Of Abigail Adams, Drought and Failure

Grasshopper on the California Milkweed

One of my many favorite classes at Humboldt State was US History. And, one of my favorite explorations was reading and analyzing the letters of Abigail Adams. Until then, I had not heard much about the women who were instrumental in establishing the United States. It was an incredible window into the life of a woman in the 1700s. Of course, Abigail has been defined in terms of her relation to John Adams, the second president of the US, and John Quincy Adams, her son, the sixth president of the US. It was not the men in her life that fascinated me most; it was her intelligence and determination in a time before corner stores, antibiotics and air conditioning. She often wrote to John about conditions on their farm in Braintree, Massachusetts, the children always being sick, lack of money and the farm failing.

Her words, or some semblance of them, enter my mind often these days. Not just because it is near the 4th of July, but because there are so many challenges here at Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu. We are beset by grasshoppers, and they are eating everything in their path. Especially in Site 2, the plants, the hours of work planting, weeding and watering, are nearly all eaten. Almost all were healthy and gorgeous just 2 weeks ago. The smell was uplifting, the growth progress a joy to see. We had sulfur butterflies all around. Now, there is chlorophyll carnage – leaves so tattered with holes they seem like defeated flags on ghost ships, empty stems bent from the weight of hundreds of grasshoppers per day gnawing on them, and the intact sagging under the knowledge that their healthy, glorious bodies will be next.

It is too sad to post photos. The ones I took two weeks ago to post with this entry no longer reflect reality, and I cannot look upon those photos without my eyes beginning to cloud. I thought, just maybe, the milkweed might be spared. You hear so much about its toxicity that I thought, “well, maybe…” Not true. The grasshoppers spare no one. They have eaten three of my dear huken (narrowleaf milkweed). In a last ditch effort, I placed a solar powered bird bath theorizing that perhaps it might bring more insect eating birds to the arroyo. I continue to water them in the hope that I can keep their roots alive through this dark time.

Drought

The drought is causing me to water twice per week to keep the native plants alive. I water the plants in pots daily. You know it is dry when there are a line of songbirds waiting for their turn to use the water bowl. I am not kidding. There was actually a line, and there is the most distinctive ring of bird poop making a circle around the dog dish.

Having water available for the wildlife is critical. Even if you live in an apartment, you should put out some vessel of water to help as many as possible survive. I have a bird bath on the southeast corner of the patio. It is always in use. The fountain bubbles 24/7, and I have a shallow dish on top of the slate to provide a shallow vessel for those that like that depth. Birds use both the deep eddies and the shallow dish. I provided a shallow amount of water in the stock trough on the north side of the enclosure, and the one on the south side near Tank 3. Then, there are the other two aforementioned vessels – the dog dish on the west side of the house and solar bird bath in Site 2.

Given the need to water twice a week and to keep more than the normal amount of water out for wildlife, I am concerned I will not have enough rain water to supply the plants twice a week through the summer. I have already begun backing off of watering the locations that did not sprout from the Xerces Kits. I am also limiting water for the plants I established last year figuring that they do not need as much as those that are newer. I am hoping to get by. Here are the latest tank levels:

Tank 1: 100 gal remaining (This is the tank that had the leak, and we lost half of the stored water). This feeds Site 2. Once it is depleted, I will switch the hose to Tank 2.

Tank 2: 2,213 gal remaining.

Tank 3: 1352

In May, so I could get water more efficiently to all of the sites (vs. hauling water in buckets from troughs), David rigged a watering system using a 25 gal sprayer onto my ATV. I had my doubts, but it has been working well and really has helped me deliver water faster to all of the sites. I do not completely fill the tank due to the weight of water. I generally fill it a little over half. All has been well until the other day. The metal platform arm on the ATV snapped. In truth, the ATV is a cheapo model; the weight limit is 300lbs. With my weight being far less than that, there is room for some water transport. All we can theorize is that the weld on this cheapo was faulty. Now I am back to hauling water by hand. Sigh…

Site Updates

Updated Site numbering, with “ac” meaning “A. Californica” (California Milkweed)

A. Californica sites: It has been a blockbuster year for California milkweed. The two main sites ended up with many more plants. The plant counts in order of closest to the house to furthest: From 7 to 12, From 16 to 21, 1 and 2. They have already set seed pods -except for the youngest ones. They will need to fight the wind, heat and grasshoppers now to complete their cycle. I am grateful for the early bloomers. They have some nice sized pods. Some plants have gopher damage and a few have wind damage. I want as many seeds going into the air and ground as possible.

Site 1a through g:

Detail of Site 1 using old satellite photo of homesite

Site 1a: Mostly deer grass. All are doing well. Two rose bushes, which are not being prioritized. New lilac tree transplant doing well. Honeysuckle bush brings bees to area.

Site 1b: Primrose doing very well. Two narrowleaf milkweed reemerged from original South Test Plot. They may end up as gopher food. Crossing my fingers they won’t this year. Pacific aster looks healthy, but no blooms yet. There are still some poppies, which bees and flies love. I am continuing to water them a little.

Raised bed is a tough place. Rabbit or gopher still around causing trouble. Three of four milkweeds that were snipped have reemerged. Showy milkweed that was snipped reemerged. All look healthy. Original woolly pod milkweed did not come back. One of two woolly pod transplants is still growing. (Rabbit got the other one). Heartleaf milkweed transplant is still alive but not much growth. Transplanted the two yerba santas and two primrose; all transplants were in gopher shields. Transplanted sunflower starts using gopher shields. Still, rabbit is snipping some of the plants from the top. Sulfur buckwheat and California fuchsia are surviving, but do not look 100%. Installed a t-post windbreak with shade cloth. It is working for now. While installing it, I got hit in the head with the t-post pounder. Fortunately, it was not moving fast. It was all my fault. I walked behind my husband who was pounding in the t-posts. I was cleaning up some broken composter pieces. He turned just at that point, pounder in hand, and my head was at his hand level. Then…well you get the idea. It hurt. 18lbs of steel.

Site 1c: Everything is doing really well. Lots of blooms, including from my own herb plants. We lost one lupine, but the other silver lupine is doing really well.

Site 1d: Three of four coyote bushes survived. The fourth is a stick, but I am still giving it some water in case the roots are alive. The biologist said the location is very exposed, and the wind may have been too much for it.

Site 1e: This is the hedgerow kit from Xerces. Most of the dormant plants did not emerge. Some of the bushes have had a hard time. The manzanita, coyote bush, coyote mint, one toyon, and a few other bushes are surviving. I planted sunflower starts in the mesh bags where other plants did not emerge. Since the sunflower is an annual, if the original Xerces kit root is still alive, it will be fine for next year. Better to repurpose than dig more!

Site 1f: Most of the plants are doing well here. I lost one narrowleaf milkweed. I am still watering it in case it comes back – as a second one did in this location. The sages, California fuchsia, buckwheat, yerba santa, monkey flower and milkweeds are doing well. Deer grass is surviving. The California rose has failed to thrive. I don’t know what happened. It is just a stick now and lost all its leaves.

Site 1 g: The milkweeds are doing very well on this north-facing slope. The sages and yerba santa did not do well at all. The California fuchsia, monkey flower and buckwheat are doing well. One A. Californica transplant is thriving. The other is not doing well.

Site 2: I can’t talk about it.

Site 7: The deer grass bunches are all alive and well.

Site 8: This was the site decimated by wild pigs and where I planted some of the Xerces riparian kit milkweed. None of the Xerces kit milkweeds emerged. The two survivors from the pig attack were doing well. Two weeks ago, I found the narrowleaf milkweed nosed out of its hole. There was no sign of wild pigs, so I surmised that a calf nosed it out. Fortunately, I got to it in time before the root ball dried out. I reburied it. It has stayed green and has continued to grow since then. There is also one showy milkweed, which is going well.

Site 9: This is the area with most of the Xerces riparian kits surrounded by a branch fence. I rebuilt the fence last weekend. The mulefat and two wormwoods are all still alive. The pacific aster was eaten as was the golden current and mulefat during the cow break in. A second golden current looks like it has dried out where I hid it under some brush. There is still water in this area of the creek. There is a chance it will come back. The cottonwood is growing suckers, and most of the oak seedlings are surviving hidden under the brush piles I created months ago.

Site 10: Three of the four willows planted are surviving. I was not able to find the fourth. Perhaps a cow or deer got to it. The one mulefat I planted there is thriving. It has grown significantly and is a beauty. I will need to get some water to those plants. I will need to haul it in buckets from the large spring that is fairly close by.

Administrative Work

Last week, I learned that I was awarded 10 more Xerces Kits. I have two ranch sites, plus mine, and maybe the Southern Sierra Miwuk office building space. We will get those into the ground in November.

I presented to Tribal Council, and they approved moving forward with housing the Technical Assistance work through their Miwumati program. I need to design a project plan and timeline, work with their team to get a young person hired for August to December, and connect them with the RCD and Xerces partners. I am excited to mentor a young person on this work.

Two weeks ago, I signed for my first NRCS grant. This is funding that comes through the Farm Bill, to the USDA and into a variety of ag programs. I am focused on providing ecological services under this program. These services on my ranch will help address climate change as well as improve soils and water for the ag operation. It is a win win. More on this as I get started.

Biologists Perform Site Visit

My heroes – the Xerces biologists – come for a site visit (l-r: Jessa, Deedee and Maddy) visit

Two Fridays ago, the team from Xerces visited. I took them to all of the sites except Site 10. They provided some good feedback and then went to look at Deedee’s experiment she has on Odom Creek. Before they left, they said everything looked good and that I was doing a good job. This meant a lot to me. As you have read in this blog, I’ve had a litany of disasters lately, and sometimes adapting is not enough to win the day. Like Abigail Adams, I have felt like a failure – that everything around me is being held together by bailing wire, hope and determination. I have not seen one monarch since I began this work in 2019. With the heat, drought, grasshoppers, the failed Xerces plants, the ATV busting, bonking my head, it all feels like it won’t be enough to help. What’s more, I have seen only one butterfly in weeks – a yellow sulfur. If we have another horrible, smokey fire season, I don’t know what I will do.

I am trying to focus on the positive – all the other pollinators and butterflies that have sought food and thrived, the beautiful blooms, the incredible smell of it all. This is really all I have to cling to – that what I am doing is helping something. There is still so much I don’t know, and it can be tough to see the forest for the trees – or rather the Monarch migration for the milkweed. Hopefully, it will all end up making a difference.

Full moon over the dry hills