The record waters of Winter 2023 came too late for my great, great grandmother tree. Last year, in this blog, I relayed how she was losing leaves in May, when they should have been growing out and green. Then, in my August 2022 post, I shared that all her leaves turned brown all at once. That must have been the moment of death. Despite the signs, I held out hope that she would recover. When all the oaks began sprouting leaves, and she did not, I deluded myself that she was just late. Eventually, I had to admit she was gone. When he was over in March, I consulted Ron Allen of Mariposa Native Plants (He is also a UC Master Gardener). He looked at the branches, chose one of the smaller ones, and it snapped right off, dry throughout. He said she was gone.
What I determined I needed to do is plant seedlings. After the loss of my favorite oak in December 2022, I resolved to collect acorn and plant them. There are no guarantees with that, and we have certainly not had any seedlings over the years with all the acorn those trees produced. This is why I had to pivot to seedlings. I got two from Ron. We discussed how the roots of the trees, even though dead above, can still be alive for some time below. Ron was telling me about how these dead trees are called nurse trees, and when planting seedlings within the crown, they have a better chance of survival because the roots protect them. There is communication and sharing of resource. There is so much being written now of what is happening below the surface of the soil, and it is magnificent. Of course, Indigenous communities knew about these connections. Many stories contain valuable information and lessons that survived colonization. I will see if I can share a story in a future post.
Bees Have Emerged
I am happy to report that the native bees have finally emerged. I have seen several semicircle, precision cuts in leaves telling me that the leaf cutter bees are out. Although I saw the female crotch bumble bee in April, I saw the majority of other native bees beginning mid May. We had several groups of smaller bumble bees. This is fantastic since they are a species in decline. In each grouping there was a larger sized bumble and two or more smaller bumbles. I wonder if the larger was the female and the smaller were males. There were many, many more European Honeybees competing with the bumbles for food. Fortunately, I have significant blooms this year and think there is enough to go around. I also saw small gray native bees with the abdomen stripes. They seemed to disappear when I got close with the camera. Although I am nearly finished with my pollinator steward certification program, I am just scratching the surface of available knowledge on native bees. There is so much to learn and so little time to dedicate.
Plenty of Nectar and Milkweed – Few Butterflies
Above is a screen shot of the latest citizen data on the monarch migration. It comes from the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper site. The cool temperatures have had them leaving the groves later than last year and possibly staying in more temperate areas longer. Far less sightings have been recorded as compared to last year. I am not sure what it all means yet. Reader, would you help? If you are in the west, please use this tool to document sightings of monarchs. I am going to ask my crowd on social media to help track them as well.
As of this writing, my many stands of mature milkweed have gone unused. There is absolutely no sign of chewing (herbivory) on the plants. I have seen only a handful of butterflies. Most were painted ladies, some cabbage and sulphur, and one red admiral.
I am still holding out hope for monarchs. Some of the California Milkweed has fresh flowers sending scent into the air. Temperatures have been erratic, which may have contributed to the butterflies being mistimed with the flowering.
From Green to Yellow
Every year I am stunned by how rapid the shift is from green grass to yellow grass. Many of the photos in this blog post were taken two to three weeks ago, so you will see things as green. By the end of May, most of the landscape turned yellow. There is still water remaining in the arroyos and the swale pond. Typically, by June, they are all dry. The springs are still green as well as the recharge areas in the arroyos. Tarweed is up and some are in a very early bloom. The doveweed has emerged and will be large by August – or possibly earlier like the tarweed. We still have a large number of wildflowers – purples, whites, yellows. A beautiful native toad is living in my patio garden area. The cows are fat and happy. This is a year of abundance of food and water, but not a very large population of insects to use them.
It is breathtakingly gorgeous in the foothills right now. Between the calm temperatures, billions of wildflowers, nectar-laced scents, and avian concerts, it is magic. There continues to be water running in the lesser creeks and drainage’s, and the soil moisture content is high. With the increasing heat, the grass has grown a foot in a few days obscuring some of the native plants that were just inching out. Fortunately, some of the milkweeds got started before the recent warm-up, but, at least for the milkweeds, grazing has continued to give them a chance.
I walk up the steep slope to the largest A. Californica (California Milkweed) patch daily to count the plants and monitor them for caterpillars. Two days ago, I saw an orange-ish butterfly large enough to be seen by my limited eyesight. It was too far away to see if it was a monarch. I also did not have my glasses on. I waited for some time, but it did not return. Consequently, I am no longer leaving the house without my glasses and binoculars. As of today, I counted 16 individual plants. Just yesterday it was 14, and a couple days before that 13 and 9. So far, no emergence in the next largest site near the house. However, the one plant in the SW facing site has emerged and the west facing site has one of the two plants emerged. Unfortunately, the locations where I installed the Xerces plugs or 2021 collected seeds are not emerged. I imagine they may take a couple years to establish.
It is an emotional moment to see a grand tree cut up. If you are a regular reader, you will recall that a beautiful, healthy oak tree that was growing at an angle toppled over in the Spring Creek this past January. Between the angle, the saturated soil, wind and freeze of water on the branches, the weight became too great, and the grand tree pulled up by her root ball. It was also a reminder to me to be extremely careful as I walk among the oaks. I had just passed under her the day before.
When the tree fell, her weight was propped up on its branches and near my riparian fence gate. The smaller branches could give way releasing her massive bulk onto anything under it. It was a dangerous situation. I had no choice but to remove her.
These trees are ancestor relatives. Their lives have spanned 4 or 5 generations of my human family. Imagine their perspective of us always coming and going, building then tearing down, seeking and finding, singing and sleeping. We must be so peculiar to them. I love trees deeply. I appreciate their shade, smell, cavities breeding life, branches for singing birds, the food they provide, their moist soil under the canopy and how their roots are deep and connected. They have so much to teach us.
It is within this context and within the sensitivity of my soul, that a small piece of my heart breaks when the saw goes through my fallen relative. For such a solemn moment, the right sawyer is needed. I was grateful that Nick Brochini was available. Nick is Miwuk and understands the gift of the tree. He does not take it for granted. I don’t have to explain myself when I need to touch her and say a prayer of gratitude for her magnificence.
Nick was a young teen when I first met him. I was a tutor in the Indian Education program at the high school. He would come to the room, always a big, happy smile and carrying a turtle back pack. It was so cool; he really pulled that look off. It set him apart. Nick was a nice kid. Not a regular student in need of tutoring, he was mostly in need of community. We always enjoyed seeing him when he came through and loved hearing the tales of his school day.
Nick grew into an adult, a husband and a father over the years. His children are beautiful. I see them at the community Pow Wow from year to year. I hope they are proud of their dad. He is an expert with the saw. He knows trees and shares helpful information. He showed me the gaping hole in the tree, the rot from within. He told me all the oak trees have this. Just like humans, they develop healthcare issues as they age. He showed the start of interior rot in a smaller branch as well. What a lesson. At least some creature will have a good home.
I left a large section of her main trunk as a monument to her. Part of it will act as a check dam and the other will extend beyond the creek banks. She is beautiful even in death. The rest of the material will be used for brush piles and fire wood. Her flesh will keep my nephew and his family warm next winter. Chiokoe uttesia Huya into Nick weweriam (Thank you relatives – Tree and Nick).
After Nick left, David and I sprung into action building brush piles and stacking wood. Within one second of me stepping away, a bird landed on the pile to check it out for a new home. That made me happy. My work is worth something.
Life on the ranch is a joy I cannot adequately explain. I am the kind of girl that loves spiders, snakes and frogs. I like the smell of manure and don’t mind getting it on my boots. Not everyone is into this kind of life. For me, it is heaven. Here are some recent visitor to the house:
Check Dams Working
Nature gave me some help this year in building check dams. The photos below show one that nature built with wood that fell into the creek. Note the sediment upstream has accrued and is nearly at the height of the land, and note that downstream is still carved deeply. Holding the sediment back achieves a number of goals, 1) to increase water quality, 2) make the access to the creek more usable by wildlife, 3) build back wetland type soil, and 4) slow water runoff to retain it for flora, fauna and groundwater recharge.
I left David weedeating around the monarch plots and went to check on the California milkweed sites. I love to walk, even on this cool, windy day, so I decided to walk further looking for more milkweed. One can only hope. While out, I found so many other beautiful things. We live on a remarkable planet. Love it. Cherish it. Protect it.
There is no doubt that David loves me. Any person that would sweat for hours doing the back-straining work of building brush piles for their wife’s habitat project is running on more than calories. It has got to be love. Last weekend, David and I spent the morning hours of each day building brush piles. We work on habitat for more than just monarchs. Brush piles make a great home for birds, small mammals and other living things. Wildlife need all the help they can get in the changing world humans have made for them.
There are many resources online that can teach you how to build them and discuss in greater detail the benefits. Here is what we did:
I will be adding some game cameras to see who moves into these structures. Even though David and I both tired quickly, we feel so grateful for the ability to help the wildlife that live with us. Each pile takes two and a half hours with a 10 minute water break to build. It is good to do this work now with the temperatures so cool. Thanks also again to our neighbors Ric and Kim who allow us use of their fully electric Polaris, which made the work much easier. We are mindful of native bees that could live in the downed wood. We tried to look for what could be bee holes and not cover them up. Generally they should be ok in the brush pile. Piles are meant to have many openings and not be compact.
Native Bees Still Need Time to Emerge
I am learning a great deal in my Pollinator Stewardship Certification program – particularly about bees. This is an area where I had many deficiencies in knowledge. Because of the cool temperatures, native bees are still developing in their cavities where they were laid last fall. It is important to delay winter clean up, like leaf raking, downed tree removal and pruning dried stems from perennials. I came across this fantastic infographic posted by my friend Ray on social media (with thanks to the creators from the Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community):
Did you know that 30% of native bees nest in stems, leaf litter, downed branches and other above ground cavities? The other 70% nest below ground either in their own holes or in vacant gopher holes. Most are solitary nesters – in other words, no colony. The exception are bumble bees which live in below ground cavities in very small colonies. They are my favorites because they are so cute, fuzzy and colorful. You can learn more information about bumble bees from the Pollinator Partnership. Most native bees do not live long, especially the males. Females have more time so they can nectar, build their nest, create a large pollen ball and lay their eggs on it. The pollen ball is to give the growing bee baby enough food to fully develop before it emerges. There are 4,000 species of native bees. Check out this handy identification guide and see who is living in your yard, then you can see what you can do to make their environment even better for them to succeed.
Storms Remove Sediment and Plants
The high and fast water flow has deepened water channels and widened creek beds. This has exposed much rock and may have taken many of the plants I painstakingly planted over the years in the several sections of Spring Creek. All I can hope is that they are able to get a foothold down stream and establish new life there.
California Milkweed Continues to Emerge
We are up to seven individuals now! Hoping to break 30 this year as I carefully monitor, graze around and spread seed each year.
Tending to Xerces Plant Plots
Remarkably, 100% of the Xerces plants I planted last November and December are doing extremely well. This past week I have been carefully trimming the grass around each plant to give them a chance at some sunlight and growth. Ok, don’t think I am crazy, but I am cutting the grass with scissors. It allows for greater precision and eliminates the chance I will cut into my plants accidentally in the thicket of grass. The grass grew rapidly as soon as we had a few days of sun and increased temperature obscuring some of the plants. I am carefully trimming the grass instead of pulling it to give any cavity nesting native bees a chance to emerge. This year was cold and cold longer into spring than other years. Like the milkweed, native bees need the soil temps and air to be warmer before they emerge.
I have been checking the A. Californica sites for a week now. The benefit of documenting my work on a blog is how easy it is to see when something bloomed, emerged, went to seed, etc. You have an idea of when to expect things if you cannot quite remember. At this time last year, we had California Milkweed emerged. I figured with the cold, snow and copious rain, the California Milkweed may be delayed. Like a reliable friend who knows just when to call to cheer you up, there she was on March 15 – her beautiful furry leaves emerging from the dirt – A. Californica. Ahh, but there was not just one, there were two. I think these are the two great grandmothers of the milkweed patch. They are the first to emerge, the largest and get the caterpillars on them first. There is another large sized one as well. I went to look for her, but she was not there. It was not until a couple days later I found her. Those milkweeds are tricky. One moment they are not there, the next, they are.
I have always been a “chill” girl, never anxious, always planning ahead and under control. However, now that I have met California Milkweed, I am like a helicopter mom. I check on the plants almost daily. I worry when I see too many cows near the patch. After the atmospheric river that dumped an inch of rain in 20 minutes and made a hundreds of impromptu creeks along the hills, I had to trudge up the steep hill to make sure the plants were alright, that they were not swept away by the temporary torrent. They are built for weather of course, and I was just being ridiculous.
The storm was ferocious. Streams of water that were too much for the ground to absorb rushed down the steep slopes and into the drainages and creeks. I was only able to see it because the clouds were high. It was incredible. Upon closer inspection using binoculars, you could actually see rapids created by rocks and undulations on the surface of the slope. Mother Nature is a badass lady. It also struck me how so many patterns in nature are replicated. The shape of the impromptu water system was like a neuron. It makes sense; human neurons deliver electro-chemical impulses to make our body go, feel, be. This “neuron” is part of an overall structure delivering a life-giving substance that also alters, through the movement of sediment, the structure of the Earth’s body. Water is the Earth’s go, feel, be.
As soon as the rain cleared, I made my way from the house to the patch to check on the plants. I believe in my trusty rain boots and wear them in every season. It was probably not the best decision to head out, rain boots or not, before the water had a chance to drain a little bit more. As I headed for the hill, I had to cross the arroyo/drainage. That was no problem; however, a soggy, muck of mud was on the other side. This is a spongy area that catches water and retains it longer than other areas. I made the wrong decision to cross in this area. My boots, with feet inside, sunk deep into the mud, and then mud closed in on them. I was stuck.
Back in my big city days, I remember going into a large furniture store that also sold interesting knick-knacks. There was a survival book opportunely set on the counter of the check stand for the impulse buy. Well, that worked. It looked interesting, and I bought it. Now, this might be too much information, but I know all of us humans share the same proclivities for restroom reading – so I will share… I had many enjoyable moments on the toilet reading through that book. It is the kind you leave in the bathroom for intermittent engagement and not a cover to cover read. Fortunately, one section of the book dealt with what to do if you were caught in quicksand. I decided quicksand, mud you sink into — same thing.
The author said to escape, you needed to move at a 45 degree angle. If you tried, like one normally would, to climb out vertically, you sink more. I had already tried that, and indeed, I just got stuck more. So, now I squatted with my right leg and leaned 45 degrees to pull out my left leg trying to stay upright and not become a mud-pie. I heard a sucking sound. An air pocket! That was good. I pulled with more energy. My booted foot began to move -left, right, left, right. Yes, it is working! Finally, I pulled it free. My excitement quickly turned as the extra energy I applied began to twist me. Remember, my right booted foot was still firmly stuck in the muck. My body twisted. I tried to stay upright, but I fell. My right foot pulled out of the boot, and I landed face forward into the mud. As much as I carefully tried to avoid it, I became a mud pie after all.
Undaunted, I still continued on my quest. I reversed course, followed the arroyo, now a rapidly flowing creek, found a spot to cross without the sponge and began my trek up the steep slope. The plants were there, unaltered, built for this eventuality. I just hoped that all the seed and plugs I planted in December remained in place. I have been checking those areas too. Nothing emerging so far.
I continued to walk the ranch, covered in mud and wet through my knees, thighs and one sock. My boots and jacket protected my other layers, so I was still warm. I stopped in the creek to cup the water and wash off my jacket, boots and pants. That mud is sticky. The majority of it washed off, but still left a streak. I will need to wash the jacket with a cloth later at home. All the dams held and there were no blockages in the gaps between fencing and creeks. Just some dirty clothes and a sore right foot from the twist. All in all, a good day.
One of the activities I perform most is monitoring the condition of the ranch. This includes assessing water levels, fence condition, check dam integrity, plant health and a general look to see what is new or identifying things that could be a problem, like all the downed trees and limbs. I love to walk and be in nature – so monitoring is one of the most enjoyable things about being a land steward.
The weather has been tricky. Between damaging storms have been joyous spring-like days. It can be hard to stay focused on work. Eventually, I extricate myself from behind my computer and head out onto the land. Last week was gorgeous weather. I even opened the windows to exchange the air in the house one day. The smell of millions of wildflowers entered. It was incredible. It was also warm enough to be in short sleeves, so I sat in the sun a little enjoying the quiet natural noises of my surroundings. As I did, I thought to myself, “Why don’t I do this more?” Life has become so much work. There is always plenty to do. I think people are finally waking up to the realization that, even if you love what you do (and I do), you need to find moments of nothing, to sit quietly, to just be and be without deadlines, dramas, and to-dos. Below are some photos from a recent monitoring expedition.
Now is a good time to remind folks about mylar balloons since I found yet another one on my monitoring expedition. Please don’t use them. I know they seem like a festive way to say, “Congratulations”, “Happy Birthday” and everything else. They often get let go by children, and some adults, and end up as dangerous trash others have to clean up. They are dangerous because calves, who are just learning to explore their world, can eat them, blocking their digestion and result in a very painful death. I pick up almost a hundred a year. We seem to be on the right wind pattern for dying balloons.
I sowed peas and oats to build nitrogen in the soil and as a cover crop. With the cold temps and frequent cloud cover, they have not grown as much. I also placed some in my seed starting tray. Some seedlings sprouted when there was a longer beak between storms, and I am placing them in open areas in my raised beds. Maybe the sowed seeds will catch up at the next break. I did see some initial growth out of the seeds. The arugula that my dear friend Caroline Korn gave me many years ago has really taken off. We have fields full of it. It has been so crucial for bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds. I sighted a red admiral butterfly. It will likely freeze or get too wet to survive with the next storm cycle. The weather has been alternating between spring-like and winter. Well, I hope it will survive long enough to procreate.
Exhaustion can be good for the body and mind if done intermittently and not often. The dogs and I come back from our adventures tired, but happy. I am continuing with my Pollinator Steward Certification. I don’t know if I will change careers, but it is good to always be learning so you can do what you do better.
I had a wonderful email from my friend Marian back in January. She was sharing an old mutual friend’s (Chris’) self-made book about a close encounter with a monarch last year. The three of us shared an office back in the day when we were all young healthcare professionals serving the public. Now Chris and Marian are retired (not yet for me) and onto other things. One of the many things Chris does is being a Master Gardener. Chris, was so inspired and transformed by her encounter with a monarch that she wrote a children’s book about her experience. She did an outstanding job researching monarchs and telling the story. You can check out the charming video of her reading the book here. Thanks so much to Chris for allowing me to share her work.
Hornitos is not in the snow belt of the Sierras. When we first moved to the ranch twenty years ago, we would receive a few centimeters, maybe 1/4″, a few times a year. For the past nine or so years, we’ve had perhaps three or four days of snow. In all of those days, the snow would be fully melted by mid morning. Not Saturday (2/25). Like a sci-fi film with time machines, pods or shapeshifters, I went back in time and was inhabited by the joy I felt as a child. Acknowledging that the snow has been a major crisis for many people in my community whose electricity has been out or who have been trapped in their homes for days, at my elevation, it has been a different experience. It moved me to write this essay on snow days.
The weather report had been promising snow for days, but nothing. As a child of the mountains, my DNA has been trained to quiver with anticipation at the word “snow”. Alas, each morning I would awake, heart filled with hope and throw open the curtains. Green, gray, blue…no white.
Driving home from a rangeland meeting Friday night, the rain continued to increase the further I drove into the foothills. It was that thick type of rain, the kind that if it was cold enough, it could move to solid form. I kept and eye on the temperature…45…41…39. It was 38 degrees as I pulled into my driveway. Not cold enough. Still, it was only 7pm. There was time overnight for the temperature to dip. So – maybe… possibly…hopefully?
That night was a good night. I did some work, had a meal, watched a show with my love, brushed my teeth and then went to bed with the sound of the rain on the roof, great big quit pulled up tight, warm dogs curled on the floor breathing heavily with sleep, a feline stretched alongside of me. I was asleep immediately.
A clinking woke me at 6am. Although reminiscent of Santa’s jolly jingle, I knew it was the jiggle of Jolee’s collar. The dogs were awake. Except for the collar, it was extremely quiet, snow quiet. Like the child I was growing up in the Sierras, I bolted out of bed. Now 52, I risked pulling a muscle…but the adrenaline protected me. I launched vertically, then made a diagonal trajectory to my large curtained slider. Jerking the curtains right, toward the wall, I had to catch my breath. It was white, not translucent white from a dusting of snow, it was thick, storybook white.
Poor David. I screamed. “David, it snowed! It snowed! Look darling! Look!” He fumbled for his glasses, grabbed mine, realized his mistake, then searched again for his. “D, do you see it?! There has to be almost three inches on the fences!” David finally with his bearings – and his own glasses – let out an audible gulp of air. “Whoa. That’s a lot.”
David does not get emotional. For me, it is a muscle memory of a child who lived on the edge of a national forest, 30 miles from Yosemite. Snow is fun, no school, staying home, sledding, hot cocoa, and fresh baked goods if we were lucky – and we almost always were (Thanks mommy). Snow days were time with family. Snowball wars with siblings. Warm fires. Games. Storytelling. The adults in the house actually listened, cared about what I had to say, and I felt like I was important to them.
Fortunately, I slept in something warm – a holey cashmere sweater and old exercise pants – because I went straight out the door. I didn’t have time for boots. I pulled on my gray sheepskin slippers, dogs at heels, brain fuzzy with joy. It was snowing and cold…and I did not care. The dogs immediately began running and playing. They too know how remarkable it is to feel the fluff of frozen water, snowflakes delicately stacked one on top of the other.
I ran across the untouched snow like my winter ancestors in animal skin-clad feet. Those slippers are older than my time with David. They were a luxury I had to have at a time when I did not have as much. When I was a teen, I usually handed my paycheck to my parents. They were going through a tough financial time then. My father had fought in Vietnam, and I just don’t think he could shake the anger. Although he was good at what he did, it could be difficult for him to hold a job. The time I bought my slippers, he had been working steadily, so I kept some of my pay.
We lived at over 3,500′ elevation. In those days, the higher the elevation, the more affordable the home. It was so cold. Our house had electric heaters and a fireplace. Electricity was incredibly expensive, and we were absolutely forbidden from turning on the heaters. Fireplaces can only heat so much of a house, especially when there are two floors and the fire is on the top floor. I dreaded getting ready for school on winter mornings such was the cold. But, I knew if my feet were warm, the rest of my body could handle the temperature. So, with my extra money, I tentatively made the purchase – tentatively because those slippers were expensive, and that money could go to a multitude of other things, needed things. I decided I needed that warmth and bought them. Each time I slip them on, I say a quiet “thank you” to the sheep whose life it took to keep my feet warm. I have honored its sacrifice for over 30 years.
Eventually, the cold brought me back to the present day. I came back into the house, snowflakes in my hair and on my sweater but feet dry and warm. David was still struggling to get winter clothes on. Hey y’all, David is from LA so… two layers of sweaters, snow pants on top of sweatpants, double hooded, and snow boots. Love this man. He makes me laugh. Of course, I was already laughing with pure joy. I grabbed my waterproof boots, a jacket and hat and was out the door again, playing with my dogs, running in the snow, a child again.
After some snowballs lobbed, I set off for a long winter walk. David went back inside after he began to slip a little, preferring the view from the window than a precarious walk. It was just the dogs and I. Into the quiet we went, carefully watching for trees too labored under the weight of snow, avoiding stepping through the rushing, frigid snow melt water, but fully enjoying being the first tracks in the snow. We are connected to this landscape. Respecting it, knowing how it is built so we stay out of trouble. My people’s word for snow is sapam. It is built on the words ba’am (water), the verb sapa weche (to freeze), and connected through “weche” in kom weche (to fall down) -so “snow” equals frozen water that falls down. Our Indigenous language, like our minds, are structured to acknowledge the interconnections of our world, the relationships of how we all fit together. In this place, with my fur-babies, forests, creeks and hilltops, I feel like one creature, just as I did when I was a young person wandering through the snow-filled forests, sheep-skin slippers, dog, loving family, home.
January and February have been nice. Although I’ve still been out monitoring and planning, I have not had to do as much physical labor. The rest has been welcome. Last December and November, I planted the Xerces Grassland Habitat Kit – over 200 plants and perhaps 1000 seeds. Certainly, this is an effort of love for the land, love for butterflies and bees. This week feels more spring-like, so I am outside again performing maintenance labor. While out pulling grass and straightening gopher baskets already planted into the ground, I saw the first butterfly of the season. What incentive!
The monarch overwintering count has been encouraging, with the number of adults just over 330,000. This is up from the 260,000 last year. We all need to recognize, however, that these numbers are nothing compared to what their population should be. Monarch and other butterflies were in the millions in most of our lifetimes back in the 1980s. Please continue to do everything you can do to build habitat and make conditions livable for these relatives of ours.
Rains Bring Flowers
As I’ve performed my walks about the ranch, the smell of nectar hangs in the air. It is so sweet. My mind turns fuzzy – like that “in love” brain block. I am intoxicated from the smell. It is no wonder February is the month we celebrate love. I try not to admit that the fuzzy head is from a histamine reaction – allergies. The sense of being in love with the world is too pleasant a thought.
I follow my nose and am led to small, low growing white flowers. There are millions of them in all the areas without much grass. These are the first wildflowers of the season to emerge.
In just a week, there are more blooms. Arugula, not a native plant, but very prolific (and delicious), begin to blossom. There are thousands of plants with many flowers each. Then lavender….then brodiaea…and soon many more.
Weeks after the major storms, the arroyos are still running, albeit a trickle, but still moving. The creeks are running well, but slowing. Pockets of algae are beginning to form. Algae occurs when there is significant nutrients in the water – typically the result of fertilizers farmers use and livestock. Here, it is the result of cattle poop. The cows were rotated to the north just after the big storms. The algae began to show last week. It is one of the down sides of cows. Algae can starve water of oxygen and make it inhabitable for other life. When it gets think, I try to open up holes on the surface of the water to allow movement and oxygen absorption. It is a losing battle of course. Unless I remove it after it forms, it just grows back again.
The force of the water was so tremendous, it blanched rocks – making the rock surfaces white. The torrent also deposited a remarkable amount of rock and sand into the creek channels. In some locations, the height of rock piles increased by 6″.
Although it was shifted around during higher flow times, the bulk of my rock check dam held. It retained the sediment, which built up behind it. It is absolutely stunning how much rock and sediment flowed down even on small creeks.
I attended the Southern Sierra Miwuk Traditional Ecological Knowledge program, which was two days. The second day, we worked on using fire to make the ground and specific plants healthy. I am not too comfortable around large fires – small fires ok – but large are a bit daunting. With each experience, I get a little more comfortable. I would like to have a burn at the ranch in fall and target eliminating medusa head and promoting some of the riparian native plants.
Cold nights and winter rains provide a nice rest from the typical pace and scale of stewardship work. It is very pleasant to sit with my mug of tea staring out the east facing window while still in my pajamas. I am in no rush, as I am in the spring, summer and fall. I can lounge a little and contemplate the future I am attempting to create for monarchs, pollinators – really, all living things. At some point, reverie must turn into action, so I pull on my overalls, turtleneck with flower embellishments, slowly bend to pull one wool sock on, then the other. No searing sun in recent weeks, so choose to warm my ears instead of protect my skin. The best choice is the knit cap my mother made – a pink crocheted masterpiece. Finally, I put my rubber muck boots on. I prefer to work in these – easy on, easy off and waterproof. It has been wet, and soggy ground is everywhere, even between storms.
The past few weeks, I’ve been working on impromptu, small check-dam structures to slow storm run off, A. Californica seed planting, infrastructure checks and garden clean up. Soon, I will find the energy to deepen troughs dug two months ago and create more mini swales.
Playing in the water is fun. The next gallery shows my work building a mini check dam across the bottom of Spring Creek. The concept of the check dam is to slow water runoff to prevent down stream erosion, and give water an opportunity to sink in to recharge ground water stores. Another benefit is to build up sediment behind it, which helps decrease the depth of a section of creek that may be unnaturally steep.
Rain (Destruction + Rebirth) Continues
Water is both a destructive and a life-giving force. The recent series of storms have required the evacuation of towns, soiled water sources, torn up creeks and rivers, and resulted in loss of life. However, this water will also help start seeds, fill up low reservoirs, clean up debris in stream beds, and bring life to many a creature just waiting for the right amount moisture, like frogs. We have not had an abundance of frogs for several years. The ground has been too dry and standing water too warm. As you can imagine, with all the water across thousands of open acres, the frogs sing an amphibian anthem to life and water. Oh how I love hearing their cacophony of croaks and chirps.
The rain has also filled my rainwater tanks, which will keep new pollinator plants alive when temperatures soar past 100 degrees later this year. Although it is a soggy, muddy mess out here, I am filled with gratitude and joy. Chiokoe uttesia va’am (Thank you water).
The Xerces plants are doing extremely well with all the rain. Some of the mature plants are looking over watered, but still very healthy.
Stewardship: More Than Just Brawn
There are many types of “seeds” one must plant to produce a better future for our non-human relatives. Last week, Tara (Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation) and I provided comments at the California Wildlife Conservation Board meeting in support of a grant opportunity that would benefit Mariposa County and fund the Pollinator Team for another five years (The Board voted “Yes”!!). I have written and co-written grants, sent written comments on policy changes and tried to work with my county on pesticide/herbicide use reform. I also continue to learn so that I can be more effective as a habitat restorer and as an advocate. In December, I attended the Intertribal Agricultural Council conference – very cool. In February, I will attend the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) Small Farms Conference. I am also thinking about getting certified as a Pollinator Steward. It is a little expensive and not entirely in my career area, but it is something I enjoy. Thinking about it.
I am still grieving the loss of my beloved 200+ year old oak. The curtains stay shut in the rooms that viewed her. I don’t want to evenaccidentally glance that direction and see her laying there, tall stump, slump of branches, leaves still clinging. I finally gathered the courage to explore her corpse. Her insides were webby, evidence of rot. I found black on the interior too. Lightening strike? But, it was color more than char and in the middle of her, so perhaps evidence of fire 100 or so years ago. I am not a tree expert, so will need to ask one.
As I explore, never do I use gloved hands to touch her. I want to feel her thick bark and the energy that wanes from her trunk. I want to remember her and how she feels, how she makes me feel. It moves me to reflect on how desperate I was to remember the softness of my mother’s skin as she lay in the hospital bed hooked to breath sustaining machinery. I never wanted to forget – knowing I would never again have the chance to feel her hand warm, blood moving through all the veins, feeding that supple, impossibly soft skin. I held her hand until she was gone. I will hold the trunk of this grandmother tree until she is gone too.
But, I am sorry dear reader. It is the holiday season, and I should not burden you with grief. My love for this magnificent oak brings echos of my mother, and I listen for those memories and then I write. As my pen and touch of keyboard, this is how life moves, with happy and sad. Like all of you, all of us, we will, I will survive the sadness.
How To Work Through Sadness: Plant New Life
The massive kit of Xerces nectar plants, milkweed and seeds have all been planted as of Thursday. Hooray. That was a monumental effort. I only have a handful of the surplus narrowleaf milkweed and the California milkweed they sent home with me to plant. Those will be in before Christmas. I have created several new “lily pads” or plots of milkweed in the center and nectar surrounding. Except for those that went into the creek area and the A. Californica, all plants were planted in stainless steel speed baskets. The disturbed dirt was covered with bark mulch. I was very careful to look for signs of native bee holes and deliberately did not plant near gopher holes, where native bees may have chosen to live. I learned so much from the native bee webinar Xerces provided. It made me feel much more empowered to make good decisions in my pollinator habitat work.
There were a couple plants whose roots were not well formed yet. I planted those in one gallon containers and will watch for their progress. Maybe next year they will be ready to be planted into the ground.
The California milkweed planting required me to find suitable locations where they might have the best opportunity to thrive. I followed the lead of the existing California milkweed. I listened and watched carefully. As a result, I traversed steep slopes, found to rocky outcroppings and chose southern exposures in an attempt to get the most milkweed emerging the earliest. I am crossing my fingers some will take.
Storm Damage Extensive
I walked part of the ranch after the storm and found more toppled oaks, downed branches, and land slides into the creeks. It was a ferocious storm. In the spring creek, two sections of the bank slipped into the creek. It looked as though a dead tree was toppled and lodged there as well – pushed in place by the rush of water. The creek channel had been widened, and it was a sloppy, murky rush of water running. I noticed that where I had planted deergrass that had matured, the land did not slide. It did take out two smaller deergrass that had not had an opportunity to get large. They were the plants most accessible, so they got hit by the cows most often. See the photo above. Look for the t-post “tipis” and the fan of grass (green at the bottom to yellow fan at the top). I used the Xerces purple needle grass seeds to reseed the slide area. I will keep monitoring to see if that bunch grass establishes there in the spring.
Sadly, a majestic, large, healthy oak also toppled toward the bottom of the riparian fencing. What a huge loss. That is where the creek formed a natural shallow pool. It was a nice spot for the cattle to drink and not impact the stream banks. Her roots also made nice caves for frogs to find shade when the pond was full. She was not down the first time I assessed damage. It was the second day after the storm. We had a freeze, and I think the moisture on the branches froze and made them heavier. Combine the heaviness of the branches with the saturated soil and her slightly angled growth from the side of the creek bank, and they were the right conditions for her to fall. Unlike my favorite tree by the house, she toppled at her root ball, which adds more evidence that this was the issue and not poor health. I did not have any more tears to shed, so I simply embraced her trunk, touched her branches, examined her leaves and thanked her for what she provided me, the frogs and the water for so many years. Unlike the area near the house, there are many baby oaks along the creek, which have a high likelihood that they are hers. I have been protecting them for years, so I feel like I have done something for her, something that would have made her happy. RIP maala huya (mother tree).
Water and Plants
The guzzler is filled and working very well. Thanks again to David for all his work on that. It makes me beyond happy to provide assistance to wildlife who will benefit from this when water becomes scare again.
There is plenty of water now. The creeks are running, the swale pond is filled and there are still standing puddles. It took three storms to get here. The land was so thirsty that everything was absorbed until this last major storm.
I found two deergrass that I did not plant and a black oak in the spring creek!
I am not able to do anything I do without the help of so many. This was evident during a site visit the other day by NRCS and Cal Fish & Wildlife staff. Their knowledge is remarkable, and their understanding of the funding system through their agencies is crucial. While here for just a couple hours, Joe Medley, who is a bird specialist, saw or heard:
Great blue heron Bald eagle (at Slate Gulch and Hornitos Road departing site) Red-shouldered hawk Red-tailed hawk Mourning dove Acorn woodpecker Red-breasted sapsucker Northern flicker American kestrel Say’s phoebe
Loggerhead shrike Yellow-billed magpie Common raven Oak titmouse Bushtit White-breasted nuthatch Ruby-crowned kinglet Western bluebird American robin White-crowned sparrow House finch
I was overjoyed learning about the diversity of birds he heard and saw. Being a better bird identifier is on my list of things to do!
I am so very grateful to everyone that has helped me make this pollinator habitat expansion happen. Together, we brought monarchs back to this place. Thank you will all my heart to: David, my spouse for all the labor. Tuck, Les, Lois, Bill and Helen – Southern Sierra Miwuk elders I spoke to before beginning this effort. My neighbors, Kim and Ric Wetzel for the use of their Polaris and for the early labor by Ric. My cattleman Tom Fane for working with me on grazing schedules. Ron and Bev of Mariposa Native Plants. Melinda Barrett from Mariposa Resource conservation District. Deedee Soto, Jessa Kay-Cruz and Angela Laws from Xerces Society. The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation, Kristie Martin, Nellie Tucker and Tara Fouch-Moore for taking on the Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu Pollinator Program. CARCD – grants and newsletter. Monarch Joint Venture – education programs. NRCS – great educators and funders: John Grimes, Jesse Balm, Alisa (did not get the last name), Joe Medley, Prospero, Curt and Jennifer. Cal Fish and Wildlife, Rosie Gonzalez. Point Blue staff who worked on an initial plan with NRCS Elaina Kromer. A special thank you to readers/friends who have sent kind words of encouragement: Sherry, Jo, Lisa, Jeanne Ann, Lisa, Karen, Susie, Melinda, Clay. I almost ended the blog earlier this year, but your words of encouragement kept me going. And, a final thanks to all the people who were inspired by the work to save the monarchs and planted milkweed and nectar. Only because of this multiplier effect will we be able to make a difference. Sorry to anyone I missed on this list. Chiokoe utteisavu (Thank you all) for the work you do to make the world a better place for all living things, all our relations.
Since this may be my last post of the year, Happy holidays to you and yours.
Early this weekend morning, after a night of howling winds and sheets of rain, I exited the house to take David to an appointment. I had just stepped outside the garage to make the walk downhill to open the first of our two gates. I peered left to see my beloved, favorite elder tree, as I often do, when I froze in horror. A scream welled from deep inside me… “No! Oh no, no, no!”
David emerged from the car not sure what was happening as I ran toward my best friend these last 20 years. Screaming as I ran, I flung myself into what was now a broken pile of branches, leaves and dismembered trunk heaped onto the ground – only a craggy stump remained upright. My arms embraced the now horizontal trunk of the most beautiful tree that ever lived, and I sobbed into her. I sobbed telling her how much I loved her, how much I appreciated her and how sorry I was that I could not help her survive longer, help her thrive in a changing climate. Her tired, 200+ year old body, now a collection of parts, trunk stretched across the earth that birthed her when my Miwuk and Yokut cousins still walked free upon the land. Tortuous branches, so large but delicate, twisted up, one upon the other now – instead of stretched like 20 Bali dancers making their flourishes, arms gracefully moved around, spiraling, curving, wrists turned just so. A million leaves scattered on the ground, some still clinging to the fingers that nurtured them, blowing with the gusts of wind, tempered but insistent that the job be done to separate leaf from branch and branch from trunk and trunk from root – a cycle inescapable as much as I wished it not to be…at least for her.
I don’t know how long I was there embracing her, my face buried into her fallen trunk, bark in my hair, on my skin and sweater, tears and mucus running from my face onto her body, the smell of wet wood, distinctly oak. I had not cried this fully, this deeply since I lost my mother – another entity deeply rooted in the land and in my life that fell too early. How long was I there before a hand came around my still heaving shoulders, body quivering from the effort to manifest sadness, David saying, “I am so sorry”?
David was not sure if he should cancel or continue the day, but we had to continue. Life continues. She will continue – as mulch, habitat and who knows what else – as her pieces become smaller and smaller, giving their remaining gifts back to the soil.
As the next morning begins, I have never dreaded the light so much. To see her again spread across the hill is almost unbearable. Perhaps there is more I can do for her, some ritual or ceremony, some way to memorialize her as she was. Ah- I will plant the acorns today. In three generations, her progeny will soar towards the sky for another to love her as I have and marvel at the magnificence.
With the exception of early November, it has been dry. The early month rain was wonderful, but we need more sustained days to really get the ground and creeks back to typical functioning. Although there have been cold days, the sun has come out and created warm temperatures. There are still butterflies and blooms, bees and bugs of all sorts. We all need rest, and this lengthened growing season is not healthy for any of us – soil, bugs, plants…me.
The garden is still going strong too. I have made wonderful salads for family and friends for over a month now. Would you believe that I still have tomatoes growing?! The tomato plants are definitely showing signs of cold, but the blooms are still converting to fruit. It is not hot enough to turn the tomatoes to red, but I am thinking I will make a sizable green tomato salsa.
Xerces Plants Almost All Planted – Whew!
I am down to 31 nectar plants to plant and around 30 milkweed plants. This may sound like a lot, and it is, but I started with well over 200. Because Xerces had some extra plants they provided and because my water situation changed for the worse since the time I submitted my request to participate with them, I enlisted the help of some friends to plant at their more lush, water-rich properties. I gave friends, Raw Roots Farm (Lauren and Andrew Gliken) and Letha Goger some milkweed and nectar plants to augment their existing habitat.
Raw Roots is located along Owens Creek in Catheys Valley. They already have a large stand of narrowleaf in a low-lying, moist area of their farm. Most importantly, they already have an irrigation system to support the plants in the first couple years and in dry times. Fortunately, Andrew’s family was visiting for the Thanksgiving holiday and were conscripted to help with the planting. I love it when families, especially children, are involved in stewarding the land. It is a strong, important lesson to teach them of their responsibility to all living things. Amazingly, while I was there dropping off some plants, a monarch flew by. WHAT! Shouldn’t they be on the coast overwintering by now? With climate change, who knows how all of us will adapt (or not). This beautiful butterfly was large. I only saw it for a moment. Andrew told me that he had caterpillars this year that he found on the corn. Interesting.
Letha Goger is the matriarch of an incredible family of people who provide exemplary public service through their paid and volunteer work. She recently volunteered to become a Xerces Ambassador. I was so excited when I heard she did that. There is something very deep in her that wants to serve the land. She has a beautiful piece of property with existing habitat and water infrastructure. On the property is the confluence of two washes and a spring fed creek – all within the Mariposa Creek watershed, I believe, and located in the area between Mariposa and Catheys Valley. Kristie Martin from the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation’s Pollinator Team and I went to Letha’s to do an assessment and make recommendations. She has a great spring and moisture-rich property. Plants are happy there, and the Xerces plants will have a high likelihood of establishing. I gave her some milkweed and some nectar plants. including the California milkweed scientists are finding is so vital for the early part of the monarch migration. Letha was overjoyed. Kristie and I identified several places in the moist areas where plants would be able to establish best. There were a couple of other places closer to the house where Letha is able to irrigate them. Overall, this will be a key location in an important watershed for monarch migration adjacent to existing habitat. We are really making some headway in Mariposa County for expanding pollinator habitat.
Thank you to the Glikens and Gogers for their incredible support of pollinators from before this time to now and into the future. Chiokoe uttesia.
At the beginning of the month, it rained. I deepened existing rainwater channels and dug new ones to the ailing grand blue oak trees. David propped up the south rainwater tank pipe to promote better flow from the gutter point of entry, which was overflowing with the new catchment entry receptacle. The swale pond finally had standing water, even though it was just a little. I am still waiting for my cattleman to be healthy enough to take a look at my log and rock drop structure. I am anxious to get that installed to slow the runoff from the storms. Poor guy. He has had several health issues in the family all at one time. We wish them well always.
The guzzler project is almost finished. David has taken on the task of building the guzzler overhang. He is not a contractor. It has been slow going, but it saves us money. We are not wealthy people and every penny counts here. If I paid for someone to do everything, I would be broke. He has done a good job, and boy that structure looks pro!
Walking the Ranch I Find a Forest in Crisis
The spot I had picked out to plant the Xerces milkweed and other nectar plants is no longer viable given the intense dryness of the landscape. I have been scouting other locations, looking for existing milkweed as a sign of a good place to plant. The mid and back sections of the ranch are more forested than the open grassland of the front. Over the last three months, the decline of the forest was evident. Even if I was blind, the level of dismemberment of the trees would be noticeable. The dry crunch of leaves and smaller phalanges of branches loud and audible. The smell of dried oak and newly severed bark unmistakable. The impassibility of the trail from large branches or full trees returning to the ground from their skyward heights tactile.
I no longer feel comforted as I walk through the woods. I feel anxious. I feel uncomfortable. It is as if a great windstorm swirled through leaving wood all over the land and full trees tumbled. I will not walk under any dying or already dead tree for fear of a limb dropping. I keep the dogs close or not bring them with me at all. You can hear the echos of something stepping, wood moving, limbs cracking. It could be a distance away or over your shoulder. The forest is dying.
I can only hope that the clearance of so many trees and branches allows the others to flourish. Something deep within my heart tells me that very little can thrive in such detritus and dryness. Water is life and there is little, so very little, water on the surface, within the soil or absorbed into the fractures and cracks underneath the land. I will do what I can, but the issue is larger than me.
My constitution cannot tolerate depression and gloom for long. Fortunately, I am not built that way. So…I look for signs, anything, to convey hope, repair, life. First, I see deer grass that I did not plant. Then, I see the remains of a multitude of vinegarweed, plants I had only seen one or two of in years previous. I continue my walk and see a healthy black oak seedling and a healthy cottonwood seedling. I find more than 30 blue oak “babies”. Finally, I see what I am looking for – a nearly 4 foot tall wild narrowleaf milkweed with seed pods galore. This is the place I will plant – the place where I will work in partnership with in malla, u bwia (my mother, the land), and together, we will start over. We will heal.