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


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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!

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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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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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