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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Salt Point (Part One): A Sea of Fruiting Bodies

Winter always beckons us to camp at Salt Point State Park, on northern California’s wild Sonoma coast. This rugged stretch of shoreline has for centuries been home to Kashaya Pomo Indians living, hunting, fishing and foraging in the sea and hillside forests.

Gorgeous cladonia, a California lichen

Inland, these woods and grasslands gradually merge with wind-tossed Bishop pines; second-growth redwoods descended from trees logged in the last couple hundred years; and Douglas fir, madrone, and tanoak. Ascending trails up to about 1,000 feet, we’re treated to views of meadow and prairie where elk once roamed. At the park’s high point is a pygmy forest of smaller cypress, pine, and redwoods – growth stunted from acidic, nutrient-poor soil and a hardpan subsurface layer. Native animals such as coyote and gray fox are usually nocturnal, while bobcats are active during the day. We’ve spotted black-tailed deer, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, and field mice. More elusive bears, mountain lions, badgers, and porcupines also range here. I heard woodpeckers gouging out tree trunks and logs to store food and build nests; and watched highly intelligent, mischievous Steller’s jays and ravens scour campsites in search of food.

Black trumpet, aka black chanterelle, aka trumpets of death (but NOT toxic!)

As in previous years, besides seeing the coast, our primary purpose was to gather some of the delectable mushrooms sharing these forests with redwoods, firs, and oaks. Recently we attended a brief overview presented by Sonoma County Mycological Association – a local society providing forest forays, fungus identification help, and links to resources like the beautifully illustrated Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, and mushroomobserver.org.

Mushrooms – or what we think of as mushrooms – are really just fungal spore-producing fruiting bodies that get nutrients through an underground web called mycelia, using these main modes:

  • mycorrhizal: symbiotic subsoil fungi (e.g.  hedgehogschanterelles and amanita) that increase the root capacity of plant partners such as trees and orchids – whose carbohydrates in turn feed the fungus.
  • saprophytic: these tasty mushrooms like portabella, shiitake, and porcini are recyclers of dead plant material that share water and nutrients. Like mycorrhizal fungi, they also share stress signals via mycelia (for example, when trees increase tannins in response to stress); but unlike mycorrhizals they’re easier to cultivate, as are the parasitic types below.
  • parasitic: these fungi, such as maitake or hen of the woods, parasitize their hosts (oaks) and, paradoxically, keep them alive. Jelly mushrooms such as witch’s butter, which parasitizes the false turkey tail, are obligate parasites – require their hosts to live.

    Turkey tail fungi

Mushroom colonizers (spores) seek specific nutrients in media like dead logs, cones, seed pods or bark. There, they grow and go through their life cycle, then release spores back into the environment. Meanwhile, the fungi break down the host medium. All these necessary elements combine to build healthy soil ecosystems, and without them, this delicate balance can’t be sustained. The fascinating fungal kingdom’s members also include molds, yeasts, and agricultural rusts, smuts, and blights.

Black elfin saddle, growing at the base of a pine

Some fungi exist only a few hours. Others are perennial, living for thousands of years. We learned that Otzi, the ice man, was found with conks – some of which can carry and preserve burning embers (others are used for dyeing, like the dyer’s polypore or artist’s conk, among others). Some fungi follow fires, such as morels in the Sierras (and perhaps will show up here, after 2017’s fires), as a burn changes soil chemistry for a couple of years. Prescribed burns apparently don’t affect the mycelium, which lives several inches below the soil surface.


Shroomarella! Hedgehogs show their toothed undersides (chanterelle in rear)

Our Salt Point sojourn proved to be a fantastic day of foraging – our best haul ever, with several meals’ worth of chanterelles, black trumpets, and bellybutton hedgehogs. Although this winter has been extremely dry, for some reason we found even more than last year, which was extraordinarily rainy. At camp we sauteed them in oil and garlic, a perfect marriage with linguini!

The super-blue blood moon (once in a blue moon?) shone full that night. As it rose in the east over pines ringing the campground, it was so big and bright I could almost see it moving as, throughout the evening, we watched it traverse the sky, crossing the constellations Gemini and Orion. Luminous and beautiful, it flooded our camp with light, and B. turned off his headlamp. A roaring fire kept us warm, as did feelings of contentment, gratitude, and wonder as I hadn’t felt in a long, long time.

CAUTION: NEVER eat mushrooms you can’t positively identify; if in doubt, throw it out!

Black trumpets, hedgehogs, and chanterelles – our feast!



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In Winter Landscapes, the Promise of Spring

Imbolg (the ancient holiday also known as Candlemas, also celebrated here in North America as Groundhog Day) marks the lengthening days, the coming warmth and light, and the new growing season of spring.

After the historic wildfires devastated Northern California last October, Sonoma County  hums with restoration activity: food donation, crisis counseling, homeless and immigrant support services, debris removal and home building, installing straw-filled wattles to prevent toxic runoff from entering streams, and seed-saving and planting. These mirror the flurry of regeneration occurring in nature.

Winter’s silence is deceptive: fruit trees and roses sleep in their dormant state, buds closed tight to protect from the cold, sap huddled low in the roots until it rises in spring. Some trees have been completely burned, others look charred on the surface while inside they’re alive and growing. Even dead trees still provide habitat for animals, fungus, and lichens; and their roots prevent erosion by retaining soil. Other plants have retreated into the earth to take in its nourishment. Bulbs are popping up everywhere; and native grasses and flowers flourish in burned landscapes – some species appear exclusively after fires; this year’s wildflower blooms are predicted to be spectacular.

The amazing resilience of birds and other fauna throughout this disaster are inspiring: birds’ ability to fly allows them to escape to safety, and locate water; and fortunately the fires occurred in autumn, not when birds nest. As spring arrives to replenish winter’s sparse food sources, birds are able to nest and find more seeds, berries, and insects. Woodpeckers, for instance, thrive after wildfires: they enter burned forests to find beetle infestations, as smoke- and heat-sensing beetles lay eggs in charred tree cavities. Feasting on these larvae, woodpeckers hollow out nesting holes that are later used by other birds like chickadees, titmice, bluebirds, wrens, and nuthatches. Spotted owls take full advantage of these burned landscapes.

In charred swaths of parks like Trione-Annadel in the Sonoma Valley, mushrooms that only grow in the aftermath of fires are helping their tree partners recover, by taking up water and nutrients in their mycelia. Mycologists are still learning about these integral relationships, which largely take place beneath the soil.

Fire ecology is still an emerging science, and with recent events, we’re scrambling to better understand it. While fire suppression was prioritized for decades – especially with human development making deeper incursions into the landscape – now scientists are beginning to see the benefit of cooler underbrush fires, and even very hot fires that burn entire trees, to maintain the overall health of forests over time. Fires have occurred naturally in the landscape for thousands of years; and plants, animals and birds have adapted to them, each in their individual ways. They are all part of nature’s recurring cycles of creation, and the destruction that makes way for rebirth and renewal. Fires are part of our ecosystem, and if anything, we’ve learned in the last year that they’ll likely grow in intensity and frequency; and as humans, we have to learn from the natural world, and adapt ourselves as well. We, too, are a remarkably resilient species!


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Saving the Soil on the Winter Solstice

Winter solstice traditionally commemorates the end of the growing season – the year’s shortest day and longest night – and return of living things to the soil. As the days begin to lengthen once again, it’s a time of quieting down, introspection, and regeneration for the coming year.

This time of year is always poignant for me, when I remember how special my parents made the holiday seasons – no matter what difficulties were in their lives. My feelings are particularly acute when thinking of my mother, suffering from schizophrenia and raising me largely on her own after my parents’ divorce, yet always making the effort to fill our home with the warmth of delicious holiday foods and love.

After the terrifying Sonoma County wildfires, many resources shared good tips on preventing mass sedimentation and runoff of fire-scarred and ash-rich soil; strategic planting to withstand and survive fire; the sustainable use of compost in restoring fire-damaged land and forests; . Now comes surprisingly good news on the resilient recovery of our landscapes: in the Laguna de Santa Rosa, a huge local watershed, seeds and acorns were spotted soon after the fires, ready to be planted and propagated in preparation for what should be a spectacular wildflower and grass bloom in these fire-adapted areas. Perhaps most astonishing, in the spectacular Pepperwood Preserve, which suffered massive fire damage, animals were observed in camera footage quickly returning to fire-ravaged spots; and the preserve – a mecca for conservation science – will be a major research center in the increasingly important field of fire ecology.

Just as the land needs precious time to restore its energies for the next growing season, so do we humans need this time for our physical and mental health. This year especially – after multiple and constant manmade and natural disasters – we need to observe this period of remembrance, and of gratitude.

Laguna de Santa Rosa, facing west


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Bats in the Garden for Halloween

Samhain/Halloween/Dia de los Muertos marks the end of the harvest season, and needed time for honoring and mourning the dead – especially acute this year. And as we’re harvesting the last of our pumpkins, it’s time to start planting new garden seeds for next year – just as many of our neighbors and friends who’ve come through the last weeks of northern California’s recent historic fires. The earth will regenerate, but, especially in places ravaged by these terrible fires, needs the help of humans to recover and start the growing cycle anew.

Long ago I decided I had to build a bat box (plans courtesy of Bat Conservation International), and the time seemed right – to help along the replenishing process of nature. Plus, it’s Bat Week! In order to create a safe haven for bats in the yard, in addition to installing a bat house BCI advises leaving leaf and branch litter on the ground, as well as any trees with holes; have a water source nearby (that’s protected from predators); and keep cats (bats’ natural predators) inside, especially at night. These small, furry pollinators also act as seed dispersers and pest controllers – keystone species – without their valuable services, entire ecosystems could collapse. But with their help and that of us humans, we can watch together the rejuvenation of the coming year.


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Fire Stories and Signs of Hope

The evening of October 8 began strangely – we went outside and remarked on the warm, high winds. That night, the deadliest fire in state history blazed throughout northern California, awakening residents of multimillion-dollar homes as well as mobile homes – some well into their 80s who ran for their lives, some never to escape. Windstorms overnight had started or exacerbated fires in eight counties. Somehow, it’s two weeks since that horrific night; the fires continued burning into last week (but are now largely contained, thanks to light rain and the tireless efforts of first responders and volunteers). This, following terrible hurricanes and the devastating Mexico City earthquake!

B. and I woke up the following morning to smoke-filled skies a nightmarish black. Messages poured in from everywhere to check if we were okay, and inquire about others. Parts of Santa Rosa were evacuated as the fires encroached; indeed, the entire Mayacamas mountain range separating Napa and Sonoma counties seemed swallowed by fire. A couple miles from the evacuation zones, we were among the lucky, but over the week remained terrified, ready to leave as the winds changed and fanned the flames. Like everyone else here, we checked on our neighbors, struggled with headaches and lung pain from smoke inhalation, learned to wet down our roof and garden, and stayed glued to the newspapers and social media.

Ominous signs continued over the following days: sunsets in a burned-orange sky, shifts in the wind, burned leaves blown into the yard, a fine layer of ash coating our vegetables. As Santa Rosa mayor Chris Coursey said, we’ve all been undergoing this trauma. So many have lost everything, and I remind myself again and again how fortunate we are. Haunting me are the words of a woman who lost her mother to the fire: “Hug and kiss your loved ones extra-hard tonight.”

As the courage, kindness, and generosity of people near and far away emerged in the first hours of this terrible conflagration, providing rescue, food, shelter, clothing, child and pet care, and comfort, so did the stories. I got in touch with loved ones I hadn’t spoken to in years. My in-laws arrived for an already-planned visit, worried and wanting to help. We all volunteered at an evacuation center’s donation site – the warehouse of a local family business, and met donors who came from all over California: Russians from Concord (my people!), a van full of volunteers from Fresno, folks from Oakland and San Francisco. Later, a food truck all the way from San Jose fed us delicious food (and provided fantastic salsa music- both of which lifted our spirits). Other volunteers joined in, of all backgrounds and ages, from seniors to those who brought their kids to help, to folks who only spoke Spanish and followed instructions from translating friends. I’ll never forget the tearful young mother who’d come with two little boys to pick up supplies: she was clearly overwhelmed – must’ve lost her home, and one volunteer opened her pockets and pressed some cash into her hand, enveloping her with hugs. (The best disaster relief sites I’ve found: Redwood Credit Union North Bay Fire Relief fund, UndocuFund, Rebuild Sonoma fund; and Mexico earthquake relief, Direct Relief for hurricanes.)

The days pass, as they do even in times of devastation, and along with stress appear signs of hope: crows continue to bury and unearth nuts in the ground, fat towhees kick up bark in search of insects. Egrets soar through a smoky gray-blue sky and cedar waxwings jet across the yard. Mockingbirds screech in the trees, and butterflies and bees still go about their pollinating business. From the donation center I recall the bag of new baby clothes knitted and crocheted by hand.

It’s still so early, and crucial to take time to grieve; Kate Frey’s lovely piece in Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat mourns some of the beautiful landscapes we’ve lost. As the community begins to rebuild, a historical perspective is key, as Gaye LeBaron pointed out in her recent Washington Post article on the role of development, and another Post piece on the role of climate change, in the massive destruction of the fires. Recovery will likely take a very long time, and it may help to remember words from experts like those at the California Native Plant Society: nature can and does recover from such disasters (and even needs them, for example redwood cones that open and seed in fire). And we will regenerate our community.

As a part of nature, humans are stronger and more resilient than we realize. One day the air, clearer every day, will again be redolent of evergreens, of fall’s fragrant walnut leaves and sage; and at night, the stars.

Egret sculpture at Glen Ellen, CA’s Bouverie Preserve (photo courtesy of Press Democrat)


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Autumn Equinox: Colors of Nature

My walnut ink

At Autumn Equinox, we savor the bittersweet delights of a late garden: plaintive call of migrating geese overhead; the hint of fragrance released when brushing against lemon balm and basil; the unparalleled sweetness of the last tomatoes; and, as the seasonal slant of light slows down their production of chlorophyll – which harnesses daylight’s energy to transform carbon dioxide into the plant’s food the scent and blaze of fall’s first leaves. 

Indigo leaves before cooking in dye bath

Toyon leaves in dye bath

This year, I celebrated by indulging a longtime obsession: dyeing fibers with natural ingredients. As my own experience is limited to using beets and walnuts for inks and dyes, I took a class put on by Daily Acts and Fibershed – both local organizations promoting sustainable practices that build community. The class was held at Red Twig Farm – where this nearby farmer has turned her garden into a classroom, teaching how to sustainably feed communities and using her knowledge of chemistry to create beautiful natural fabrics.

Another resource we have is the innovator with natural dyes, regional treasure Dorothy Beebee. The longtime scientific artist and mushroom expert illustrated the seminal guide Mushrooms for Color, and for years has taught classes, emphasizing the use of less toxic mordants (which bind dyes to fibers) in the dyeing process.

Local artist Ane Carla Rovetta performs alchemy, making her art materials from natural ingredients such as carbon soot, iron, redwood cones, oak galls, walnuts, sumac, bay wood, soils and stone. To bind ingredients to surfaces, she mixes in milk, buttermilk, egg yolk or whites, soap, tree saps or soy. Rovetta even makes her own paper. A biologist by education, she began her career by creating botanical illustrations for local field guides.

During this time of late harvests and the turning of the year into the darkness of winter, I especially appreciate these wonderful local resources, which emphasize working together creatively to lighten our footprints on the planet. I love the idea of growing or foraging for these ingredients on a nearby hike or camping trip, and making them into useful products that forgo mass-produced equivalents and carry on our connection to the natural world.

Plants and their dyed fibers (clockwise from top left): indigo, marigold, toyon, coreopsis, oak galls, black walnuts, Hopi black sunflower




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