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

Hazard Branches. Grasshopper Death March. Washington Post Comes a Calling.

The dangling branch is dropped. Two other dangerous branches to go.

Is anything ever really dead? Despite the leafless, withered nature of this grand blue oak killed in the last drought, it was crushing for me to watch its dismemberment. It was more bitter than I imagined it would be. I have so much respect for even the hulking remains of this once glorious tree. Its body still provides places for acorns to be stored, an ocular perch for birds, living quarters for all types of creatures, and even some shade over the creek. So, is it dead if it provide so much life?

Tim Desandres took a careful and thoughtful approach to ensure his safety and that of the t-posts already in place. It was almost magical how every branch drop avoided crushing any of my infrastructure. I had him leave several logs in the creek where they landed since I have plans to create a beaver dam analog. In the end, the tree still stands and my safety, as well as those who work with me near this beautiful sentinel, are now guarded.

Without the cattle in the creek, so many plants are making a come-back. There are more yellow and purple flowers blooming, interesting grasses and broad leafed plants are popping up everywhere. I am excited about the possibility of what this creek can look like and what pollinators it will support once it is fenced off. One looming shadow is the drought. Overnight, the heatwave dried up the standing lagoon adjacent to the fence. It began to dry up the creek bed nearest the flat lagoon area as well. My heart broke a little since that is where I had planned to plant some of the showy milkweeds. I thought the spring had dried too. After investigating, I found that the spring is still producing, but it is the constant, unmitigated heat battling daily with the spring to dry things up. I am rooting for the spring.

Hoppers Eating Everything and Still Want the Seedpods

Grasshoppers attempting to breach the Xerces mesh bags

The A. Californica is nearly gone. Most plants are completely removed from the landscape. Some are shriveled stalks laying on the ground. The grasshoppers leave almost nothing behind. Fortunately, the seedpods still remain protected. I check them every morning and evening looking for signs of breach, which would initiate a rapid cutting of all pods to save them for propagation. I am happy to report that the bags are still holding them off. The longer, the better so the pods can get as much nutrients as possible for the seeds to mature. Even though the pods I took early have opened and revealed healthy seeds, it is best to give the pods as much of what nature intended as possible.

Wowza! The Washington Post Called

It was shocking when I got the call. This storied newspaper, probably known best for breaking the Nixon Watergate scandal, was going to run a story on the effort to save the monarchs – and wanted to include the work I was doing. They had received my information from the Xerces Society as one of the land stewards doing something to help the monarch migration. Xerces provided a number of other individuals as well – other land stewards, scientists, programs. Melina Mara, an award winning photojournalist, called to learn more about my project. She was calling a number of the contacts to determine how the story would flow and who would be included. That was over a month ago, and so I thought Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu was not going to be a part of the story. After all, there are so many other people doing much more than me – and with greater success. If you read this blog more than once, you will know at least that much about this project. So it was a huge surprise when I received another call saying she would be in my area in a few days. I was certainly honored to be included in the story.

Melina showed up in her hybrid jeep with two cameras and five lenses. She definitely looked just as one might imagine – an adventurous, experienced journalist traveler with a mystique of cool (Now I know what I will dress as for Halloween this year!). She has traveled the world and covered extremely important topics. I am grateful she will be helping amplify this critical issue, which is related to an even larger issue – climate change and our unhealthy relationship to this planet.

I had to go into Sacramento for work, and when I showed up, she immediately began taking photos. It was a strange to be followed around by someone taking photos. Not something a country girl from Groveland, formerly population 300, is used to, but Melina was kind and made me feel like she was an old friend as we chatted and drove all over the ranch with me completing my butterfly chores. I thought sarcastically, “How riveting. Who wants to see this?”, but then again – I am not an award winning Washington Post storyteller. She probably knows what she is doing (sarcasm intended)!

She documented my work for a couple days. A dear young friend, Irene Vasquez (Mi-wuk), messaged me that she saw a monarch in Yosemite Valley. So Melina and I were off to go see if we could find any monarchs. We visited a dear elder friend, Bill Tucker (Paiute/Mi-wuk), who showed us some historic butterfly areas along the Merced River. What an adventure. Bill is like a 25 year old and out-walked me everywhere! In the end, we saw two bald eagles, lots of dragon flies, frogs and five or six species of butterflies, but no monarchs. As Bill said, there used to be thousands of them in these places, but we could not find one.

Odds and Ends

Bee gathering water from the seedling starter tray

Everything is still thirsty and hot. I continue to keep all the water vessels filled each day. The amount of time I can stay outdoors is limited. There are only about 1.5 hours at the beginning and end of each day when it is cool enough for me to work. I am not a hot weather person. It really takes a toll on me. With so many days in a row of 100+ degree temperatures, the cumulative effect is enough to hurt even those that are accustomed and acclimatized to the heat. People are experiencing sudden death all over the world where it is hot. It is worth it to be careful.

Over this past weekend, Mariposa County held its Butterfly Festival. It was exciting to be able to go out to a festival again — and with my friends Roxann Mulvey and Jill Harry. With the heat and overcrowding, my friends and I did not stay long. We saw Melina there documenting the educators working, like Deedee Soto from Xerces, and Ron and Bev from Mariposa Native Plants. They are doing such important work. Many humans disappoint me with their lack of awareness, greed and limited respect for all living things. I was encouraged to see a significant number of people approaching to the education booths to discuss what they could do to help the monarchs and other pollinators. Maybe there is some hope.