When one of my friends fell on an icy path this morning and Gibraltar Dam flowed into its spillway, the first time since 2011, I decided that winter could not be ignored.
I hadn’t considered writing about Santa Barbara in the winter thinking that the season had been mostly passed by in these years of drought. Then yesterday, December 23, we had a storm that was worthy of qualifying as a winter storm in every way. The day began with a thin cloud cover which built during the morning to promising layers of clouds and brief gusts of wind, which by noon led to rain. After slacking off in a way that I had become used to during these dry years, the rain built again as if to defy my pessimism. By mid-afternoon the rain built to a real gully-washer. I was lucky enough to be in my car so I could enjoy splashing through flows of water at every intersection and best of all, seeing Mission Creek coursing down its creek bed after so many months of being bone dry.
From the sound of my bamboo wind chimes during the night, I knew the storm had passed to the east and the wind had shifted to the north as it does along the coast after a rain storm. The cold wind continues today pushing around remnant clouds, now empty of their contents.
I know storm must follow storm to make the creek a winter feature and the soil be soaked enough to start recharging the depleted water table. Lake Cachuma which lies in the valley between our mountains, the Santa Ynez, and the higher range to the east, is the reservoir which holds our water supply. At present, it’s almost no lake at all, having shrunk to less than 7% of its capacity. Vultures have taken to roosting on the rim of the dam.
December ended with the rainfall slightly above normal.
January was another matter altogether thanks to massive storms brought across the Pacific by an atmospheric river — a new word in my weather lexicon. An atmospheric river can be several thousand miles long to a few hundred miles wide. Drawing up moisture from near the Hawaiian Islands, the warm air can transport large amounts of rain. It’s what we once called the “Pineapple Express.’
The atmospheric rivers produced five days of good rains. At the end of January, rainfall for the month was 8.96 inches rather than a normal 2.86 inches. Even the lawns, most of which were allowed to go brown over the summer and fall, were green again.
The rains continued intermittently until Friday, February 17. The papers were advertising that the biggest storm of the season was on its way. Over the years, I have learned to be suspicious of such a build-up which often leads to disappointment. I believe in sneaker storms – the ones which arrive with little or no advance warning. That may be the old days before sophisticated weather-measuring equipment and computers, which can put together predictive models, eliminated much of the guesswork.
At 5 AM heavy rain was falling, serious, confident rain. By mid-morning the velocity of the rain continued to increase. Coarse and dense raindrops were being driven by gale winds from the south-east. By early afternoon, the rain had slackened enough to allow me to drive down to the Mission Creek just below us. Others had already gathered. Some of us stood on the bridge itself which was trembling with the force of the volume of water pouring a few feet beneath. On the opposite side of the bridge where the stream bed is narrowed by rock walls, boulders were being slammed together. The percussive, booming sounds resembled thunder. Some people, unnerved by the violence, hurried back to their cars. As a fan of such drama, I stayed put.
The storm finally moved on leaving 5-inches of rain downtown and heavier amounts on the mountain slopes. Mission Creek up Mission Canyon left its stream bed and temporarily carved out a new route. Further engorged by a cargo of mud, the stream poured over the old Indian Dam.
The gift for me was that Mission Creek became a real stream, a winter stream which flowed for weeks on end, not just for a day or two after a rain.
Now it’s early April and the creek has ceased to flow. It survived for few more days as isolated pools, until it disappeared altogether. I like to think that it continues to flow underground bringing moisture to the roots of the sycamores and to the other streamside plants.
Rattlesnake Creek, a tributary of Mission Creek in flood conditions.
Credit: Ray Ford
(Please note the material following the video is not part of this presentation.)
Take this week – in the middle of October. All day the clouds continued to build up against the mountains. And at bedtime, I heard an unfamiliar sound. Opening the door, I was surprised by rain. Pulling open the window next to my bed, I fell asleep to the comforting sound of rain falling, while breathing in that indescribable fragrance of earth refreshed. The morning that followed was the freshest we’ve had in this endless season of harsh drought.
By Wednesday, the temperature rose to 95 degrees, the humidity descended into the single digits, the red fire danger flags were posted. By the weekend the scene changed again. I could joyfully proclaim fall as it should be – a sky full of clouds of every shape in shades of gray and white. I’ve cracked open the door so I can feel the cool breeze and hear the birds as I work on my computer.
Nothing energizes the bird population like a change in the weather, especially when there is the possibility of rain. If you trust forecasts, rain may be moving our way, coming from the north, the most reliable direction.
Being an incurable nostalgic I remember days like this in the Bay Area we called the “second spring.” The first rain of the fall brought up sprouts of green grass on the hills, certain native plants set buds or even bloomed, and the birds began singing again. I guessed that maybe they were fooled by day and night equaling in length, the way it did during the spring equinox.
More knowledgeable birdwatchers than me, call this “second spring” “Autumnal Recrudescence,” a word new to me. Looking the word up, I read that it was most often a medical term meaning the return of an illness after a remission. Or it could mean the recurrence of an unpleasant feeling like doubt.
Naturalist give the word a happier meaning.
The Autumnal Recrudescence of the Amatory Urge
When the birds are cacophonic in the trees and on the verge Of the fields in mid-October when the cold is like a scourge. It is not delight in winter that makes feathered voices surge,
But autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge.
When the frost is on the pumpkin and when leaf and branch diverge, Birds with hormones reawakened sing a paean, not a dirge. What’s the reason for their warbling? Why on earth this late-year splurge? The autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge.
-Written by Susan Stiles, copyright December 1973
After the mostly silent late summer, I was delighted with the bird chorus. I also attributed it to the completion of energy-robbing activities like nesting followed by molting where in most species, every feather had to be replaced with a new one.
The arrival of the winter residents certainly energized the local, year-round population. The regulars and newcomers set about declaring and defending their winter territories.
Wanting to better understand fall in Santa Barbara sent me back to Joan Lentz’s “A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region,” my bible on all things local. She says that the distinction between summer and fall is more pronounced than between spring and summer. Enter our old friend or nemesis The North Pacific High. If the atmosphere behaves as it should, this zone of high pressure which held sway over the summer, producing the northwest winds blowing down the coast and causing coastal fog, should begin to move south following the sun. Winds cease and with them the fog. A rain may even sneak through as it had last Sunday evening. With less fog, the skies are clearer and the blue skies are a palette for the extraordinary clouds of fall.
In the Berkeley Hills where I’ve lived most of my life, we especially dreaded the August fogs with their frigid winds when the gloomy, damp overcast could persist for days on end. When late September brought relief, we were ecstatic. Both in the Bay Area and in Santa Barbara, fall winds sometimes blew from the north and northeast, coming from the Great Basin, bringing the odors of sage and when passing over the mountains, the tangy smell of conifers.
Though Santa Barbara, by its location and topography, is spared the full impact of the Santa Anas (unlike the LA basin), we often have the offshore winds, heat, and lower humidity.
In my drives around town I look for autumn color to further affirm the change of season. Sycamores, which grow wherever there is a little ground moisture, have been dropping leaves all summer and even in the best of years are only a dusky gold, showing their best color when back lit by the sun. Liquidambars, also called sweet gum, a native to the southeast, are beginning to show their autumn color, but we will have to wait until late November for their best display.
Weary of my endless comparisons between Berkeley and Santa Barbara, my daughter decided it was time for a drive over the mountain to the Santa Ynez Valley, for a change of scene. And change of scene, indeed! What a difference a mountain range makes. The Santa Ynez Valley is hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. The continental influences prevail, moderated somewhat by the proximity to the coast and the ocean. But the sub-tropical trees in Santa Barbara’s parks and gardens would not succeed here.
This is the wide-open country of vineyards and olive orchards where the horse is king. Some ranches provide individual horse casitas with white stucco walls, tiled roofs, and individual corrals.
And, yes, I did find the color I was hoping for in the bright yellow cottonwoods growing along the dry Santa Ynez River watercourse. We like to be drenched in the fall brilliance of yellows, oranges, and red – this intoxicating dazzle – the final flaring before the bare trees in the dimming light and short days of winter.
But what pleased me the most were the ambers of the vineyards, the pale grasses long spent and all the other shades of gray-greens, ochers, umbers and shades of color for which I have no names — and the swirls and small bunches of white clouds against a soft blue sky.
Once I yearned to live in open country with only distant neighbors if any at all, under a curving sky with stars beyond counting, winds that travelled long distances unobstructed, and the distant yips and howls of coyotes.
But I was content enough to return back over the mountain, to the marine air which is kinder, and to a town of neighborhoods where lights in other windows comfort me. On the weekends, music and voices of children come up the hill from the city park below. Once the winter rains begin, I will hear the music of Mission Creek.
Yesterday, at the end of the month, the clouds thickened during the day. In the afternoon, a few large drops fell. The air felt dense and heavy, maybe rich in negative ions which some say lifts the spirits.
Around 3 am, we awoke to a long roll of thunder. For the next hour, lightning and thunder alternated, until the lightning seemed to rip open the heavy undersides of the clouds releasing a torrent which in a few minutes left behind a half inch of rain. At the end of the day, the clouds had retreated back to the mountains.
It appears that at last I have the intemperate Santa Barbara I had expected – a Santa Barbara of sundowner winds gusting down canyons, landslides, firestorms and debris flows, floods, thunder ricocheting off the
mountain sides, and on the coast, high surfs which rearrange beaches.
Is this the fall and winter which will end the drought? Such secrets are closely held. In the meantime, I look often at the sky, sniff the air, and even conger up promising clouds. It can’t hurt.
I’m drawn to canyons with their cool shade and generous vegetation, especially in this dry, mostly mountainous country of sun-struck rock.
And so is all life. Birds and other animals come to where there is moisture, abundant food, and places to raise young.
The view from my apartment above Oak Park
I look northeast to the Santa Ynez Mountains. The mountains are a transverse range, one of several ranges so named because they trend east and west rather than the usual north-south of most coastal mountains. The town of Santa Barbara occupies the narrow alluvial plain between the ocean and the mountains
The mountains are composed mostly of pale sandstones often embedded with fossil shells from the distant past when the mountains were under a warm sea. Reflecting the low winter sun and protecting the region from the chilling north winds, the mountains have a profound effect on the local climate.
My bedroom window perfectly frames Montecito Peak, the most symmetrical of all the named Peaks. At midday, when the mountains are evenly lit, they resemble a jigsaw puzzle of pale rock and mats of olive green chaparral. I look hard to try and distinguish a canyon, but it’s when the sun is low in the sky before sunset that the mountains reveal their contours. Purple shadows fill the canyons while ridges and peaks glow in the late light. I learned by studying a map that the deep shadow in the saddle west of Montecito Peak is the top of Cold Spring Canyon.
Most canyons have a stream, often an ephemeral one which appears only briefly after a rain. Others, like Mission Creek, are considered perennial, but in fact water persists only in the foothills and mountains. Because of the steepness of the Santa Ynez Mountains, most streams, beginning as springs near the top of the range, may drop four thousand feet from their headwaters in a few miles to where they join the Pacific Ocean.
My plan was to hike several of the canyons so I could write about them with affection and authority. On my first try to the San Ysidro Trail on the almost level Ennisbrook Trail, I fell and cracked my ribs.
I saw two solutions – send my two grandchildren with their stout hearts and strong legs into the canyons where they regularly walk. Or I could narrow my canyon and stream observations to Mission Creek, one of the most accessible of the perennial stream which runs (when it does) through Oak Park just below my apartment. So Mission Canyon it is.
Mission Canyon and its Creek
Mission Creek and its canyon have a rich history dating back to the Mission days in the late 1700’s when the waters were captured behind a stone dam built with Indian labor in 1803 and stored in sandstone reservoirs just above the mission itself. The water irrigated the sloping garden of fruit trees, vegetables and wheat. When Spain defeated Mexico in 1830, the missions lost their authority and most of the Indian labor. The garden quickly fell into ruin along with many of the adobe buildings.
Like most of the streams which flow down the south slope of the Santa Ynez Mountains, Mission Creek begins as springs near the ridgeline and then emerges as a series of cascades and pools, accessible from the Tunnel Trail.
Following James Wapotich’s directions in his weekly “Trail Quest” column in the News-Press, I located where the Tunnel Trail begins along East Camino Cielo Road, just beyond the intersection with Gibraltar Road. The trail is marked by an aging metal sign and three large boulders across the dirt road. The trail – the dirt road – continues just beyond the level section when it becomes a narrow trail dropping steeply down to where Mission Creek begins. The Falls are a popular destination for hikers, most hiking up from Tunnel Trail off Tunnel Road. I’ve never hiked up far enough to reach the falls so I have to rely on the reports of others and the photos they took.
At The Botanic Garden
It’s in the Garden where most of us become familiar with Mission Creek. Before the present four-year drought, regular releases from the Mission Tunnel (which brings water from Gibraltar Reservoir to Santa Barbara) kept the creek refreshed, so one season seemed like another. Now the stream is mostly small ponds, growing green with algae.
Standing on the uneven stones at the top of the Indian dam is a good place to look up and down the steam and to admire the
feat of building the dam with hand labor. Once, the stored water was carried down stone aqueducts to the Mission where it not only provided irrigation and drinking water, but filled the stone basins (still there to see above the Rose Garden) where hides were soaked prior to tanning.
Rocky Nook Park
A couple of blocks above the Mission is a charming county park – known by the locals simply as Rocky Nook. And rocky, indeed. Boulders, scattered generously everywhere, were deposited a thousand years ago by a debris flow that roared down the canyon depositing boulders along the way. A Chumash Indian legend says the boulders are the bone remains of the Indians
drowned by the slurry of water and sediments. I felt as if I were photographing family groups. In late May at the
beginning of the long dry season, the creek is surprisingly active though its flow will most likely decline as the season advances.
At Oak Park
Since I moved to Santa Barbara three years ago, a four-year drought has reduced Mission Creek at Oak Park to mostly a dry creek bed. Only after a rain of an inch or more would the creek come to life as a muddy noisy, torrent which finally reaches the sea by curving a path across the beach just south of Stearns Wharf.
Within a day, the creek at Oak Park becomes a series of clear pools joined by rivulets of gurgling water. It is then that I walk slowing along its banks, imagining the water circulating through my veins, refreshing my worn and tired body. And I would then know deep peace. The following day, the creek disappeared leaving behind only drying mud where the pools had been.
The creek bed once again is laid bare and often weed-filled. By late spring, the stream even in the foothills at the Botanic Garden, is often reduced to a few algae-filled pools.
Mission Creek leaves its canyon just below the Garden where it is joined by Rattlesnake Creek. Together they meander several miles across the gently-sloping plain (called by geologists an alluvial fan) to the ocean. Over the years, the creek has flooded the town several times during the rainy winter months.
My father, who as a boy lived between Oak Park and Cottage Hospital, remembers those
times when the only high spot in their neighborhood was their garden, where the neighbors came and stood until the flood waters receded. During the floods, the creek waters filtered slowing down through the rock and soil replenishing the groundwater. Today, the creek, often contained by concrete sides, seldom floods, so it flows directly into ocean carrying with it pollutants, often closing for a time the surrounding beaches as unsafe for swimming.
Oak Park is not a nature park, it’s a people park where neighbors walk their dogs and on weekends, it’s crowded. Piñatas are hung from the oak branches, musicians tune their guitars and horns, kids play in noisy swarms, and men sweat over the barbecues. In the winter when the days are short and sometimes rainy, Oak Park returns to a more natural environment.
Mission Creek Outfall
Most of the year, the creek trapped behind its sand berm from continuing to the ocean, forms a quiet lagoon favored by water and shorebirds, especially during the winter. When the creek is in flood stage, it carves a curving course through the sand to the ocean.
My love of canyons goes back to a childhood living in the Oakland Hills. There were no houses across the street because at the bottom of the slope was an electric train, part of the Key System, which ran across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. The dense slope on the other side of the track was a no man’s land until I was old enough to venture further afield. What drew me there was an ethereal bird song, I didn’t recognize.
The slope was too steep to navigate on foot so I slid on my behind through what I would later discover was mostly poison oak. After an almost vertical slope of slippery clay, I found myself at the edge of a creek. And there was my bird, silent now, who fixed me with it’s round eye, made even rounder by a circle of white feathers. Late in the spring, the creek was reduced to a series of dark pools, laced together by threads of running water. Water striders skated across the surface while dragonflies darted about occasionally touching the water.
I couldn’t stay away from this newly discovered world until a painful rash spread across my body after each foray.
I later learned that the creek was called Trestle Glen Creek or Indian Gulch Creek named for the Ohlone villages along its margins. Instead of flowing into the ocean, the creek brought its water to Lake Merritt, a tidal sanctuary with an amazing array of winter water birds, attracting enough attention so it became the first waterfowl sanctuary in the country.
In my twenties, we moved to the Berkeley Hills and my stream became Strawberry Creek. The stream like so many coastal streams rose in springs near the top of the Berkeley Hills, flowed through the Botanical Gardens, which I came to love and where I meet a dear friend and with him led monthly bird walks. The garden was paradise and a number of birds thought so too. In the spring, the bird song was almost overwhelming. Thrushes again, including the dearest of all – the American Robin, the Black-headed Grosbeaks, Warbling Vireos – on and on – singing an intoxicating symphony of melodies unlike any other stream canyon I know.
I have also learned a new concept for understanding ones place on the planet by determining ones watershed. Our house was on a slope near the top of the Berkeley Hills where the most of the water drained toward Strawberry Creek which I liked to claim as defining my home place.
Since moving to Santa Barbara three years ago, my watershed is unequivocally Mission Creek, as was it for my parents who lived nearby more than a 100 years ago.
Phila’s Team: George Dumas, Webmaster Nancy Law, Editor Roger Bradfield, Artist
It sits looking
Over harbor and city
On silent haunches
And then moves on
I’ve lived in coastal California for all of my 87 years, so you think by now I would have developed at least a tolerance for the fog which arrives each summer. But I’m one of those unfortunate people whose moods are dictated by the weather. Awaking to sunshine fills me with good cheer. A gray beginning sets a similar mood for the morning.
Yes, I’ve heard the arguments – fog delivers at least some moisture in this driest of seasons during perhaps this most serious of droughts. And the cloud cover protects plants from the desiccation by the summer sun.
I’m also aware that taking the perspective of a naturalist delivers me from being a victim of moods (moods are nice enough when they are cheerful ones). I’ve spent the last few days doing research, reacquainting myself with my library including historical books like “Up and Down California,” Brewer’s fascinating account of doing a geographic and geological survey of the state in the 1850’s, and going a century back to the classical account of California’s coast by Richard Henry Dana in “Two Years Before the Mast.” I’ve also been mining Google for gems of information.
Dana didn’t mention fog as he was more concerned about the winter when the anchored ship could be caught by a southeast storm gale and be blown ashore before they could set sail for the open ocean.
At the risk of sounding pedantic, here are some basic facts. Our fog – advection fog – comes mostly in the summer months when the Northern Pacific High is in command. That zone of high pressure that squats over the eastern Pacific, fends off storms that might come in from the north, and establishes summer wind patterns. In the late spring and early summer, the wind picks up speed and blows down the coast. The wind displaces the warmer surface water causing an upwelling of the deeper, cold water. When the warmer wind passes over the chilly water, the moist air condenses into tiny liquid droplets suspended in the air, forming fog.
Often the fog is drawn inland by the low pressure lying over the hot the Great Central Valley. The fog usually retreats back to the immediate coast where it may persist all day, and sometimes for days on end. In Santa Barbara, those foggy days may be called May Gray or June Gloom. In Northern California the winds and chill air at Pt. Reyes makes it one of the foggiest places in the world with an average of 200 foggy days a year.
I favor those late summer and early autumn days of decreasing coastal fogs when the Pacific High begins to slowly shift south allowing for the possibility of an early rain coming down from the north. Or when humidity sometimes moves north bringing the possibility of a thunderstorm and wonderful cloud effects. Exotic weather heightens one’s senses.
I’m also reading about how coastal fogs along the north coast have allowed the redwood forest to persist. Once, when the climate was much wetter, redwoods were common over much of the continent. But as the climate became drier and cooler, the redwood forests retreated to a narrow band along the immediate coast of Northern California visited by ocean fogs in the summer.
I once read that sunny California has more fog than any other state when you consider that the coast in the summer is often foggy and in the winter, damp, ground-hugging tule fogs covering the Great Central Valley can blot out the sun for days on end until the next rain storm sweeps the fog away for a time. The so-called radiation fog often follows the rain when the earth is both chilled and damp and the drier air above it condenses, forming fog. I remember once driving across the Sacramento Valley at night and I could see that the fog came up to the cow’s belly, leaving its head in the clear.
Back to Santa Barbara: In his journal; ”Up and Down California” William Brewer writes on Tuesday, March 12 (1861). “Still foggy and wet. This weather is abominable – now for nearly two weeks we have had foggy, damp weather, tramping through wet bushes, riding in damp, foggy air, burning wet wood to dry ourselves, no sun to dry our damp blankets. I find that it makes some of my joints squeak with rheumatic twinges. Went out this morning, found it so wet that we had to return to camp”.
Five days later on Sunday Evening, March 17, he writes: “We have had a clear hot day, after two week’s fog, and have improved the opportunity to dry our blankets and clothes, botanic papers, etc.”
I don’t recall in my four years of living in Santa Barbara of having a foggy spell in March. What does ring true is the strength of the sun. Even on foggy days, as the fog begins to thin one can feel the heat of the sun. I remember being warned as a child, that I could be badly sunburned by the sun in a light fog.
I’m not sure about this, but it’s my impression that the west coast of the continents at our latitudes often have summer coastal fog. In the case of Peru, Chile and Namibia in Africa, these are deserts with little or no rain, and no surface or groundwater. A certain Namibian beetle sleeps with its hindquarters raised and in the morning shifts its position to allow the condensed moisture to run into his mouth for a drink. Incas, living on the barren slopes off the west-facing Andes, after observing that pots under shrubs and small trees filled with fog drip, learned to string up nets made of small mesh which would sift drifting fog, collecting up to a hundred gallons a day.
In the Bay Area where I lived, researchers measured in the rainless summer the equivalent of 10 inches of rain under the pines and eucalyptus along the ridgeline of the foggy Berkeley Hills. I noticed how on my summer walks in the grasslands, yellow and dry by May, I could count on a circle of fresh green grass within the drip line of each tree. The long narrow leaves of the eucalyptus and the slender pine needles did an especially efficient job of combing out moisture from the drifting fog.
Why not string a series of nets along Twin Peaks in San Francisco? Unfortunately such a meager harvest could only supply the needs of a small neighborhood. But there are small villages in the arid west coast of South America and elsewhere, where enough water was collected with fog nets to grow crops, irrigate orchards and have enough left over for personal use.
One such community is Bellavista, a village of 200 people on the dry slopes above Lima, Peru. With almost no rain, no river, or groundwater, the village had to be served by anto expensive water trucks from Lima.
Conservationists Kai Tiederman and Anna Lummerich, working with a non-profit supported in part by the National Geographic, showed the villagers how to construct the fog catchers — nylon mesh stretched between poles. The villagers did the heavy work, carrying sand bags 800 feet up the steep hill to stabilize the poles and to build pools to store the collected water. With the wind blowing the heavy fog through the nets they can now collect 600 gallons a day.
The newly-planted 700 tara trees will be able to eventually collect their own water. Tara trees produce valuable tannin.
Okay, I’m convinced. Bring on the fog and no more grumbling about gray mornings.
To most people, forest means stands of pines and fires or at least deciduous trees like maples, beech and possible aspen. Entering The Los Padres National Forest, just above Santa Barbara, what do you see? Steep slopes clothed with brush we call chaparral.
Chaparral is the name for that tough assemblage of mostly head-high drought-tolerant, evergreen shrubs that grow where heat and dryness is even too much for grasslands, and the soils are too thin for “real” forest. Chaparral plants are superbly adapted to our region of cool, moist winters and long, hot, dry summers. Growth and blooming occur at the end of the wet season, in early spring. Once the rains end and the heat increases, chaparral plants shut down. Tough, usually small leaves resist the desiccating sun, while roots reach ever deeper into the sandstone in search of remaining moisture.
You might call chaparral the quintessential California plant, appearing the length of the state from the Oregon border to a short distance into Mexico. Chaparral finds its most perfect expression in the mountains of Southern California where chaparral often extends from horizon to horizon.
Chaparral is associated with the Mediterranean climate which is characterized by short, sometimes wet, mild winters, and a long, often hot summer. Less than three percent of the earth’s surface shares this particular climate – most often on the west coast of a continent between 30 to 40 degrees latitude, facing on a cold ocean, with its large high-pressure air mass. The shrubs in each of these regions have their own distinctive species and go by the names maquis, garrigue, matorral, fynbos, or heath.
The manzanitas are typical of our chaparral plants. To save moisture, they turn their leaves sideways to the punishing sun. Companions are other chaparral plants like toyons, ceonothus, and scrub oak.
To ride through the unyielding and sometimes spiny vegetation in pursuit of wayward cattle, Spanish vaqueros wore leather leggings called chaps, short for chaparro, the Spanish name for scrub oak, thus the name chaparral.
Chaparral plants grow in such close association that their tops are often interwoven, creating dense canopies which protect chaparral-loving animals like the shy wrentit and certain reptiles from view.
Chaparral and fire have always been closely associated. The recent view had been that chaparral depended on fire for renewal. But now, plant scientists, support the idea that mature chaparral can remain healthy indefinitely. And often near populated areas where fires are frequent enough to burn recovering chaparral, the once beautiful and life-filled plant community, may be replaced by non-native grasses and weeds.
Where there are infrequent fires, chaparral plants return healthy and vigorous, covering the charred remains in a few years with new growth. In the meantime, the first spring after a fire brings forth a beautiful display of wild flowers called poetically, “fire followers.” Their seeds may have laid dormant for decades, sometimes centuries, waiting for their moment, when the chaparral cover is burned in a fire. Whether it’s the heat itself, or possibly certain chemicals in the smoke, the seeds awaken and a new cycle begins.
After a fire, brilliant blue and rust-colored Lazuli Buntings arrive to sing from the tallest charred branches and Lawrence goldfinches salvage unsprouted seed. The wrentits, bushtits, and California Thrashers – the species living in mature chaparral – are weak fliers and often perish in the flames.
Some years ago, I remember driving up the San Marcos Pass and amongst the charred skeletons of manzanitas, twined white morning glories. Out of the ashes bloomed annual flowers in a multitude of colors – orange poppies, purple phaecelia, yellow goldfields. As the burned chaparral begins putting on new growth, certain small perennial shrubs like bush lupine appear until finally they, too, were shaded out, and mature chaparral once again takes over the mountain slopes in all shades of green.
In spite of the tough, doughty appearance of mature chaparral, in early spring comes an explosion of flowers. On the mountainsides above Santa Barbara, the white-flowered ceonothus begins blooming in February, frosting the slopes, followed by another species with purple-blue clouds of flowers, subtly fragrant.
In the late afternoon, I remember approaching the Santa Ynez Mountains from the north. The chaparral-covered mountains looked as if they were covered with a deep purple velvet, with even deeper color in the canyons. But the illusion is dispelled on close approach when you are confronted with a wall of stiff, unyielding vegetation, discouraging further investigation except possibly on hands and knees.
Close to the coast, often growing on the sand dunes, is another assemblage of plants sometimes called “soft chaparral.” The preferred name is coastal sage scrub. The plants are smaller, softer, pungently fragrant and unlike true evergreen chaparral are deciduous, losing their leaves in the dry summer. It’s here you’ll find various sages, buckwheats, and California sagebrush. I often bring home a sprig of sagebrush in my pocket to tuck under my pillow.
A GIANT IN AN ELFIN FOREST
For a conventional wife and mother who helped with homework and had nourishing meals on the table by 6 pm, I harbored very unconventional thoughts. I was drawn to books by women who lived eccentric lives, often pursuing a passion for the natural world. Lately, I had been rereading the two books by Lester Rowntree who spent nine months of the year traveling the state of California in her old Ford touring car, specially adapted to carry tools and the necessary equipment for preserving plants and collecting seeds. In the high Sierra, she walked beside her faithful burro who carried her gear.
In the late fall, she returned to her mountainside home south of Carmel where she had built a cabin on a slope, surrounded by her native plant garden, overlooking the sea. Even in somewhat domesticated surroundings, she slept with windows and doors open to encourage visits from the foxes and to listen to the changing tides and the sound of pounding waves on the rocks below.
What Lester Rowntree especially loved was chaparral — that most California of all plant communities — which makes us sisters of sorts.
Maybe it was thinking of Rowntree that made me put on my boots, sturdiest trousers, gather up field guides and plenty of water. I planned on driving up over the top of the Berkeley Hills and head east for Mount Diablo in the inner coast range of Contra Costa County.
I needed to go inland for hard chaparral like the Manzanita and its companions. My Berkeley Hills are mostly open grasslands with a scattering of soft, but durable shrub called coyote bush. On a few isolated slopes, coyote bush teams up with fragrant sages, and becomes what we call “soft” chaparral, which prefers the moister hills near the ocean.
I was looking for a mature stand of chaparral tall enough for me to crawl under. I had read somewhere that this was the only way to penetrate the thickets. I found a promising hillside, parked my car along the edge of the road, hoping to find my way back after an hour or so. I looked both ways to be sure no one would witness me dropping to my knees and crawling into the brush.
I found myself in a dim and silent world, out of the wind and the strong sun. The tight interweave of leaves, stems, and twigs made an almost impenetrable roof above. I had no difficulty skirting the leafless lower branches. With no under story plants, I had an almost unrestricted view in all directions. The going was easy. It occurred to me that I needed to surface now and then to determine my location. After pushing up through the tangle of abrasive leaves and punishing stems, I was relieved to see my car on the road below.
Submerging again, I felt more confident. I knew of the unique creatures that live in the chaparral. I’d hoped to see a stripped racer, head held high hurrying about on some secret mission, or a California Thrasher scything through the litter with its long curved bill. It appears that an unexpected presence like myself would be largely ignored. Even a shy bird like a wrentit might come close, cocking its head to fix me with its yellow eye.
But today, I had the chaparral world to myself. Remembering that I had to retrace my route downhill, I came out at the edge of the chaparral a few yards up the road from my car. My exhilaration had masked my fatigue. Tired, I stretched out on the back seat aware now of rich, redolent smell of wild plants clinging to my clothes.
SANTA BARBARA’S SUNDOWNERS
The publication “The Names of Winds” describes Sundowners as follows: “Warm downslope winds that periodically occur along a short segment of the Southern California coast in the vicinity of Santa Barbara. Their name refers to their typical onset in the late afternoon or early evening, though they can occur at any time of the day. In extreme cases, winds can be of gale force or higher, and temperatures over the coastal plain and even the coast itself can rise significantly above 100 degrees F.”
The more famous Santa Ana winds are a minor player in Santa Barbara. The Santa Anas affect the regions to the south – the Santa Clara Valley and the Los Angeles basin. Santa Anas form further inland over the Great Basin or the Mojave Desert, taking on the quality of that dry landscape. Under certain conditions, the dry air rushes through the passes of the Southern California mountains, the wind compresses and becomes hotter and drier as it descends.
Sundowners typically originate in the Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara where the heated air rising in the afternoon or early evening is pent up behind the Santa Ynez Mountains and rushes through the mountain passes toward the coast.
I experienced a sundowner last November when I was spending the evening at my family’s house in Mission Canyon. It was mild enough to sit outside with a light sweater. The air was calm and sweet smelling from the blooming citrus. Without warning, a violent gust of wind swept down upon us releasing a cascade of leaves from the tree above, slamming doors, and rising a swirl of dust from the path. And then another gust followed, and we scrambled to right the furniture before fleeing inside. The unrelenting, wrenching wind seemed to come from all directions. I was agitated, and dry mouthed. In less than an hour, the temperature went up 20 degrees.
The lights went out as we lost lost our power. What can be disconcerting when the lights are on, is terrifying in the dark. A thud on the roof told us a frond had no doubt been blown loose from the big palm behind us.
With no lights, and too dangerous to venture outside, we went to bed. Falling into a restless sleep, I woke up suddenly around 3:00 a.m. to silence. I waited for the next gust of wind, but none came. Even with doors and windows closed I could sense the air was now cool and moist, telling me that our normal onshore flow was back.
I knew daybreak would reveal what the wind had blown down. Even faced with a monumental cleanup ahead, we had escaped fire, which can be a companion of these sundowners.
Each Santa Barbara season has it own wind. In the winter, Pacific storms approaching the coast are carried on the south winds, sometimes reaching gale force. A passing storm, is most apt to be followed by cool winds from the north or west bringing sparkling clarity.
The prevailing northwest wind in the summer, passing over the colder off shore waters, often condenses into fog which is drawn inland by rising warm air in the valleys. The fog delivers a valuable gift of moisture. Droplets forming on leaves, drop to the ground like rainfall.
I love the wind. For me it’s the breath of life. If I lived in the high prairie of Wyoming where the wind never stops blowing, I would probably feel different. But in temperate Santa Barbara, wind brings the landscape to life. It sets the hillside grasses rippling. trees to murmur and sway, while palm fronds trash and clatter like a downpour on a tin roof. Without wind or a least a stiff breeze, the air grows stagnant and feels over breathed. Wind brings us our weather as high pressure rushes toward areas of low pressure.
Credits: Roger Bradfield for Crawling under chaparral cartoon and George Dumas, Webmaster
Santa Barbara natives know that the early summer months are usually the foggiest months of the year. May fog is often referred to as “May Gray” while June is commonly called “June Gloom.” Meteorologists call fog, stratus. Stratus is defined as a type of low-level cloud, characterized by horizontal layering with a uniform base. I think of stratus simply as a gray lid over the sky.
Though foggy mornings subdue color and are not as cheerful as the days that begin with sunshine, they bring the gift of moisture.
The Coulter Pines, which cling to the rocks along the highest ridges of our mountains, persist because on foggy days their needles comb out moisture, and the accumulated droplets fall like gentle rain. Rain gauges placed under the eucalyptus growing along the ridge tops in the Berkeley Hills collected 10” — almost half of the normal yearly rainfall. Under the trees, green grass persists through the summer while grasses in the open turn brown in May.
We welcome the fog, but without a winter of good soaking rains, the drought will persist, biting deep and hard. Everywhere bird numbers are down. Species that nest along streams are deprived of water. Some sycamores have turned yellow as if by mimicking fall, rains will come early. The live oaks had no flush of new green leaves this spring. Many of the pines on the upper slopes of Figueroa Mountain have died. Trees weakened by the drought lose their resistance to insect and fungus invasions.
Do we need to be reminded that water is our lifeblood?
I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at the sky, less scanning for signs of productive clouds, but because I see the sky as a landscape of infinite variety. Shades of blue depend on where you are looking, the time of day, and the amount of moisture in the air.
Among the most beguiling clouds are the high cirrus clouds, formed of ice crystals and shaped by the high elevation winds into swirls and curls. Sometimes cirrus clouds harbor small rainbows called “sundogs.” In the winter, cirrus clouds are often the leading edge of a storm moving down the coast. This time of year, they may indicate southern moisture from the monsoon weather forming over the deserts or the remnants of a hurricane off the coast of Mexico. In early June what was left of Hurricane Blanca sent us an inch of rain, enough for Mission Creek to flow again briefly.
What excites me the most are the summer cumulus which in early afternoon rise above our Santa Ynez Mountains. Once I thought the front range was responsible for the cumulus and I hoped for a possible shower or at the very least a rumble of thunder. Since, I’ve discovered they float above the higher San Raphael Mountains to the north.
For rain, we would need the cumulonimbus, giant heaps of clouds that rise to near 40,000 feet, often with their tops blown off by the high elevation winds. Moving slowly across the landscape, dark streamers of rain trail from their flat bottoms. Cumulonimbus are the most energetic of clouds containing within, columns of rising and falling air, with water vapor forming around particles which coalesce into rains drops — or in the most extreme form, they can spawn tornadoes.
By late afternoon in Santa Barbara, the heaps of fair-weather cumulus begin to collapse as the sun lowers toward the horizon. During the day, updrafts rising from the sun-warmed earth fed the cumulus.
Recently, I moved into a different apartment in this retirement community. It suits me in every way. With corner windows facing both south and east, when winter storms finally arrive, the brunt of the rain and wind will fall first against my windows.
From my apartment I can look directly down into the canopy of live oaks and sycamores in Oak Park next door, and up into the successively higher ranges of mountains. When Mission Creek once again has water, I will hear it seething over its pebbles in its race to the ocean.
An abundance of sky has given me a chance to learn the flight patterns of various birds. Jays and woodpeckers tend to arrow directly down into the trees. Finches, undulating across the sky, often continue singing even in flight. Crows with their strong black wings with the ragged tips most often fly in groups. Sometimes they crowd together in the tallest trees setting up fearful cacophony of caws, the braver ones leave the gang to swoop down into lower trees in their attempt to drive off the intruder – most often a hawk or owl.
Crows are ingenious nest builders often including chunks of insulation from a building site, or even pieces of fabric pulled off car covers. They are particularly busy on Mondays, scavenging leftovers from weekend picnics in Oak Park.
Many year-round species like the finches continue to have multiple broods well into the summer. The Lesser Goldfinches are the most interesting to look at as they come in a variety of green and gold – the males with a black cap, dark greenish backs and bright yellow breasts. Some years we may have a breeding pair of the big, flamboyant Hooded Orioles who make clumsy attempts to sip syrup from a hummingbird feeder. The males are deep yellow with a black face and bill and black and white wings. These orioles are never found far from palm trees where they often fasten their beautifully woven, basket-like nest beneath a frond. The nests are sometimes strengthened by the addition to the mix of strong palm fibers.
My favorite summer bird is the Yellow Warbler. Where a stream is available they may select a willow as a site for building a nest, otherwise the proximity of a fountain or a bird bath may do. Their song is as bright as their plumage and is delivered in sweet bursts of melody.
The nest is an open cup, often easily seen, and is the favorite target for the Brown-headed Cowbird. The Cowbird has never developed domestic abilities of their own. Historically, they were always on the move as they followed the bison herds, seizing insects from beneath their hoofs or plucking insects from the animal’s fur. They skulk through trees in search of the nests of smaller birds where they lay their egg – producing an egg a day or up to 70 in a season. The outcome can be an unhappy one for the host bird, as the cowbird usually hatches first and because of its size and vigor will seize food first from the adult. In the spring, you may see a harried-looking sparrow-sized bird being followed by a bigger, begging cowbird fledgling. Known to parasitize 220 species, no wonder some of the smaller birds have been reduced to an “endangered” status.
But some birds have learned to recognize the cowbird’s egg and will either crack the shell or roll the egg out of the nest. Our Yellow Warbler has another strategy. Discovering the cowbird’s egg, it will build another nest floor covering the offending egg and lay a new clutch on top. One persistent warbler had to build six new floors before the cowbird gave up!
THE NAMER OF CLOUDS
A 19TH century “citizen scientist,” named Luke Howard was the man responsible for the nomenclature of the clouds – terms we still use today. His names were based on Latin (example: cumulus in Latin is “heaps” or cirrus “a curl of hair.”) Though a successful London manufacturing chemist, his heart was in the clouds.
He began by naming the three main clouds types – status, cirrus, and cumulus and the intermediate types such as cirro-cumulus and coining the word nimbus which he called the rain cloud.
He also published “The Climate of London,” the first book on urban climatology and a publication on the cycle of eighteen years in the seasons of Britain.
Howard’s love of clouds and weather began in childhood and never diminished. For his studies he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1821.
Credits: John Notehelfer for the sunset at East Beach; Roger Bradfield for the cartoon; and George Dumas, Webmaster
Ralph Hoffman begins the introduction to his wonderful bird book, “Birds of The Pacific States,” first published in 1927, with a paraphrase from one of Cicero’s orations extolling the delights of studying literature and how it enriches life. Hoffman then paraphrasing further, applying Cicero’s words to the study of birds:
“It (the study of birds) develops keen observation in youth and is a resource in old age, even for the invalid if he can but have a porch or a window for a post of observation. Birds become the companions of our work in the garden and of our walks…”
He concludes with:
”If a parent wishes to give his children three gifts for the years to come, I should put next to a passion for truth and a sense of humor, love of beauty in any form. Who will deny that birds are a conspicuous manifestation of beauty in nature?”
I keep next to me my copy of “Birds of the Pacific States” given to me by my parents in the 1930s. I was smitten with birds, thanks to my Girl Scout troop and the work we did towards our bird badge. From experienced teachers, we learned the birds of the garden, and, on a nearby lake, winter waterfowl. It is no exaggeration to say that my life was transformed forever.
And it may have been inevitable that in my old age I moved from Berkeley to Santa Barbara, Hoffman’s home where he wrote my treasured book.
His book has a way of truly experiencing a bird rather than simply identifying it. A simple system of identifying a bird alone would have to wait for Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds, published first in 1941 (also given to me by my parents) where the salient features of a bird were indicated by arrows. Further description was minimal, stating only that, in the case of a Brown Towhee: “A dull gray-brown with a moderately long tail; suggests a very plain overgrown sparrow.”
But read what Hoffman has to say about the Brown (now the renamed California) Towhee, a common bird found in the countryside and in most of our gardens:
“Can even a bird-lover become enthusiastic over a Brown Towhee – a plain brown bird that hops stolidly in and out of brush heaps…with no bright colors, no attractive song and no tricks or manners of especial interest? The bird is a rustic with the stolidity of the peasant and apparently lives its entire life near the spot where it was born.”
Now there is the “essence” of the towhee!
And how grateful I was that within a week of arriving at my new home, I discovered a towhee scratching in the dry leaves.
Inserted into the pages of my copy of Hoffman’s book is an article from “Natural History” magazine written by Harold Swanton in 1982 titled “Ralph Hoffman: Unsung Guide to the Birds” subtitled “Early bird guides concentrated on birds in the hand: a New England schoolmaster produced the first for birds in the bush.”
The earlier publication in 1904 of Hoffman’s a “Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York” was considered to be the first true bird guide.
After teaching Latin is several private schools in the east, Hoffman came west in 1919 to again teach Latin at the Cate School for Boys in Santa Barbara. As a graduate of Harvard and the son of a distinguished Latin and Greek scholar, Ferdinand Hoffman, who ran a boy’s school in the East, Hoffman came by the classics naturally.
For the next six years, Hoffman lived in nearby Carpinteria where he had a clear view of the Channel Islands. The islands would draw him across the channel often, first to study birds and later plants. The northern-most island, San Miguel, would be where he met his untimely death.
The Pacific Coast was a new territory for Hoffman and he began almost immediately doing the research which would lead to the publication eight years later of the “Birds of the Pacific States.”
Swanton writes that “Hoffman had no formal training in ornithology or botany, and although he became an expert in both fields, he retained his amateur status. He brought an amateur’s excitement and joy to his work, reflected in every line he wrote.”
Hoffman left teaching only when he was given the job as director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, an ideal job for a man who loved both teaching and the study of natural history.
After the publication of his bird book, Hoffman turned his attention to botany. He took the opportunity on July 21, 1932 to go to San Miguel Island to pursue his study of buckwheat. When he failed to return to the group, after an eight-hour search in heavy fog, his crumpled body was found at the base of an almost vertical cliff. His broken trowel was found next to him. He evidently tried to use his trowel for support.
He is remembered especially at the Museum where a plaque memorializes him. Though now found only through specialty booksellers, “Birds of the Pacific States” remained in print for 50 years.
Joan Lentz, a Santa Barbara birder and author, agrees that Hoffman’s “Birds of the Pacific States” is one of the finest field guides every written.
For every lover of birds and nature, his book is an essential part of one’s library.
William Brewer’s first view of Santa Barbara in 1861 was from the back of a mule. Brewer was part of the California State Geological Survey responsible for conducting a geological and topographic survey of the state, with an eye on identifying mineral resources.
With gold fever having subsided, the new state legislature wanted to have a systematic survey of state’s resources. The well-known geologist, Josiah Whitney, headed the survey. William Brewer’s title was that of “Principle Assistant, in charge of the Botanical Department.” He was responsible for the fieldwork and for keeping detailed records of what was collected, measured, and observed.
With indefatigable energies, an insatiable curiosity, Brewer keep not only the field notes but managed a voluminous correspondence which became the basis for his journal: “Up and Down California in 1860 – 1864,” edited by Francis P. Farquhar and published by the Yale University Press in 1930. My copy, a beautiful edition generously illustrated, was inscribed to my father by Mr. Farquhar. Mr. Farquhar at the time was the editor of the Sierra Club Bulletin and himself a mountaineer and author.
William Brewer and his party departed from Boston, not on a sailing ship, but on a streamer bound for Panama. They crossed the isthmus by train to board another steamer for San Francisco. Like those before him and those after, he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Bay and impressed by the substantial look of the young city. Brewer compared the early November day, to the finest Indian summer day on the east coast, “but without the smoke.“
From San Francisco, the party steamed south to San Pedro near Los Angeles. After leaving Los Angeles, they travelled north, exploring the coastal terrain, arriving at Santa Barbara region the end of February.
East of Santa Barbara, Brewer climbed a high ridge alone. He discovered a variety of shells weathered out of the rocks “as thick as any seabeach and in good preservation.”
I cannot describe my feelings on that ridge, that shore of an ancient ocean. How lonely and desolate! How many decades of centuries, have elapsed since these rocks resounded to the roar of breakers, and these animals sported in their foam … no human being was within miles of me to break the silence. And then I felt overwhelmed with the magnitude of the work ahead of me … doing field work in this great state, a territory larger than New England and New York, complicated in its geography.
They arrived at the town of Santa Barbara on March 7. The steamer was to leave that night for San Francisco. With only two steamers a month, Brewer comments on Santa Barbara’s isolation where only horse trails connected the community to other settlements to the north. The first, rough wagon road north would be completed later in the spring.
Brewer’s observances about the “decadent town” were much like Dana’s thirty years earlier.
The mission was founded about the time of the American Revolution – the locality was beautiful, water good and abundant. A fine church and ecclesiastical buildings and a town sprung up around. The slope beneath was all irrigated and under high cultivation – vineyards, gardens, fields, fountains once embellished that lovely slope. Now all is changed. The church is in good preservation, with a monastery along side – all else is ruined.
The first two weeks camping near Santa Barbara were most unpleasant (Brewer uses the word “abominable.”) The dense, wet fog meant tramping through wet bushes and thoroughly soaked their campsite.
Brewer describes riding along the beach with two locals, where they observed that asphaltum, a kind of coal-tar which oozes out of the rocks and hardens in the sun. “It occurs in immense quantities and will eventually be a source of some considerable wealth.” (But it was oil itself underlying the Channel that would be the source of wealth in the next century.)
Once the sun came out again, several of the party rode to the hot springs five miles east and took a refreshing bath in the hot waters, on the way passing “the most remarkable grapevine I have ever seen.”
With the return of the sun, Brewer and a companion set out carrying their barometer in its heavy box, climbing the rocky slopes to the highest ridge where the barometer would register the elevation.
Reaching the first peak, we struck back over a transverse ridge, down and up, through dense chaparral, in which we toiled for seven hours. This is vastly more fatiguing than merely climbing steep slopes: it tries every muscle in the body. We reached the summit at an altitude of 3,800 feet above the sea . . . . . I never before suffered from thirst as I did that day. The moon was bright as we struck down the wild, dangerous trail. Occasionally a snatch of song would awaken the echoes above the clattering of hoofs of the mules over rocks.
Before leaving Santa Barbara, they joined in the celebration of Easter. The festivities of Holy Week, proved more irksome than pleasurable for Brewer as he had to extricate some of his men who had been jailed for brawling and drinking.
The survey continued its work traversing the state in all directions before returning to Boston in late December 1864.
During his almost four years in California, Brewer experienced back-to-back the wettest and driest years on record. During the winter of 1863, The Central Valley was under water. Crops were destroyed and cattle drowned.
The following year was desperately dry. On May 27, 1864 he writes:
We came on up the San Jose Valley, twenty-one miles. The day was intensely hot, 97 degrees, the air scorching and dusty. The drought is terrible. In this fertile valley there will not be over a quarter crop, and during the past four days’ ride we have seen dead cattle by the hundreds. The hot air trembled over the plain, and occasionally a mirage seemed to promise cool weather, only to vanish as we approached.
William Brewer returned to the East Coast and a successful academic career at Yale. He married again and fathered several children after losing his first wife and newborn son, shortly before departing for California.
Though the survey was a disappointment to some as it is doubtful that the results led to immediate economic gain, much was learned about the mining regions. According to Francis Farquhar in the introduction to the book, “ … great progress was made toward the understanding of the geological history of the country.”
No other plant community speaks more poignantly of the California seasons than the grasslands – emerald green in the winter and early spring and tawny gold in the summer and fall. And in the undulating, rippling sea of grass you see the wind’s signature. Once, a quarter of the state was covered by grassland. But what I celebrate today is profoundly different from the grasslands before the arrival of the Europeans in the late 18th century.
The native perennial grasses have been mostly replaced by the imported European annuals, like the wild oats, whose seeds were often embedded in the fur of the long-horned cattle brought by the first Spaniards and Mexicans. The predominately native perennial grasses were not adapted to the heavy grazing pressure. As the native perennials declined the European annuals moved in. Grasslands, more than any other plant community, were affected by the arrival of the newcomers
The Bear Flag, the flag of the brief-lived republic before California became a state, shows the long-gone grizzly and the native perennial grasses which grew well spaced from one another. Spring wildflowers put on their annual display in these open spaces.
By the time William Brewer and the survey arrived in California the grasslands had been irrevocably altered.
Those interested in restoration have reintroduced bunch grasses in certain areas finding that redoing is slower business than the original undoing.
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As a child, I reveled in grasslands. In the spring I rolled in the grass, staining my clothes green. I loved the pliant blades, and how green grasses held a trace of moisture even on dry days. I was soothed by the grassland simplicity, not yet understanding its complexity, seeing only an undifferentiated sea of blades. I liked that grasses accentuated the curve of the hills rather than hiding the contours under a coarser cover.
In the summer-dry grass, I would search for singing crickets, but they always stopped singing with my approach. The wind hissed in the dry stalks and picked up the seed-bearing fluff of dandelions carrying it off to new places. Dry grass, even though now lifeless, smelled sweet, like remembered barns full of hay.
Before dying back, grasses had cast out their seeds, which lay dormant, until the first rains in the fall coaxed open the hard seed liberating the first tiny blades of new grass. During the rainy months of winter, the lengthening grass spread over the hills like a green tide.
Sitting on a bench at Franceschi Park in the foothills above Santa Barbara, I look over the city. The streets are laid out in grids, dense with houses and buildings. The beach is backed by rows of tall palms. The harbor is filled with boats of every description. I can’t help but think about how the same scene would have looked a thousand years ago.
Wiping the palette clean, what I now see is a narrow plateau sloping gradually to the sea. The conical, thatched huts of a Chumash village cluster where a stream enters the ocean. Offshore are several plank canoes with paddlers headed across the Channel to smaller villages on the Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands.
This scene persists until the arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s, when the Spanish coming up from Mexico established a string of missions along the coast. At the larger missions, such as the one at Santa Barbara, a small village grows up around its presidio.
It was to this Santa Barbara on a warm and windless January day in 1834, that The Pilgrim, a brig out of Boston, dropped anchor offshore. Aboard was a young student from Harvard, Richard Henry Dana. He would later write the story of his adventures on the high seas and along the coast of California for a year of gathering hides and tallow. His story would become one of the best-loved books of American literature: “Two Years Before the Mast.”
What Dana saw at Santa Barbara was a small village of about 100 white-washed adobes with red-tiled roofs, surrounding the larger presidio. The mission built on a slope above the town served as the mark where the vessels came to anchor.
The town is finely situated with a bay in front, and an amphitheater of hills behind. The only thing which diminishes its beauty is that the hills have no trees upon them, they having been all burnt by a great fire which swept them off about a dozen years ago, and they have not yet grown again. The fire described to me by an inhabitant, as having been a terrible and magnificent sight. The air of the valley was so heated that the people were obliged to leave the town and take up their quarters for several days upon the beach (January 1835).
As a lad from Massachusetts, he would have expected the hills and mountains to be covered with trees. He must have been puzzled by this dry, central California landscape where steep sandstone mountains could only support gray-green chaparral.
Sailing ships coming to Santa Barbara typically anchored three miles offshore, as this was an exposed and dangerous roadstead.
The whole swell of the Pacific Ocean rolls in here before a southeaster, and breaks with so heavy a surf in the shallow water, that it is highly dangerous to lie near in to the shore during the southeaster season, that is, between the months of November and April. The wind is the bane of the coast of California (January 1835)
Along the length of the California coast only San Diego and Monterey offered a reasonably safe anchorage, with San Francisco Bay offering the most secure. Dana extols San Francisco Bay, prophesizing that San Francisco will someday be one of the great cities.
The crew of The Pilgrim spent almost a year on the California coast gathering and preparing hides for transport back to Boston, where factories produced finished leather goods. Hide and tallow were the principle exports at a time when the land was divided into vast ranchos where herds of long-horned cattle roamed freely.
On one trip up the coast to Point Conception, the ship encountered a ferocious gale that blew unabated for three nights and days. Even some of their reefed sails were ripped, and they were blown far out to sea. Point Conception and Point Arguello, located where the coast bends inward, are still notorious for brutal winds in all seasons.
The Pilgrim made several stops at Santa Barbara over the year. One visit was when the youngest daughter of the De La Guerra family married the American agent, Alfred Robinson. It was a grand ceremony beginning at the Mission and continuing with a “fandango,” at the De La Guerra hacienda, lasting several days and nights.
Dana described the deterioration of the Missions following Mexico’s winning independence from Spain, twenty-one years earlier. Under Mexican rule, the Missions were stripped of their power and lands, leaving the Fathers with only religious duties.
Shortly before setting sail for the east coast Dana encountered Thomas Nuttall, the famous British collector of plants and birds (our Oak Park woodpecker, Nuttall’s’Woodpecker is named for him). He had been most recently botanizing in Califonia and came aboard as a passenger on Dana’s present ship The Alert,” homeward bound for Boston. For Nuttall’s eccentric ways, Dana dubbed him “old curiosity.”
In 15 years, California became a state, and the Pastoral Era of the great ranchos came to an end. As new people poured into California, the Spanish landholders, unfamiliar with English and lacking cash, were unable to defend their lands against the newcomers. Gold mining would pollute rivers and even San Francisco Bay itself. Giant trees began to fall before the axe, as cities replaced the tiny presidio towns, and grazing lands became farms. Nature itself was transformed with disappearance of large animals, and with exotic species replacing much of the native vegetation.
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THE PERFECT STORM
I have never had the privilege of being a part of a winter storm at sea as Richard Henry Dana did during his winter aboard “The Pilgrim,” while off the coast of California in 1864. But I have experienced innumerable storms while living in Coastal California, both north and south. In this driest year in memory, I can’t resist reenacting in my mind one such storm.
It’s November. After a few cloudless days, I look up to see cirrus clouds. Formed of ice crystals and blown by high altitude winds into thin wisps, cirrus clouds often precede an approaching storm.
Toward evening the wind begins to pick up out of the south, bringing warmer air. At bedtime, the rain is yet to fall, but the stars have disappeared behind thickening clouds. The building winds bring a palpable tension. The eucalyptus creak and groan, their leathery leaves clattering together sound like falling water. The pines sing and sigh.
I’m awakened during the night by the sound of rain falling against the south-facing windows. The wind blows unabated with harsh gusts rattling the windows in their frames
At daybreak, following a restless sleep, I awake to the rain still falling. The street is littered with streamers of bark and torn leaves. The wind becomes erratic blowing this way and that, releasing a final deluge of rain. And then all is silent and air grows chilly. Clouds race across the sky allowing brilliant sun to shine through. As the wind shifts to the north, remaining clouds gather into towering cumulus. On the horizon beyond the islands, they move south like galleons under full sail.
Fragrances are released that I’d forgotten. Streams flow again. The dry earth is sated. The wind has curried the trees releasing all that is tired and spent. The revived earth is born anew.
From my bedroom windows, I look up at the rocky wall of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The mountains rise twice as high as the Berkeley Hills, so much higher than I’m used to that I’m always startled when I see them. While the Berkeley Hills are dense with houses and green with planted trees, the Santa Ynez are mostly bare stony ramparts with thin patches of gray-green chaparral.
The only way to penetrate the mountains is through the narrow canyons carved out over time by running water. Even then, the going is rough requiring boulder hopping and at times squeezing through almost impenetrable thickets.
The mountains do have their gentler moments when the chaparral blooms briefly white in February and then pale blue in April. Sometimes in the winter the rocky face is laced with waterfalls which disappear in a day.
Late in the day when the low sun slants across the mountain face, shadows fill the canyons and the mountains look soft and approachable. At sunset, the mountains have their finest moment when the alpenglow suffuses the peaks with orange as if the mountains were being heated from within.
The rest of the time, the south-facing mountains, under the unrelenting sun, look harsh and forbidding. For relief, my eyes invariably trace the high ridge where a broken line of green conifers look like miniature cones from the distance. I learned that they are the drought-tolerant Coulter Pines which produce monster cones weighing up to eight pounds (maybe the largest in the world) while hanging on to their anchorage in such an inhospitable place.
Since coming to Santa Barbara almost 9 months ago, I have been eager to see them up close. My grandson was game for the trip, so last week on a bright sunny morning we drove up San Marcos Pass (called route 154 on the road map).
In ten minutes we were at the right turn to East Camino Cielo. The narrow, but paved road, passes first through a dense, shady grove of madrone and tanoak trees like the groves I had last seen at Mount Tamalpais, in Marin County. I learned that this was indeed the southern-most outpost for these species.
And could those trees be Big-coned Spruce, growing dark and ragged on that distant, steep north-facing slope? If so, this may be the northern limits for this tree, so familiar to those who frequent the mountains of southern California.
Closer at hand were other surprises. What’s this? A small cottonwood with shining leaves vibrating in the breeze?. Cottonwoods belong near water. What is it doing in these sere mountains. Maybe the crease where it was growing is a moist seep hidden from view.
A few plants are still blooming – the golden-petalled monkey flower, the red blooms of the hummingbird sage. Manzanitas which had bloomed in late winter now bear the round green fruits whose Spanish name means little apples.
And more surprises, sword ferns in the shadiest, most protected places. Scattered about are young big-leaved maples, another moisture lover, which bring a touch of gold to the fall landscape.
This transverse mountain range running east to west contrary to most of the coastal mountains, is truly a “Hadrian’s Wall” a kind of “don’t cross” line separating certain Northern California flora from Southern California flora. Those plants requiring more moisture can make it on the lee-side of the ridge where fog drip and heavier rainfall meet their needs.
Absorbed as I am by my immediate surroundings, I remember to look up to take in the superlative views – north to the higher inland ranges like the San Raphael’s and the south over the Channel, half-lost in the summer haze. I could just make out the slumberous profile of Santa Cruz Island on the horizon. Most arresting of all was the view down into the drainage of the Santa Ynez River where steeply-sloping hills are so dry and thin-soiled that almost nothing can grow there. I wonder if even abundant winter rains could touch them with green.
The air was both fresh and still, the silence profound, with only a calling wrentit to disturb the silence. How divine it would be to camp here, to see the wheeling constellations and to watch a sunrise. But the nearest campground is some miles away down along Paradise Road which parallels the river, but with none of vistas offered by this highest ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
I am thinking of my father as a boy, in the framed, black and white photograph of him and his dad which hangs in my daughter’s office. He is a lad, perhaps twelve years old, and like his father holds a rifle at his side. Wearing a slouch hat with his trousers tucked into his high laced boots, he looks utterly happy to be out on a trail in these same mountains. A boy and his dad with their guns. I neglected to ask him before he died whether he sometimes saw condors. In the early 1900s when the photograph was taken, they would have been riding the thermals over the wilderness back country.
Half of me still lives in my memories of Northern California where the hills and mountains are so different. Instead of sharp, irregular profiles against the sky with their “bones” revealed, “my” hills and mountains are curvaceous, voluptuous, plump, and most often further softened by a covering of grass. Where a hill curves inward, toward its neighbor, the seams are filled with dark green live oaks and bays.
My daughter, when visiting Berkeley, would always mention what she saw as the cool, blue light and rumble of the cities below. I often felt caught between her love of Santa Barbara, and my father’s preference for “the brisk, invigorating Bay breezes” which seemed to energize him. He was not a fan of laid-back Santa Barbara and its soft, silken air. He rarely returned, and I sensed always with reluctance. I sometimes wonder what he would think, knowing that his fellow, nature-loving daughter had forsaken the vigor of the Bay Area, for this somnolent place.
Back in Santa Barbara in time for lunch, it required effort to reorient myself after only two compressed hours in such a high, wild place. I plan on returning often, heartened by how close I am to wilderness.