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.
Cold weather is here. Rain is here. I am calming down with the change in temperature and precipitation. I worry too much about water and the life it enables. My concern is not for me, but all the living things here. Sure, I can leave and be a water refugee, but most of the animals and insects cannot. So – I must use my power as a human to do what I can to ensure livability for all. It is a responsibility we all have, but not one that all fulfill. These values are typical in Indigenous communities and families. We are taught that we are part of the ecosystem and have an obligation to live with respect in reciprocal relationship with all things. I am not always the best relative. I have many more shoes than one person can ever use, for example, taking much more resource than I should. I try my best as a Native in the modern world to fulfill my obligations. I fall short often. No one is perfect.
So far, we have had .75″ in this rain year (October 1 start). If you include the 1.25″ in September, we have now had 2″. The lengthy warm weather has allowed the blooms to continue, which has provided welcome nectar for bees and butterflies late this season.
Not all plants are welcome. The lingering heat also allowed goathead (puncture vine) plants to continue growing. They are a painful scourge, and I work very hard removing them by hand year after year. Typically, they are done growing by September. This year, with the ongoing irrigation, their roots were able to find the water not meant for them, and with the sun, continued to grow. I did not keep my eyes out for them after the beginning of September, so many grew quite large with their prickly, penetrating load. I got to them too late and paid for it with large distributions of painful “seed”.
As cold weather descends, I will see less and less of these insect friends, no blooms, and not as many plants. Everything needs time to rest – the soil, the insects, animals, plants and me.
Xerces Society – Making a Difference
I have sung the praises many times of Xerces Society. They have very committed staff who work with diverse people and organizations to achieve their pollinator conservation mission. They are incredibly helpful and truly make a difference working with people who know so little like me. Check out their education on various pollinator species.
Last month, I attended one of their webinars on building habitat for native bees. It was so informative. I was able to go outside right away and create habitat per their discussion. Some of the things I learned that made an impact on me: 1. most bees live extremely close to where you see them. They do not have the physical ability (in terms of energy) to move too far away from their nest. 2. It is better to use leaf litter as mulch than wood/bark in areas where there are ground nests. They do not have the strength to push the bark away from the hole and could get trapped, and 3. Some bees nest in hollow sticks and some of those bees need longer sticks than others. They will take bites from leafs and use them to close the opening of the stick after they lay their eggs. Very cool!
The first thing I did was freak out. I had laid down significant mulch across many areas this spring to prevent moisture loss from the soil. My imagination ran wild as I was sure I trapped native bees in their ground holes by the thousands. I started to cry mad tears. These are the times I wish I had more knowledge to identify a bee hole. Son of a gun! I pacified myself by remembering that we must always think about balance. The bark mulch was crucial around the disturbed soil from planting milkweed and nectar plants to prevent the rapid drying out of the soil in the relentless Hornitos sun. I used the mulch for walkways to prevent soil damage and erosion in those areas I traffic quite a bit. There is considerable ground I did not cover, which is protected, and could host a bee nest. Ok, I wiped my tears and began to breath again.
The next thing I did was to trim the white sage. I had been cutting the old bloom stems for seeds as my Chiricahua Apache friend Pete showed me to do. I did not realize as I had been cutting them that I was making habitat. Now, with my newly gained knowledge, I cut the bloom stems at different lengths. The bee expert talked about leaving lengths between 4″ to 8″. I sometimes needed to squish the stem to make sure the opening was very round and open. I really hope I see a plugged hole.
I was also able to recognize the patterns cut from the willow leaves by native leaf cutter bees. Xerces staff person Deedee Soto, who I work with most, had pointed that out to me during one of her visits. Now, I saw even more. The willow leaves look like half moon Swiss cheese. I hope this means that I have A LOT of native bees living near me. What great neighbors to have!
Xerces Kits are back!
It is again that time of year when Xerces is distributing habitat kits. I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude for access to these important plants. I will be honest; not all of them survive each year. Hornitos is a tough place to make a life. Between drought, grasshoppers, gophers, and crippling heat, not everything can make it. Fortunately, life persists. Many of the Xerces plants have matured to generate seeds, and the milkweed has begun to run underground, replacing those that were lost along the way. I consider this a success and hope they (and their funders) do as well. We were able to bring back monarchs after a 10 year absence. Come on! That is incredible. Sometimes, I need to remind myself of this when I get sad about anything. With the help of Xerces, Mariposa Native Plants, Mairposa County Resource Conservation District and the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation Pollinator Team – along with individual participants inspired by the work, we have made a difference in Mariposa County.
Because the pick up site is far away, I try to be helpful and offer to pick up other people’s kits near me. My young friend Ray Gutierrez called me and asked if I would pick up his kit. Absolutely! What a good guy. He and his wife Leeza are good land stewards. They live on a large parcel in eastern Fresno County. They want to make a difference and expand habitat they already have on their acreage. I met Ray many years ago when he was an Americorp staffer for Sierra Foothill Conservancy and have stayed in touch. He is a member of the Wuksachi Tribe from the Central Valley and holds similar values as me. We are connected on Facebook where he saw the information about Xerces and the kits. He wanted to make a difference for pollinators too. I guess social media is good for some things. I am grateful to him and Leeza for their efforts. I sent them home with a pile of greens and herbs from the garden and flowers for Leeza’s desk.
What a great young couple. They chose to get a grassland kit AND two hedgerow kits. Their SUV was packed! They will be planting for days and days. Chiokoe uttesia in weweriam (Thank you my relatives).
I am gathering acorn from my trees to grow the next generation of trees that are on the west side of the ranch. Those beauties in front of the house are having trouble and getting older with no next generation to take their place. We never see any seedlings up on this hill. An attempt 10ish years ago to grow more from acorn failed. So, as mentioned in my previous post, we are going to try again. This time, we have experts available to us. As I have mentioned, it is a bad acorn year in terms of size and production. There are some trees along the spring creek that have full-term acorn finally dropping . David and I were there just at the right time to collect quite a few, and many are intact enough to propagate. In other words, all but 4 passed the float test.
The cooler temperatures and moist soils, bark and grass make walking the ranch a physical and olfactory joy. Every walk is deliberate, even if joyful. I am always looking for changed areas, new things, human interference. This is part of stewardship. On a recent walk, I found a landed mylar balloon, otherwise known as litter. Please dear readers, don’t get mylar balloons to celebrate anything, even for children’s parties. They often get away from people and end up being trash someone else has to deal with. They are plastic and can be dangerous for cattle. Little ones exploring their world can eat them causing a very painful and unnecessary death as it blocks their digestive system.
With the drought, the neighbor’s pond is dry. This is a good time to help them out by looking for trash. It is amazing what floats down stream from others upstream. We are still finding mangled items from the 2017 major flood, which took out bridges and floated cars downstream. The other day, my good friend Chevon was visiting. We gathered trash from the pond for pick up later. We found two mangled metal drums, two tires, broken PVC pipe a metal pot from who knows when and a piece of wire fencing. Thank you Chevon for helping keep the land clean!
The spring in Spring Creek has been expanded slightly by the rain. Horribly, the large spring on my border with the neighbors has absolutely no standing water. The last time this happened was in the fifth year of the 5-year drought. It has always been so reliable, but I fear the pressure of everything using it doesn’t give it sufficient time to refill or perhaps there is nothing left to refill it with. The rains we are experiencing this week should help – but this is a very bad sign.
Here are some random photos from this past month.
Animam Mikwame/Día de los Muertos
For those not aware, beginning last month and ending last week is an important time for many southwest North American Indigenous communities. In my Yoeme tradition, the holiday is called Animam Mikwame. In the colonized Latino community, the holiday is El Día de los Muertos. As the Catholics missionized my Native yo’yowam (ancestors) and all others in their path, they adopted the holiday/religious structures that existed and added Christian elements. In this way, the colonizers could more easily capture the minds, thus labor and natural resources of the Native people. The Día holiday is very much based in Indigenous culture – with Euro-religious elements added – and of course, many opportunities to merchandise and market. I am sure Hallmark has a card too!
Nonetheless, it is a beautiful holiday that I hope you will embrace (if you do not already). Essentially, October is a time when the spirit world is closest to the world of the living and is at its thinnest November 1-2. It is a time to remember those that have passed, to honor them. Making offrendas, alters, tapehtim (tampancos/lofts) that include items that loved ones enjoyed in life. Marigolds have been used as sweet smelling flowers that help lead the spirits to their alters. They are still blooming at this time and are an important source of food for monarchs. It is no wonder that there is such a strong connection between monarchs and the spirit world. They are a visual representation of the spirits returning and a very real symbol of transformation from one state to another. It is a special time with food, music, conversation and families coming together. It is a time to think of others, not ourselves, to celebrate those we love who have transitioned from this world to the next.
Who do you remember? What love from long ago or more recently did you lose? It can be difficult to think about – but that is the beauty of the holiday – the concept that they are always with us and closer than we think – especially in October. The purpose is healing, respect and the continuation of love.
The person who I remember always, all year long, is my mother. She was one of the most important persons in my life. Strong, yet gentle and so loving. She embodied everything the concept “mother” brings to mind. Tears are in my eyes as I write this, but they are tears that revel in the act of sharing her memory with you — because she was so important and such a fine person and someone who few really knew. She was quiet, contemplative, highly intelligent with good common sense. Importantly, she loved all her children unconditionally. There was never a moment I felt truly unloved or unsafe. I am grateful for her commitment to quality parenting. Too many people do not receive that.
I have had to struggle not to think of the bad things – the diabetes that could have been avoided in a less hateful world; the joy that could have been externalized in a less racist place; the emotional pain that need not have been if she had a more respectful spouse. I inherited her engagement ring, and when I touch the ring, I feel the happiness she had at that moment. The youthful hope she had for her future. Then, my mind moves to the hard times, the less bright reality of financial, housing, and emotional insecurities. How difficult that was and so far from the life she envisioned. — But I am getting too far in the weeds, and my mother would not have approved. She was also fiercely private.
Instead, I clutch that engagement ring and think of her being liberated from an abusive home by this strange, wild, fun, unusual man from the other end of the country. She loved to dance and so did he. I remember her smile, her glee at spinning around the dance floor. Her fulfillment by four children who she loved and took so much pride in – one who gave her grandchildren, another who gave her triumph, a third who gave her laughter and the last one who gave her music – each child with talents they contributed to make a whole to fill a hole – in my mother’s vision of her future. She loved to travel, and her wild spouse, who made her sad, also provided fulfillment. She loved to learn, read, discover, discuss. She was an intellectual, without money or degree, who learned by reading and listening, and passed along everything she had, everything she held precious, all that is good in her world, into us. I am grateful. I miss you every day, and I love you mom. I try to help where I can, to be a good person, to take care of the family and to keep what you created together as much as possible. I help children and vote for people who care about the world. I am flawed in many ways, but I have followed your lead to help with the valiant but nearly impossible task of leaving this world in better condition than when I found it despite the many powerful forces pushing the other way. I brought the monarchs you loved back to this place, protected their babies, which brought you back – from egg to caterpillar to butterfly to egg…from south to north back south again. I am as whole as I can be without you. Te tui yo’owe. Chiokoe uttesia maala.
Stop reading for a moment. Breathe deep. Now, take another breath. Feel better? Remember when you were a child? If not, reflect on any child you know. We all start with love – love of nature, love of animals – an innate empathy that is part of our DNA – because we are comprised of our world. Find that place again, find that love, if you’ve lost it. Breathe. Refocus your thoughts on your natural space. It doesn’t matter where you live – apartment, suburb, room in another’s house, a large ranch – there is always something you can do to improve the natural environment, thus your health, our health and the health of the planet. What did you decide to do, or what more did you decide to do? We each have the power to make decisions on re-balancing how we live — how much we take on, how much more time outside of typical hours we give to work or volunteering, what we choose to spent time on. Sometimes they are big changes, but most times they are small, but make a difference. Rebalancing your life can lead you to wonderful experiences.
A major choice I made was to focus more of my time on the ranch, with a particular focus on climate resilience. It has been some of the best work of my life, building habitat piece by painstaking piece and building new structures to scale the work. It was not always clear that this work would be successful. If you are a regular reader, you know my failures and emotional troughs! Yet, mother nature, with a little partnership from humans, delivers, and she delivers every time.
Monarchs Going and Coming + More Butterflies in October
It was overwhelming on October 12 when I saw two monarchs nectaring and flying around the garden. They appeared out of nowhere, flitted on the marigold, then the sunflowers, then the butterfly bush. As quick I as saw them, they were gone. Whoa. I had to catch my breath. “Did I really see them”, I asked myself. Fortunately, I took a multitude of photos and found one that I could zoom and see the distinctive markings. Yes! We are back on the monarch migration route!
Not only monarchs, but other beautiful butterflies have visited the plants. I was losing hope last month with the ongoing heat, but October has been the best month so far for butterfly spotting. It cooled just a little, and then they all started showing up. There was the one buckeye at the Spring Creek spring. It was hanging with several California hairstreaks. We have had a procession of sulphurs in white and yellow and some large painted ladies. We had one or two red admirals, which was fun to see. The goldenrod and pacific aster attracted the visit of a large number of Caliofrnia hairstreaks. Finally, I saw what I thought could be a parnassian, but I really need an expert look. It was not the right color for those, so maybe not.
Beyond butterflies, the ecosystem seems to be functioning despite the ongoing heat. Only recently has the air cooled significantly overnight. Daytime temperatures were in the 90s in September and have finally decreased into the 80s in October. That is still warm. Plants continue to grow, bees continue to harvest. The growing season is longer. Nothing is resting just yet.
I have only counted 10 tarantula sightings. That is low. The ongoing heat has kept them in their holes I think, or perhaps the profusion of tarantual hawks earlier in the season (yikes!) reduced their population. Everything still needs water. The springs are still shrunken. The neighbor’s pond is dry. This continues to make the guzzler project extremely important for wildlife: mammal, bird and reptile water access. It is still in place with water, but no overhang or permanent fence yet – a work in progress. The cows are back on and did hit the guzzler a few times emptying it. The cows have plenty of water on the south side of the ranch, where another neighbor’s ponds are still wet. They need the water too. They are calving and need to produce milk. Fortunately, we had that rain in September. I was only able to refill the guzzler because of those 1.25″, which half filled the rainwater tanks. That storm has helped me continue not only wildlife watering but irrigation – since I do not use my well water for that purpose.
To keep the cattle out of the guzzler, I repurposed the panels I used to protect the incubator milkweed in June. Thanks again to my neighbors for the loan! I will build the required overhang and exclusion fencing before the end of the year. The panels were a nice, quick remedy.
October definitely means spiders. We have had webs flying through the air with their precious cargo, thousands of baby spiders. They are tangled into everything: tarweed, grass, boulders, fence posts – you name it. I did have some time to fill the trench I dug to the oak tree (see last blog post) with gravel. It needs another two or three passes to fill the trench. The rock helps maintain open space for the rain water to move through in a rain event all to deliver more water to the large old oaks. I have been collecting acorn as well. As mentioned in the last blog, it is slim pickings for acorns this year. I am desperate to start some seedlings from my acorns so we have younger trees growing and available to take the place of the grand old ones in front of the house when their life span is at an end. To choose the ones most likely to germinate, you float them in water. The acorn that sinks to the bottom will be the healthiest to use. The lighter the acorn, the less energy it has stored or the more likely bugs have already gotten into them to eat. I did try to start about 10 trees 10 years ago. I was not successful. I have more expert help now. That makes a difference.
Winter Garden Growing Well
I have already been able to harvest red leaf lettuce, basil and dill for salads. We will see if I get any tomatoes and corn. With the decrease in sunlight and the cooler nights, I don’t know if they will produce. As I mentioned in the previous blog post, since it was still hot, I thought I would make the most of it and see if I could extend those crops. There are some blooms on the tomato plants. Very exciting. I will see if the plants can beat the clock. I will also continue to look for free or low cost greenhouse elements for me to piece together something that can amplify the heat. I will likely add spinach, radish and carrots later. For the in-between time, I will add oats and peas as nitrogen fixing cover crops.
Rebalancing Off Ranch
The Southern Sierra Miwuk Tribe has been working on meadow restoration in Yosemite. Before colonization, their people would burn the meadows to clear the conifers and encourage greater black oak proliferation, thus acorns. Due to the attempted extermination of Indigenous people from the area and then wrong-sighted conservation policies, the meadows have been disappearing, and with them their remarkable ability to recharge groundwater. More recently, the National Park Service has understood the importance of First People’s knowledge and activities prior to Park status. Once again, Indigenous people are leading the restoration work in our most cherished wild spaces. The Tribes may get to use fire in the future, but for now, all of the work is by hand. This autumn, I joined my Native cousins in planting black oak seedlings and removing pine seedlings. Don’t worry dear readers who love pine trees (I love them too), there are many other places where they flourish. They grow like weeds and are not in any danger of extinction. The meadows, on the other hand, are.
Thank you to the wonderful young people who are leading the way in so many efforts around the world and to our elders everywhere for keeping ecological knowledge and parts of our culture intact under great stress and not so good odds. Chiokoe uttesia in weweriam (Thank you my relatives).
Any of us can join efforts of restoration, conservation and rebalancing. Look for them in the places near you and make a commitment for one day a month to start. If you love it, if it reconnects you, if you are feeling the rebalance happen, commit to more time. If you aren’t feeling it, try a different effort – beach clean-ups, campaigns for better climate policy, implementation of Green New Deal efforts. It is an all hands on deck moment, and you are one of the many hands we need. If mother nature, me and a small group of supporters, can bring monarchs back to the ranch in less than three years, imagine what ALL of us can do across every aspect of climate. Let’s be good relatives now for our future generations and all living things. Aho.
Please forgive me for complaining a little at the start of this blog. I know it is meant to discuss my pollinator work, and I am sorry to be a downer. All the things we do are entwined as elements of our life -so the bleed over and into is all part of the same narrative I guess. It has been a very difficult last three months. If you were wondering why a post had not been published in a while, I did not have the energy. A close, dear friend fell, became ill and died. It was a rapid, difficult, frustrating experience made worse by a fragmented healthcare system. His fall was in June, and by July he was gone. COVID finally caught up to me in June despite my being extremely careful. Although it was mild for me, I was positive for 10 days and had to put many things on hold. In July, wildfire hit just east of us displacing many friends with several losing everything. We took on evacuees at the ranch with their animals. The emotional exhaustion was evident among everyone – evacuees, responders and the average community member. The compassion fatigue, overwhelming sadness for all living things and extreme, ongoing heat has gotten to everyone I think. I could not believe my temperature gauge when driving home from a meeting in the Central Valley. It said 118F.
I find it remarkable that anything can exist in these circumstances of heat, smoke, drought and extremes. It is no surprise that very few butterflies have visited the ranch despite plenty of blooms. All is not depressing. We have had a proliferation of tarantula hawks and more dragonflies than have been here in years. Perhaps the increase in dragonflies, a natural predator of butterflies, is part of the reason for limited sightings. I don’t think we have gotten to a place of balance at the ranch yet. Regular drip irrigation has increased soil moisture around the house, but the drought has taken its toll on everything, soil, plants, trees, humans.
The milkweed in the older plots were mature enough to produce seed pods. It was a joy to see them healthy and doing well despite gopher attacks over the past 3 years.
I am now able to identify narrow leaf milkweed in the wild and have seen several plants in my creek bed and on the side of the road around the county. It is very interesting that they often appear alone or quite a distance from one another. I wonder if that has to do with years of grazing and pesticide use (on the major highways). On a monitoring excursion to Odom Creek last week, I found two or three milkweeds in bloom in the creek bed. There were several California Hairstreak butterflies around each plant. I saw a buttery yellow cabbage or sulfur butterfly and one buckeye butterfly.
As planned, we have plants in bloom from the beginning of Spring throughout Fall. In bloom currently are California fuchsia, goldenrod (just opening), marigold, sunflower (still going!), pacific aster, a few gum weed and Mexican sunflower blooms, buddleia, vinegarweed (lots of these plants this year), and tarweed. There are even several herbs and onions blooming. There are many options for the pollinators to choose from.
Concern for the Grand Blue Oak
It is normal for oaks to conserve their energy during drought. They kill off their leaves and drop limbs. It can be very dangerous to walk under stressed oaks. I mentioned one of the large oaks in the front of the house in my last post and earlier in this post. It started with one branch having all its leaves dead in May. Then, almost overnight, all the leaves were brown and falling by August. A small branch dropped earlier this month. It has been incredibly distressing. These trees in the front of my home are over 200 years old, and they just cannot die on my watch.
Several years ago, a landscape and water expert was at my house when another tree in the front was extremely stressed. She recommended digging a trench just outside the drip line of the tree crown so that rain water would be stopped and recharge the area around the tree. Not only did I do that for two of the four oaks in front of the house, I ran my front gutters into the trenches. It worked! The branches I thought were dead all came back except for one.
I did this exact same thing for the newest tree in crisis. I am hopeful it will work too.
The other issue with the oaks and drought is reduced production of acorns, a critical food source for animals and humans alike. It is also the next generation of oak babies. We need to have an overwhelming number of acorns just to get a handful of seedlings. Sadly, most of the oaks on the ranch do not have many acorns, and many that are growing are still very green and undersized. I want to see those acorns mature and drop. All I can do is implement good land practices, swales to slow rainwater runoff, and hope for better next year. Land restoration is a patient practice. Stewardship is a way of life anyone can adopt anywhere they live.
New Raised Bed
I raise a number of plants from high quality organic/non-GMO seed or seed gathered from my plants. Not only its it more cost effective, but I receive great joy from starting them and watching them grow. The seedling trays have also served as an important source of water for bees this year. Even birds have dropped by to visit. When the birds come by, I can be assured it is not just for water but seed snacks. Every seeding batch, several never start. For some, the seed just is not viable. For others, they become a snack for birds. I am ok with that. Fortunately, I don’t depend on my garden as my only source of food. If I did, I am sure I would feel differently. Additionally, I grow native plant starts, herbs and flowers. All of these, including my food, will become blooms for pollinators. It is a tripe win for everyone.
The weather has been so warm I decided to start a winter garden with plants that should have been full grown by now and producing food – like tomatoes. I am also including vegetables, herbs and flowers that should be ok late and/or over winter normally – like lettuce and spinach. I have a number of strong looking seedlings, but will not plant in my tomato tub raised bed due to the ongoing gopher intrusion. There is no other place cultivated to plant, so I asked my darling husband to build me a new raised bed. Truthfully, I can do this myself, but David loves to work with wood and is much handier than I am. So- he gets the job. David built me a gorgeous raised bed using redwood and secured it with a roll of Diggers double galvanized mesh (same company I get the speed baskets from to plant my native plants). Because I am raising vegetables, I needed richer soil and did not have time to bring my local soil up in nutrients (bad planning on my part). I had to purchase soil, which was costly. I have a couple of old french doors I salvaged, which I will use to make a greenhouse over the tomato part of the bed. I am hoping this will help bring the tomatoes to maturity. It is all an experiment.
I use a square foot gardening method. In this way, I can make the most use of the garden space, water with efficiency and co-locate natural pest deterrents, such as marigolds. See the link for more information about how many vegetables you can plant per square foot. In my situation, most of the seedlings I have are plants that need space, so you will see that I generally have one plant per square foot. For some, I could probably get more, but I was too lazy to pull out my book to check planting amounts per sq ft. There is definitely a cost to being impatient!
Last Days of Summer Bring Rain and Fall has Arrived
On September 18 and 19, we received .75″ and .5″ respectively of rain. It was a delightful late summer storm. The smell brought me as much joy and anticipation as being hungry smelling baking bread or BBQ meat. You cannot wait to get outside to work, take a walk, just breathe. I think most of the area hoped this meant cooler temperatures from then out, but the miserable heat came back a few days later. It has been in the high 80s and high 90s for the past several days. Air conditioner is on again. Not good.
Still, the temperatures are cooler than 115 – something to be grateful for. Besides the temperatures cooling, Fall is heralded by my dear loves, the tarantulas (Ok, some people determine the beginning of Fall when pumpkin drinks appear at Starbucks; I prefer spiders.). I have counted 5 so far. It is an imprecise, unscientific count, but it has helped me to understand their populations by counting the number of sightings. We had several healthy, large ones at the ranch.
I am seeing a number of small ant holes in close proximity. I think I am living on top of ant LA. To think my bucolic, slow-paced surroundings are directly above a bustling, major metropolis of a billion small, vicious, biting red ants is a bit unnerving. People think I have too much coffee, but now you know why I keep moving and don’t stay in one place for too long.
In the latter part of May, we had a taste of things to come. The temperature was in the high 90s for three days. Everything, including me, seemed worn out. I have been laying mulch out on top of plant root zones, on exposed dirt areas, and over water lines for weeks. Like much of what I do, it is a race against time (and temperature). Soon, there will be no more cool days or surprise storms. The soil must be covered or else the moisture will be lost. To make matters worse, the wind has been relentless and unusual, blowing all day every day for the past month. Typically, there is no wind in the morning. Wind comes in the afternoon, and then none at night. Sadly, the wind has been blowing ferociously from morning through the night. This dries the soil rapidly. Ideally, you want to make sure that the moisture you are dripping in the irrigation system saturates the soil and gets to the roots. The mulch will help allow this to happen by being a barrier to the wind and heat.
If you think I am exaggerating about the wind, see the image below. The big leaf maples have been growing at an angle.
I had to stake the trees to help them grow upright and strong. I will stake the smaller tree when it gets bigger. The leaves are taking a beating from the wind. Between the wind and grasshoppers, I hope these magnificent plants make it.
Grasshoppers are Here and Getting Bad
I have been watching the grasshoppers from the beginning of their nymph stage with growing concern. It is another year of overgrowth. Now at adult stage, they are eating voraciously across the ranch. As always, I am working to ensure that the California milkweeds get to a mature stage, with fully formed seedpods, before the plants get dismembered by the plague of hoppers. I am grateful that the largest patch of milkweed grew and matured early this year. The hoppers are already taking apart the north-facing patch. There are fully formed seedpods, but they are not dried yet and ready to release their seed. I am now watching them daily to protect the seedpods.
Speaking of Milkweeds…
The CARCD plants are thriving. In fact, one of the ranch locations that we gave plants to have monarch caterpillars!! I was astonished because my caterpillars were finished weeks ago, and I have already been getting reports of monarch sightings at much higher elevations. I thought the monarchs had moved on. However, Caroline Korn’s ranch is only a few hundred feet in elevation higher than me and perhaps 6 miles south east, yet, she has three monarch caterpillars!
Caroline Korn is a local treasure. A retired teacher, she has taught the monarch lifecycle for many years and showed students monarch caterpillars in the wild. Her home and gardens were established by her grandmother back in the 18oos and is the last piece of a once sprawling ranch. Among many excellent qualities, Caroline inherited a love and aptitude for plants. She is an outstanding gardener. Her knowledge is sought after in our area, and she is incredibly generous with her time and information. If there was one place where a monarch should lay its eggs and be assured all would be done to protect her progeny, it would be Caroline’s home. I am grateful the late caterpillars are there.
Caroline did not see an adult monarch, but clearly one was there. Although the showy milkweed she planted last year as part of the CARCD grant emerged and are doing well, the monarch chose to lay its eggs on already existing narrowleaf milkweed. I have read that they will choose more mature milkweeds on which to lay their eggs. Caroline has been taking milkweed branches from plants farther away and relocating them close to the milkweed the caterpillars are on. She does this each time the babies eat through their current plant. They seem to do fine with that, transferring themselves to the new branch each time. Other mature narrowleaf plants are not too far away, so I think that if they run out of plant material, they will be able to get to he other milkweeds easily. One major threat in Caroline’s garden are jays. She has seen them eat monarch caterpillars previously and is doing everything she can to prevent that from happening. Thank you Caroline for your dedication to the monarchs’ survival and for taking such great care of these late visitors. I wish you the best of luck!
The Xerces Kit plants are thriving too. No new caterpillars on these, but perhaps next year. Here are some photos from my Site 8 and the Tribe’s garden.
If you are a regular reader, you will recall my love affair with In Hala’i, my very last monarch caterpillar on the ranch. After protecting it for two weeks, I removed the mesh protective basket so if In Hala’i emerged within, it could fly off. I never did see In Hala’i as an adult, but I assume it eclosed (emerged from its chrysalis) and flew off to its next adventure over the Sierras. Monarchs move invisibly despite their stunning beauty and size. Any of us are lucky to catch a glimpse.
As luck would have it, David and I saw two monarchs flitting around with one another on a beautiful country road near us about 400′ higher in elevation than our place on May 28. They were inhabiting a beautiful riparian area with meadow that included milkweeds and nectar plants. Like in Miracle on 34th Street, I screamed for David to “Stop the car! Stop the car!”. I launched out. The butterflies flew by me, above me and far off then back again. I saw one on a weedy looking plant and then the other in the air. What a beautiful sight! You all know I am not the best photographer by now, but I did manage to capture a few photos that are worth posting.
Major Learning: cattle can exist with monarch habitat only with active management
It has become clear that cattle need to be managed closely in order to co-exist with habitat expansion. The milkweeds were yummy looking when there was limited grass to eat, and calves who had not yet learned that milkweeds taste awful still experiment with plants each year. There is also the threat of browsing and trampling. Even though the monarchs were gone, I still wanted the California milkweeds to produce seedpods. I noticed cows near the milkweed patch. When I investigated, I saw several milkweed leaves chewed off and spit onto the ground. I decided that I needed to fence off each patch. I will be including that in my next NRCS proposal. Fortunately, the USDA is now recognizing habitat protection as an ecosystem service that is essential to fund as part of ranch work on our rangelands.
Va’amta a’a Hiapsi | Water is Life
There is never an end to work on a ranch, but I love that. I like to move my body and make things better for all our relations. I pull invasive weeds every day (puncture vine), fill bird baths, check seedlings, monitor plants, straighten baskets, and fill dog water bowls. I have been cutting the seed heads off the thistle, a never-ending and prickly job. The seed heads get placed into a plastic bag and thrown away. Thistles are non-native and spread profusely. I am trying to limit the number of seeds they spread. So far, I have cut 6 bags worth. Thanks to Deedee Soto of Xerces for that recommendation.
One thing I have not had to do is water all the plants. WOW, what a difference a full water system makes. I am so grateful for all of the infrastructure CARCD helped me with and for my husband David who did the install. It has meant the ability to plant more habitat and more consistently and evenly distribute water. The plants are happier and thriving — and my back and overall body have not been injured or overused.
I have been paying attention more to bumble bees. They have been loving the sage flowers. The monarch habitat is working for them too. In addition to the increase in bumbles, I have also seen more butterflies, pollinating flies, dragonflies and lizards than last year. The smell is extraordinary; the plants are beautiful.
There is early leaf death on one of the grand old oaks in front of the house. Those trees are well over a hundred years old. Anything that looks unhealthy on them frightens me. We only received slightly over 12 inches of rain this year. Not enough.
It was exciting to see a large envelope in my mail box a few weeks ago. Inside were 20+ thank you letters from my college friend’s, Cerina, 2nd grade class. I had done a brief presentation with them over zoom and sent hand-painted monarch butterfly pins made locally in Mariposa from recycled plastic. The notes were beautiful, and it seems that the children especially loved the pins. Working with children is one of my favorite things to do. Thanks to Cerina for reaching out.
The ranch is filled with babies learning to fly and stand. It is going to be a tough, dry year for them to learn to be an adult. Last month, I applied for more Xerces Kits to fill out the creek area of the ranch as well as build hedgerows on a friend’s farm in the area. I received the grant for the ranch, but unfortunately, the review committee did not award kits to me for the local farm. This is ok. I am extremely grateful for the generosity of Xerces over the last two years. We have been able to use those kits to expand habitat beyond the ranch, and it has paid dividends in the form of more nectar and milkweed attracting untold pollinators across our area. I already have another plan to get my farm friends pollinator hedgerow plants – most likely from the Tribe.
The Spring Creek riparian area is doing well and is supporting diverse life. Water from the spring is still running, which I anticipate will run through the entire summer and fall. I have seen many types of butterflies, dragonflies, bees and evidence of larger mammals. A skunk was killed and its carcass left there. Not a great smell to work around, but it is evidence that the area is being used by larger predators.
I was in the middle of the ranch today scouting locations for a potential beaver dam analog (BDA). I saw so many butterflies enjoying all of the plants in the creek. We fenced this creek off as well, and the flowers that are blooming are diverse and more profuse. The cattle really do limit what grows. By having the fence, we can control the timing of grazing to not interrupt the growth and blooming of wildflowers. In the creek, I saw a gorgeous buttery yellow butterfly. It could be a western sulphur. I was not able to get a good look. I did see another western white. There was a dark butterfly, of which I also did not get a good look. Darn – they can move so fast.
I was with an NRCS engineer, biologist and an engineering intern. Together, we will develop some infrastructure to slow water runoff and retain soil moisture in the creek. This will help the water table, wildlife and plant life. Cattle win too in this scenario since there will be more moisture to grow the grasses they need for weight gain.
Although I have reached my goal of bringing the monarchs back, I feel compelled to continue on and make improvements to my local ecosystem, a system significantly changed over time by human habitation, mining, ranching and climate change. Let’s see what we can do next!