Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Category: chapparal

The Witch sees the Tail of Newt and knows that it is Spring.

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

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Meeting the Empress, part 3: Return to Manzanita Mountain

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Arctostaphylos, common name Manzanita, is a shrub (or a small tree—more on that in a moment) with at least sixty known species, several sub-species and an ability to crossbreed in the wild, which produces still more subspecies. Manzanita means “little apples” when translated into Spanish. It’s a euphonious and affectionate word. I invite you: take a moment and sing out the quartet of syllables. You will find that the third syllable naturally stretches out into an operatic warble. If you are in a place with excellent acoustics, the EEeeeee vocable will be snatched up eagerly by the ether and will float away, blending into all the other sounds of this earth.

Last week, I sang the name of the manzanita species I found four years ago on the grounds of the Four Springs Retreat Center, outside of Middletown. Here is some science that will ground this ethereal essay in stolid Saturnine science: the name of the manzanita of Four Springs is Arctostaphylos manzanita, ssp. konocti, named for the nearby volcano. It grows in “closed pygmy forests” in the mountain ranges above Napa and Lake Counties according to the Forest Service. Lacking the conclusive agreement of a field biologist, I believe it does just this on the Lindquist ridge, which is the south-east-facing ridge that encircles the retreat grounds. This USGS topographical map details the area. I gotta say: All hail the USGS and their indefatigable surveyors and map makers! This is the great thing about the witchy gaze: with the right tools to hand— memory, personal mythos, gut understanding and science-based information— all modes of knowledge may be reconciled.

The pygmy manzanita forest of Four Springs begins on a trail which leads to the top of Lindquist Ridge, which is about 1,500 feet above sea level. It’s one of the lower ridges of all the volcanically constructed ridgelines of the Mayacamas, but a beautiful one with a view to the southwest. It’s hard to tell how old the trees are. One of the manzanitas had a 29-inch diameter trunk, which indicates age. The retreat was founded in 1955. So maybe the trees are sixty years old? Or maybe some of the trees have lived a solid century.

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Measured in urban development years, a century-old manzanita, whatever the species, is a very old and very venerable plant indeed. Many manzanitas have gone missing in the last 100 years, as development has increased. Lester Rowntree, a female botanist who disguised her gender to assure the publication of her field work, lamented the almost certain fate of A. franciscana, the sole native manzanita of San Francisco which used to grow plentifully among the San Miguel range in the middle of San Francisco. “Almost in the heart of San Francisco grows another creeping Arctostaphylos,” she noted in her 1938 book Flowering Shrubs of California. A rare serpentine endemic, A. franciscana grew on Mount Davidson and in the Laurel Hill cemetery, the site she chose to document its existence, which at that point was tenuous.

“The manzanita has been there longer than the buildings and longer probably than the oldest graves. None of it grows on the graves (which are unmarked, neglected, and usually encircled by rickety old wooden palings) though nothing,” she averred, “could be more suitable and enduring.” She knew she was looking at one individual plant where there had been many. The old cemetery had been slated for destruction. The human bodies were disinterred and shipped to Colma and the bodies of the plants had been scraped from their rocky beds and tossed, probably, on a pile of brush. Rowntree said of the ghost plant that “…the manzanita and the dead belong to another era…Now it is being regarded impatiently by the folk to whom any land is just so many building lots. If they can, they will eradicate it as a cemetery and that will be the last of an old San Francisco record and certainly the last of Arctostaphylos franciscana.”

This story has a happy ending. A lone A. franciscana was re-discovered marooned on a median strip on Doyle Drive during a construction project in 2010. It was subsequently listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and moved to the Presidio. It’s a great story, the finding and rescuing of this plant, and one that I think demonstrates the tenacity of the native plant seedbank in San Francisco. (It also demonstrates the willingness of the Republican party to spiral into a pearl-clutching tizzy at the slightest provocation—always so gratifying to watch, I feel.) I urge you, gentle reader, to watch this video and discover the true story of A. franciscana.

Within the precincts of Four Springs, there has been no development, other than the construction of the small wooden cabins that dot the meadow and ravine. Enormous trees ring the retreat buildings, which made the grounds “indefensible” in the opinion of Cal Fire, but very defended indeed for the manzanita groves, the madrones, oaks, conifers and probably many more trees I took no notice of. I imagine that in the early spring, the grounds and ridgeline are probably incredibly fragrant, with that beautiful warm, leathery-lemony smell of coastal range chaparral and maybe the smell of the fruit of the manzanita. I once walked among patches of Greenleaf manzanita (A. patula), a species Rowntree would include in the “the low-growing” manzanita of California. I noticed it swarming over the granite, but had not associated the plant with the ripe odor of berries that seemed to be everywhere. After absently mindedly sniffing the rich smell of fruit—raspberry? Strawberry? Someone’s highly scented lip-gloss? —I finally asked my friend Cypress what it was. “You’re smelling manzanita berries,’ she replied.

Manzanita is a tree of fire, especially as it occurs in Lake County. A. konocti is growing in the pulverized igneous rock of Lake County, rocks that were formed in the Great Magma Chamber of the Clear Lake Volcanic Region and spat out during the eruptions that ended 200,000 years ago. The fires of the earth, made manifest in these rocks, became friable under the softening influence of water and air. The formerly inhospitable became positively welcoming under the influence of the sibling elements, becoming soil first and later a whole environment, in which many hundreds of plants species, including manzanita, rooted themselves and began to grow, synchronistically and symphonically (the sonic quality of the trees under the influence of wind waving and moving all the branches is absolutely mesmerizing.)

It is because of California’s fiery belly that an environment for manzanitas exists and the design and look of the manzanita seem to acknowledge this fiery DNA. Manzanitas are famous for their ruddy suppleness. Their supple,  burgundy-red branches wave away from the main bole of the plant to make branch formations that, because of their color, could easily be understood as flames emanating from a fire. Manzanita treasures its beauty and ensures that no one can take advantage of it by means of losing its vivid color and smooth skin when the plant dies. The red branches become rough and as grey as fire ash. Acquisitive hoarders looking to collect beautiful objects from nature must look elsewhere for their trophies. “People used to cut manzanitas down to make furniture,” my dad told me on one of our walks in the Santa Ana mountains, probably in response to my own covetous response to the plant (I would have been about seven or eight when we had this conversation.) “But they learned the hard way that it wasn’t suitable.” I looked at manzanitas ever after, knowing that to maintain their beauty, they must be left alone. It’s interesting how the mundane gets transformed into the magical. I glanced at a plant once as a child and my father’s words made it into something visible but unobtainable, untouchable.

Fire destroys most manzanitas. (Those with burls can re-sprout, but most manzanitas don’t have burls.) But fire breaks seed dormancy, and allows the native seedbanks, California’s landscape-in-waiting, often buried under invasives, to re-establish plant communities. Fire may make seventy-five year old manzanitas rare for a year or so, but ideally, the grove will reemerge as seedlings after a fire, often in greater numbers than before. But this re-growth depends on time. The interval between fires must be long enough for the seedlings to grow. Californian’s who care about the native landscape will often nod their heads knowingly when fire is mentioned and talk about fire’s role in creating the conditions necessary for the California’s floristic province to thrive in. But for that to happen and for the old-growth manzanita groves to thrive, fire must be, if not exactly rare, certainly not everyday, (or every week, or every month.) The question facing us might not be can we contain fire, but more can we manage time?

Because time, that scarce resource, is what the manzanita (and the oak, and the madrone and all other plants of coastal and montane chaparral) needs the most. The manzanitas of the Four Springs Retreat Center are old-growth manzanitas. And we should term them as such; give them this distinctive endowment, this charismatic identity. The ongoing destruction of California’s chaparral—of which manzanita is a indicator species—is further justified by characterizing California’s chaparral as fire-prone and dangerous to urban development, an inversion of logic painful to hear and depends, in part, on the dismissive words “brush” or “scrub”, used to describe this endangered landscape. California used to be covered in a lot of old-growth chaparral, a term usually reserved for the big trees of the North Coast and the interior. It surprises people to hear the term “old-growth” applied to a system described, rather brusquely as “brush”. Even those parts of California where chaparral is protected, such as the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego county, the inaccurate term “forest” is used to describe a landscape that is dominated by old-growth chaparral. That probably isn’t semantic laziness: just try getting the public to fund the conservation of a bush or a shrub. I have never seen a bush beloved as a tree.

We all have some catching up to do—Californians and their understanding of how fire creates and destroys the landscapes of our state, and what plants we prize as memorable, charismatic and worth conserving. And especially the trees and shrubs that were undoubtedly lost in the great triad of Lake County fires: the Jerusalem, Rocky and Valley fires, all likely to make repeat appearances in the years to come. The seeds of future Great Manzanita Forests lie in the ancient fiery soil of Lake and Napa county, having been released from their stiff jackets by fire. Now they are waiting for the rains to come and, once wetted, will try to catch up to the venerable elders lining the ridges of Four Springs.

With love to the California Chaparral Institute. They deserve your funding. Written while Mars works with Uranus and dedicated with love to journeying Fools everywhere.

Step quick, step light.

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Elizabeth C. Creely in an old-growth manzanita grove at the Four Springs Retreat center in Middletown, CA.

Meeting the Empress: The Valley Fire

Yesterday, September 12th, was the first day in that week that was not blanketed by oppressive heat. From Monday to Thursday, the heat hung in the air, edging towards 91 and 92 in some parts of SOMA and the Mission. Naturally I fled and spent three days hanging out at the Dolphin Club, diving into the cold bay again and again, marveling at the admixture of dry heat and perfect 59-60 degree watery cold that, to me, characterizes late summer in California: you may jump into a body of water, pop your head out and consider the ‘sere’ and golden hills even as your body is held by the sincere and lovely cold of the sea. (“Sere” is a word that pops up in frequently in late-19th century descriptions written by people from back east who had problems with California’s dry landscape. They’re usually the same people that planted eucalyptus trees.)

On September 9th, the air blew in hot gusts just like a convection oven. I sat on a dock in the bay in my bathing suit, with my face tilted toward it. I felt like a kitten being licked by the rough, but loving tongue of my mother. Unbeknownst to me, another fire had just started.

The fire was burning in California’s mid-section, in the Stanislaus National Forest. I looked at the Cal Fire map—I have it bookmarked now— and checked it out. They were calling it the Butte Fire and already it was sprawling, a sloppy out-of-control fire. Cal Fire indicates the sprawl of fire perimeters by drawing a red area around the flame icon, the center of the fire, making it look as though the forest has developed a rash, like contact dermatitis. I grabbed a screen shot of what I thought was going to be the problem fire du jour (or du mois—our fires have been burning for longer than normal this year). The fire forced the evacuation of all the little towns along Highways Forty Nine and Four: San Andreas, Murphys, and Camp Connell, which is where some my friends of mine happened to be.

They had gone up to their cabin before the fire started. One of them wrote: “We have had the official advisory to evacuate. Because of smoke/air quality. – not imminent danger. However, if the fire burned like it has for 4 more days it would be on top of our house. We’re taking some stuff with us.

I posted a picture of the Butte Fire. A friend wrote: “The Eye of Sauron?”

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I also looked at Lake County on the fire map. It had been troubled by literally a rash of fires most notably the Rocky and Jerusalem firesthroughout the spring, burning for weeks before being finally being subdued. I should explain why Lake County was holding my attention. I have been helping to plan a tarot-themed ritual retreat at a lovely site called The Four Springs retreat center for a few month. I wrote of Four Springs—a place that was founded by four female Jungian scholars (the wild ritual eclecticism of Northern California cannot be more perfectly captured than in that last sentence, I believe)—enthusiastically this week in a welcoming letter to retreat participants. “Four Springs is the perfect place to gather together to use magic, ritual, and art to provoke and support restorative reflection.” It was, I noted, situated in the foothills of Lake County amidst acres of oak- and manzanita-dominated woodlands.

A sister of mine wrote: “I love this part of California. It is where the pine meets the oak. Where the wine country peters out. Where retreat centers live next to small town America.” (I should have mentioned pine as well.) On Friday, September 11th, a day noted for its inflammatory history, there was no active fire shown on the map. I felt relief that fire had left Lake County.

My relief was short-lived. A friend messaged me last night at 9 p.m. “They have closed the Hwy between Calistoga and Middletown. I’m thinking of Four Springs…Those hills between there and Cobb are ablaze. Prayers.

 

The fire had returned to Lake County at 1:24 p.m. that day. It jumped to 40,000 acres in a couple of hours, growing effortlessly, feeding on the Ponderosa, Knob Cone and Grey pine trees which have been sucked dry by the drought and further “stressed” from the miniscule but mighty 5-spined Ips bark beetle, a native insect. As of this writing, the Valley Fire has burned roughly 50,000 acres, is not contained and has displaced more than 10,000 people from Lake County. The fire burnt down the small town of Cobb and Harbin Hot Springs and went on the destroy Middletown. Four Springs was evacuated.

During the mad dash out of Middletown, Tim, the manager of the retreat center, turned like Lot’s wife to see the devastation. He took a picture of the scene behind him. There was the fire, crowning the trees, and illuminating the Twin Pine casino. He wrote (in an understated, I-gotta-get-the-hell-outta-here way): “Forest fire Is threatening Four Springs.”

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In Southern California, where I grew up, fire would make an obligatory appearance in October: the orange flames turned the foothills of the Santa Ana mountains black. The fire would break out in the foothills, burn a few hills, freak people out for a couple days, and scent the air with the pleasant odor of burning chaparral. The fire would hang out the hill like a punky adolescent out for a good time before being vanquished by California’s firefighters, sp. Ignis Pugnator ssp. Californicus. It was like our own seasonal monster movie with a totally predictable ending. Godzilla, you know?

Now it’s Jason. Last night I wrote of the fire: “It’s like the psycho killer. You think he’s dead. BUT HE’S NOT.”

There was no reason I could think of that the fire would be anything but huge. There are currently no natural predators of fire in this state. It’s turning into an invasive; a colonizer. Which brings me to the purpose of our upcoming retreat: We were supposed to “meet” the Empress.

The Empress, the third Major Arcana in the tarot deck is depicted by the Rider-Waite deck as a crowned woman, seated on a throne and holding a scepter. She has always appeared—to me, anyway— to be alert and watchful. (Would an Empress ever be anything other than watchful?) The background color of the card is usually yellow. Sometimes the yellow around her head is emphasized, almost like a corona, while the atmosphere around her is depicted in deep glowing shades of flaming orange.

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Last night, I texted this observation to a friend: “I think we’ve met the Empress.” It wasn’t the meeting we’d been expecting, but then, in dealing with an imperatrix whose very title is based on the notion of taking, commanding and arranging, should we really be surprised?

It strikes me now that fire is an imperialist element, especially in California’s sere woodlands. Fire, like every Emperor and Empress at the head of an imperial state, only ever takes land and never yields it willingly. Fire is running amok in our state like a crazed Napoleonic despot. And people are running in panic from their homes while the imperial fire throws its firebrands after them, which serve in this obviously tortured metaphor (yeah, whatever.) almost as an elite infantry. Once this infantry lands on a bush, or a desiccated pine tree, or a blade of brown grass, it runs, too, straight through canyons and ravines and the tops of hillsides and small mountains, right on the heels of the animals and the humans. Sometimes, the imperial infantry run a lot faster.

It has been a changeable year with unquiet all around me. I don’t know where to look anymore—the bodies and health charts of my beloveds have been troubled and the landscape of California seems only to be interested in shrugging all of us off its body.

How do you cry for a land—or, really why cry for a land that is continually remaking itself in an unpredictable I’ll-do-what-I fucking-well-want ways? How many times did the Santa Ana river change course like a giant snake lashing through little settlements, inundating them before it was captured in a straitjacket and barred from entering its domain by a series of dams? (and how do we feel about its imprisonment and the impoverishment of all its tributary ecologies? ) How about our famed earthquake faults that buckle and bump in the extremely early hours of the morning (this is a highly personal observation and not supported by science). How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Or how about this musical reference: I won’t cry for you, California. You can’t help it. It’s your nature. But I will cry for the hundreds and thousands of creatures of the earth, water and air who have been flushed from their homes, humans included. (as of this writing, there are people missing and people who love them who are looking for them.)

A friend writes: “Beginning to wonder if we’ll ever smell fresh air again. If apocalyptic fires, ash, and smoke are becoming so commonplace that we no longer live in the ‘what if’, but in the ‘when is it our turn?’” Welcome to California, our flaming, flooding, friable state.

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A friend asks: “Can the fire turn around and burn what it already passed?” My prediction? We’ll find out.

At 12:15 a.m., after an hour of reading very bad news, I decided to call it quits and try to sleep. As I turned off the lights, I heard a gentle rattling sound and looked out the window. A breeze had fetched up and a light rain was falling. I went to sleep wondering when I should rain, too. I didn’t feel huge wailing clouds of grief, but I could feel some gentle pressure from my soul and I knew that I was feeling something like true sorrow. So I cried in my dreams: I expressed my sorrow like a mother expresses milk from her breasts. I squeezed tears from my eyes until rain poured out from them: water from my eyes, water on the ground. The tears flowed and overflowed and I became water and wept.

 

Written on the day of the new moon in Virgo, and the day of a partial solar eclipse. Yesterday, the taskmaster and the destroyer, Saturn and Scorpio, parted ways. Fair play, you two. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Also, check out the excellent blog,  Tales of a Sierra Madre here:http://taleasofasierramadre.com/2015/09/13/the-year-we-got-used-to-burning/

 

Notes from the field: The seedbank of Mount Sutro.

My essay “The seedbank of Mount Sutro” has been published: it appears in The Fourth River, a journal of “nature and place-based writing” according to Chatham University, which publishes the journal. This was my first serious attempt to work with the biologists and their findings to describe and explain the bizarrely fraught conflict between California’s native plant advocates and those who prefer non-native plants. The piece straddles two genres. It’s both a traditional feature article with an interview as a framing device and an attempt, which is the true spirit of essays, I think, to understand and explore the murk of public sentiment as it relates (or chooses not to) to ecological restoration in California. And trees. Eucalyptus trees, specifically.

I like eucalyptus. I’ve been looking at them my whole life, first from a car window speeding down the 405 freeway in Southern California. There, standing in straight lines on the flood plains that sweep down from the Santa Ana mountains, stood eucalyptus trees, frozen in their role as wind breaks for the now-vanished farms of Irvine. My father told me of the folly of the men who imported the eucalyptus. “They brought ‘em here for wood,” he said. “They didn’t know the wood was no good!” He laughed openly at the idiots who spent lots of money making this mistake.

The lesson was clear: know what you’re getting yourself into. The guys who brought these trees here didn’t.

But California are generous and so they decided to love the newcomer trees and also, there’s an idea that …well. How do I say this delicately? Eucalyptus trees were and are considered more attractive than California’s native plants, which are apparently ugly. Take a look at some of the public comments on UCSF’s draft Environmental Impact Report which was intended to describe the university’s long-term management plan of Mount Sutro. They demonstrate a surprising negativity reactions to form, not ecological function, of California’s native plant life. One opponent warned UCSF that those who favored restoration didn’t know what they were getting into.[1] “They do not realize,” the writer intones, “that this city looked like the Marin headlands,” before the eucalyptus were planted.

“Ugly” is a word that occurs four times in the public comments, always with reference to native vegetation. “Barren” is another favored adjective. “Virtually bare” is still another pejorative description of California in her native state. “Please don’t tear it down for scrub and grasses…” pleads yet another commenter [2] (“scrub” and “grasses” being synonymous, one may assume, with the words “barren” and “ugly”.) In a state that prizes beauty, persons, trees and shrubs alike are ranked according to looks.  The cries, lamentations and warnings of the anonymous commentators to stay away from California’s ugly plants should not be underestimated. Beauty has brought mighty men trembling at her feet; she can do the same thing to entire swatches of California’s last-remaining native grasslands and coastal shrub communities as well. Last fall, UCSF abandoned their plan to restore less than eight acres of the sixty-three acre preserve to native plants. Only one acre was going to be planted with native plants.

What do Coyote bush or Coast Live Oak contribute, really, to the beautification of this state? Our native trees and shrubs are small, modest in shape and outline. They cannot compete with other trees and shrubs on the image-obsessed coast of California. In Newport Beach, coconut palms line the bluffs above Corona Del Mar Beach, a landscape inspired by western notions of the hot blue nights of Araby and Scheherazade, instead of what was probably there. That would be California’s Live oak, a tough little tree, with many different bio-realms dependent on it, larval, avian and mammalian.

To the indigenous peoples of the San Francisco peninsula,” declared historian Pete Halloran in the excellent anthology Reclaiming San Francisco: History Politics, Culturethe Coast live oak was more than a symbol; it was perhaps the single most important plant species.”[3] The same is true for the acorn woodpecker and numerous microlepidoptera, or the tiny moths. Fifteen different species have been shown to be dependent on Coast live oak leaves on Mount San Bruno[4]. This tiny Yggdrasil was cut down across California  as colonial settlements were transformed into sprawling coastal cities. The acorns could find no purchase in the soil shaded by the new, tall, dramatic trees, real drama queens, with huge canopies that kept the ground underneath them dark and the sun out of the blinking eyes of California’s settlers, many of whom hailed from the deciduously rich East Coast. They were unused to the sun’s frank regard. They needed shade. California with its lush spreads of coastal scrub communities was derided as “barren.” And so the acorns were deprived of the future as mothers-to-many, as trees from all parts of the world were pressed into service.

Today, San Franciscans need a different sort of shade: privacy, a get-away, refuge from city neighborhoods that are getting more crowded as more people pour into the seven square and inflexible miles of the city. San Francisco can be an extroverted city, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t introverts amongst us who want away from the madding crowd. That’s where Sutro Forest comes in. “It is a quiet, secluded introspective space,[5]” writes one San Franciscan. “Loss of such a space will be detrimental to the emotional health of San Francisco.” In order to escape, some San Franciscans need the deception that Mount Sutro (which is really a hill) is an actual forest (it’s a “forest” in much the same way that a reservoir is a “lake”) in order to be soothed.

Mount Sutro is a tree plantation masquerading as a “cloud forest”, a definition used only by its boosters in defiance of the scientific definition of a cloud forest: a delicate ecological space that boasts of a dense display of fog-fed plants with a species denseness that often numbers in the thousands. Mount Sutro, which has little biological diversity, is a place with a falsified past (old growth eucalyptus trees! A forest that is hundreds of years old!) and a thoroughly marketed present. It is a site to wander wrapped in a dream of illusion and no-whereness, a place that is virtual rather than actual.

As a teenager in Southern California, I loved spaces like these, places I could co-exist with my fevered, racing brain. So, too, the adult inhabitants of San Francisco still seek “reposeful places” for “solace, sweet and inspirational, in the song-haunted shadows.”[6] (Can a bush do that for you? Who can hide in coastal chaparral with its frank regard for the open sky?)

You can live in the city and yet leave the city, be not of the city. This is what the landscape of Mount Sutro guarantees, assuming the people who live in the expensive neighborhoods that rim the perimeter of Mount Sutro accept your presence. “I can see no benefits from this action…” says a man named Michael of the proposed management, “only distress to the local residents…and general peace and quiet and enjoyment of our homes.”[7]

Acorns can’t grow in this private, shaded space some call a forest. Funny, that. What makes a forest a forest is its diverse nature. Actual forests make room for all kinds of plants.

Like a manzanita. The manzanita is the first plant that identified for me by my father when I was young. I admired it and wanted to snap off a branch to take home with me. He didn’t let me to touch it. “That’s what everyone wants to do,” he said. People liked its glossy burgundy red wood, he told me. They liked it too much. “They used to cut it down to make furniture from it,” he told me. “But the wood’s not good for that,” he said. Manzanita has grown in the Presidio- in fact, a remnant stand of Franciscan manzanita, a species long thought to be extinct, was discovered during the re-build of Doyle Drive back in 2010. A few may have once grown on the flanks of Mount Sutro. On Mount Sutro’s Draft EIR there are five arctostaphylos (manzanita) species listed as “potentially” occurring in the reserve[8]. Two species grow in serpentinite soils. Since Mount Sutro is made of Franciscan chert, these species are not expected to be present. Three other species (A. imbricate, A. montaraensi and A. pacifica) could grow, but probably won’t grow “due to the density of competing non-native vegetation.”

I think Manzanita wins on looks. It is beautiful, this shrubby and sometimes tree-like plant with its glossy oxblood-red limbs. But beauty, of course, is in the eye of the bedazzled beholder. In the case of Mount Sutro, Beauty has a tenacious grip, with public opinion clutched firmly in one hand and an entire ecosystem held fast in the other.

 

Elizabeth and an Arctostaphylos densiflora outside of Calistoga

Elizabeth and an Arctostaphylos densiflora outside of Calistoga

For more information about the Sutro Stewards and their vision of  ecological restoration, go to: http://sutrostewards.org

[1] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf, Comment # 4

[2] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf. See comment #48

[3] Holloran, Pete. Seeing the trees through the forest: oaks and history in the Presidio. Reclaiming San Francisco. Brook, Carlsson and Peters. City Light Books San Francisco CA

[4] http://jeffreycaldwell.blogspot.com/2004/12/plant-diversity-supports-animal.html

[5] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf. See comment #387

[6] http://www.sfmuseum.net/sutro/bio.html

[7] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf. See comment #115

[8] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/Mount_Sutro_EIR_1_18_13_with_Appendices.pdf