February, 2006 Archive

An Excursion Near Home

Sunday, February 19th, 2006

Low-grade illness and a heavy schedule has kept me from fulfilling my own assignment to students: get outdoors, pay attention, write. Yesterday morning’s cool weather and dramatic light got me going. The Sierra Club’s outings web page promised a kayak trip up the Morro Bay Estuary to spot birds, but when I phoned the leader he said it had been cancelled because of uncertainty about wind and rain. The Morro Bay Natural History Association offered a talk about “Living on tectonic plate borders” which sounded appealing since I’ll have to lecture on Cal Poly Land’s geology next quarter. I took my down vest, windbreaker and packsack loaded with camera, binoculars, bird book, a loaf of sunflower seed bread and an avocado, and told Jan I’d be back in the late afternoon.

I arrived at the Marina early and walked to the point to gaze at birds, clouds and the distant dunes.

Rounding the lion rock, I came across two white egrets. I was transfixed by their yellow eyes and graceful head plumes but they werent interested in my company. They slowly flapped their huge wings, lifted their legs and flew across the flat water.


February Garden 2

Sunday, February 19th, 2006

It gets light now soon after the alarm goes off and its not dark until suppertime, but the plants in the gardens have remained at the same stage of development where I left them two weeks ago, when I broke off writing the last entry and abandoned my postings. So I’m going back to where we were.

Here is the growing tip of Heuchera maxima

This plant is as hardy as a weed, tolerating deep shade in front of the house and direct sun in back, no water or plenty of water, as when it grows under redwoods. One of its common names is Alum root. And yet it’s delicate as these velvety hairs on its leaf tips and stems, and therefore it’s also called, Coral Bells, for the lily-0f-the-valley-like blossoms that will spring from these buds.

The flowering time of Umbellularia californica has passed since this picture was taken; some of the tiny blossoms in the inflorescence were already dry then. That lilting scientific appelation is almost as melodious as “Bay Laurel,” its vernacular name, linked with the myth of Apollo and Daphne, which recalls something I wrote twenty three years ago:

Pursuing a youth
made lovelier yet by flight
through woods he runs
imploring recognition.
Outdistanced and breathless
she prays for escape
then stands.
Her heart still beats against his touch
as bark encloses the soft breast,
arms twist into branches
hair flattens to leaves,
and swift feet root underground.
They are crowned
With laurel.

Three bay laurels have been growing in the front for four or five years. They prefer sun and water–you can see them as the lighter-colored foliage in riparian corridors on the hillsides–but here on the north slope they are dry and shaded. One grows under a large liquidambar tree. It’s intended to replace that beautiful non-native if ever it gets tall enough, but that wont happen in my lifetime.

The old Fremontodendron grows dense and low on the steep bank above the wall in front. It turns into a burning bush of gold flowers from April to July. The one I planted recently with the early orange bud needs continuous pruning to keep the path clear.

The one with the large heart shaped yellow bud grows at the top of the hill in back.

These Flannelbush are showy and indestructible, perfect California natives for the garden. I like looking across the valley to Poly Mountain and seeing the clumps of Flannelbush growing there wild. But Flannel is a misnomer. Rather than stroked, their leaves, flowers and stems should be handled with gloves to protect you from their tiny hairs which want to embed themselves in skin.

Creeping mountain lilac or Ceonothus Joyce Coulter is another prolific bloomer, here just about to burst into a rich purple quilt. After the blossoms drop, the leaves remain almost as deep green and shiny all year round as they do here at first emergence.

The same is true for the other five or six other Ceonothuses that thrive in the yard, each different in leaf and growth.

Only one Red twigged Dogwood, Cornus sericea, grows here, cramped between the path and the wall in front. It seems to be capable of putting out new leaves all year long, whenever it rains. When it’s dry, the leaves, which are neither waxy, leathery nor hairy, go papery and fall off, exposing deep wine-colored stems.

The flowers remain packed in tight white bud-buttons during December and January and then burst into bloom lasting only a week or two.

Just uphill from the Dogwood stands a Western Redbud, Cercis occidentalis. Unusual for California plants, this one is winter deciduous, losing its leaves in early fall, blooming and regaining them in Spring. The dying leaves, slightly rubbery in texture, take on a touch of
Autumn coloring that reveals a veined and capillaried web on their circular surfaces.

Two weeks ago, when this picture was taken, I hadnt seen traces of regeneration on this tree for months, but since then tiny leaf and bright pink flower buds have started to pop all over the gray bark.

More dramatic suspense was created by the grapevine in the backyard, now about 12 years old and the centerpiece of the arbor on the mid-hill terrace that creates an elegant shady bower in summer and a rich harvest of grapes and raisins. I cut the canes back to old wood to promote new growth and fruiting in November, hesitantly following some website instructions. But when no buds appeared, well after the native California grape along the eastern wall in front had started to leaf, I thought I’d have to pull out the whole venerable stock. I checked and poked everyday for a month, and then the day of the last entry, February 2, I found, two tiny sprouts.

Now two weeks later, I still wait for more.

There’s no new growth yet on the old oaks, the ones I planted seventeen years ago. But several recent volunteer Quercus agrifolia have come into leaf. I marvel at the fragility and tenderness of these infants, knowing that within the next four months they will expand and curl into thick, hard, thorny surfaces. These are the only volunteer natives that have cropped up since I started cultivating natives, testimony I think, to the fact that this north facing slope wants only to be an oak woodland.

Hummingbird sage, Salvia spathecea, has been blooming here since January, almost as early as the Red Currant. I love the delicious pink, magenta and purple colors of its flowers springing modestly, just a few at a time, from teardrop shaped sheaths of its bud clusters.

I love the sticky clear residue it leaves on the fingers when touched, smelling tart and sweet as grape soda. I love its velvety green foliage that returns every year and spreads by rhizomes, overwhelming the dark brittle remaining stalks of last year’s growth. And I love the way it draws the hummingbirds low to the ground under the oaks, where it hides in the shade.

February Garden

Saturday, February 4th, 2006

It was supposed to rain today, but we got wind and clouds instead. While grading papers, I’ve been taking vitamin C and Echinicea pills every couple of hours, humbly hoping to hold at bay the headache, cough and scratching in my lungs. I visited my mother in law at Assisted Living for a break, and seeing her and her companions in the rec room 20 minutes early for Bingo reinforced the winter mood.

But the overcast skies provided some good light for pictures of developments in the garden last week. After Spring in December, not much changed during January. The longer days of February have brought the early bloom of the volunteer almond tree, remnant of what must have been a local orchard before the 1950’s subdivision of this neighborhood.

On Friday I got a copy of his brand new book, Plants of San Luis Obispo: Their Lives and Stories from Matt Ritter who teaches in the Biology Department and is curator of the Cal Poly Plant Conservatory. In addition to running the conservatory, teaching full time, and writing scholarly articles for tenure, he wrote the text, shot all the pictures, and did the layout for the book himself with Photoshop and Indesign.

His descriptions of the species in my garden help me see them up close: “Fuschia-flowered gooseberry is a bristly, evergren shrub with leathery, dark green, irrgularly toothed leaves. The beautiful, bright red, tubular flowers, which are pollinated by hummingbirds, hang from the stems. The stamens, which are twice as long as the rest of the flower, hang down with bright yellow tips. To ward off herbivores, there are three stout spines emanating from each node.” (p. 57)
This Ribes speciosum is another early bloomer. I’d describe the leaves as waxy rather than leathery, since they’re thin and they dry up in late spring, unlike the thick leaves of the holly-leafed cherry for example. Once flowers and leaves are gone the plants have a forbidding allure, like that of a cactus, but now they are all slender and delicate. At the Brizzolara Creek Committee we’ve talked about planting them as hedge to keep people out of the watercourse.

At the side of the house, by the compost and redwoods, the wild strawberries are back. Soft, matt, and pertly serrated, the leaves make a fresh bed for occasional yellow-centered white blossoms.


Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

Today’s ecolit class was a hike to Rockslide Ridge.

We’ve been reading John Muir’s The Mountains of California. Its first paragraph contains a fine description of our home territory.

The Coast Range, rising as a grand green barrier against the ocean, from 2000 to 8000 feet high, is composed of innumerable forest-crowned spurs, ridges, and rolling hill-waves which inclose a multitude of smaller valleys; some looking out through long, forest-lined vistas to the sea; others, with but few trees, to the Central Valley; while a thousand others yet smaller are embosomed and concealed in mild, round-browed hills, each with its own climate, soil, and productions.

I’d asked students to study the Geology chapter of Cal Poly Land: A Field Guide to connect the Muir text to our walk and to help them to decipher some of the language of the landscape.

The winter weather was clear and crisp. On my way up to our meeting place at the horse unit, I biked toward Drumm Reservoir and the site of “Poly Canyon Village,” a huge new student residential development I’d spent many hours haggling about in committee during the last five years. I’d just learned from reading Christy’s ecolit journal that groundbreaking started two days before with the destruction of ancient Eucalyptus trees:

Driving up to Peterson ranch this afternoon I was shocked to come across the mass arboreal murder taking place. The beautiful eucalyptus trees that have shaded the feed mill, the feedlot, and the bull test are being savagely mown down by hairy, overweight cretins in fluorescent vests. In the summer when it gets unbearably hot, there is some much needed comforting shade under these fragrant guardians. During wind-whipped storms, their branches sway and shed leaves in all directions. They hold the land stable; they act as nice bumpers for those whose breaking skills are not up to par. To me they stand watching over year after year of Cal Poly students. They have seen the succession of eager high school potential, to Poly student to teacher, teacher to department head, then to retirement. …Just five days ago, I walked to my car parked under those fated Eucalypts, listening to the eerie creaking and groaning of the trees, despite the dead stillness in the air. They knew, and they were broadcasting their goodbyes through the song of their branches.

I found only huge stumps, cut close to the ground. The rings werent visible enough to be counted.

While we waited for stragglers, I pointed out the borders of Cal Poly Land on the map. Our destination was just outside the property line. At exactly 10:15 by my watch, we started up the hill. Every minute counted if we were to be back in time for the next scheduled class at noon.

The horse corral above the stables provided a lesson in erosion and land misuse. As a flock of crows cawed in the twisted sycamore limbs, one student pointed out a foot-high gap between the ground and the concrete foundation of a watering trough, measuring the loss of topsoil.

At the top of the corral we came upon Indonesian reservoir, designed and built by a group of Indonesian students in the ’60’s to impound runoff from Horse canyon creek in front of us and water pumped uphill from the system of reservoirs, ditches, pipes and creeks that serve as plumbing to irrigate campus farm facilities. I pointed out Kestrel Crest, the serpentinite ridge above the reservoir. Kestrel was defined as a small raptor, a sparrow hawk. Kiell mentioned that it was also a verb that meant hovering in flight. As if on cue, two small birds with white spots on their wings–not kestrels–appeared below the crest and kestrelled for us. Another bird flashed grey-blue and light orange. I recognized it and three more that joined it, as female Western Bluebirds, Sialia mexicana. Not as impressive as the more brightly colored male I had photographed last year from my deck

they nevertheless gave me a thrill when their gray wings suddenly turned blue as they angled in the sun.

After a brief stop at bedrock mortars surrounding a grove of bay and hollyleaf cherries under the high voltage lines bringing power to the campus from the grid in Morro Bay, we huffed uphill on a deeply eroded dirt road past some recent slumpage in the Franciscan melange soils on the bank, passing through a shaded oak woodland along the creek. The woodland gave way to grassland and then to rock outcrop plant communities growing on the base of the steep upper slopes that constituted Rockslide Ridge. Despite an increase of wind, the temperature went up, and I had to remove my sweater and take a drink.

At the saddle dividing Horse Canyon from Poly Canyon, some people decided to ascend no further, while the rest of us left the road and found various paths through the unstable rock and gravel, avoiding the needle pointed tips of Spanish Dagger that thrived without much competition on the infertile serpentinite soil. Most of the group had never seen this backcountry before. Other people delighted in the escape during class hours. I watched the clock, knowing we had to reach the top by 11 in order to have fifteen minutes there before going back down.

I was one of the last near the summit to clamber over a barbed wire fence that ended in a vertical drop-off where half the mountain had shaken loose and slid down into the valley that was now the Architectural Area. Instructed by Professor Chipping’s explanations in the Field Guide, one could see where springs erupting from impermeable layers of rock covered by the slides secreted watercourses lined with green black clumps of trees–oaks, bays, sycamores and willows.

I collected papers due today and then people dispersed on the summit plateau, just outside the University property line to write in their journals.

(photo by Danielle O’Neill)

I found a natural rock bench, drank some water, munched on a chunk of olive bread and looked for a subject to describe. Just to my west, on a dried flower stalk of Yucca whipplei, perched another female bluebird. I approached her slowly to get a picture, and she let me come within 20 feet.

Then she disappeared and I went back to my seat. Looking to the south, over the campus toward the city in the distance, I saw her on another stalk, watching me.

I approached again. This time she flew directly toward me and fluttered in an arabesque a few feet from my eyes. At first I told myself she was rewarding my attentions. But then I realized this was threat behavior. I was doubly trespassing, my sit-spot in the middle of her territory, between her guard towers. I checked my watch. It was three minutes after the time to leave.