Finding Solace

On those days when my mind gets stuck on negative thoughts, I leave my apartment and walk down to the Native Plant Garden. Sitting on the bench, I listen to the soft gurgle of the water flowing out of the top of the sandstone boulder, knowing that in a few minutes birds will arrive for a drink or a bath.

My eyes follow the green slope of plants to the far edge of the garden where a row of dark green California Live Oaks separate us from Mission Creek at the bottom of the hill.

This is your land, our land, and the plants that supported the generations who came before us. Oak acorns ground in stone mortars produced the staple food for the Chumash Indians. I look up to the high mountains to the cliffs of sandstone like the rock in front of me and to the areas of gray-green plants many of which grow in our garden. And then the sky, always the sky, and I am deeply comforted by this enduring landscape.

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Summer Monsoon

MONSOON SEASON

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Building monsoon clouds

When webmaster George Dumas pushed the button to publish “Summer Doldrums,” I suggested that we take a month off as nothing much was going to happen during the summer months.  Then, on the morning of June 24 I woke to a day that both felt and looked different. Cumulus clouds were heaped up against the backside of the Santa Ynez mountains and flotillas of small white clouds with lacy edges stretched across the sky. Listening to my weather radio, I learned that a monsoon brought violent storms to the Los Angeles basin and the surrounding mountains. 

Monsoon season most often occurs in July and August and brings most of the annual rainfall to the Southwest. We were experiencing the edge of the first one today. 

Lightning strikes are seen about 2 a.m. Wednesday, June 22, 2022, over Santa Clarita as a monsoonal storm enters the area. (Photo by Mike Meadows/Contributing Photographer)
Lightning over Los Angeles

Most monsoons occur when the hot summer sun heats up the land and the wind shifts to the south drawing up the moist, unstable air from the Gulf of California or the Gulf of Mexico.

Along with rain came strong wind gusts and even some hail in Los Angeles.  The electrical storms produced an estimated 3,600 lighting strikes, one igniting a brush fire in the Tehachapi and another tragically striking and killing a woman and her two dogs who were taking a morning walk along the San Gabriel riverbed.  Fatal lightning strikes are rare with this being the first one of some 20 occurring each year.  

Asphalt struck by lightning

Only the northern edge of the monsoon reached Santa Barbara.  I spent the day outside with my camera, my eyes always on the sky.  The air was silken, not too humid without any of that sharpness we associate with the typical onshore flow from the ocean. It was the kind of day that makes you feel like a different person.

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Lingering monsoon clouds over Santa Barbara

Now, at almost 4 PM, the show is mostly over.  The heaps of clouds over the highest mountain ridges have withdrawn or simply melted away leaving behind a few cloud fragments. 

Although failing to bring us rain, the monsoonal visit was a delightful change from the usual coastal weather.

 SUMMER SOLSTICE

The rising solstice sun shines behind the ancient entrance of Stonehedge and the rays of the sunlight shine into the center of the monument.

It’s been several weeks since the Summer Solstice, but the days grow shorter so slowly at first that you’re not apt to notice.  Because of the earth’s tilt toward the sun, the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer at a latitude of 23.5 degrees north. The Tropic of Cancer passes over Baja California as it circles the globe, or more precisely, over the small seaside town of Todos Santos, an hour’s drive north of Cabo San Lucas where a planted stick casts no shadow.

Because of the slow heating of the land by the sun, the highest temperatures will be several weeks later in mid-July. 

Within the Arctic Circle, at the Summer Solstice, the sun will shine for 24 hours while darkness will prevail at the south pole.

Me and my short shadow at high noon. Samarkand, Santa Barbara (34.006 degrees north)
[Photo by Jodi Turley]

Over the millennia, various cultures have celebrated the Summer Solstice in different ways.   Here in Santa Barbara we have a parade with imaginative handcrafted floats, bands (emphasis on drums ) and costumed dancers moving to the beat.  For me, butterfly wings glowing in the sunlight epitomizes summer. 

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Foggy Days

Dear Friends:

June’s entry is an expansion of my monthly column (“Nature’s Note”) in “Sam News,” our in-house publication.

Morning fog out of my window

Space is always limited while my blogs are as long as my loyal webmaster, George Dumas, has the time and patience for converting my words into the WordPress format.  It’s no secret that I am no fan of fog.  But now with my declining eyesight, my world is enveloped in a perpetual haze and on foggy mornings we’re all in it together.

It’s only on the clear days that I know how much I’m missing.  But at 93, I am every day grateful for a good mind and the ability to express and feel gratitude for what I still have. 

It is through song and call note that I now recognize most birds.  And I’m helped along by general body shape, where and how they are feeding and whether they prefer the ground or trees.

Even without my disability, it behooves me even if I don’t love fog, to at least learn to appreciate it by understanding how fog is formed and its likely behavior.

FOGGY DAYS

Today is June 1st.  We are halfway between the two foggiest months of the year which locals call May Gray and June Gloom.  When the prevailing northwest winds pass over the even colder ocean, the air condenses into tiny droplets producing the fog. 

But it’s not as simple as that.  In the northern hemisphere, the earth rotates counterclockwise (the opposite in the southern hemisphere).  Because of this rotation, wind blowing from the northwest (our prevailing summer wind) curves to the right.  As the wind curves to the right, it sweeps off the top layer of water causing the upwelling of the deep, colder water.  When the relatively warmer wind passes over the cold, upwelled water, fog is formed.

Upwelling of deep ocean water

This rotation, called the Coriolis Effect, has a profound effect on tides, bodies of air and even the behavior of storms.  It causes our rainstorms moving in from the Pacific to rotate counterclockwise, so that the winds of an approaching storm, blow from the south. 

Depending on the topography, fog can put on a dramatic show. In the Bay Area, fog building up like waves over the Sausalito Hills spills over the lee slopes.  Unimpeded, fog moves like a river through the Golden Gates, the only complete break in the coastal hills.  To the north and south the fog seeks out gaps in the hills as it moves inland.

Fog pouring through the golden gate

When the fog enters the Bay through the Golden Gate part of of it aims for the Berkeley Hills.  The rest turns left drawn irresistibly toward the heat and low pressure over the Delta and the Sacramento Valley. The fog is often accompanied by strong cold winds that are notorious in summer afternoons rushing through the canyons of tall buildings in San Francisco.

Fog moving into Santa Barbara at sunset

And there were those mornings in Berkeley when the fog stayed low and my hill rose above it like an island in a gray sea. 

The fog varies in its extent. It can spread far out to sea.  It can be a narrow ruffle covering just the beach or it can be drawn far inland by the warmer temperatures. It may flow at night into coastal valleys, and in foggier periods it will surmount coastal ranges, visiting even inland valleys.

Most days the fog will retreat offshore by midday, but other times the marine layer persists for days on end seriously depressing the spirits. 

Fog drip

Meteorologists call this cloud type status.  It’s usually made up of rather smooth layers of clouds that can sometimes meet the ground.  The fog can either be “dry” or it can produce drizzle especially under trees, enough to register in a rain gauge. We need any moisture in this semi-arid climate of ours where longer periods of drought are a part of climate change.

Even though I seem to thrive on those days which begin with sun, I am now gratified, while still in bed on a windless dawn to hear the drip, drip of condensed fog falling off leaves and needles.

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Tom’s Birds

Tom Ginn and his wife Sherry moved into Samarkand in July 2011 from Los Gatos, a leafy residential community south of San Francisco. Before retiring Tom had worked as a software engineer. He was already a serious amateur photographer using a top-of-the-line Canon.

Along with recording the life of the family, including a son and daughter, he was also adding landscapes to his collection. “I haven’t shot a roll of film since 2003; digital photography and the computer give me so much more versatility,” he says.

But those who know Tom appreciate his outstanding patience as he waits for just the right shot to produce a memorable portrait of an elusive insect, a butterfly with its erratic flight or a shy bird as it comes to the bird bath.

The first bird photos were taken over several months at the bird baths behind Ann and Bob Allen’s duplex, located over the fence at the southernmost end of the EastView apartments. The duplex, Oakcrest, has the ideal birding location, sheltered by oaks up the steep slope of Oak Park.

The birds are drawn to the area by Mission Creek and its forest of sycamores and Coast Live Oaks. Ann has arranged a welcoming collection of shallow pot bottoms filled with water, surrounded by mostly potted native plants. When it’s hard to find a good variety of birds elsewhere at the Samarkand, you can count on being rewarded at Ann’s bird baths.

When a large sandstone boulder (over the fence at the top of the Native Plant Garden) became a bubbling bird bath, the birds had a second choice for their drinks and baths. The first group of photos is in Ann’s garden, and the second larger group is at the “Bubbling Fountain.”

The birds are identified by species accompanied by a few comments. Some of the photographs have been made into greeting cards and can be purchased at the Samarkand gift shop.

ANN’S BIRDBATHS

(1) White-crowned Sparrow. A group of these sparrows spend the winter in the Native Plant Garden often singing.

(2) Immature White-rowned Sparrow. In April the group flies to Northern Alaska where they nest in the dwarf willows before returning to our garden in October.

(3)(4) Townsend’ s Warbler. Another winter bird with especially bright plumage.

(5) Orange-crowned Warbler. Year-round bird.

(6) Cedar Waxwing. This lovely bird is a nomad traveling in flocks from place to place in search of berries. They are sometimes in the company of Robins.

(7) Group of Cedar Waxwings. In the spring they will head north to conifer forests where they will briefly breed before heading back on the road again.

(8) Nashville Warbler. An uncommon visitor.

(9) Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A small, energetic bird who reveals his bright crown when agitated. He is another of our winter residents

(10) California Towhee. A big sparrow who is a year-round resident.

(11) Yellow-rumped Warbler. Developing its breeding plumage before heading north.

(12) Hermit Thrush Another winter resident who heads for the Sierra in the spring to sing its glorious song.

The sandstone fountain, we call “Bubbling Rock” in the foreground overlooks the Native Plant Garden.

(1) The Anna’s Hummingbird is a year-round resident and the largest of our local species.

(2) & (3) Adult, female, and immature Lesser Goldfinches.

(4) Orange-crowned Warbler.  Several breeding pairs sing almost continuously above Oak Park at Samarkand in the spring.

(5) Male Dark-eyed Junco.  Juncos, who nest on or near the ground, are one of our most abundant species.  

(6) Male House finch(L) and Pine Siskin appear to be comparing stripes.

(7) Like the crows, jays are members of the Covid family with similar aggressive ways.

(8) A wet Orange-crowned Warbler revealing its orange crown feathers.

(9) A titmouse will occasionally build a nest in a bird box.

(10) Male Lesser Goldfinch, one of the most abundant year-round birds.

(11) Probably an Allen’s Hummingbird or possibly a migrating Rufous Hummingbird.

(12) Four Nutmeg Mannikins.  They are escaped cage birds which have successfully naturalized.

(13) Tom Ginn photographing at “Bubbling Rock”

Tom’s Camera:
Canon EOS R with a 70-200mm f4 lens and 1.4x extender

SKY WATCHER

After a rainless January and February, we were excited to learn that a storm was moving our way. I read that it was being carried down the coast by our old friend the “jet stream,” that fast-moving river of air moving from east to west which circulates around the globe often delivering weather systems to our coast. Or at least it used to. 

A typical clear January and February day in this doubt year

The possibility of a storm deserved a morning sky watch. Soon after sunrise, I stepped outside on my balcony and aimed my camera at the sky and would continue to do so at hourly intervals until noon. As a long-time sky watcher (or storm watcher) in the Bay Area, the evidence was not encouraging.

Though winter storms generally form in the Gulf of Alaska and move down the West Coast, the winds that accompany them blow counterclockwise, so approaching storms are preceded by winds from the southeast. This morning the wind blew consistently from the northeast and was cold and dry, rather than moist and mild.

An interesting cloud, maybe even suggesting an omen, but not one promising rain.

What I loved about most winter storms was the buildup that preceded the arrival of the storm itself. From my Bay Area hilltop house, I could scan the horizon from the south of San Francisco north past Mt. Tamalpais to Sonoma County. Not much escaped my attention.

The classical winter storm usually begins with high cirrus clouds often in fantastical shapes like wispy feathers. The clouds spread across the sky from north to south. At some point the wind begins, fluky at first before settling into gusts from the southeast growing in strength as the clouds thickened and lowered.

High cirrus clouds, composed of ice crystals, sometimes preceding a storm, but not today.  The clouds disappeared by mid-morning.

After years of living in Berkeley, I knew the wind direction without looking. An early October storm carried the strong, acidic odor of cooking tomatoes coming from the Heinz catsup plant in southwest Berkeley. If the wind was blowing from the northwest, it would carry the strong petroleum odors coming from the Chevron distillery in Richmond.

In Santa Barbara, where I have lived for 10 years, I smell mostly the odor of cooking tortillas and the scent of flowers. Sometimes the alarming smell of burning chaparral tells me there is a fire in the mountains. When the wind blows from the northwest during in the long summer, the air smells vaguely like ammonia or slightly salty of kelp drying on the beach. It feels heavy and damp.

I’ve often wondered why I am so exhilarated just before a storm. I dash around, bringing in outdoor furniture, rolling up outdoor shades and tying them tight. Hankering for the feel of soil, I plant that final sixpack of pansies ahead of the rain.

Now I’ve learned the likely cause of this joyous energy – negative ions. Negative ions associated with clouds and wind facilitate the transfer of oxygen to the cells. No wonder I’m so exhilarated. After a storm has passed, denied this extra oxygen, I descend into what I’ve always thought of as a post-storm slump.

One thin puff of cloud was all that remained at noon.  All chances of rain disappeared.

None of this energy was associated with today’s morning’s storm watch which began with a few isolated clumps of white clouds and a wind that never shifted around to the southeast. Instead of the air warming as it usually does with an approaching storm, the wind rattling in the dry foliage was cold and odorless. By noon the clouds had mostly disappeared leaving only a few shards to help color the sunset.

Sunset at the end of yet another rainless day.

Later I learned that the storm track was inland, bringing a dusting of snow to the higher coastal peaks while delivering generous, dry fluffy snow to the Sierra. I was disappointed after high hopes for a good rain, but I did enjoy the variety – a welcome relief from the still warm air from sunup to sunset. 

TWO BOOKS FOR THE SKY WATCHER

The first book, sumptuously illustrated with clouds from around the world is titled: “The Cloud Collector’s Handbook,” by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. It is the official publication of The Cloud Appreciation Society. The Brits do love their weather. Some photos and descriptions are of familiar clouds. One is so rare you have to travel to the north-east corner of Australia to see it.

The second book is “Reading the Clouds: how you can forecast the weather,” by Oliver Perkins. He is another Brit, a sailor for whom knowing the weather is critical. One reason for “having your head in the clouds” is that they are full of valuable and interesting information.

PICKING UP WHERE I LEFT OFF

Picture of Phila

I blame this long lapse on the Pandemic.  Being restricted should have had the opposite effect.  With few distractions, wouldn’t I have wanted to write?  It appears I was absorbed by the drama —  the suffering and deaths, the stories every night on television of the terrors of intubation, of patients having to die alone, and families for fear of catching the disease prevented from being at the bedsides of loved ones.  

As if this wasn’t enough, what was happening to our democracy under a “leadership” where lies always prevailed over truth.

Reading over old journals.

But as a lover of nature, nothing equaled the horror of my beloved earth being irrevocably changed by a new climate, where the west shriveled under an ever hotter sun where rainfall came in bursts or not at all. A lover of clouds, flowing streams and the beguiling scent of the first few drops of rain at the beginning of a storm, I was a lost soul unmoored from everything I held dear.

Today is February 10, 2022, the second day when the thermometer topped 84 degrees and when less than a tenth of an inch of rain fell during January, considered one of the rainiest months.  After a December of generous rain (almost 10 inches), we thought this was a good start to a good winter.

I try to write something every day.  I’m committed to writing a nature column for our retirement facility’s monthly newsletter. I make uninspired entries in my nature notebook.  I have kept these notebooks since the 1980s when I lived in the Berkeley Hills in a house with it’s view over the Bay.  The open land next to me provided a generous helping of natural events.  What I write now is a cursory almanac of when I got up, the current temperature and weather forecast.  At least something.  To both deepen and elevate my thoughts, I had resolved to read a poem every day, but of course I haven’t.

I still have my moments of joy like this week when the brilliant observations in Rebecca Solnit’s “Orwell’s Roses” shook me awake enough to write some passages in my notebook with the bold black pen I now use.

Though I’m not sure it belongs in my Santa Barbara blog, I was inspired to write a heartfelt piece about Angora Lake as yet another forest fire ate its way up the western flank of the Sierra Nevada.  It might be worth publishing if only to jog the feelings of readers about their mountain retreat.

STAYING CLOSE TO HOME

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.

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.

Where I Live

(Excerpts from my book The Best for Last)

Early November
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
Called sundowners.
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
Shouting children,
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
Books,
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
Testing itself.

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?

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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.

Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island.  Photo by Bill Dewey

THE BEST FOR LAST

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.

SATELITTE VIEW OF THE ISLANDS FROM SATELLITE
Satellite View

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.

Eatons Resort
Eaton’s Resort at Pelican Bay – 1920

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

Sea Cave
Sea Cave

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

 

Ranson
Hugh examines a damsel fly

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.”

 


Dewey
Bill Dewey in his plane at the Santa Barbara airport

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.

See some of his glorious photos on his website – http://www.billdeweyphoto.com


 

Channel Islands

The Channel islands from the air, with Anacapa in the foreground, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Island in the background. Photo by Bill Dewey

SANTA CRUZ ISLAND – THEN AND NOW

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.

Mass (1)
Mass at the chapel

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.

map
From “The Channel Islands of California”

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.”

Holder“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.

Green truckBut 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.

Prisoners Harbor
Approaching the pier at Prisoners’ Harbor

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.”

Ranch house
The ranch house in the Central Valley.  Photo by Sally Isaacson.  Courtesy of the SB Botanic Garden

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

Leaving
Leaving the mainland behind

Approaching
Approaching Santa Cruz Island, Anacapa to the Left

Giant Kelp
Giant Kelp. Photo by Bill Dewey

Hills
Hills surrounding the Central Valley

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)

Near Christy Ranch
Near Christy Ranch.  Photo by Bill Dewey

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.

 

high road
High road on the red rock ridge with Santa Rosa Island in the distance  Photo by Steve Windhager  Courtesy of the SB Botanic Garden

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

fox
Island Fox.  Photo by Joni Kelley.  Courtesy of the SB Botanic Garde

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

 

acorn
One of the acorn-eating island scrub-jays.  Photo by Hugh Ranson

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

ironwood
Ironwood Grove.  Photo by Steve Windhager.  Courtesy of the SB Botanic Gardens

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.

TWO JAYS

island shrub jay
Island Shrub-Jay

california shrub jay
California Shrub-Jay

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.

 

A Family Vacation at Big Bear Lake

 

walking-rogerAfter 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.

San Bernardino MountainsThe 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.

deckBecause 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.

sugar pinesBut 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.

sierra juniperTime 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.

graniteOnce 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.

trailWe 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 wild flowerswildflowers, 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.

 

we made it
“We made it!”

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.

 

noble tree 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.