Indigenous Reciprocity: Habitat Expansion Goes Into Overdrive

Strong, Indigenous Women expanding habitat

I love my Indiginaity (Is that even a word? Well, I proclaim it so…). I love that there is an innate piece of me that is so deeply connected to the lands of the North American west that it is indistinguishable from any corporeal piece of me – whether blood, bone or memory. It is what drives me forward when I am tired, and comforts me with a sense of oneness. The Earth loves me, and I love her back. Reciprocity.

Reciprocity. Harmony. Balance. These are all critical values to the Indigenous communities I have met in my life as well as my own people. This is why it is particularly important that Indigenous hands are helping build back lost habitat, restoring balance that was lost through colonization. I see so many projects across Indian Country that are working on some version of restoration in a huge variety of fields. It is a renaissance, a reemergence, a reckoning – and often, it is young people leading the way. This has not always been so. This society has made it more than challenging to claim, feel and live ones Indiginaity.

There are systems as well as individuals that work, intentionally and unintentionally, to limit the success of our young people and their ability to live Indigenously in the modern world. One systemic notion that is beginning to be challenged at scale is that Native people should contribute their time, labor and expertise for free if it relates to work with the environment. People need to earn a living wage to live in the modern world while doing work that is tightly aligned with their values, culture and psyche as Native people. We are trying to disrupt this through Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu. We honor the innate desire to care for the land by paying for people’s service. Paying for people to set aside the time has rapidly ramped up the scale and pace of habitat expansion. Every day, the young women of the Pollinator Team impress, expand and build a better tomorrow for pollinators – and all of us.

The Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu Pollinator Team

As we age, it is important to support, mentor and transfer knowledge to the next generation. The CARCD grant that I helped write with Melinda Barrett at the Mariposa County Resource Conservation District (RCD) included technical assistance as an activity. Melinda skillfully included this to help scale the work of habitat expansion. My contribution to this effort was to build a contract with the Southern Sierra Miwuk nonprofit to hire contractors that would learn about pollinators, plants and then help educate others and install native pollinator plants. In August, a contract was effectuated and contractors hired. We now have two additional hands and brains to advance this work. Kristie is the green thumb. She has experience with plants, a good eye for design and is well-organized. Nellie has experience with outreach, working with children and has a creative flair for visual communication. Both are hard workers and have been passionate about habitat expansion, traditional food gardening and native plants. I cannot believe the work they accomplished in just the first few weeks!

First, they prepared the rear of the Tribe’s Miwumati Family Healing Center to expand the food garden and install the pollinator plants. We planted the first of the Xerces Kits there. Fortunately, we had the additional help and skill of Deedee Soto, NRCS Partner Biologist with the Xerces Society and regular knowledge bearer to the Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu Project. She taught me so much, and is helping teach the others on the Pollinator Team.

Deedee working at Miwumati

The entire team, including Deedee, when available, has continued to install the kits at their intended locations. At the time of this writing, all kits except for three, have been planted. We are planting the last three at a ranch in Bear Valley later this week. The Xerces Kit grant was requested separate from the CARCD grant and had a focus of creating a migration path for the monarchs through Mariposa County. In the gallery below, you will see three maps. The monarch icon represents where we have planted plants – or the Project had an influence on the planting of pollinator plants at that site, such as the provision of free plants or technical assistance. The sites are not exact – approximating the areas. The purple pins represent existing natural or planted habitat. There is much more natural and planted habitat in Mariposa County, but these are just areas of note I wanted to share. Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu has been busy, and we are just starting with the formal outreach portion of this work.

The two grants have been a great confluence of projects. The Pollinator Team has been able to gain experience planting, designing, selecting, and identifying these plants before launching their own outreach project for the CARCD grant. I am grateful to these young women every day!

Site 8 Temporary Fence Complete

After a year and a half of trying various barriers, we finally got a temporary fence up around Site 8. I had planned to install a 4-strand wildlife friendly fence, but I ran out of time. The 4-strand requires me to have help, which is not always available. The planting had gotten done, and the plants needed to be protected from the cattle. I made a pivot back to installing no-climb fencing. I just need help with the huge roll, but can generally stretch and clip the fencing to the posts myself. After the Pollinator Team minus me left, David and I went back out to Site 8 and finished the fencing. It isn’t pretty, but the plants are safe from hungry cattle. In January, I will be getting a professional fence installed that will fence off the spring all the way down to the bottom of Site 8. It will be such a welcome piece of infrastructure, which will allow me to plant as much as I want without fear of cattle intrusion. Thanks to David, once again, for coming to the rescue helping me work with a 300lb roll of no-climb fencing!

I got the last Xerces hedgerow kit planted this weekend. I was working until dark and used my headlamp to fill in the last few holes and water the newly planted friends. I have just a few plants left from the riparian kit to install. They are willows, which will require some protection since they are outside of the temporary fence. Friday, I will receive three big leaf maple trees and hope to get those planted next weekend. Trees help to provide shade and retain moisture in the soil. I have found that having multiple heights in the plantings help to make the smaller plants thrive.

Rain Needed But Fog Helps

If you don’t have to drive in it, fog is a really beautiful weather event. Not only does it lend mystery to the landscape, but it has been critical to ensuring the soil and plants stay moist – especially given the soaring heat during the afternoons. It is way too hot for November. Flowers are still blooming; grass is growing. Ants and flies emerged. Honey bees are still buzzing around but look really tired. I even saw a bumble bee the other day. All of this is not good. The cold is supposed to be a time of rest for many insects and plants. Like humans, they need their rest to be healthy and thrive in the Spring. Although we are still getting dew in the morning, and we had the first hard freeze on Thanksgiving Day, we have not had any rain since early November. The hillsides are browning up. We need water.

Odds and Ends

My rainwater system is nearly complete. We are doing some of the work ourselves to help cut costs. I am hoping it will be done before the next storm (whenever that is).

Tank three

I checked the rhizome test site Deedee installed earlier this year. She had seen some growth this past early summer. I went to check on them for her the other day. There was no sign of milkweed stems or dropped leaves. Possibly, the cattle pulled out the ones that did grow. I also saw signs of wild pigs. There were two areas where you could see the very destructive rooting, and one was one of the test sites. It makes me nervous. Two years ago wild pigs rooted out nearly all of the plants in Site 7. They better not touch Site 8. It was so much work by the Pollinator Team to plant in that area.

An exciting note – while looking at Deedee’s test site, I heard an avian ruckus. I looked to the north and saw a bald eagle sitting in the tree. The ravens did not want its company and made sure s/he knew it. Apologies for the poor, far away photo. I don’t have a good telephoto lens, but note the major size difference as compared to the raven, which is a fairly large bird itself. The white head and tail were visible to my eye – but sadly, not to my cell camera.

After seeing that pathetic shot above, you may be delighted to know that David gifted me a camera. Unfortunately, the telephoto is only a 4x. His intent was to get me a great macro lens so I can take better photos of butterflies. He is such a wonderful, thoughtful partner. I have not learned how to take the best photos yet. There are many more settings than my old, cracked cell phone camera. Some test shots are below.

The holidays are upon us. I wish you and yours a season of good health, delicious food, copious laughter and many, many butterfly plants waiting to emerge in the spring!

Waiting for Monarchs, Water Quality and Rain Comes

Gathering storm clouds

Since turning around, dumping my vacation for a chance to see more monarchs, I waited on my patio for days. No monarchs. One remarkable note is that my neighbor said she saw a monarch flying down hill from my house the day after the turn around. There is nothing else this time of year that could look like a monarch, so I decided she wasn’t mistaken. I celebrated! I have not seen a monarch in Hornitos in nearly 10 years – so no matter what, this was incredible. The sighting preceded the news that monarchs have been seen in greater numbers at the overwintering sites than last year, and it is still several weeks before the traditional “Thanksgiving Day Count”. Let’s be clear, the numbers are still abysmally low. Intervention remains critical. I am very grateful to Xerces Society and other monarch supporting organizations for their relentless work to expand habitat and get the word out about the decimation of this crucial and iconic butterfly.

Recently, I have seen a painted lady, two admirals, several of what I think are a hairstreaks, yellow cabbage and some white sulfur butterflies. Combined with the other butterflies earlier in the year, though less in number than last year, I am calling the work I have done here a win.

Spoiling Water

As much as I love cattle, they have no awareness to not urinate and defecate in their water. They also trample the banks making soil tumble into the creek. It makes the water go from clear to muddy and promotes algae growth from all of the organic material. This is why there are programs to help ranchers fence off riparian areas – to help keep water clean, give plants a chance to grow and propagate and stabilize banks.

American Indian Council of Mariposa County Starts their Pollinator Program

Earlier this month the American Indian Council of Mariposa County hired two young women – Nellie and Kristie – one as a Pollinator Advisor and one as the Garden Designer. Both are young, strong Southern Sierra Miwuk women and will contribute much to the Council’s vision of starting a garden to help feed elders and using the garden as well as their Healing Center focus to expand pollinator habitat, especially for the declining monarch butterfly. These positions were made possible by the Resource Conservation Grant awarded in part to support the Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu project. Their first projects will be to design a garden, plant Xerces Plant kits, and install a native plant garden at the Mariposa History Museum. I am so excited to see what these young women do! Stay tuned for more on this technical assistance part of the project.

Xerces Society Does It Again

Angela Laws (Left) and Jessa Kay Cruz of Xerces Society distributing pollinator plant kits

There are a number of groups and individuals doing what they can to help increase the numbers of the monarch butterfly population. From my perspective, one of the most effective and exciting efforts has been the Xerces Society pollinator plant kits program. They have scaled their plant work into the 10s of thousands of plants, with corresponding increases in the number of individuals partnering with them and acres planted. These women, including Deedee Soto (the Xerces biologist who has been mentioned many times before in this blog for her outstanding assistance to me on my Walappu’ project), are truly heroes for their tireless work to help many pollinator species come back from the bring of extinction.

I picked up the pollinator kits for me, the Tribe and Irene, a young Southern Sierra Miwuk woman doing her own restoration work. My truck was completely FULL. The two hour drive home from the distribution site smelled great. Thank you Xerces Society!

Water for the New Plants

I am finally growing up. I am getting an adult rainwater catchment system – well almost adult. It has only taken me 20 years to find the right firm and have enough financial resources to get it done. It is just in time too. My body just cannot make it through another year of hauling water all around. I hired local Watershed Progressive to perform the design and work for the system. Two young women came out to dig trenches and do all the plumbing work. It was great meeting these strong young women who know so much about water. I plan to showcase this system to folks who want to learn more about rainwater catchment. We all really need to be capturing some rain water to irrigate our plants in the west. Drought conditions are too frequent and destructive.

Fencing to Protect the New Plants

David and neighbor Ric stretching fence

It has been quite the journey at Site 8. I have thought through so many fencing types to protect the plants, spring and creek banks from the cattle. What a circuitous road! We finally settled on a t-post fence with Wedge-Loc corner systems to allow for strength across the entire span of fence. While I did finally get an NRCS contract to build permanent riparian fencing, it is expensive to build that type of fence, and I have to front the money and get paid in arrears. This t-post fencing is a good stop-gap fence – although it is so much work I am thinking maybe it will be permanent!

Originally, I had planned to use field fencing to fence off a section of the creek from the cattle and do wildlife friendly fencing up stream where access to the spring was critical for wildlife. Since we were going to stretch wire anyway, I thought, “Let’s just do the wire for the entire span.” This is the final configuration.

A wildlife friendly fence is essentially having a smooth wire at the top and bottom of the fence instead of barbed wire. This way wildlife can scoot under or jump over the fence with no catching or scrapes. The barbed wire comprises the center two wires in between to discourage cattle. This creek will be planted with all kinds of milkweed and nectar plants. Hopefully, the Xerces kit plants I planted last year along the creek will reemerge next Spring. That was a huge amount of work last year, including building the branch fence.

For those cattle ranchers that read this blog, and I know there are at least two of you, you will be thinking, “Oh no! How will cattle get to the water?” Great question. Here is the plan. Just below the fenced off area, you may recall a flatter area where the spring water and rain water pools. This is where I want to drive the cattle to access water. In this way, they are not crushing soil off steep banks and into the creek. I am also hoping for wider access to water so more than a few head at a time can access water. Here are the key elements to accomplish this: 1. With less soil intrusion, and even with more plantings, the spring water will have greater volume, be cleaner and pool in the watering area. 2. I plan to build a beaver dam analog (essentially a human created beaver dam type structure) early next year to slow runoff and retain moisture in the soil behind the dam, which will allow for pooling of water. I cannot wait to share the results of the beaver dam analog. I am planning to host a clinic here for other ranchers and property owners. After doing much research on these, I think this solution can be a game-changer for drought resilience, feed growth (which equals weight gain) and pollinator habitat. Thanks to Jesse Bahm of NRCS who first mentioned this once mysterious concept to me back in 2019.

Rain Comes and Log Pile Dams Work

Post storm clouds

The series of three storms came last week, including the “bomb cyclone” predicted to drop an enormous amount of rain. Well, it didn’t do quite that, but the resulting rain was greatly appreciated. We spent the Saturday before the storm cleaning up and putting things away. I had to roll the 250lb field fencing out of the creek where a cow kicked it – in case we did have a massive rainfall. Fortunately, I have really good leg strength to roll/push it up the bank and lodged it between two oaks. Per my rain gauge, the first storm was maybe 2 drops. The second was about an 1/8th of an inch. The third, and largest, was 2.25″. I’ll take it.

A day or two after the rains, I walked the ranch to see what had happened. The filed fencing stayed put (hurray), but the most incredible thing was that the log pile “dams” I had created along the Spring Creek worked. There was not enough water to move the logs. The piles had slowed the rain runoff to such an extent that there was standing water before each dam as compared to other similar sections on the creek that had no standing water. The standing water was not influenced by the spring. The heat had beaten the spring back quite a bit, and the standing water was much further downstream. The soil was very thirsty, but with the nearly 2.5″, standing water was possible. I am so encouraged and cannot wait to make that beaver dam further downstream.

Dogs, Odds and [Tail] Ends

The days are finally cooler, with sweater weather at night. I love the smell of tarweed, moist soil and grass. It lifts me; it keeps me going to the next day, and then the next. I even like the smell of my neighbor’s fireplace. Smoke in smaller quantities and wood only (as opposed to buildings) reminds me of my youth, far away from most people on the edge of the Stanislaus National Forest. I would be gone all day, just my dog and I, a bota bag of water and a sandwich in my pocket for us to share, observing life, the movement of water, insects, birds and animal tracks. The smells of the forest make up the organics of my brain, its tissues and neurotransmitters. It is such a part of me that I can hardly remember a time without that memory. Walking with a dog (or two or three, or…) is so pleasurable – getting lost in memory, yet not being alone. Now that is living.