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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Poetry in the Ocean: Full Moon, High Tide, and Whale Songs

In early August, I took a visiting friend – a behavioral biologist who studies marine mammals – out to Limantour Beach in Point Reyes. She loved the mountains, the arch of cypress and great eucalyptus trees over the road, the slow drive winding down to the beach.

I told her I’d seen grey whales there a while back in spring, close to shore. She’d already spotted a spout from the car, and walking to the deserted western end of the beach, we saw more small spouts – she wondered if they were a transient pod of orcas. Some distance ahead, hundreds of seabirds gathered, dipping and diving into the water for food: pelicans flying above in formation – so ungainly on land yet so graceful in flight, Heermann’s and common Western gulls, terns, skuas, and shorebirds like willets and godwits. Tremendous upwellings in the ocean often cause such teemings of birds and marine mammals. I plan to return and investigate if conditions are similar, the next full moon and high tide.

We scanned the water for activity. Then suddenly, maybe a mile or so out at sea near the horizon, a massive splash startled us and we watched, astonished, as three humpback whales frolicked (or two males vied for a female’s attention). Turning and raising their flippers and flukes, they slapped the waves in a thunderous roar, possibly singing, breaching fully out of the water. They continued this behavior for about half an hour! It was incredible; a couple of nearby boats must’ve had the show of their lives.

Soon, we stopped seeing them and assumed they swam away. We began walking back to the path where we’d entered the beach. Bottlenose dolphins swam nearby, porpoising in the surf, and a seal peeked out from the waves. And the whales? They hadn’t deserted us at all: spouts and whale backs suddenly popped up even closer than before, maybe 60 yards from shore. As they seemingly paralleled our journey along the beach, we joked about “walking our whales.”

Every few steps we halted at the latest spotting, smiling at our luck. Then out of nowhere: bursting out of the water, one of the huge cetaceans lifted his massive head and took in an immense mouthful of krill and fish not 50 yards in front of us. I screamed, overwhelmed, my heart felt as if it would burst, and tears streamed down my face. Even my friend, who throughout her fieldwork had sighted hundreds of whales, was dumbfounded. It truly was – as if the day hadn’t already been! – the most magical, spectacular wildlife display I’ve ever seen.

To find words that justly describe this encounter is impossible, the sensation of absolute rapture and wonder, watching these peaceful giant creatures in the sea – which, despite seeming like so alien, is also our own environment. When we returned to the car, saw and heard other people talking, it felt like we had just returned from far away. But while the very next day, it seemed like a dream – it’s all part of the same world we all share, the same, amazing reality.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay/Creative Commons

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Bringing in the Harvest

Happy Lammas/Lughnasa to all! Somehow, we’ve passed high summer and autumn is already around the corner. Days shorten and nights grow longer, and the traditional harvest celebration has arrived. It rained more last winter than it had in years. And, thanks to our amending with yard and kitchen compost, the wondrous mix of minerals, organic matter and organisms, water and air that is our soil is healthier than ever. Add the magic of photosynthesis that allows plants to obtain nutrients thanks to these sunny languorous days, and our garden burst into bloom.

Now we reap the harvest after planting extra everything: beets, kale, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers. We found a brand new crop as well – growing zucchini and pumpkin next to each other in years past seemingly allowed them to cross-pollinate, producing a beautiful zucchini-toned hybrid I like to call a zumpkin. The taste of this fresh, nutrient-rich bounty is even sweeter when shared with local food banks, neighbors, and friends!


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Summer Solstice, with Pollinators

Purple sage

The Summer Solstice is here, appropriately in the midst of a terrible heatwave (although it’s now Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere). In the Northern Hemisphere the earth in its orbit tilts on its axis, facing the sun for the longest period of the year. The above website will live-stream extraordinary telescope views of the sun from around the globe! With worldwide celebrations from places like England, Ireland, Finland, to Spain, Greece, Russia, from Yakutia to Santa Barbara, California, in traditions such as jumping over bonfires, watching the sun rise, and ritual bathing, we honor the burgeoning new life in the ground, and anxiously await the fall harvest.



Tomatoes, basil, lemon balm, cucumbers

Arugula flowers (with some blue ceanothus)


Catmint (above) and white California buckwheat

In keeping with this theme (and in honor of Pollinator Week), I recently attended a lecture at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Environmental Center on cultivating habitat gardens for pollinators such as bees, butterflies, bats and birds. Humans traditionally have a harmonious, symbiotic relationship with some of these: bees provide us with a third of all the food we eat – from fruit to vegetables to nuts! In fact, some crops are over 90% dependent on bees for pollination. All these creatures are threatened by pesticide/herbicide use, disease, predators such as cats (my favorites!), and habitat loss due to climate change and development.




Butterfly bush


Spanish lavender

We can help by planting largely native plants – which are also more weed- and disease-/pest-resistant, as well as more drought-tolerant. By eliminating pesticides (substitute a mix of 1 gal. vinegar, 2 cups epsom salts, and 1/4 cup blue Dawn dish soap), adding water sources for all (in locations protected from predators), diversifying plants for year-round blooms and letting them go to flower and seed, and avoiding pruning and clearing away brush and leaves during nesting season, we can encourage these amazing animals to be part of the small ecosystems in our yards. And, we get to enjoy interacting with them and observing their beauty every day! Happy Midsummer!






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