I wrote my first blog eight years ago when I was 83 years old and had just moved to Santa Barbara into a retirement community. As I had sold my home in Berkeley, there would be no going back.
The first blog was “Making it Work on the South Coast.” The last written two years ago was titled “The Best for Last,” about Santa Cruz Island which gave me an opportunity to write both about my parents and my experiences on the island. In those intervening years, I had moved to a more agreeable apartment within the complex and had participated in the development of a Native Plant Garden in an area just below my new apartment. And I began a book – a compilation really, of the blogs and shorter nature pieces written for our monthly newsletter.
I used for the title “Best for Last” suggesting that this final period of my life in Santa Barbara was just that, though I still nurture deep reserves of nostalgic memories of the Berkeley Hills where I had lived most of my life. (Available through Amazon or at Chaucer’s, Santa Barbara)
With the help of a talented designer, I created a book that others thought more highly of than I did. I have always felt that what I wrote was less than what I was capable of – if only I could reach deeper.
Now I am ninety-one. I read, poke about in the native garden, or often just sit outside and listen to the birds. Like a native Santa Barbarian, I worry about frequent dry winters. But I am deeply frightened about Climate Change and how persistent droughts and heat on the South Coast and elsewhere, will affect those who follow us. Will my children, grandchildren and now five great-grandchildren know the joys of green winters and flower-filled springs and a sun to seek out, not one to hide from?
I recognize the lugubrious tone of my writing, but these are lugubrious times when our lives have been transformed by a virus – covid-19. We read about Ebola, grieved for families but took comfort in knowing that this was on the African continent, and that our own horror, AIDS, most often affected others, unless we happened to have a gay son. I was born 11 years after the Spanish Flu, knowing about it mostly from a photograph of my mother, a pretty young woman in her volunteer nurses’ uniform with a red cross on her cap.
Six months after my birth, the world was plunged into the Great Depression and then World War II. Now it is our turn, first with an epidemic, coronavirus (or covid-19), which we barely understand, followed most likely by another Great Depression. As I often do, I have retreated to nature and to birds. But with my flagging energies I am seldom out in the field, or rarely stirred to pursue a hidden bird with an unfamiliar song. I let others do my birding. I accept a mostly vicarious life by reading the postings of local birders – vigorous men, mostly, middle-aged women, who like certain botanists, are “my kind,” what ever that means
We are mostly isolated on our campus, with meals in plastic bags hung on our doorknobs, and no visitors permitted. Most people are wearing masks which makes even my friends unrecognizable. I escape occasionally by getting into my old Scion car and meeting family members at a park for a stroll. Classes and programs are online on our in-house television. My life isn’t so different except when I think about it. As long as my family and those dear to me stay well, I will remember to be grateful.
With businesses closed and most people staying at home, freeways are almost empty, and the air is brighter and cleaner than most people can remember. Wild animals, often unseen, have taken over Yosemite Valley and Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
In one of those beautiful ironies, while most of us have “sheltered in place” the birds are on the move in unprecedented numbers. It appears that Oak Park and our knoll where Samarkand is located are not on one of the migratory corridors. A recent report on my list serve, where local birders post what they see, one young man stood in his driveway for almost an hour, head tilted back, watching an extravaganza of swallows, swifts, loons and kingbirds.
Daytime migrations are unusual. Most birds migrate at night when the air is cooler and quieter, using a combination of navigational aides like the position of the stars, the magnetic fields, or polarized light. At daybreak, most song birds rest and feed and at dusk set off again. Certain birds make marathon flights over water and will need enough stored fats for the journey.
I have often wished I lived in a quiet place far from towns and airports where I could hear the special calls that migrating birds use to keep in touch with one another. Yes. quiet, and truly dark nights where I could see stars beyond counting.
Other birders are reporting unusual numbers of passerines – Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers, Orioles, warblers, and others in the high state of excitement that defines the time of migration.
I move away from my computer to rest my eyes and to see if I wrote anything interesting in my journal. My journal often receives my most intimate thoughts.
Two ‘poems’ from my journal:
Dear ones on your strong wings With even stronger intent. Are you fleeing this diseased planet? But you too are a captive of gravity With lungs which need oxygen. Mars would never do.
I approach a dear friend Yearning for an embrace For a warm enfoldment Heart beating against a beating heart. But instead, we measure With our eyes What is six feet.
The resident hawk
Repeats its urgent calls.
Where is the rain?
The temperature is above eighty.
Night falls with red skies
Color caught by the high cirrus clouds
Too thin for rain.
With darkness comes
The cricket stridulations,
The final notes of the fading season
After midnight I step out on my porch,
Looking high to the south.
Orion waits, trailed by Sirius,
The hunter’s faithful dog.
Venus will soon separate itself from the rising sun
And before month’s end will shine alone
In the eastern sky.
Once I’d imagined spending my final years
In the town where I was born
In a tiny house of my own design
One room only
With alcoves for bathing, sleeping, fixing tea
A steep roof with a skylight or two
A generous porch under a sheltering eave
High in the Berkeley Hills,
But instead, my final years
Will be spent in Santa Barbara
in a spacious apartment
One of many apartments
For elders like myself,
Close to family,
a hedge against loneliness.
The geographer in me
Wants to tell you
That Santa Barbara is located
At the southern end of central California.
Maybe 50 miles below Pt Conception
Where the coast bends inland
Thanks to the San Andreas Fault
Flexing its muscles.
So now the coastal mountains run
From east to west,
and most confusing of all
You look south if you want to see the ocean.
For me, the ocean has always been to the west,
And the direction of the setting sun
Where if you sail far enough
You’ll bump into China.
The high Santa Ynez Mountains to the North
shield the town from certain cold draughts.
But in downpours, the mountains
Shed all manner of debris
From silt to sandstone boulders
As big as cars.
Now as an amateur geologist,
I’ll tell you that this knoll
I call home, is surrounded
By flatter land referred to
As an alluvial fan,
Crossed by creeks that
Only show up when it rains.
Locals brag about the mild climate
Forgetting about those vehement moments
Of gale-force winds
Or what about the microbursts
Which have been known to knock a plane
Out of the sky?
And there’s nothing mild about my landscape.
Never still — it twists, heaves and cracks.
Worse, it is said that all the commotion
Is bringing Los Angeles ever closer.
Once we were covered by a warm sea
With dinosaurs wandering the shallows.
Later mountains rose up,
Full of seashells.
Now it seems that our future is drought.
I look out the east-facing windows
Down into Oak Park with its
Pale limbed-sycamores and faded foliage.
It’s a peoples’ park
With mariachis on the weekend
Birthdays with piñatas
Quinceaneras, sometimes a funeral
Look up to the first ridge
To St. Anthony’s towers
And to the two rosy domes
Of the old mission.
Higher yet is the bulk
Of the Santa Ynez mountains
and the conical shape
Of my mountain – Montecito Peak
See how the angled sun
Deepens the canyons.
Slide your eyes sideways
To where the mountains
Slip into the blue line of the sea.
Now face south
Over our native garden
Bordered oaks from the park
To the silent creek bed.
I look for hummingbirds, bush rabbits
and worry about coyotes
The east hills, called the Mesa
Holds off the fog
Until after dark,
when the hills are breached.
Oh yes, my garden off the front door
The narrow porch of a garden,
Hung with red geraniums
And softened by pots of ferns
I lie in my bed beneath the windows
Hoping for wind to move the chimes.
I lift my head at dawn.
Do I see the silhouette of the mountains
Against the lightening sky?
Or are we cocooned in the fog
That drips from trees
Almost as welcome as rain.
And what is the first bird this morning?
The clink of the towhee
The querulous wren
The sweet ring of sparrows’ song?
Now you are hearing the voice of the birder
Leaning on every song
In the absence of good eyesight.
Acorn woodpecker, flicker
With strong beak and loud call,
Or the relentless caw of the black crow,
Boss of the neighborhood?
Will I be lucky enough
To have an owl’s hoot rouse me
In the early morning hour?
I feather my nest
With a down comforter
Bouquets of pungent sage,
Baskets of lichen.
How do I finish this short tale?
A day ending, I suppose.
With the dark coming on by five
A tale of rain arriving?
A gusty wind from the southeast
In the early morning hours
Between midnight and dawn
The rain falls
I smell it first
And then sweet fragrance of hope
Could this be
The beginning of a season
Of abundant rains
Enough to end the drought?
COMING IN THE SPRING: The Best for Last: The Nature of Santa Barbara by Phila Rogers. Includes the blogs and a number of short pieces.
For the last four years, I have written about Santa Barbara’s seasons, landscapes, and sometimes history. But what has really commanded my imagination during all this time have been the Channel Islands.
On infrequent childhood visits to Santa Barbara during the summer to visit my grandmother’s apartment, two blocks from the beach, or my cousin’s house in the hills, I usually came alone from Oakland on the Southern Pacific Daylight train.
I have no recollection of seeing the islands. Even though mountainous Santa Cruz Island was only 25 miles offshore, it, and its neighboring islands, were usually hidden by a bank of fog.
What I remember most was the beach, the bright city lights from my cousin’s house, the pale flakes of ash that my aunt said were coming from a fire in the mountains.
Not until I was an adult, when two of my three children settled in Santa Barbara, and I often flew south to visit them, did the islands became familiar to me. Most often, the plane approaching the airport made a wide arc over the ocean and the islands so as to land into the prevailing wind from the northwest.
From then on, I was eager to find some way of getting out to the islands. Santa Cruz Island, the largest, was mostly privately owned by the Stanton family of Los Angeles. The second largest island, Santa Rosa Island was owned and operated as a cattle ranch by Vail and Vickers, whose boats sometimes brought cattle to the mainland at Santa Barbara. San Miguel, the northernmost island off Point Conception, a windy place surrounded by a turbulent sea, was famous mostly for its huge population of seals and sea lions, drawn to the cold, upwelled water rich in nutrients.
I remembered from the family stories that both my mother and father as children had visited Santa Cruz Island. Before she died in 1981, I asked my mother to tell me her story.
On lined yellow paper, she wrote in her spidery hand: “When I was a small girl the trip to the Santa Barbara islands was a great adventure. One time my mother, grandmother and little brother went to Santa Cruz Island in a fishing boat. As The Channel was very rough that day, the deep dips into the troughs of the waves were terrifying to all of us. The kindly Italian fisherman tried to reassure us but we did not retain our equilibrium until we landed safely on the island.
At that time, the only accommodations on Santa Cruz Island consisted of tents with wooden floors.* At night we could hear the wild hogs rooting around in the under brush which was scary. The food in the dining tent was plain but good with plenty of fresh fish.
A highlight of our stay was the trip into the blue caves. One entered their inner fastnesses in row boats. These caves were accessible only at low tide and in quiet waters. Within them, the water was a brilliant blue which became darker the further in we ventured. It was thrilling to trail one’s hand which yielded a ghostly phosphorescence. Back home again I had much to tell my less venturesome playmates.” – Elaine Adrian Willoughby
I knew less about my father’s trip (or trips) to Santa Cruz Island. There was something about a borrowed Boston whaler, and that the wild boar they shot was so tightly wedged in a narrow canyon that they had to butcher it on site and deliver it piecemeal to the boat.
I can imagine that Santa Barbara in the early 1900s, with less than 10,000 inhabitants, was an ideal place for a boy to grow up. He and several co-conspirator built a shack up San Roque canyon until a wild-fire destroyed it. I have a small photo of him as a young teenager with his dad on a mountain trail, he with high boots, a slouch hat, and a canvas rucksack hanging heavily off his shoulders.
Now it was my turn.
TWO WHO CELEBRATE THE NATURAL WORLD
HUGH RANSON – birder, teacher, and writer who writes the Saturday column “Bird Watch” for the Santa Barbara News Press. He began his bird watching as a boy in England.
In the last five years, he has taken up the study of dragonflies and during lunch breaks can often be found at a local pond with his net and camera.
Be sure and read an except from “Bird Watch” in the Blog “This Time for Work.”
BILL DEWEY Bill has been photographing the California landscape since the early 1970s and has been flying since the 1980s. Some of his favorite subjects include the California Channel Islands, Carrizo plain, Baja California, and the rural California landscape. His work is widely published and shown in various galleries and museums. His aerial photos begin each my Santa Cruz Island blogs.
The Archipelago of the four Northern Channel Islands included westernmost San Miguel Island, Santa Rosa Island, the mountainous Santa Cruz Island, and finally little Anacapa with its “tail” of broken islets trailing behind. Now that I’ve settled in Santa Barbara where I most likely will conclude my life, I view the islands from the mainland, always drawn outward toward them. I see them from my daughter’s house high on the hillside above Mission Canyon, most often reclining on the horizon in their bed of haze. Sometimes the fog obscures them from view altogether, or there are times when the vapors are swept away by a dry north wind, and I can clearly see their cliffs and coves.
Over the years I’ve collected my own experiences of the islands. Last year, I crossed the choppy Channel on an Island Packers boat out of Ventura Harbor. I was lucky enough to have secured an invitation to the annual mass, thanks to Marla Daily, the head of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation.
But my awareness of the islands, particularly Santa Cruz Island, began as a child when I read The Channel Islands of California, by Charles F. Holder, published in 1910 which I claimed from my parents’ library. The book with its turquoise-blue linen cover and the decorative drawings of the flying fish is now on my Santa Barbara bookshelf. I still love to reread the description of the ride in a horse-drawn carriage up the wild canyon to the Central Valley from the anchorage at Prisoners’ Harbor.
Quoting from the book: “From the sea, Santa Cruz Island is a jumble of lofty hills and mountains, with deep gorges and canons winding in every direction.
Hidden away in the very heart of the island is an ideal ranch, with a pronounced foreign atmosphere, in a climate as perfect as that of Avalon to the south.”
“Seated in the trap, with our host holding the reins, we turned into a gorge… the road wound upward; the horses now splashing through the summer stream beneath gnarled and picturesque oaks, now out into the open, where the sun poured down through rifts in the cañon beneath a sky of tender blue, plunging into the narrow cañon again, where walls grew lofty and precipitous, shutting out the glare of sunlight; …”Three miles of this, and the charming canon road came to an abrupt end. The canon sides and the mountains suddenly melted away, and the horse dashed into a long, rolling valley, where the air was like velvet on the cheek and an incense of flowers and vines filled the nostrils.
But last Sunday it was in the cab of battered green truck driven by one of Marla’s relatives. Several trucks of various vintages were waiting for passengers who had disembarked from the boat tied up at the end of the green trucks brought us up from the boat long pier. I carefully climbed up the ladder, aided by the crew, to the rough planks of the pier. I was more uncertain than usual because I had fallen on the deck of the boat when a sudden lurch had tossed me down on my back.
I’d been pulled back upright without apparent injury though my confidence in staying upright had been challenged.
The streambed was dry the first mile or so but then we encountered water. We forded the stream several times “before the canyon sides and the mountains suddenly melted away.”
It was different from when Holder had made the same trip a least a hundred years earlier. No longer a working ranch, most of the island now belongs to the Nature Conservancy. The vineyards which once traced the contours of the hills had been removed. Gone were the horses, cattle, and sheep. The ranch house was no longer ornamented with the iron grilles forged in the ranch forge.
The people this day were mainlanders who had come to enjoy the annual festivities, attend mass, drink wine and feast on the barbecue before returning to the mainland on the four o’clock boat.
A trip on Island Packers from Ventura to Santa Cruz Island
I mostly kept to myself, listening for bird songs and calls and finally spotting an Island fox. Mostly I tried to recapture in these dry hills the island of my dreams.
THIS TIME FOR WORK
(First published as “Island Exuberance” for Santa Barbara Magazine spring 94)
I’m drawn to all islands, but especially to those that lie off a mainland shore, like the Channel Islands. At times they beguile you, half hidden behind veils of fog, and at other times they abandon subtlety, revealing in dazzling detail their pale sea cliffs and shadowed canyons.
I don’t pretend to understand the power these islands have on me. Maybe it was the epic tales of sea voyages and island landfalls that fueled my imagination as a young reader. Or the stories told by my parents, who were raised in Santa Barbara. I made my first crossing to Santa Cruz Island, the largest island of the northern group, 25 years ago on a three-masted schooner. Since then I have managed to return often, usually as a participant in natural history groups or as a Nature Conservancy volunteer. Last spring, I volunteered as a plant monitor, and saw the island once again, this time from the back of a jeep as we lurched over ridgetop dirt roads on our way to inventory plants.
To the north was a mountain range of ruddy-colored volcanic rock. To the south toward the open sea rose a conical mountain peak of dazzling white rock know as the Blanca Volcanics. The island is, in fact, made up of two disparate land masses, that came from different directions and are sutured together by a fault know as the Central Valley. It is not hard to believe that this wild jumbled Technicolor landscape is still on the move, sliding northward toward the Aleutians. Some 18,000 years ago when the ocean level was lower, all four islands of the northern group were joined together in one super-island scientists refer to as “Santarosae”. Through the islands’ evolution many configurations developed, but they have not been joined to the mainland, at least not in recent geological times.
The plants and animals we see on Santa Cruz Island today came on the winds, were carried by ocean currents, or were brought ashore by human visitors. Salamanders and other stowaways came ashore on the same log rafts that the Chumash fashioned into canoes. Once on the island, many animals and plants have evolved distinctive forms
On our trips around the island, we saw the little island fox that weighs barely three pounds. Other species are larger than their mainland cousins – examples of what scientists call gigantism. The Santa Cruz Island jay, for example, is bluer and 25 percent larger than the mainland Scrub Jay. Toyons and elderberries are shrubs or small trees on the mainland, but they can grow to 40-60 feet on the island. Maybe it’s the temperature, moist climate or lack of competitive species. I call it island exuberance. There are fewer species too, fewer kinds of birds, two types of snakes, and no burrowing animals at all. The four terrestrial animals are endemic, meaning they are found no place else.
This article and photo was excepted from “Bird Watch,” published each Saturday in the Santa Barbara News Press and written by Hugh Ranson.
Santa Cruz Island: the California Galapagos
I recently ventured out to Santa Cruz Island in search of migrant birds. While I didn’t see a great variety of migrants, there were enough resident species to keep me well entertained. Island foxes, which have made quite a comeback, trotted about throughout the day, seemingly unconcerned by human intrusion. Another island endemic, the island scrub jay, was much in evidence.
Hundreds of birders venture out to the island each year to see the jay. Why? It’s a species found nowhere else on earth. The island scrub jay was once considered conspecific with the California scrub jay, the familiar jay found commonly along our coast. It was officially recognized as a separate species in 1998. It is larger, much more brilliantly blue, has a larger beak, a different voice, and different social habits than its coastal cousin.
There are at least a couple of theories as to how the jay made its way to the island and began the slow differentiation from the mainland species. Jays are weak fliers and do not travel across large bodies of water. One thought is that jays made their way by hitching rides on floating vegetation. Another is that during a period of glaciation, when sea levels were lower, jays were able to cross the much narrower channel. At any rate, it is thought island jays have been isolated from the mainland for over 150,000 years.
Santa Cruz Island has a healthy population of jays estimated at 2,300 individuals. However, this population is considered vulnerable because of the small area of the island. There is the constant danger of fire, and more menacing still, the threat of West Nile Virus, to which corvids (jays are in the crow family) are particularly susceptible. Because of this latter threat, many of the jays have been captured and vaccinated.
It seems the island scrub jay is perhaps even more remarkable than we realized. Recently, biologist Kate Langin made a discovery that turned a theory of evolution on its head. She found that there are two separate populations of jays on the island, one that favors oak woodland, and one that inhabits pine forests. The oak-loving jays feed largely on acorns and have evolved shorter, stouter bills. The pine-inhabiting jays have longer, narrower bills, adapted for extracting pine nuts from pinecones. Even where pine and oak woodland are mere yards apart, the two populations appear to remain separate.
Charles Darwin theorized that in order for species to differentiate, like the famous Galapagos finches, there needs to be geographic separation. The island jays appear to be the first known instance where this theory doesn’t hold.
If you haven’t yet made it out to Santa Cruz Island, it’s time you did! Island Packers of Ventura run daily trips to the island. It takes a little over an hour to reach the island, and there are excellent opportunities for viewing marine mammals and birds on the crossing. There are two anchorages served by the company, Scorpion and Prisoners. You have an excellent chance of seeing the jay at Prisoners. It used to be that they were rarely seen at Scorpion, but in recent years they have become more common there, frequently foraging in the campground. I saw several there on my last visit. Scorpion also has many choices for coastal walking trails
The scalloped-edged ironwood leaf resembles the splayed, scaly foot of some prehistoric bird. The light ripples as the tall trees sway in the sea breeze. In the presence of these shaggy-barked survivors, you can imagine these to be sacred groves. Islands have a way of compressing — and enlarging – human emotions, and island tales are replete with mysterious and sometimes tragic human stories. In the singularity of an island, you confront your own separateness, you own uniqueness. It’s been almost a year since my last island visit. Every day here on the mainland, I climb the hill behind my house to look seaward, hoping for a glimpse of the dark shapes on the horizon – elated when I can see them, a little lonely when they are obscured by fog or clouds.
The Island Shrub-Jay was once thought to be a sub-species of our common coastal California Shrub-Jay, but now is recognized as a separate species. The Channel Islands have been separated for eons from the mainland. Jays being weak flyers, and with 25 miles of channel separating them, the Island Shrub-Jay has had a long time to develop its separate characteristics.
The Island jay is over all bigger (the beak especially so), the plumage is brighter and bluer and its cheek is near-black instead of gray.
After having lived most of my life in the Bay Area, California mountains meant only the Sierra Nevada. My earliest memories are of Lake Tahoe with the bands of blue, the color deepening the further you were from shore. I remember the translucency of the water, the whiteness of the beach sand and the way the sun shining through the water left a dazzling pattern on the sandy bottom. And the granite, always angular and glistening with feldspar.
Vacation in the mountains was a reprieve from home and the rank eucalyptus odors. Now it was sage and pine, and brilliant, hard edged cumulus instead of the dull sheets of stratus.
But it was time to put all that behind and turn my thoughts without aversion to the Southern California Mountains, another transverse mountain range like the Santa Ynez range. The deep power of the San Andreas fault had twisted the mountains sideways, contrary to the northwest trending of the other California ranges.
With some of the family now living in Southern California, a three and a half hour drive to Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardinos won the day over nine hours north to Lake Tahoe.
The San Bernardino Mountains rise abruptly on all sides out of its arid landscape. The curving road makes a quick ascent passing occasional coulter and knobcone pines, dried stalks of yuccas and chaparral. In a land of few lakes, only dams can create a body of water, gathered mostly from snow melt. Big Bear Lake, no exception, occupies its own shallow valley set in low mountains and open conifer forests. Unlike the Sierra, where millions of trees have succumbed to the long drought and insect attacks, Big Bear’s trees look healthy, perhaps being accustomed to dry years.
While noticing the distinct differences between the appearance of Sierra Nevada and the San Bernardinos, I remembered reading of their similarities. Both began as batholiths formed of cooling magma deep underground before being uplifted some three million years ago. Older rocks overlain the newer granites. But in the Sierra Nevada, the old rock eroded away with the heavier rains and the extensive glaciation. In the Santa Bernardinos, with glaciation only on the highest peaks and less rain, more of the old rock remains.
Because we were nine people, we rented a large, recently remodeled house which is currently on the market for three and a half million dollars. While the family took to kayaks and paddle boards, I settled in on the deck to figure out this place.
The dominate pine is the Jeffrey – a close relative of the ponderosa (yellow) pine, which along with the coulter pine, are all members of the yellow pine family distinguished by packets of three long needles which produce nice harmonies in the wind.
The fir family was represented by white fir growing, at the deck rail, with short, dense needles which point upward. Each species seems to have its own distinct odor. Press your nose into the cracks between the plates of bark on the yellow pine and you smell vanilla. Sniff the white fir and you get an essence of pine and citrus. Be like the native American Indians, brew a cup of tea with the needles and you have your daily requirement for vitamin C.
But what took my fancy was the pair of sugar pines above a neighbor’s roof. Aside from being both the largest and second tallest in the pinus family with uncommonly long pine cones, I love this pine. John Muir savored the exuded gum which he said was sweeter than maple-syrup. The branches are arranged on the straight trunk often symmetrically, but sometimes a branch will shun order and stretch out further than the rest. Cones hang near the tip of the branch. I remember watching them in a winter wind swaying as if they were extravagant ornaments. Once, while examining a cone a foot and a half long lying on the ground, I remember someone telling me that the scales expand and contract with the change of temperature and the prickles make a grove in the soil for the seed. I’ve never been able to find another citation for that charming “fact” since.
The forest, at least in the neighborhood of our house on north-facing shore is knitted together by an understory of a tall manzanita called Pringle Manzanita. The season for its pink urn-shaped flowers is long past and only a few dried berries remain.
Time to shake off the lethargy that comes with an occasional fleecy cloud drifting across the blue and then dissolving or the soft song of pines, and explore the rest of the lake. The dam is a modest one required only to hold back the snow melt and the marshy waters in the shallow basin. Once around the corner to the drier south-facing shore, sages and the sturdy Sierra juniper make an appearance.
At the visitor’s center, we take literature on the trees of the region and the description of a champion lodgepole pine further up the mountain which sounds almost reachable by a short trail.
It appears there would be no avoiding the walk once my daughter learned of it. Children, no matter how old themselves, are reluctant to entertain the ills (real or imagined) of their elders. I did bring my boots so maybe I can avoid a compound fracture when I turn my ankle on the inevitable loose rock.
Once we turned off the road that circles the lake, we were in the forest headed uphill. We pitched and heaved over the bumpy road. But once in this sub-alpine forest we felt like we were back in the forests above Lake Tahoe. Though I am considered the chief exclaimer in the family, we all exclaimed over this familiar beauty. No more yellowish rock. Here the granitic core of the mountain revealed itself. The understory became varied – sometimes tender green fields of bracken ferns, other times corn lilies.
We parked at the end of the road where a sign pointed downhill to the lodgepole pine and to the Bluff Lake Preserve. I recognized this kind of trail – decomposed granite made “interesting” by rocks and exposed roots. My grandson Stuart walked close behind me and my daughter ahead of me. I focused on what was underfoot allowing only sidelong glances at the creek next to the trail over hung with wildflowers, the first such sight in these mountains. The trail leveled out as we approached the lodgepole pine grove. Lodgepole pines are uncommon in this southern forest. They hark back to a cooler era. My joy was somewhat tempered by remembering that I had to walk back out. I didn’t care. I hadn’t expected this gift in my 89th year.
The old giant was closely encircled by younger trees (as I am by my family). The tree overlooks a broad green meadow—a meadow which not so long ago had been a pond. In the Sierra, the Lodgepole pine is the first to show up as the pond becomes a meadow. As other trees move in, the meadow becomes part of the forest.
The noble tree is a part of a national registry of the largest known of its species in a particular geographic area. A nearby Jeffrey pine is several hundred years old, an “old growth” survivor in a forest that had been heavily logged
The champion lodgepole pine from its meadow and two oldtimers.
Sometimes it’s only a few thin bands of water dropping 164 feet. Other times it’s a gossamer tracery of water more mist than substance. It nourishes families of mosses and ferns growing on its walls. Only after a rain, does Nojoqui Falls aspire to something grander.
The falls (pronounced NAW- ho – wee) are named for a Chumash village “Naxuwi” once nearby.
When my granddaughter asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said: “A day trip with you.” We talked about where and decided on a drive up the coast and inland to Nojoqui
Falls County Park, and then lunch at one of the good places in the Santa Ynez Valley. I wanted to walk along a creek and possibly even see falling water while it was still spring.
Driving up along the coast is a treat in itself. Once you’ve cleared the outskirts of Goleta you are in full view of the ocean and if the day is clear enough, you can see the profile of the islands on the horizon.
On the right, the Santa Ynez Mountains make a formidable barrier to the sea and its cool breezes. We passed three beach parks. On the landward side of the freeway, the beaches become canyons. Though beautiful on its own, the landscape stimulated memories – El Capitan Beach where grandson Stuart always wanted his birthday to be celebrated with a campout.
Just beyond Refugio Beach, the highway swings inland where ahead, the mountain wall is pierced by the Gaviota Tunnel. I thought about all those years when Santa Barbara could only be approached easily from the south.
At the sign “Nojoqui Falls County Park,” we left the noisy highway and dropped down to the Old Coast Highway and Alisal Road to the peace and quiet of farmlands. Once horse pastures, organic produce now grows in the soil enriched by manure.
Skirting the western edge of the mountains, we rounded the corner to the lush, north-facing slopes, the rainiest place in the county. How different from the south-facing slopes above Santa Barbara where the mountain slopes are dominated by bare sandstone and chaparral.
When we turned into the park with its broad meadow and a scattering of trees, Caroline said: “This reminds me of Yosemite Valley.” I could see her point except that when every detail of a beloved place like Yosemite is so perfectly embedded in my memory, nothing can compare.
We drove up to the end of the road where a few cars were parked. At the base of the canyon, a short trail leads up to the falls.. Starting up the trail I was transported to the Berkeley Hills where bay trees also form arches of fragrant leaves and the sun shines through the thin leaves of the big-leaved maples. The creek burbling over dark rocks reminded me of the dark-gray basalts of home.
The final ascent on stone steps to the base of the falls looked damp, making them especially perilous for my old legs. A bench at their base invited me to sit a while, let my granddaughter
Purple Martins are our largest and highest-flying swallow. They perform breath-taking acrobatics when hunting insects. At the park, martins ignore man-made boxes in favor of holes in the sycamore trees.
Three weeks later with Berkeley birding friends, Bob Lewis and his wife, Hanno, we returned to Nojoqui Falls park to find the Purple Martins. Bob is sitting on the left. The heap on the right is actually me lying on my side watching martins in flight. Stretched out, has become my preferred position for watching birds of the sky and for general cloud-spotting.(I highly recommend to others who love clouds “The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney – the founder of The Cloud Appreciation Society)
Now we will be leaving the park to the summer crowds, returning in the fall to see the winter birds like the beautiful Varied Thrush.
If you have lived a natural life say as a manzanita bush on the slope of the San Ynez Mountains you will understand the true meaning of summer. You will have grown new foliage or lengthened the leaves you have during late winter or early spring. You will have flowered and welcomed the bees. Now the flowers have turned into fruit, it’s time to let them ripen in the warm sun of the long days. It’s a season for repose or maybe deepening, as your tap root reaches down further to find water.
Tucked into the coastal range 40 miles southeast of here, is a valley that fits my description of near perfection. The road which travels its length is five miles long. There are few buildings of any kind. Geographers would describe the countryside as oak/savanna. Only the fence lines tell you that the land has been claimed. On a good year of decent pasturage, you’re apt to see some cattle and maybe men on horseback responsible for their well being.
Even its name Canada (pronounced canyada) Larga has a sweet resonance. “Canada” has a number of meanings: valley, glen, cattle trail. Take your pick. “Larga is more specific, meaning long (or tall in another dimension).
The valley was part of a 6,658 acre Mexican land grant known as Canada Larga 0 Verde. Turning off highway 33 (one road to Ojai) onto Canada Larga Road you see your first bit of early California history – a 7-foor-high remnant of a rubble wall which was part of the aqueduct that once carried water seven miles from the Ventura River down to the the mission San Buenaventura where it satisfied the needs of the 350 inhabitants for their gardens and pastures. The waterworks were built by the Chumash Indians under the instruction from the padres sometime between 1785 and the early 1800s. What’s left of the ruins is protected behind a chain link fence.
Not much remains of the nearby Canada Larga Creek in late spring but a sluggish flow full of clots and streamers of algae. By the bridge, the creek runs beneath a steep slope of near white rock.
What interested us was the old, rather disreputable blue gum eucalyptus (actually several trees in various stages of decline). Ignoring the heaps of shed bark caught between branches, our focus was on a Red-tailed Hawk’s nest with a full-grown young standing at its edge with an adult nearby. Nobody appeared happy with their presence. The Cassin’s Kingbird with their nest in the same tree voiced their raucous objections, while a pair of Bullock’s Orioles, with their nest in a smaller euc behind, went about their business of carrying food to their young.
I sat in the shade of a walnut orchard where ground doves were seen earlier and watched the activity. Getting back into the car, with windows down, we proceeded slowly up the narrow road stopping where there appeared to be activity. Birding along the Canada Larga Road is a challenge as the pullouts are infrequent and hardly adequate and the occasional cars and trucks often travel at a high speed.
Barbwire fences make good perches and we were almost always in sight of a Western Kingbird, a low-slung bird with a yellow belly who would frequently leave its perch to grab something appetizing. One stop was warranted by a phainopepla calling from the upper branches of a half-dead walnut tree.
My eyes were on the yellow mustard growing along the fence where last year I had seen a dazzling Lazuli Bunting amongst the yellow flowers. Plenty of mustard this spring but no bunting. Further up the road everyone (but me) saw a smallish bird sitting on a rusty water tank. The bird turned out to be a blue grosbeak – one of the target birds of the trip. And best yet, it appeared to have food in its mouth. With young to raise, the pair should be around for a while.
Now I could indulge myself with the scenery and days later, at the computer, I would struggle for words adequate to describe what I was seeing. Maybe I should let it go and simply say that this landscape made me superbly happy.
Was it the contours and shapes of the hills, the close and distant views, the colors and always the possibility of an eagle?. You’re not going to be slammed by the brilliance of spring wildflowers. The muted tones of late spring reach a deeper place. Russets, pale beige grass, drifts of mustard reach up into gray chaparral with lavender undertones. A gifted Landscape Architect couldn’t do it as well.
Far to the northeast beyond the rounded hills, gave a glimpse of the higher mountains with their irregular profile. A fresh breeze filled my lungs and lifted hair away from my face. Two kingbirds flew close to a Raven’s tail. My birding friend called it a “teaching lesson.”
The road ended at a horse ranch. Now we were on level ground where we could rest in the shade of live oaks and sycamores with the bubbling songs of House Wrens surrounding us.
We planned on picnicking at a park along the Ventura River where we could count on Yellow Warblers singing in the sycamores and swallows with their small, bright voices sieving up insects over the water.
But I could only think about how nice it would be to set up my cot and roll out my bed roll under the edge of one of the oaks in the Canada Larga valley on a gentle slope with a view in all directions – perfect for night coming on with the changing colors. I could imagine crickets chirping in the dry grass and a small owl hooting nearby. Once darkness was complete I would observe stars undimmed by city lights and listen to a night wind rustling the oak leaves, bringing me far off scents.
The next blog will be about the same distance northwest to another favorite spot. I’m on a roll!
After such a sumptuous winter how could it not be – a perfect spring.
I came to Santa Barbara to live in September 2013, the second year of the drought. The landscape was dry, but as a native Californian, I expected dryness. The winter rains the next two years were scanty. Not only did the garden lawns die by intent, but landscape and street trees began suffering. Many of the redwoods, never a good choice for this semi-arid climate, were dying. The conifers were the hardest hit. The native ponderosa pines on Figueroa Mountain all succumbed, probably weakened by the drought and then attacked by the deadly bark beetle. To try and save street trees, the city attached green plastic reservoirs to young trees which slowly released water to the roots.
Maybe several times during the winter, enough rain would fall to feed the headwaters of various creeks. Mission Creek with its springs high on mountain sides above the Botanic Garden came briefly to life with muddy torrents of water which rushed down the dry creek bed. Quickly depleted, the flow stopped and by the second day, the creek became isolated pools. By the third day, the creek disappeared all together.
With the return to silent stretches of dry rock, my spirits fell. I realized again how above all the landscape features – hills, mountains, valleys, and especially the noisy, restless ocean – it is creeks I love the best, for their cheerful sounds and their ability to be a magnet for surrounding life.
Spring in California is mostly about wildflowers, but in one of the ironies of a wet spring, grass and weeds growing tall often concealed the flowers. Figueroa Mountain had some nice displays, particularly where lupine grew on perennial shrubs or where poppies grew on serpentine soil which inhibits the rampant growth of grass.
But it is in the exuberance of the commoner plants that I saw the results of a wet winter. The wild oats, now going to seed are waist high, and must compete for space with wild radishes and Italian thistle.
After four years of drought that tested their endurance, allowing no luxury like new growth, live oaks this spring were transformed with explosions of tender bright green leaves. The shiny leaves concealed the coarse and somber, dark green foliage, some of which could now be shed.
Live oaks are the most abundant native tree of Samarkand, Oak Park and most lowland locations.
Best of all was to see Mission Creek behaving like a real stream, not with just the episodic flow of two days that followed a rain during the preceding drought years. My morning ritual was to look through my binoculars into the small gap between the trees where I could see the overlapping brightness of moving water. The stream had a rhythm, sometimes squeezing around rocks making music and then released, spreading out in quiet pools, before being narrowed again. I think I could write a score with the proper notations.
I imagine my father, who grew up near Oak Park, capturing tadpoles with a net, or creating a new flow by rearranging rocks. When the flow was strongest, he and his buddies, no doubt, fashioned boats and then ran along the creek edge to see how they fared.
Two weeks after the last rain in March, the flow began to shrink, imperceptivity at first. But now in mid-April the creek has disappeared. Or, perhaps it flows beneath the surface still accessible to the roots of trees.
Speculation has already begun about next winter. Through summer and early fall, conditions appear to be “neutral” with early signs of building El Nino conditions beginning later in the fall. In most years, a strong El Nino brings generous rains, but not always. Speculation, especially about future weather, is irresistible especially for weather buffs like myself.