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Bees, Please!

Happy August! In these hot days lingering toward the end of summer, California is once again in the grips of ever-worsening wildfires. Fire season now spans half the year, due to climate change causing hotter, drier conditions.

Honeybee on hyssop

These conditions also contribute to growing instability in more humble areas: native and non-native bees, imperiled not only from drought and climate change; but also dangerous pests like varroa mites, disease, herbicides/pesticides and other poisons, lack of biodiversity and forage due to monoculture, and habitat loss from human development.

Earlier I’d posted about how integral bees’ health is to human life and systems, as well as on their fascinating behavior, such as the waggle dance they perform to alert each other to pollen sources. Amazingly, California has over 1600 species of native bees. 1600! B and I have focused any garden plantings (which we decreased due to ongoing drought) on mostly native plants to attract bees and other pollinators.

Bumblebee on bog sage

B’s folks have taken up beekeeping, joining the effort that’s restoring honeybee populations in New England.

Individuals and agriculture using more sustainable practices can help offset the damage caused by human development and monoculture. Some critical ways to help with conservation:

  • don’t use poisons in your home or garden! Pesticides, herbicides, and rodenticides affect more than just the creatures you want to get rid of, and kill countless beneficial insects (like bees); keystone species like raptors; household pets, and children.
  • focus on mainly plants native to your area, and non-natives that provide necessary nectar and shelter to attract pollinators.

    Honeybee (right) on bronze fennel

  • as a beekeeper, you can make a small initial investment and sustain a relatively low-maintenance hive population; for help, join a local beekeeping association.
  • support growers of organic produce, and farmers working on innovative ways to introduce various species of native bees to supplement the work of honeybees.

I can’t possibly overstate the joy of living with a healthy garden humming with happy and industrious birds, butterflies, and bees!

Bee feeding frenzy on artichoke flower


Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Family, Garden, Nature, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

A More Common Flower at Solstice

Somehow it’s already the Summer Solstice (in the northern hemisphere), when traditions prompt us to celebrate midsummer‘s fertility with festivals and bonfires. Earth’s rotational axis on this day tilts at its greatest incline toward the star that it orbits – our sun. It is the year’s longest day and shortest night.

Usually, fall and winter are where my sympathies lie: the cool, dark, and damp. But summer enchants me. The sheer gorgeousness of nature in its fecundity. The nonchalance of birds daily chasing down bugs and beetles. And such birds! Towhees, chickadees, white-crowned sparrows; the dance of cedar waxwings as they wait and swoop in turn down to the birdbath, wings fluttering amidst countless burgeoning blossoms. Every flower has beauty, but often I forget the startling forms of the more humble blooms sprouting from plants that feed us, like onions and artichokes. In the process of growing, these remarkable organisms turn sunlight into their own nutrients through photosynthesis, flower, pollinate by bees and other pollinators, and go to seed. Thus begins again nature’s constant cycle of rejuvenation. 

Currently there’s much sadness in the world: suicide in the news, some dear friends’ personal struggles. I’m constantly reminded of my mother’s painful battle with mental illness, and her strength in persevering through it, not only to survive but to teach me to take succor in nature. I imagine how she might have drawn comfort from the joy of gardening on a cool, rainy day when plants can benefit from soft rainwater; the smell of soil and the feel of digging fingers into it; of turning rich compost crawling with worms, ready to nourish plantings. It is she who taught me gratitude for such moments, for having loved ones to share this with, and it is her memory I share it with every day. Happy Solstice!

Posted in Birds, Family, Friends, Garden, Mental Health, Nature, Seasons | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Pepperwood wildflower/post-fire hike; May Day/Beltane

Bird’s eye gilia

Happy May Day! On this day, we not only celebrate International Workers’ Day, which commemorates striving for fairer rights and working conditions for all workers. We also observe Beltane, the coming of summer’s longer daylight hours and heat that bring fertility to crops. This is traditionally celebrated by dancing around maypoles, and decorating doorways, windows, and May bushes with flowers.

California poppies and sheep sorrel

Our own observance led us to the Pepperwood Preserve, for a post-fire wildflower hike. Our guide, steward and naturalist David Self, educated us on how native Californians regularly maintained the landscape using fire. We who live in wildfire country have much to learn from those practices, and Pepperwood scientists are now considering regular burns – which can help control grasses and brush that burn hot and quickly spread wildfire.

The overcast day contrasted with fields of brilliant color, leading from oak woodlands out onto open hillsides. Shaded stands of (edible) miner’s lettuce, and the nasty (and native) poison oak, thrived from the ash of last fall’s wildfires. Plants like this thrive on disturbance, such as that of cows tramping the landscape. Bunchgrass roots go 4-5 feet underground in search of sufficient water, so are less affected by surface fires and dryness, and these can hold carbon for years. Oats (wild) were in bloom and going to seed. Hillside pea shone a deep magenta. The iris relative, blue-eyed grass, was scattered among California poppies and buttercups, sack clover, and both sky and miniature lupines. Milk thistle, an edible non-native, also grew abundantly under the oaks, as did scarlet pimpernel, purple needle grass (the California state grass), and short sprouts of poison hemlock.

Cream sacs and buttercups

The dwarf or California plantain provides caterpillar food for the Bay checkerspot, a native butterfly. Cream sacs, a fuzzy multi-flower flower, contain something like 90 single flowers on one stem. Blue dicks, as well as the fool’s onion or white brodiaea that comes up in our garden, are all brodiaeas – corm plants, and also thrive on disturbance, which allows their seeds to be scattered and the plants can regenerate. Some plants thrive on smoke, as others do on ash. Deervetch, Jepson’s leptosiphon, and butter and eggs’ delicate lines called “nectar guides” help long-tongued pollinators such as sphinx moth (or butterflies, flies) get into these long, narrow flowers. California apparently has ~1600 native bee species! Insects can see color, thus bees’ preference for blue flowers – which they indicate with their amazing waggle dance.

Bird’s eye gilia

Blue dominated massive fields of bird’s eye gilia, a spectacular flower with powder-blue stamens, in greater profusion than usual due to the fires. (On this walk, we saw less “fire-followers” specific to fires, than more prolific blooms of all kinds of flowers that thrive on ash, or other fire-related conditions.) Other highlights: hairy hawkbit: a dandelion and sunflower relative, with a milky sap. Filaree or storksbill: the “scissors” flower we played with as children, a non-native from the geranium family. Edible sheep sorrel, an invasive rumex.

Fields of cream cups

Some of the oaks and bay laurels are already resprouting, and will survive despite being burned completely. To the east, huge fields of cream cups contrasted against a ghostly black burned-out tree landscape, and grasses’ brilliant green. Red maids, goldfields, seep spring monkeyflower grew around springs in the middle of great meadows, serpentine spring beauty, gold wire – such were the treasures we walked among. Yarrow (a native medicinal styptic plant), and other abundant species give us many opportunities for learning from native Californians, about land management practices, edible plants, and other uses. These may be more suited to this area than some of the non-natives and nonetheless lovely invasives currently here – and can teach us how to help rebuild a healthier ecosystem.

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Salt Point: Sea of Forms and Textures (Part Two)

Happy Earth Day! Every day, actually, is a new opportunity to appreciate, advocate for and be responsible stewards for our planet’s treasures. I was keenly aware of that on a recent trip to the coast, where visitors can see the healthy results of conservation.

One extraordinary weekend, we camped at Salt Point State Park, near Jenner and Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast. Gorgeous, unusually warm, windless weather greeted us as we set up camp, then hiked down to the coastal bluffs. Below lay huge swaths of bull kelp – which grows in kelp forests in California’s marine protected areas, supporting rockfish and countless other marine organisms. Pools in the intertidal zone teemed with urchins, sea stars, barnacles, and mussels – as well as the imperiled red abalone – the slow-growing mollusk with its luminous shell. We frolicked here among tafoni sandstone formations studded with lichens, as if in a playground all our own.

An article in Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat intrigued us, and we took to heart the inspiration behind Thomas Cochrane’s 2017 book, Shaping the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast — Exploring the Coastal Geology of Northern Californiawitnessing on this road trip the interplay of wind, water, and earth that shape our ever-changing coast.   

Geology has always gripped B. and me. John McPhee’s compelling Assembling California chronicles our state’s geological history (and prehistory) through the lens of the plate tectonic revolution – which explains how plates that the continents are built on shift along fault lines. After reading this, we pursued more beyond our university study.

Landscapes, and how they change throughout history, are always fascinating. At a Laguna de Santa Rosa lecture, Dr. Jane Nielson of the USGS educated us in greater detail on plate tectonics, processes millions of years old. This tireless water activist (and environmentalist of the year in 2010) showed how igneous (or volcanic, such as basalt or granite), sedimentary (like chert or sandstone), and metamorphic (such as slate; these can originate as either igneous or sedimentary) rocks are formed. She also told us where we might find local examples of these formations.

Salt Point sandstone was quarried in the 19th century and used to construct many of the buildings in San Francisco, as was much of the wood logged up and down the coast. In our explorations, we could see massive slabs of sandstone, drill holes and eye bolts still extant from the stone masons of long ago. Tafoni refers to the rock erosion – caused by seasonal wetting and drying – that sculpts the otherworldly knobs, caverns, ridges, and spires.

We examined the rocks as a harbor seal swimming by eyed us warily before diving near the edge where rock met ocean – a visible reminder of how volcanic activity, water, and erosion altered this border over time, and continue even now. It grew windier at the outcropping on the point, and we walked south along the bluff trail, where about 50 feet away several other seals basked on rocks of basalt and chert.

The light was sublime, the sea and sky a thousand shades of blue, from a deep dark ocean to a heavenly cerulean above. B. spotted a whale spout to the south, about halfway to the horizon. I was thrilled we saw it together, as he’d missed the once-in-a-lifetime whale-viewing experience I’d had earlier at Limantour Beach in Point Reyes. We saw two, three, up to five spouts. The whales (probably grays, making their way back up north in their spring migration) continued to circle around, probably fishing, then spy-hopped, breaching, flashed their flukes and flippers. They swam a bit farther south, and we sat, watching them.

To see these gentle leviathans in their own vast playground environment – which still retains such mystery for us humans – was magnificent. Beholding these amazing cetaceans is a privilege, and exemplifies why opening these and other conservation areas to oil drilling and other harmful industries is unthinkable. With the current state of climate change and pollution, the need is already too urgent to protect the fragile existence these and other creatures and plants forge, with the great balance of life in the ocean.



Posted in Conservation, Geology, Local Area Hikes and trips, Nature, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Spring Equinox

Kale in blossom

Happy spring! Our area, and our garden, are finally seeing some of the rain we desperately missed all winter. Maybe not enough to stave off drought, but it replenishes plants, animals, soil, and our veg starts. Spring’s promise is sweet:

Onion and beet starts; wild radish in rear

Spring comes on the World –
I sight the Aprils –
Hueless to me until thou come
As, till the Bee
Blossoms stand negative,

Touched to Conditions
By a Hum.

Emily Dickinson

Romanesco crown


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