Traveling across America at the Autumn Equinox

This marks the point when summer comes to an end in the Northern Hemisphere, and cultures all around the globe honor the coming of fall by harvesting crops and preparing for winter and the end of the year. Our own cycles coincide with this seasonal shift, as – with great sadness – we leave our beloved California home, friends, and family and with great excitement drive across the US to move closer to B’s family in New England. California has always felt like home, yet now I look forward to making a new home with loved ones on the East Coast.

With our brave old cat in her own cozy compartment in the rear of our car, we set off on Interstate 80, crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains beloved to me since childhood. The clear pine-scented air instantly brought me back to camping trips with my father, backpacking with friends in the nearby Desolation Wilderness, and cozy cabins by Lake Tahoe. I felt my heart tug at the thought of leaving this landscape, part of me for so long.

Donner Lake (or “Dinner Lake,” as my autocorrect put it)

Now this area, like too much of California and the West, is besieged by wildfires, exacerbated by over a century of fire suppression policies, and by the drastically increased drought and heat of climate change. Scientists and policymakers are literally learning by fire, about fire ecology and indigenous practices like prescribed burns – beneficial and necessary for underbrush and fuel control, and healthy forest regeneration.

The lichen-covered granite that forms the Sierra Nevada range straddling California and Nevada is evocatively portrayed in John McPhee’s masterful Assembling California, about how the geology of the state formed over millions of years. Marc Reisner’s journalistic masterpiece Cadillac Desert tells the story of California’s water – which, along with fire, encompasses the history of the state and of the entire West – how this resource, always scarce, was robbed from the Colorado River and from Owens Lake to build vast desert cities like Los Angeles.

Great Basin

Crossing into Nevada, we watch nature’s grand spectacle reveal itself, as Reno’s huge hotels and casinos give way to the Great Basin. Here, another of McPhee’s award-winning geology books, Basin and Range, came to mind. The massive rock formations, great ships moving across the desert. Over millions of years, the wind and waves, the sandstone and basalt, were building castles in this ancient sea.

As we stop to walk the kitty at various points along the original Pony Express route, cottonwoods shudder in the late-summer wind, and herbaceous scents of spiny thistle and sagebrush remind us we’re in new territory. On the car stereo we listen to Miles Davis’s seminal jazz album, In a Silent Way, yet nothing prepared us for this land’s astonishing silence – seemingly endless and desolate, yet teeming with desert life.

Canyonlands
Canyonlands

Highway I-70 takes us into Moab, Utah. In Canyonlands and Arches national parks, all superlatives fall away, meaningless in the face of these ancient redrock monoliths. For thousands of years, they’re constantly changing, worn away by eons of wind and water. These are some of the remotest places on earth. The camera cannot capture the sheer scale of the landscape, nor can this puny human comprehend such jaw-dropping scenery. Friend and writer Heidi Ridgley conveys this awestruck feeling in her Canyonlands article; Craig Childs’s books vividly describe Southwest canyon country; and Poet Laureate Joy Harjo writes poetry and nonfiction about these lands sacred to Native Americans for thousands of years.

Arches
Arches

The rock here is sandstone, schist, and slate. The clastic soil, made of fragmented minerals, and the protolith – original unmetamorphosed rock – form the area’s distinct biological soil crusts. Comprised of cyanobacteria, lichens, algae, and fungi that interact with soil, they support plants in this harsh landscape of scorching summers and freezing winters. These plants include small yellow snakeweed flowers, of the aster family; rabbit brush shrubs; silvery blackbrush, a rose relative; numerous grasses; horsetail relative ephedra; gnarled Utah juniper, yucca, prickly pear cactus, and pinyon and Great Basin bristlecone pines.

As we head to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, and cross the Continental Divide, which separates water flow to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans, I’m hearing John Denver’s sweet strains of “Rocky Mountain High.” Thinking of Mary Ellen Hannibal’s Spine of the Continent, her impassioned book advocating for conservation via wildlife corridors; and Lauret Savoy’s Trace, her personal treatise on natural history and its intersection with race; I struggle to express my own feelings: majestic, spectacular, awesome! Words are insufficient and imprecise, yet they tumble out as I strain to capture the sheer joy and exhilaration of being alive. Here, boundaries with our surroundings vanish and I truly feel a part of nature.

Rockies tundra view

At the highest point of the park road, around 12,000 feet, the conifer treeline gives way to delicate tundra, supporting minute wildflowers and multiple lichens; on the glaciated moraines in the valley floors below, alluvial fans and soils host some of the largest and oldest organisms on Earth: the multiclonal colonies of aspen, tinged as if by an artist in autumn’s first stripes of orange and gold.

Rockies alluvial fan/valley view

Other flora include lodgepole and ponderosa pines, fragrant Douglas and subalpine firs, Indian paintbrush, and purple gentian – surprising so late in the season. Fauna range from tiny chipmunks and ground squirrels ducking over and behind boulders, ptarmigan in camouflaged fall plumage, osprey soaring over the water, and moose foraging near mountain streams. And so many elk! running through the center of the town of Estes Park, where we stayed, or roaming in bachelor herds. As we hiked a meadow trail, we were startled by the eerie bugling of a bull elk with his harem – at the height of the fall rut, not to be messed with. When the magnificent half-ton male with full antler rack bluff-charged toward us, we turned around and backed off, returning the way we came.

Elk herd

Our next stop takes us through Kansas prairie grasslands, to St. Louis, Missouri. Across the great Mississippi River, in Illinois, lies our destination: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, at 2,200 acres this was the largest pre-Columbian indigenous city in North America. I only heard of Cahokia recently, regretfully never learning about it in school. B, having studied archaeology, knew of this sophisticated civilization – which lasted from about 700-1600 A.D. At its peak around 1200 A.D., its population exceeded London’s. The Mississippian culture occupied this city, using agriculture, hunting and gathering, and fiber and pottery crafts; along with building techniques that allowed them to construct multiple burial mounds, a defensive 2-mile-long stockade, and a Woodhenge sun calendar – where seasonal changes are still honored by sunrise rituals (which we missed, although came in time for the equinox). The site is massive, and after exploring the excellent, informative Interpretive Center, we hiked up and around several of the largest mounds – which themselves are open to the public from dawn till dusk. The website is an amazing source of historical and cultural information, and YouTube videos capture some of the grandeur of this “lost city.” It is still unknown why Cahokia declined, perhaps elements of climate, cultural and societal upheaval, or conflict with other societies.

Cahokia stockade
Cahokia Monk’s Mound (tallest mound at site)
View from atop Monk’s Mound

Sonoma County writer and wildlife tracker Meghan Walla-Murphy, echoing Native American beliefs, remarked that every plant, stone, and landscape tells a story. That each time we move to a new place, we become different, developing new relationships with the land. I’m trying to be mindful of how brief our time is on this planet, that our stay on the land is only temporary, anyway; that more than one place can be home (if we’re lucky), and most of all, it is people who make a place home.

St. Louis sunset
Posted in Family, Friends, Geology, Language, Music, Mythology, Nature, Travel | Tagged , | 16 Comments

Harvesting Flax and Lughnasa

The wheel of the year now turns to Lughnasa, also known as Lammas, the holiday that traditionally commemorates the start of harvest season. At last we begin to enjoy the fruits of planting, watering (with care, in drought-ridden California!), and tending our plots.

Over a year ago, before the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, I attended a symposium put on by the amazing Fibershed network of sustainable fiber farmers and craftspeople. This organization, which started locally and grew through true grassroots activism, focuses on building sustainable clothing, home goods and fabric supply chains across the US and internationally, while strengthening local bonds and engendering community. Since before 2020’s racial reckoning that shook the world, Fibershed has spread the word about environmental racism and inequities in the textile and fashion industry, reaching out to communities of color and seeking new ways to connect conscious consumers to these hardworking farmers and makers, as well as expand access to the land to more people through education, urban gardens, and conferences like the 2019 in-person and 2020 virtual symposia—which drew attendees from around the world.

During a symposium break I walked a West Marin trail leading down to the shore of Tomales Bay. A cool breeze blew in, the sun weak but still energizing. Reeds and other plants had gone to tones of grey, brown, and russet, their cottony seeds ready to disperse. Passing shoulder-high stands of wild fennel, I caught their scent and ate some seeds (which can also be used for dyeing!). As their dry stems clattered together in the wind, and sparrows and bushtits sang and fluttered about, I was reminded of the density, biodiversity and interwoven nature of ecosystem and community—both human and animal communities, and microorganisms too.

First May seedlings after planting; Growing into shoots: June

Back at the symposium’s outdoor marketplace, I bought a package of blue flaxseeds, without expectation but encouraged by the friendly farmers who’d come a long distance that day from Chico Flax Project. Gardening and farming are strenuous work, and back at home I hoed and pulled invasive Bermuda grass weeds from our rock-hard clay soil to clear a small 6 x 6-foot “mini-field.” YouTube was a font of information, with videos of an elderly Navajo woman hand-spinning flax against her thigh, and another all the way across the globe from Ireland—where an older fellow demonstrates raising flax from seed sowing to harvest, to processing the raw flax into linen fibers. Having no experience, this was what I set out to do.

I diligently watered the shoots and for a few weeks watched the thin stalks grow and bud, turning into pale blue flowers the color of the sky. Over the next month, the blooms quickly faded and shrank into small seed heads and the stalks turned from green to yellow. Another four weeks and the flax was ready for harvest.

Although we had been steadily gardening at our home for the past ten years, I was still unprepared for the great satisfaction and pleasure this flax-growing project brought me: in the delicate scent of the short-lived flowers, the music of the dried seed heads when I shook them; and taking the fibers from harvest, to soaking them in smelly water to begin enzymatic breakdown of the tough outer fiber, drying them in the sun in stacks called “stooks,” and revealing the soft inner fiber through steps like “scutching.” The special and ancient vocabulary alone was enough to enchant me. B. helped by building simple tools out of scrap wood, and the next phase will involve spinning and weaving the fibers into linen.

First blossoms: July
Stalks turning to gold: late July
Dry seed heads: almost ready for August harvest
Harvested bundles
Soaking in water for 2 weeks
Dried flax “stooks”
Breaking down outer fibers on handmade scrap wood “brake”
Separating hard outer cellulose from soft inner fibers
Flax fibers and seeds
Fine finished fiber above; coarser fiber below
Posted in Garden, Nature, Seasons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Summer Solstice

This weekend is full of holidays: today marks the summer Solstice (as well as Father’s Day, honoring dads and father figures; following yesterday’s Juneteenth, commemorating the emancipation of African Americans). On this longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, and we enjoy the shortest night. Also known as midsummer, or the beginning of summer depending on where you are, this holiday traditionally celebrates the height of the growing season. Crops are treated to the greatest amount of daylight, which plants harness using photosynthesis to convert into chemical energy in the form of carbohydrates. Plants, through this amazing process produce oxygen, supplying most of the energy necessary for life on Earth.

Fibershed, a growing global network of sustainable fiber farmers and producers, taught me through classes that, along with helping us breathe and feeding us, plants supply gorgeous natural coloring that’s perfect for all kinds of dye projects. Easily available and often free and waiting to be gathered, these are also free of the many toxins present in chemical dyes (although some plants should be used with caution) – which taint most of what we wear and touch, every day.

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Raw dye materials: (rear row) onions, oak galls, blackberry leaves, pomegranate husks; (front row) lichen, maple leaves, walnut husks, acorns

This weekend especially, I think of my father, who so loved nature and, like me, due to his shy and introverted nature felt most comfortable in the great outdoors. I think of him when I sow seeds in the garden, when hiking in the wilderness, and when creating gorgeous and unique fabrics to wear and use at home. Gratitude fills my heart for his love, for where we live, and the incredible bounty we share with nature.

Acorns

(Acorns)

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(purple cabbage boiling in the dye pot)

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(T-shirts dyed with purple cabbage; left was light blue, right was white)

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(turmeric dye: turmeric mixed with water)

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(turmeric-dyed curtain)

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(oxalis [clover] dye heating in the sun)

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(T-shirt dyed with oxalis)

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(above: T-shirt and embroidered cloth dyed with oxalis)

(below: embroidered cloth dyed with maple leaves, with iron tincture added)

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Posted in Family, Garden, Nature, Seasons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

May Day Wildflowers

May Day (or Beltane) celebrations have traditionally included dancing around maypoles, weaving flower crowns, and other festivities to celebrate (and hope for) fecundity as the growing season approaches. It has also become an important holiday honoring our labor and working classes.

Recently I was happy to write an article on local wildflower hikes – this spectacular time of year passes so quickly, especially now, when climate change is extending severe drought and fire seasons. Some local parks (Foothill, Sugarloaf Ridge, and Pepperwood) partially burned in 2020’s devastating wildfire season, but nature is rebounding. We are fortunate in Sonoma County to have a number of open space preserves that are once again opening to the public, to allow anybody to share in nature’s phenomenal beauty.

Taylor Mountain Regional Park

Tidy tips
View north from Taylor Mountain

Foothill Regional Park

Foothill Regional Park
Shooting stars and buttercups
Rosy sand-crocus and wavy soap plant leaves

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

Even the smallest (unidentified!) flowers are exquisitely intricate
Baby blue-eyes (my favorite!)
White baby blue-eyes invite pollinators with their markings

Pepperwood Preserve

Iris
California poppies and bird’s-eye gilia (another favorite, with blue pollen!)
Pepperwood view across buttercup fields

Sonoma Van Hoosear Wildflower Preserve

Lupine and pink owl’s clover
Fields of lupine
Larkspur
Star tulip (another blue-pollen beauty!)
Posted in Climate Change, Local Area Hikes and trips, Nature, Seasons | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Vernal Equinox and the Joys of Spring

Happy Vernal Equinox! Today’s celebration signifies approximately equal day and night all around the globe, with the sun directly over Earth’s equator. In the Northern Hemisphere the sun will appear to continue northward with the days lengthening until the Summer Solstice in June. Different cultures each uniquely welcome the season of new life, rejuvenation, and new beginnings, symbolizing plant restoration during winter, readying for the new growing season. 

This is the “official” start of spring, although signs have been popping up everywhere. Longer days, more intense sunlight, and warmer temperatures signal plants to begin flowering in time to attract pollinators like bees, butterflies, birds, or bats (or the wind on breezy days) to get pollinated and then ripen and disperse seeds before winter returns.

The sunny days and warm breezes are a gentle caress after such a harsh, difficult winter – especially this year. The season of death is still with us, as people are still losing their lives to the COVID pandemic. Feeling the warm embrace and loving voices of my late parents always reminds me of how lucky we are. Who really knows how long we have left in this life? How many more times will we witness an equinox? Appreciating these gorgeous plants – seemingly here for our delight alone – flood me with gratitude and excitement for the coming year. 

Daffodil

Poppies and calendula

Plum blossoms

Lupine and California poppies

Flowering quince

White brodiaea (fool’s onion)

Native California honeybee on grape hyacinth

Veronica and grape hyacinth

Posted in Birds, Garden, Nature, Seasons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments