Yesterday was the first day of spring, and after a cold hard winter, I welcomed it. The wildflowers of California are out-performing themselves in terms of bloom. Pictures from California’s 58 counties show streaks of pure poppy orange coloring the hills and plains, and mountain meadows, punctuated by purple, pink, blue, white, and red. Every color and every flower I’ve ever seen is punching its way to the surface, encouraged by the water that’s been pouring from the sky and the heat of the sun. It works, this relationship between sun, seed and rain. It’s amazing to see a system do the work, like clockwork, of seasonal production.
I went hiking with my best friend Elyse in Tennessee Valley, one of the many glens—I counted at least 51 on a map between the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes station—that run from the ridges of the Marin hills down to the sea. These long narrow spaces usually have water running through them that forms a lagoon which drains into a pocket beach. You could almost describe this system in a pictograph.
As you can see, dear reader, I did exactly that and while it wouldn’t be the simplest pictograph to hammer into a rock, it gets the job done of describing what a person could reasonably expect to find in terms of landforms at the bottom of the ridge line of a coastal range. My pictogram has the added benefit of some totally accidental symbolism: the lines depicting the creek, the lagoon and the lagoon’s outlet to the ocean look like a snake. Which you could reasonably expect to find in a natural system like this.
Of course, reasonable expectations get thwarted all the time. The natural system of a glen/creek/lagoon/ocean outlet are often waylaid by the non-natural system of urban development. People just love building houses in beautiful natural spaces, and Marin for all its love of environmental 501 © 3’s is no different. The hills above Muir Beach are thick with expensively designed homes, modest and sleek, all of which depend on urban systems, like sewers and power lines, to house their owners in comfort.
The lagoon that drains into Muir Beach is but one part of the Redwood Creek Watershed. The total system is composed of the creek, the wetland, the lagoon and the tidal dunes, and ultimately, the ocean. It’s all one piece and as such responds to disruption and connection systemically, which is to say that if the water is stymied in its flow, there will be floods, fish will be blocked from building their redds and depositing their cache of eggs, and native plants and animals will lose habitat. If the water has the room it needs, it will run over and through undeveloped land, and create a floodplain, which gives the water that space it needs to spread and meander.
That’s what water does. It also creates topography, which is great for animals that need water to reproduce but also dry land from time to time. The water has the added responsibility of disseminating and germinating native seeds which—at this location anyway—don’t have to compete with invasives for the land and the water they need to grow.
This refreshing lack of competition comes courtesy of some volunteer, or volunteers, more likely, who worked tirelessly to clear it of nasty things like Himlayan blackberry and its whip-like canes, which will take over an area in no time at all. Land management is a critical element in habitat restoration.
Thus it was that a ceanothus bush greeted me and my friend Elyse as we descended from the trail. It might have been planted, but it’s more likely that the seed bed in the soil yielded it up naturally and it survived because of the management practices described above.
“A ceanothus!” I yelled when I saw it. I see them in the city all the time. There’s one blooming right now just down the street from me, a ceanothus foliosus, from the looks of it. But I never see them in the wild. I was so was excited to see it because of where I was seeing it. It was a Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, a thrilling name for its Dionysian connotations. It made me momentarily ecstatic, anyway. My friend, Elyse also recognized it, but had to wait for my rapture to die down in order to tell me that.
“I know this plant because someone called it a see-you-know-us,” she informed me. We laughed at her silly friend.
“You never see this plant here. But this is exactly where you should expect to see it,” I said, proving that it takes more than a rainy two-mile walk uphill to knock value judgements out of me.
We walked across the small bridge that spans Redwood Creek and its floodplain. I heard the croaking of frogs almost immediately. The interpretive signs advised me that these were probably, hopefully, the endangered California Red Legged frog (Rana draytonii)which, again, you would —should—expect to hear in this location, because of this creek, this lagoon and the wetland. Where else would frogs be?
Almost immediately, I saw something large moving through the bushes in the wetland, something big enough for its silvery grey-brown fur to be visible above the low-lying shrubbery. There were some other hikers on the other side of the bridge looking at the animal intently. I walked across the bridge with the chorus of frogs croaking away, and asked one of the hikers what he was looking at.
“A coyote,” he replied. The coyote, as if on cue, stepped out of the scrub and into a small clearing. It was a big one, probably a young adult, with a thick bushy tail and the narrow muzzle that coyotes have.
What you could reasonably expect to see and hear was exactly what we saw and heard all within twenty minutes: a ceanothus, one of the most common plants of coastal scrub, a red-legged frog once incredibly populous and now federally listed as an endangered species and a coyote. I reacted to all these with delight, but surprise.
I say “but surprise” to acknowledge how bereft California’s natural history is of the “history” part. The frog, the coyote and the ceanothus bush were common elements in places like Tennessee Valley before 1849. The frog’s habitat contracted and worse, people developed a taste for its legs.
I don’t have the evolutionary history of any of these animals or plants to hand, but it’s safe to assume thousands of years of habitation in the bay area. The bay itself is 9,000 years old and its baylands developed about 3,000 to 2,000 years ago. It took less than 200 years to make the bush, the frog and the coyote strangers in their own land and novelties for hikers like me to encounter. It’s taken about seven years for the staff and scientists of the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to put the pieces of the Redwood creek ecology back together. And guess what? It’s working. The moral of the story…well, there’s more than one, but one of them is this: restoration works and it can be a mighty work.
We left the lagoon and walked a trail that edged the cliffs and then dropped down into another glen. And that was the final surprise, final proof of a ancient system working to produce life. I started seeing newts, many newts, all with knobbly skin and bright orange undersides. They scrambled off the path at our approach, away from the peril of our heavy feet. I squealed. I’ve only ever seen newts (a type of salamander) once on a hike. And that was a long time ago (and I wasn’t walking. I was swimming) Again, the question danced in my head. What do you expect to see? I took a picture of the first few little beasts I saw, assuming I wouldn’t see any more, and then continued to see them at such a rate that I knew I would find at least one dead. (I did.)
By the time we walked out of Tennessee Valley, I’d seen at least 40 salamanders. They were endearing, the way they moved: they threw their short stumpy limbs up and out, as they left the path and clambered into the damp underbrush. The salamanders with their glistening, toxic skin seemed inseparable from the environment that they started life in. It was as if the water flowing in Redwood creek had changed into thousands of watery little gods, running like rivulets down the muddy path.
I was surprised by my surprise the entire time I was walking by the things that were there. After all, the “there” that I’m thinking of is made of them. The animals and plants of Tennessee Valley, as they blink in and out of existence, and as scientists and land managers struggle to rebuild ecologies from scratch in order to give amphibians like the Rough-skinned and California newt a home, are the valley as much as the crumpled chert formations that give it form or the water that flows through it.
I do want to be surprised, though. I don’t want to tour natural spaces with animals and birds and insects and all the rest appearing at punctual intervals to assure me I’m outside.
I want to continue to be surprised by everything I see everytime I venture out: the uncontained, the rebounded, the natural, the wild.
Written in the muddy muddy month o’ March, the greenest month we have. These newts are out now and about….
This little guy made right for me and walked steadily between my feet….
They are so dear. And they don’t have much space. So if you go walking the Marin Hills, step lightly and look out for them.
San Francisco,March 21st, 2017