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.



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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

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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