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!

The ABCDs of Walappu’ “Uuchuthuu: a. Californica, Butterflies, Color, and Drought

Purples, whites, oranges, yellows, reds and blues abound!

In the melody of Carole King’s A: Alligators all around.

A: a. Californica comes from the ground.

B: Butterflies flitting around.

C: Colorful flowers abound.

D: Drought crept in without a sound.

And that is the current state of life (and my mind) here at Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu (Butterfly Home Place). Old, favorite children’s songs are not enough to comfort me as a moderate drought continues and is likely to get worse. Winter has turned to spring so fast I have hardly had time to write. In fact, today is three weeks since my last post. Rest assured dear monarch lovers, I have continued to be hard at work.

Protecting an oak sapling takes considerable effort.

In my last post, I noted that my friend Maggie spotted a little oak seedling while hiking with me on the ranch. We protected it with downed branches to buy me time until I could get to the site and build a cage around it. Three weekends ago I was able to do so. It took much effort however. Since the ground was still wet from a recent storm, I did not want to disturb the soils with my quad by sliding up and down the hillsides. Instead, I loaded the quad with fencing materials and parked in a flat spot well away from the hillside site and hauled all the material to the site. For those that are not aware, t-posts are solid steel. The roll of no-climb fencing is a thick gauge metal. The t-post pounder itself is weighted steel, about 16.5 lbs. As I trudged across the creek, up hill, then across an arroyo to another hill, then up that hill to the oak seedling site several times with pounder, posts and a huge roll of fencing, I had only one thought in mind…”How am I not a size 6!? Why are my arms not as defined as a body builder?” The only explanation is that I love peanut butter too much.

I also put in t-posts around the cottonwood. I needed to do it anyway, and I was going to be nearby. The no-climb fencing still needs to be attached, but I have it ready alongside the driveway to easily pick up when I have the time. At least Maggie’s oak is going to be ok. There are so few young oaks (and so many that died in the last drought), I need to do a better job of protecting the seedlings I find.

My favorite is back: a. Californica

The first emergence of a. Californica

Finally, after weeks of monitoring the a. Californica site, I saw the first leaves emerge.These plants are so gorgeous and look so prehistoric to me. Last year, the site closest to the house had seven individuals. So far, I only see one. I also checked out the north-slope hillside where the thirteen plant community was last year. I found two – one single leaf by itself and another multi-leaf bunch. Both sites have much gopher disturbance. They ate a couple last year. I am hoping that this is only the beginning of their growth and many more plants will emerge so there are some that survive gopher predation. This early milkweed is a crucial source of food for monarchs as they begin their travels from the coast.

Diverse Butterfly Visitors

Cutting the grass early has really helped wildflowers proliferate. The little magenta flowers, generally not seen near the house this early, are thriving. We have so many species of flowers blooming that I have seen more than six species of butterflies already this year. They are tricky though. They flit so fast and disappear that it can be difficult to catch a glimpse for an ID or a photo. The butterfly visits began in late February and have grown in March. I was able to identify several using this iNaturalist tool. After being caught without a camera when the viceroy floated by, I now always have my camera/phone with me. So far, I think I’ve had: viceroy, painted lady, american lady, buckeye, white sulfur, brown checker, maybe a spring white and a Sara Orange tip. There have been a few I did not get a good look at, but they were clearly different than the above. Here are some of the butterflies of which I was able to get a photo.

Arroyo – Site 1 Planted!

I finally began planting in the arroyo. The soil is so much different there. Even though moist, it is a little tougher to dig. The soil is clay-like but also crumbly with very small rocks. I planted monkey flower, sulfur buckwheat, two narrow leaf milkweeds (I have a hole ready for a third when Ron brings another), white sage, purple sage, black sage, mugwort, yerba santa, two maple trees and one other plant I cannot remember right this moment. I planted one maple higher on the hillside in the path of the spring. In doing this, I am hoping it will have moisture available for longer in the season. The other plants are planted in the area of the arroyo that appears to be at the base of where the hillside spring travels. I also planted most plants on the north-facing slope. My thinking is that this will provide additional moisture as the climate changes. The hillside spring usually dries by late July or August. It is not much water. The spring mostly makes the grass there green longer. You can trace its subterranean trajectory by following the greenness of the grass down to the arroyo. Given its limited production, the plants will need to be irrigated as well over the summer. When helping write the grant, I estimated that it was 1000′ from my rain water tank to the site. I ended up using just under 600′ of the metal hose I purchased. This works out since this will leave me 400′ to use for other far flung locations.

The cows left last Thursday for their southerly rotation. I have another 4 days to a week to get a fence built around Site 1. I already have most of the materials and decided to use t-post diagonal brackets for the corners. I am not trying to make a permanent fence here. The goal is to establish the plants and trees, then remove the fencing. I purchased another 50 posts the other day. The price has gone so far up since I first began building fence. I used to pay $1.50 per post. Now the price is $4.91 – and that is good. Most other places have 6′ t-posts for well over $5/post. Ouch.

Drought Outlook

Not looking good…

I keep a close watch on the Drought Monitor tool. I am so glad that I captured what I hope will be enough rainwater to get the newest plants through the summer season. I had hoped to add another tank, but did not get a chance to. There is much site work that has to be done. Last time, we hand dug the pad for the tank, built a retaining wall/box from old railroad ties and rebar we had laying around the ranch, and filled the box with sand that we purchased. It has worked well, but takes quite a bit of time. There is also the need to purchase just the right length and corners of Schedule 20 pipe. We just did not have the time or energy. We knew this would be a short winter season, and never received even one blockbuster rainstorm like we did last year. Maybe next year. My calculations say that we should have enough with the 7,000 gallons. I over- estimated water needs, but sometimes you need to water twice per week. Maybe the older native plants will need water. There are many unknowns. Stored rainwater is important because I don’t want to put any pressure on my well. David and I have already been in stricter water conservation mode for several months.

My rainwater gauge

I have been measuring rain for close to 17 years. The worst year of the 5-year drought was 9″ for the year. This year we have just under 10.75″. That concerns me. Last year, we had just over 14″. While 14″ is around the normal precipitation for my area, it does not allow much carry over into the next year. The soil, trees and grasses are thirsty. It shows. The swale pond did not have standing water until January 2021, despite a fairly wet December. Not good for plants and not good for fire resilience. We will do the best we can and hope it is enough.

Maintenance and Milkweed

With the emergence of the sun has come rapid growth of grass and all the other plants. David is mowing, and I am hand weeding to give the plants some light and space. Today, I staked all of the planting areas so we have markers that will keep us from weed-eating the plants if they get overrun by grasses. David does that work, and he does not know where everything is. Even if I am able to stay on top of weeding around the planting areas, it is good to have the stakes.

I have begun to water the plants. It is early, but they are already looking dry. I want to be sure they have a strong start. Maybe we will have some precipitation in April (fingers crossed). I monitor all of my plantings for growth. Sadly, so far, several of the dormant plants that came with the Xerces kits have not sprouted. Most of the bushes are doing very well though. The milkweeds from 2019 and 2020 have sprouts as do the newly planted milkweeds. They look strong and healthy. I am so grateful for that. Hopefully, the other Xerces plants will emerge. Maybe they just need more time.

Reflections

It has been a year since the the beginning of the CA Resource Conservation District grant, which allowed me to scale up the habitat work I was already doing. It was such a high last March when I learned my project had been selected from among many candidates across the State. At the same time, the impacts of the pandemic were just beginning as well. Everything was shutting down. Shock and fear took hold across the globe as we watched the bodies pile up in Italy and the bug make its rapid march, with each new red dot on the Johns Hopkins tracking tool, into every nation across the planet. It was made real when restaurants, schools and office buildings closed their spaces sending all of us home to watch life move forward without us. All most of us could do is watch the truly essential workers battle this disease with limited equipment, limited knowledge, poor national leadership and few options. If you were paying attention, there were some good things too. Here, the air was super clean – like it had not been in years. Wild animals showed themselves more now that they were given more room to be wild. The quiet of far less air traffic and road noise helped provide a level of peace needed as we grappled with the question of “what next?”. For me, not being essential, not being on the front lines of the pandemic able to use my energy to save lives, I chose to throw my energy and passion into helping save the lives of the monarch butterfly. It was good medicine for me.

We will survive this pandemic – but what will be do with our changed lives? Without bird songs, the howl of the coyote, cool breezes of clean air, clear, healthy water babbling across rocks, the smell of billions of blooming wildflowers, places of natural wonder and peace, and, yes, monarch butterflies making their epic migration, spreading their large wings as they surprise you with their beauty — without these, what is life worth anyway?

Rain Comes – More Needed

Swale Pond full at last

There were several days of rain over the last two weeks, with two continuous days of rain last week that were the real soakers. In those two days, we received 4.5 inches. It has been much needed. We are still in drought though, with a dry year predicted. Rain years are calculated beginning on October 1. So far, this rain year we have had 7.625 inches of rain. According to historic documentation, the average precipitation is 14 inches in Hornitos. We still have a way to go, and hopefully we go beyond that. The worse year of the five year drought this past decade was 9 inches. I don’t want to see that again. It was horribly dry, and that was the year the large spring on the mid section of the ranch finally dried up. I never thought I would see that. Our cattleman even had to haul in water.

Heather reconnects pipe that had become disconnected

The winds were so terrible that my rain water catchment system failed. My husband and I went out three times to fix it. In a storm where the tank should have been full, it is only at half its capacity. So disappointing! The first occasion, the pipe had split in its mid section. The second occasion, the pipe had blown away from the downspout in one place and had disconnected in the mid section again. The third time, I found that the tank exit pipe had somehow gotten unglued and had been leaking the entire time. When I banged on it, it came completely off and the precious water collected began gushing out. I re-nested the pipe back over the other with all my strength. I got soaked in the process. Fortunately, my husband was out there with me that time, and ran to get the wet glue, which can still stick pipe together even when wet. He ultimately fixed it. The ground was soggy, and it was difficult to balance the ladder on the decline, especially in the wind. I almost fell off one time. I was able to keep the ladder upright as I followed the inertia and “walked” it down hill to a solid place before getting off. I got soaked on that one too. All I can do is hope that we get more rain without ferocious winds to fill the tank. I will need this water to keep the plants alive through the long, dry time.

Cottonwood and cage still there

After the storm, I hiked around the property to check on the plantings. With the two straight days of rain and wind, I wanted to be sure the cottonwood and cage were alright as well as the plantings and branch fence and Odom Creek plantings with brush pile protections. I planted most of the plants close enough to the creek bed to get a soaking during high water, but not so close that the roots were in water all the time in the winter. I looked at the neighbor’s cottonwoods and my own buckeyes to see where they were successful in relation to the creek bed and followed that example.

Fortunately, the two days of rain did not flood the spring creek and take the branch fence with it. There were a couple filler branches that moved downstream with the flow. I ended up replacing only three branches to fill a couple bare spots in the fence. Overall, I was really happy with the outcome. There are a few bulls on the ranch now along with the cows (It is that time of year for love.), and I have some concerns that the bulls will just push through it to get to the long blades of grass on the other side. I will keep watching.

I also checked Odom Creek. There, I thought the flow would be greater with more of a chance that the brush piles over the willows would be washed away. To my surprise, it did not look as though the water reached the plants on the east side. Although the ground was wet, the dirt did not look dark as if the water line reached them. The water clearly soaked the willow on the west side. Each brush pile was intact. All plants were present and accounted for – four willows and one mule fat.

Other Monitoring

Looking for a. California sprouts with Andy and Bibi

I have also been checking the a. Californica site closest to the house for sprouts. Last year, there was no rain in February, which I am thinking stunted grass grown allowing the a. California milkweed to get a head start on growing. This year, with rains in February, I am concerned that the grass may grow faster than the milkweed. I want to watch for its remarkable leaves and trim the grass in that area to give it a chance. That early milkweed will be important for the monarchs.

Planning for Spring Planting

Ron Allen, UC Master Gardener and Co-Owner of Mariposa Native Plants

Ron came over to discuss the next plant order. I asked for his guidance on my plan and showed him the areas where I was thinking of focusing this Spring. He also got a chance to see what was doing well, and what didn’t make it. Overall, things looked good. I placed an order for 89 plants. We are continuing to go big for the monarchs.

Already wildflowers have bloomed. I see blue dick stems and poppy leaves sprouted. The primrose never stopped blooming. Spring is around the corner. I am going to plant anything I can for February. The milkweeds won’t be ready, but there should be some nectar plants available then.

The storm made for some dramatic photos and clouds. I end my blog with some select shots that I hope you enjoy.

Rain = Happiness. Low Monarch Count = Heartbreak

Looking east as the sun tries to break through the rain clouds

This will be a short post today. I am overjoyed that we had rain over the weekend. When I heard the rain drops on my skylights Friday night, my heart leapt — and I am not being over dramatic. Rain is so critical to what we are trying to do here, as well as for grass growth for the cattle, that I cannot underscore my joy enough. Per my rain gauge, we had 1 inch since Friday 12/11. It has been dry, dry, dry. One inch is not much, but at least it is something. I checked the XR2 planting sites on Sunday, and there was no displacement of the branch structures protecting the plants by water or cows. Every day that the plants are not disturbed is a day that the roots can get a better hold into the ground. There was no change in water flow or volume. One inch, after such dryness, doesn’t do much but moisten the first little layer of soil. That is great, but we need deep watering over several rain events to really give the plants the best start to the Spring and fill the swale pond and creeks. The rain also means I don’t have to haul water. My back, neck, shoulders and arms get a well-deserved break.

Rainwater Status

We ended the dry time with 2,000 gallons of rainwater. This is good news. This means we have additional capacity to add plants and flex depending on rain levels. I am planning on scaling up the planting even larger next Spring and Fall, so I will still add another one or two 2,500 gallon tanks. The two empties were tied to the house and have a decent start on the capture. Tank 3, on the south end of the house, was connected even earlier, and we had the benefit of capturing rain from the last storm in addition to this. We have over 100 gallons in that one. Thanks to my husband David for putting the system together!

Heather’s poor girl’s rain water capture system – but it is effective! Tank 1 on the north side

Bad News

I hate to share this very bad news. The early counts of monarch overwintering sites show even fewer monarchs than last year. It is a horrific thought that these incredible creatures could have populations so low as to not be viable for population growth. Let’s hope for greater numbers as the count continues. It isn’t over yet – and next year we all have to triple our efforts to help.