November: Rain to Cold to Warm Again with Cold Nights and Dry. Blooms, Butterflies (still) and Falling Trees

Narrowleaf milkweed seeds ready to float to their next life

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.

Water Projects

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.

Rebalancing: A Way of Life

Two monarchs eat and pass through on October 12, 2022

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.

Ranch Health

Shed snake skin – nice big one. Good sign of health!

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.

Falling In Love Over 50

In Hala’i (My friend)

Do you remember the last time you fell in love? Giddiness, wanting to be with that special person all the time – or cross paths at least, flushes of heat, random moments of happiness, disappointment when they are not where you think they will be, heart flutters, consuming thoughts of the other person – ahhh, the pleasures and struggles of love. It has been a while for me. After all, David and I are working on our 30th year together.

In April, the stars and milkweeds aligned, and I fell in love again. I was not expecting it. I bumped into my new love while inspecting the California milkweeds with biologist Tom D. Landis, who came all the way from Oregon to make an assessment of early milkweeds in Central California. I had not seen any caterpillars for a while, but then, all of the sudden, there it was, all by itself, clinging to one of the smallest California milkweeds. Tom saw it first, but then I locked eyes with its expressive antennae. I was smitten, and named it “In Hala’i”, “my friend” in my Native Yoeme language. Fortunately, David was not jealous, and accepted his temporary demotion as I trudged up and down the massive hill to spend time with my new love.

By now, you realize I am talking about a caterpillar. In Hala’i was the very last monarch caterpillar on the ranch. It makes me smile to think that I had monarchs laying eggs as late as early April high up in the California milkweed patch completely unbeknownst to me.

I made a commitment to ensure In Hala’i’s safety, to see it through to adulthood. I used a large stainless steel gopher mesh bag to cover the plant and staked it with mesh pins. I then visited the plant every other day originally, then daily as it got bigger, to ensure its comfort, safety and that it was eating. Yes, love makes a person do strange things. Though my giddiness and heart flutters were from tromping up a 60% grade daily, and maybe the flushes of heat were the result of being – a- eer – a woman over 50, I did have extreme happiness when I saw it, and utter disappointment when I did not. Sometimes I would stay a while, and we would talk about all of the amazing sights it would see when it became an adult.

Adulthood means the metamorphosis to butterfly is complete. I am now waiting anxiously for that time – that time when In Hala’i will spread its wings and fly off to distant lands. On Sunday, a week ago today, was the last time I saw In Hala’i. All I could think of (and hope for) was that it found a safe place to make a chrysalis. I had watched it grow from less than half an inch to 2 inches, and that is the magic length. In Hala’i had gotten to that size in a caterpillar’s life when such things as transformation could happen any day. Perhaps last Sunday or Monday was that day. I am still monitoring daily. Today, Sunday 5/15, will be the earliest In Hala’i could change, so I will begin monitoring twice a day. There is always the possibility the caterpillar crawled under the basket and made a chrysalis elsewhere. Hopefully, I will get to see it, alive, healthy and ready to launch out into the world. I love you In Hala’i and wish you well my dear friend.

Updates from Before In Hala’i

In early April, there was one last cow stand-off to protect the second wave of caterpillars. It involved a curious calf, which means it involved its mother too. Not a good situation. Every time we (Beatrix, Millie and I) asked the calf to leave, mamma would get upset. We would back off, then she would back off. But then the calf would come back toward the plant. It was a frustrating, time-consuming, delicate enterprise. Eventually, we triumphed. The calf lost interest, and the pair went along their way downhill. They are a sweet pair. I really love them, but we have to make space for all creatures. Fortunately, the next day, the cattle were back to the south once again, allowing the rest of the caterpillars to grow to maturity without fear of cow incursion.

Continuing Outreach and Education

The Pollinator Team has continued to provide outreach to the public with pollinator education. Kristie and Nellie, with another volunteer, Gussie, have been gathering the information of residents of Mariposa county interested to install habitat as well as convincing others in the flyway to plant pollinator-friendly plants. Deedee Soto of Xerces, who is a member of our Pollinator Team, had a booth at the Butterfly Festival and shared a booth with the Team at the Pow Wow. It is always so helpful to have her as an expert available to answer questions. We always appreciate the generosity of the Xerces Society. I volunteered with them at the Butterfly Festival and briefly at the Pow Wow. It was wonderful to see so many people interested in monarchs. We had a special appearance from Nellie’s grandfather, Bill Tucker, who is a good friend as well as an honored Tribal elder. Also making a special appearance were biologist Tom D. Landis and monarch expert Diana Magor. Both came to perform early milkweed inventories with Ron Allen (UC Master Gardener and Mariposa Native Plants owner). It was a fun day.

I have continued doing education and outreach on my own as well. I was able to connect a couple farms to pollinator resources. The Sateurn Farm will plant some milkweed as a trial, and Raw Roots Farm in my own community will plant hedgerows in the Fall. I ordered Xerces kits for them. Deedee and I will also be approaching some no-spray vineyards in Lodi with which I have a relationship. Little by little, we are making more habitat and making a change in California for the pollinators. Let’s hope it is not too late.

Me giving a milkweed to Mr. Saeturn at the Saeturn Farm in Merced

Additionally, I had the super fun opportunity to talk to my friend, Cerina Gasteneau’s, 2nd grade class in Crescent City about monarchs. They are studying butterflies, and Cerina asked if I would give a talk. I made a power point presentation that was photo heavy and told stories about cows, caterpillar poop, dog guardians and chrysalis ooze — the things that 2nd graders love to talk about. They were quite advanced, so I was able to discuss the entire life cycle, opportunities and threats. It was fun. I also surprised them by sending a package filled with magnetic, hand-painted monarch butterflies for them to affix to their shirts, fridges, or wherever they wanted. I love children. They are the stewards of tomorrow and worthy of extraordinary investment.

Washington Post Runs Small Story

You may recall we had a Washington Post photojournalist, Melina Mara, at the house following me around as I worked on monarch habitat tasks. She not only was with me but several others all around Central California. It was an interesting time to say the least. Finally, last month, her colleague Dino Grandoni, a journalist at the Post focused on environment and energy called. He wanted to do an interview to accompany the images Melina took nearly a year before. The resulting article was a short photo story made for digital only (not print). It focused on a wonderful woman in Oakland who expanded habitat around Lake Merritt, me, and Xerces’ Deedee Soto. Although Dino did not share my more substantive quotes that focused on pollinator education, the overall work achieved public awareness, which is the most important goal. Thank you to the Washington Post for covering this important story of the decline of this iconic, crucial species and a narrative that every day people can be effective in addressing this issue.

General Ranch Updates

Life continues as we move from cooler spring weather to the heat of summer. Wildflowers are nearly gone, but other perennial native plants are beginning their blooms. The pacific asters, yarrow, sunflowers, gum weed and white sage are all beaming with flowers. The ceanothus has started. Yerba Santa, monkey flower, lupines, purple and black sages are all but done blooming. The narrow leaf milkweeds are getting buds on the end of their stems. We should have ongoing sources of nectar for whoever comes by. As for humans, I have had a steady stream of visitors. It has been a wonderful change from the sequester of the pandemic. All have been interested in the butterfly work and marveled at the smell of the plants and the beauty of the blooms. We have not seen many butterflies this year, but more than last year. White sulphurs, blue coppers, painted ladies, viceroys and, splendidly, I can happily say, monarchs, have all visited. Maybe the summer and fall will bring more.

Personally, this constant effort has been a respite from the ups and downs of life. Between the Ukraine, domestic politics, the loss of a friend, work pace, pandemic, graduations, births, achievements, weddings, divorces, other dramas, and, in general, life returning to a pre-pandemic cadence – it has all been so much. Perhaps many of us have gotten used to a slower pace and a life behind a screen instead of in-person, with all the energy that it gives and takes. Hopefully, we all have our own versions of a habitat project where we can move our bodies, quietly contemplate, be good humans for this Earth and breathe.

Beloved sister and brother visit

Wildflowers, A. Californica Emerges, Drought and Handing Off

Millie watches Beau kitten walk through the wildflowers (lupine and fiddleneck)

Wildflowers of all colors and sizes abound here in the foothills. It is like spring. I welcomed the thick scent of nectar into my home by keeping the doors and windows open the entire day last week. I never tire of the joy the olfactory experience brings me. Tempering my joy is the notable lack of bees across the range. I recall when I first came to this place that there would be plethora of different bees on the flowers – chunky bumble bees of different colors, thin, agile pollinating flies, and European honey bees of course. Fortunately, near the house is a different situation. There are honey bees, silver native bees, thin flies and every now and again a bumble bee on the arugula flowers. I love to lay on my chaise next to my towering stands of arugula, with the bees flying around me and listen to their hypnotic hum.

A. Californica Emerges…Partially

My plant obsession emerged in late February on the south facing slope – A. Californica (AC), California milkweed. What a tricky friend it is! I have been monitoring the emergence of early milkweeds for Ron as part of a larger program he is involved in. I must have walked by the rocks on the south facing slope twice in the latter part of February. I never saw anything.

In the early days of March , on a cool day, after checking the area, I headed home, down the very steep slope that leads to Site 2. I decided to pull some weeds around the baskets of Site 2 since I was there. I reached into the pocket of my jacket and found no gloves. The gloves were a yellow tan color, much like some of the rocks that protruded on the landscape. Looking left and right, I saw nothing. Although I dreaded it, I began to make a slow climb back up the steep south facing slope in search of my gloves. You must understand, the gloves were not cheapos. David got me a special pair that he thought would last longer and fit better since I work so much with my hands. Very sweet of him. But, this meant I was determined to find them.

Everything happens for a reason I suppose. Trudging back up the slope, about halfway up the hill, I saw a glimpse of light green on the dark green, brown, and red colored background almost glowing in the light. Could it be? No. I had wandered this area just a moment ago, and twice over the last two weeks. But yes! There is was, slightly moving in the breeze, a gorgeous puff of AC. As much as possible, I picked up my pace to get to it. Indeed, it was a large specimen of AC. It had to have been there, camouflaged against the moss on the rocks, for weeks. I began to look around and like prairie dogs peeking out of their holes there were another 3, no — 5, no –10, albeit smaller ACs. My heart beat more from the excitement than the 6% slope I had just loped up. Everywhere I turned there was AC. In all, after counting 6 times to ensure I got it right, there were 16 individuals in total in that community of plants. I could not help but grin so wide the sides of my mouth ached. What a great day.

I have been monitoring all AC sites where I have found the plants previously. Of the four, two have emerging plants. The other AC site has one very strong plant with three sprouts. Last year, this site had one plant with one sprout. The older the plants are, the stronger the roots become and the larger the sprouts get. I have seen smaller plants that get a later start never get to bloom. This is why it is really important to protect the older growth ACs.

Hopefully, we will begin to see some emergence in the other sites soon. The other sites are north and west facing (as opposed to south) – so this may be a factor.

Drought Worsens

There has not been any appreciable precipitation since my last post. Tanks one and two are still unfilled because of the defective rainwater system part from December. Such a lost opportunity. This means I continue waiting for a large rain event to make up for that issue. There are large swaths of red and brown patches all over the ranch. These are areas where no additional vegetation has grown and the existing vegetation has already run its life span. No water = no grass growth. The water is now completely gone in the swale pond. The springs are still running. It is not pooling in the spring creek since there was no good water saturation down stream. We still have standing water in Odom creek, but not as extensively as is typical.

Butterflies Visit

We have had more butterfly visitors, but not as many as in the past for this time of year. There have been several painted lady butterflies, some gray hairstreaks, a white and/or pale blue sulphur butterfly (I could not get a good look). There are so many flowers but not as many butterflies to utilize them.

Narrowleaf and Indian milkweeds have also begun to emerge. They will be good for many butterflies and not just the monarchs. I don’t know if any monarchs will stop by. A friend saw a monarch in the Merced River canyon area, which is farther east and higher in elevation. Maybe I will get some stragglers.

Odds and Ends

Most things that were not leafing out or growing, are now showing leaves or leaf buds. No showy milkweeds, but I don’t expect them until later. We expanded the protection fencing around the big leaf maples, and they are already being used. Just yesterday I was checking the enclosures and was stopped in my tracks. The bluest birds I’ve ever seen here were flitting around, roosting on trees, roosting on the fences and then dropping to peck into the ground. They were stunning. Fortunately, the dogs were not with me. I was able to get a closer look without scaring them away. Rounded heads, iridescent blue, no blush of rust on the wings or chest. They were mountain bluebirds! I have only seen western bluebirds here and only in the riparian areas. What a joy that they have already found the new trees.

I also pulled out the solar fountain and filled it with water. Within a day, the basin was being used by a bird to bathe. There has been considerable preening, nest building, dating and coupling going on around here. It is spring!

Warm sun and soft grass – nap time

Handing Off

Sunset at the ranch

Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu is officially handed off to the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation. The California Association of Resource Conversation Districts grant is now complete. While I will continue stewarding and building habitat where I live, I will only stay loosely involved as a volunteer under the thoughtful, caring and deeply passionate leadership of Kristie with support from Nellie and Tara (and of course Clay from Miwumati, Deedee from Xerces and Ron from Mariposa Native Plants). With schools interested in presentations, residents wanting to plant pollinator gardens, the Butterfly Festival coming up in April and the Pow Wow soon after that in May, the Team still much work to do. I could not be happier.

As an Indigenous person, I feel a deep and intrinsic connection to stewardship of the planet as well as this specific place. However, there is no one more suited to stewardship of this region than the progeny of the first peoples themselves – the Southern Sierra Miwuk. When you live by, for and because of your non-human relations for tens of thousands of years, you unconsciously become one – you know one another extremely well and are part of the collective whole. This knowledge will be central in ensuring the survival of the monarchs and all of our pollinator family.

Ito te vitne in weweriam. Amand te tevote naabuihatia ini tui tekipanoa. Se osi enchi nake.

Good luck my relations. Best wishes with this good work. I very much appreciate you.

Kristie at a site assessment and intake
Nellie at March for Federal Recognition with friends and next generation stewards Miwa and Willow
Tara burning for the health of the land

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!

Taking Time to Appreciate

Juvenile red tail hawk feathers found

The weather is cooling. The wind is blowing the smoke away. It is a beautiful day on the ranch this Sunday. There is always so much work to do, but on such a special day, I had to take time to appreciate the honor I have to caretake this land, in this place, at this time. There is no better way to process these feelings than to walk the ranch. The smell of tarweed mixes with the dust of soil that is way too dry. Then cow pie. Then warmed oak bark. A little smell of stagnant water as I cross the Spring Creek and head up the hill. I notice the crunch of grass made brittle by drought. Top soil kicks up with each step of my feet and dog paws. As I get closer to the ridge, the wind kicks up tickling my skin. Although there is a lick of cool in the air, the sun is up higher now. The heat feels like a rug burn on my bare arms – hot and focused. As long as I keep walking, the breeze cools my skin. The dappling on the hillside give the dogs respite from the sun. Then, overhead, the call of a red tail hawk. It floats aggressively on the whipping wind – up high, then suddenly gliding close over the earth. As I watch in awe, a second red tail calls and floats close, over me. The dogs want to give chase, but they instantly know they are defeated as the wind takes the second hawk away as rapidly as it came. I come upon a slope of dead oak trees, victims to the last 5-year drought; there is a temporary grave site of a young hawk that likely chose the wrong territory to settle. Its flesh is no longer there, but its feathers are spread across the grass, reflective in the light. I give an offering and my thanks to the young hawk for its life and its feathers. Chiokoe uttesia in werweria, in jali’i. Se enchi nake. Se enchi nake. Ne te visawame. Its feathers will be used to do good, and in that way, its life will continue.

I saw just one butterfly when I got to Odom Creek. It was a little blue copper. I love those. The dogs took a swim in the large spring. It was a great morning.

Log Pile Dam Structure

A log pile dam is a low cost, low hardware method of slowing water down in a stream. I was able to build the pile mostly on my own. To get the larger logs into the pile in the creekbed, I used other narrower branches as leverage. Then, I used brute strength to edge one side or another of the log into place. Even with all the progress, there were several large, heavy logs I did not have the strength to move, but were needed for the top of the dam. I needed a stronger person than me — HEEYYY DAAAAVVVE!!

I am anxious for rain so that I can see how well this will work to back up water, even a little, in the creek. Thank you David for your help. I really needed it.

Va’am into Sewam (Water and Flowers)

In my last post, I lamented about a water dilemma. I am running out of rainwater but do not want to irrigate from my well. Finally, I made the heartbreaking decision to irrigate with the well water. In the end, I decided I could be super miserly on household water usage. This way, I would create less impact on the well and the oaks that depend on the groundwater. I am so close to the rainy season and so close to the dormant time for many of these native plans that it made sense to do this. David built the irrigation lines, and all the plants have a 1/2 gallon dripper on them. The system will be set to water so that the plants get 1/4 gallon maximum. Hopefully, the rain will come soon, and I will not need it long.

A wonderful advancement of this project will be working with the Watershed Progressive. They will be installing a professional rainwater irrigation system. We will also be adding another 2,500 gallon tank. The system will have high tech features to know the weather and the soil moisture so that water will be added only if needed. It also comes with an app so that I will be able to monitor system performance and needs. I am very excited. The system should be installed early in the “rain year”. I don’t want to miss too much rain storage. David is so happy to not have to set up my “poor girl’s” rainwater catchment system. The new system will allow me to expand my plantings, especially as the earlier plants mature and need less or no supplemental water. It will also enable me to continue to do this work without the limitation of the watering effort and the break down of my body. I cannot underscore how important this is to my continuation of this work.

TA Portion of the RCD Grant Gains Steam

Staff at the Miwumati Family Healing Center, a program of the American Indian Council of Mariposa County (aka Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation, have been collaborating with me on the hiring of a Pollinator and Garden Advisor for the Center. The Tribe has been focusing on Indigenous food sovereignty programming, including starting a garden. The new hire will not only focus on traditional food systems, but will be learning about pollinators. They will then help others in the community expand their pollinator habitat. I will be working with this person as well as other experts to build this capacity. This is very exciting.

Thinking of the Future

As the growing season nears its end, I have a little more time to think about the future. The Xerces Kits will arrive in November. The Tribe’s Pollinator and Garden Advisor will assist me in helping others get the dormant plants into the ground. We will be focused on planting in typically wet locations – like creekbeds and springs. I also would really like to create a beaver dam analog on Odom Creek. I spoke with the Watershed Progressive about this. They are learning how to do this work themselves. There may be the opportunity to have a clinic on the ranch to help others learn about implementing these on their parcels for the benefit of wildlife as well as livestock, which can benefit from the flooded areas that will grow more grass. There is always so much to do, so many ideas. No matter the workload, it truly is an honor and a privilege to be on this land, to work with so many outstanding humans, and to be doing work that makes – at least this small part of the world – more habitable for butterflies and other pollinators.