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.