Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Category: Harbin Hot Spring

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, part 2: What I saw at the fair.

I went to the Napa County fairground two days ago in Calistoga to check in with—and on—Tim Locke, the cheerful Executive Director of Four Springs Retreat, the small center located where the oaks met the pines on September 12th and formed a flaming alliance. No one was sure if Four Springs managed to escape being burned, but—mirabile dictu!—it had. Tim’s first posting, which confirmed the survival of Four Springs, mentioned Chaz the cat’s continued material existence first. “People are asking about our cat, and he is OK,” wrote Tim. “That rascal wouldn’t get in the truck!” Chaz, the rascally cat, is extremely lucky. The fire burned right up to the vineyard that borders the property. Firefighters used the vineyard’s irrigation system as a firebreak. A much bigger firebreak in the shape of  a storm front subsequently moved in, bringing rain with it, which fell copiously on Middletown and Four Springs. Chaz the cat, inconvenienced by fire and padding around in a rain-soaked compound, is perhaps wondering in his catlike way why things have been so fucking turbulent lately.

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Forty-six miles away, the Napa County fairgrounds in Calistoga had been re-purposed as an evacuee center. It bustled with activity. “Welcome Evacuees” read a hand-painted sign. The large field next to the parking lot was packed with tents. The exhibit hall had been turned into a medical station. Inside the concrete hall, about hundred cots were lined up next to each other. People lay on them, many elderly.

“How are people doing?” I asked a volunteer nurse named Sue, rather lamely. (The supine bodies worried me.) “They’re okay,” replied Sue. “People are mostly dealing with smoke inhalation.”

Sue had a sensible haircut and luminous, kindly blue eyes. I suspected her bedside manner was reassuring. There were a lot of volunteers in the room, which was no surprise: on the Lake County Office of Emergency Facebook wall, there was offer after offer of help, like this posting from Kathleen Bisaccio: “I am a retired nurse and will volunteer where ever you need me.” Sue had clearly heard the call and come down to help. She looked like she’d never become unnerved by the demands on her time and attention; would never scatter and run. She’d stay put.

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I felt an almost desperate gratitude to Sue and the others: the people at the volunteer table, the woman sitting behind the State Farm insurance table, the volunteers who were calmly sifting through all the goods that came flooding in. Everywhere you looked, there were heaps and mounds of clothing, tents, books, pallets of water, art supplies, toys for the kids. It looked like a massive garage sale. The volunteers were picking and sorting and schlepping and dealing with all the stuff that that been donated. The only thing that was missing from the growing pile of stuff was arguably what the people in the camp needed the most. A home.

Lake County is really on the map right now. I’m not sure how the people in Lake County feel about that: the place is mysteriously mysterious. To get to Lake County from San Francisco, you exit from the 101 at Hopland  and take the 175, a dizzying (and potentially nauseating) mountain road and drop down into a long, broad lake basin. Sonoma county lies to the west and Napa county is directly below it. The county is proximate to the wine county, yet… not of it. Lake County is not a wealthy county, though there is wealth in it. The median household income is 36,000 dollars. My friend Gail wrote, “The economy has always been sluggish and a great number of the population is on some kind of assistance. Lots of meth labs and pot farms. But through it all, a core of good middle-class workers. I always liked Middletown. It was diverse with Harbin Hot Springs new-ager’s and blue-collar steam power workers, teachers, farmers, retirees and lately winery folks.” Hard to believe, living and writing from the culturally denuded landscape of San Francisco, that there are still small towns in California that possess this cast of characters; this sort of unconscious eclecticism.

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Lake County has the distinction of having California’s largest natural lake in it, called Clearlake, a startlingly huge body of water that a surprising number of Californians know nothing about. The first time I saw it, I gaped at it. I was in Lakeport for a friend’s funeral, Marla Ruzika, who was a human rights activist killed by an IED in Iraq in 2005. Years earlier, Marla told me where she was from. When I said I’d never heard of it, she told me not to feel bad about my ignorance. “No one knows about it, ’cause it isn’t off 101,” she said.

This isn’t really the time or place to go into a long tangent about the fascinating geologic and hydrologic history of Lake County, but I’m going to, because it’s wild. Did you know Lake County has a volcano, Mount Konocti? It does and it’s still a threat. The USGS says, of the volcano, that “intermittent seismic activity and the presence of heat at depth indicate that the system is still active and eruptions are likely.” (Good to know.) The next time you’re in Calistoga, stand on the main street, and lift your eyes east to perceive the basalt crowns ridging the western escarpment of the Mayacamas mountains to the north, and the Palisades range to the south. Think about Mount Konocti. Then, consider the area known as the “geysers”, the largest geothermal field in California which is spread liberally over the crest of the Mayacamas. It supplies power to Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, Napa, and Marin counties. The earth belches steam and heats water because of a large magma chamber that sits four miles below the ground of Lake County. Harbin Hot Springs, Four Springs and probably lots of other anonymous hot springs owe their existence to the eight-mile wide magma chamber of Mount Koncocti.

Lake County averages at least 12 small earthquakes a day, because of Calpine’s practice of injecting effluent into the ground—fracking, in other words—to increase the output of steam. Since Calpine started doing this, the number of earthquake has steadily crept upward. Lake County and its residents experience the by-products of the fiery volatility underfoot each day in the form of cluster earthquakes and the healing waters of the hot springs resorts in the area. I wonder how many small hot springs, not contained in private resorts like Harbin, are known and used by the residents of Hidden Valley and Cobb and the other small settlements of the Mayacamas mountain. I bet if you asked locals, you’d get tips on places to bathe in the healing waters of Lake County; places you didn’t have to pay to access. But they’d have to like you to give that kind of information up. One gets the feeling that the people who live in Lake County like it quiet. They don’t want a bunch of people tromping in and settling down.

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The Lake Countians, though, like being settled down just fine. Arguably, this might be hard to do in a place where earthquakes shake the ground every hour or so. Throughout the Mayacamas, they’ve made places for themselves in small towns like Cobb, and sometimes not in small towns, but in ad-hoc settlements so typical of California’s foothill and mountain communities. This is a pleasant way to live when nature is cooperating. “We always felt Anderson Springs was a safe haven,” a evacuee The Sacramento Bee. When it isn’t, it can be deadly. The Valley Fire was exactly that for three people, as of this writing. There will likely be more. It displaced 17,000 people and destroyed 535 residences. The tents in the evacuees camp are place-markers for the homes that burned as the fire barreled though the hills above Middletown.

In trying to understand the disadvantage of being burnt out of your home, it might be wise to consult with recent census data, math combined with a Google drive down Highway 175 on Google maps. That’s how I found a pre-fire shot of a mobile home tucked away off McKinley Drive, a short street that runs parallel to 175 for a few yards (Lake County, according to the 2000 census, has the highest percentage of mobile homes of any California county.) I’m going to posit a fictional, but totally plausible scenario: A single mom lived in this now-destroyed mobile home, with her two children and several dogs. She works as a sales associate at Walmart. This is also plausible: Walmart is one of the top employers in Lake County. The current wage for a sales associate at Walmart is $9.32. It will rise to ten bucks after January 1st, 2016 because of AB 10, which raised the minimum wage. But as of this writing, it’s $9.32. If this fictional mom —whom I’m sure exists and is maybe even living at the Napa County fairgrounds with her two kids in a tent—works forty hours a week, at $9.34 an hour, she makes, after taxes, 433.90 a week. Annually, that’s 20,827.20 a year. The Living Wage calculator for Lake County says that an hourly living wage for an adult with two kids is twenty-five bucks an hour. Annually, that’s about forty-seven thousand (again, after taxes.) My fictional mom is obviously not making that. She’s probably on assistance, Medical, most likely.

This construct is ponderously tendentious, but you have to start somewhere. It’s hard to re-situate yourself in a dwelling with all the costs it takes (first month, last month, deposit) making 20, 827 a year, especially after losing everything. It’s hard to make ends meet on twenty thousand a year just staying put, but the day-to-day routines, scenarios and situations of life give you at least a chance to plan for the change headed your way.  (If you see it. In this right-to-work state, you may not.) Staying put within your admittedly constrained economic limits at least gives you the ability to think, perchance to dream, of stepping up one rung in the economic ladder. Displacement bursts those limits wide open.

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What is the difference between an evacuee and a refugee in Lake County, CA? Is it just a matter of closing the gap between the current minimum wage and a livable wage? Or is it a designation assigned by time and locale? The longer you sleep on a cot in a concrete room, the more likely it is that your identity, destroyed by disaster, reconstructs itself around other people’s diminished expectations for your long-term prospects. My friend Christie astutely pointed out that volunteer help was more likely to be needed in a few weeks, after the first flush of altruism wears thin, compassion fatigue sets in and people stop volunteering. Do you stop being an evacuee the morning you wake up and realize that the act of seeking refuge for too long has turned you into something troublesome and unwanted, something people build walls to keep out?

Here’s a quote from Jelani Cobb: “History, social science and common sense have made it increasingly difficult not to consider the term “natural disaster” as a linguistic diversion, one that carries a hint of absolution. Hurricanes, earthquakes and floods are natural phenomena; disasters , however, are often the work of humankind.”

Which also means that the work of humankind can prevent disaster. I think of the weird mixture of gratitude and desperation I felt looking into the calm blue eyes of Sue, the volunteer nurse. Later, well-meaning friends thanked me, with the same gasping relief (thank god that someone’s doing something!) I felt fraudulent. I hadn’t performed a single act of support. I just observed.

Later I thought, we’re all so afraid we won’t do the right thing. However we define that.

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Right now, the “right thing” might be giving money to North Coast Opportunities for relief efforts for fire victims. FEMA has given a grant to assist with the huge job of fighting the fire, and providing some evacuee support. But nothing I’ve read makes it sounds like FEMA re-builds homes. How will they get rebuilt? For those with private fire insurance, this might not be a question. But for those without? A natural phenomena—exacerbated by climate change and drought—will do exactly what all the other fires, floods and famines of the past have done: metastasize into a disaster. “Crap! Looks like we’re homeless!” an evacuee wrote on the Facebook page of Lake County Office of Emergency Assistance. “It was a good little house that protected us well.” They didn’t mention anything about re-building it.

 

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Written on the night of the waxing, first-quarter moon, which is moving into Sagittarius. Let’s all be outward-bound. Here’s to Chaz the cat!