I lived most of my life in the Berkeley Hills where I looked west through the Golden Gate knowing that it is the only sea level break along the coastal mountains. At night, two lighthouse beacons told me where I was – one flashing light on Alcatraz Island just inside the Gate and the other 25 miles offshore on the Farallon Islands.
When I first came to Santa Barbara, I looked for what might be special. I admired the mountains at the edge of town which are twice as high as the Berkeley Hills. Then l remembered that in Santa Barbara you looked due south to the ocean because 30 miles west at Point Conception, the coastline turns abruptly 90 degrees east. Near Ventura the coastline straightens up again and resumes its roughly north/south trend of the rest of the California coastline.
On clear days I can see the profiles of Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands which are part of the five Northern Channel Island group, giving Santa Barbara another distinction in a state with few offshore islands.
And how about another fact: it is the motion of the San Andreas fault over time that has twisted the coastal mountains in the region to also run east/west, which is why on the maps they are referred to as the Transverse Ranges.
But aside from all the interesting geology, what I truly love about the mountains behind Santa Barbara is the way they reflect back the low winter sun to help give us the mild winter climate.
For many of us August is the vacation month. It is the last summer month before school begins again. We always headed for the mountains toward the end of August when it was often the foggiest time in the Berkeley Hills. It was less than a half-day’s drive to reach our vacation lake in the high Sierra.
I hope this story about our vacation will prompt you to remember your summer vacation, and maybe even write about it. Your family will love it.
When I learned that the Caldor fire last August had veered south, sparing Angora Lake, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Had it taken a near miss to remind me of my 70-year devotion to this high Sierra Lake? A day later, Judith Hildinger, who with her brother Eric, runs the Angora Lakes Resort took the photo from her paddle board of a beautiful male Wilson’s Warbler sheltering in the mountain alder. Even though it was still smoky, I asked her to take more pictures around the lake’s edges because I wanted to write a long-overdue love letter to Angora.
I’ll start the photographic journey at the alder thicket next to the beach. The thicket had always been a safe place for nesting warblers in the summer. Not being able to penetrate the thicket from the beach, the best I could do was to push my boat as close to the shore as possible before being warded off by the wiry branches. I dropped my oars and sat listening to the small bird voices.
Beyond the mountain alders, an even denser pygmy forest of huckleberry oak, flows down the steep slope to the water’s edge. The huckleberry oak is the only high elevation oak in the big family of oaks, the most populous tree family in California. The huckleberry oak’s thin, flexible branches allow the tree to sprawl prostate over granite boulders. In a region of short summers, the acorn takes two autumns to mature. Once ripe, the little acorn is a favorite food of chipmunks and other small rodents.
It’s been years since I struggled up that slope to the ledge with the dwarf conifers where we had buried Don’s ashes. There was no other place he would have wanted to be.
It was a late afternoon in October when we arrived at the lake. The cliff and lake were in shadow. The cabins were boarded up and the boats stored away. I was anxious to be ahead of the first snow. It would have been next spring before we would have access again.
After tucking the ashes beneath a dwarf conifer on the first ledge, the girls and I returned to the beach. Jim stayed back as he grieved for his lost father.
Around the corner from the oaks come the cliffs which distinguish upper Angora Lake from most other lakes. I always think this massive wall must be at least 10,000 feet high but in reality it reaches less than 9,000 feet, about 1,500 above the lake level. Sometimes even reality goes out the window when I think of Angora. Since I’m unable to travel any longer, Angora remains fixed in my mind and my heart and I want to get it right.
The cliff faces are streaked with chartreuse and dark brown lichens. By releasing an acid, the lichen slowly ingests the granite. Wherever there is a little soil in a crack, a seed or spore may take root producing delicate ferns or flowers. Further up on a face, a stout juniper with long ropy roots, has taken hold and found a home.
From the top at Echo Peak, the cliff descends to the lake interrupted only by occasional narrow ledges each with a miniature garden of quaking aspens, grasses and clumps of mountain ash with its vibrant red berries. Only in the driest years does water fail to trickle into the lake as miniature waterfalls. Often in late August a snow patch clings to the edge of the highest ridge.
One of the family rituals was to watch the rising sun first ignite Echo Peak with its golden light and then the sun slowly slides down the face to the lake level. I am always amazed how sunlight restores color, animating whatever it touches.
Just around the corner from where the cliffs end, a small grove of mountain hemlocks thrive in the cool shade. The hemlocks love the snow and winter. They often grow where the snow lasts the longest. John Muir wrote that if you were caught out in a blizzard, climb under the hemlock branches which reach down to the ground, and you will be sheltered.
I can’t remember the details of this north-facing shore of the lake. Of course there’s Frog Rock, the rock islet with its single tree. The steep slope of rocks and trees behind culminate in what we simply call The Ridge.
Ah, there’s something else about the ridge that allows me to stray off course. On a morning maybe sixty years ago when I was preparing breakfast on the wood stove with the door wide open, the roar of an engine startled me and I looked up to see a heavy-bodied two-engine plane skimming the ridge and dropping down over the lake, releasing a cloud of water filled with young trout. The plane pulled up abruptly and headed northeast toward Desolation Valley, delivering fish to other lakes.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes, near the cabins at the east end of the lake is a seasonal creek which links Upper and Lower Angora Lakes. When we were there in late August, the creek was usually dry, but I always enjoyed the sheltered ravine populated by some nice flowering shrubs like the Western Serviceberry and Western Spiraea. I liked to bring along a plant book for the satisfaction of giving a plant a name which always seemed to make it a friend.
One cabin, alone, occupied a space just south of the creek with a level place in front where you could pull up a boat. Though the cabin was too small for a family, I loved its separateness. It was one of the old-style cabins with a drop-down front which reminded me of my desk at home that concealed some of my treasures.
When the Forest Service revealed its plans to put in a campground on the site, the cabin was hoisted up on logs and eased across the creek to join the other cabins. Either the Forest Service came up short on money or the entreaties of people like us to leave the lake alone prevailed.
The other cabins were built side by side on a level area which may have been the glacial moraine formed during the time when glaciers scooped out the depressions which later filled with melting snow becoming the two lakes and the pond. When I think back to how this beautiful amphitheater, its cliffs, waterfalls, and peaks were formed, I wonder what the future holds. In a drier and hotter climate will the lakes become meadows or disappear altogether? And will the landscape, succumbing to fires, lose its conifers and become brush land or oak savannah? Will we have to ascend to 10,000 feet to find the Sierra we once loved?
I just looked at a random collection of photos taken by visitors of some of the handmade sign’s advertising: “The World-famous Lemonade;” “Angora Lakes Resort has been operating since 1917.” One photo showed a smiling Effie Hildinger, the original proprietress, who rode in on mule back in 1924. And a brown and yellow official Forest Service sign informed visitors that this is Angora Lakes Resort, National Forest Lands in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
My particular affection is for a cabin called The Lodge where we would have weekly slideshows in the summer. It was furnished with a well-used upright piano, chairs of various vintages and a loom. I spent many afternoons sitting on the small porch in the warm afternoon sun listening to various musicians — most often Gloria Hildinger on her flute, sometimes Jim Hildinger and his violin, and occasional visitors like Jan Popper on the piano and a cellist from Fallen Leaf on her cello.
And will I ever forget that early morning when Jim pulled his big speaker to the open doorway and filled the amphitheater with the glorious strains of Sibelius’ violin concerto.
Sibelius would have loved this place.
I sometimes walked the road down to Lower Angora Lake where occasional avalanches descending the steep slopes below Angora Peak would knock down a tree or two, blocking the road. I was always eager to visit one of the big red firs where the chartreuse, fragrant wolf lichen clinged to the ruddy bark. You can find the lichen mostly on the north side of the tree, just above the line where the trunk is free of snow. Lower Angora, with its scattering of cabins, lacks the dramatic setting of the upper lake.
Up the short hill is “Our House, ” the house where the Hildingers and their two young boys lived through winter in the 1930s. I remember one story where they would troop down to the ridge and holler down to the caretaker at Fallen Leaf Lodge and he would holler back. That was the social activity for the day.
“Our House” was distinguished by the aspen trees which grew close around the paned windows. The cabin was alive with dancing light when the leaves trembled in the slightest breeze. After lunch we would lie on the bed, listen to the voices of the kids below on the beach with the sparkling water reflected on the underside of the low eave.
I’m thinking of windy nights. The wind would come in gusts that sounding like an approaching freight train with spaces of eerie silence between. With our headboard against the single wall, we wondered if it would hold.
On this south-facing slope, the shrubs are very different from the mostly deciduous ones that grow in the protected swale along the creek. Just below the deck of “Our House” was a mountain chaparral garden composed as if by the most talented landscape designer. Several species shared the same slope – a low-growing silver-leafed plant called snow brush (Ceanothus cordulatus), a stunning bush Chinquapin with shiny yellowish leaves, more golden on the undersides with a spiny burr that encloses two or three seeds. One afternoon I discovered beneath the dense cover a hard-to-find bird I had never seen before: a Green-tailed Towhee.
It seems all paths led to the beach when our kids were little. The sand was a granular granite with sparkles of mica like that of the parent rock. The beach was narrow when the lake was high, usually in early summer, wide in the late summer when the lingering snow banks on the ridge had melted. I liked lying on my back and watching clouds moving over the peak toward the east. I speculated about whether a cloud would make it across my field of vision before dissolving. Fair weather clouds are generally short-lived.
It was at the beach that kids won a rite of passage – swimming across the lake and back. The reward was dad saying they no longer had to wear a life jacket when in a boat.
The other rite was to climb up the steep slope to the top of Echo Peak and then hollering “Echo” down to listeners below. As I recall, the reward for the climb was a cold glass of fresh lemonade.
We didn’t discover Angora by accident. It was a carefully engineered plan by my parents who once stayed at Angora when meals were served in the dining room by Jim and Effie. Once Jim went into the Army, the cabins were provided with modest cooking facilities, and the dining room was closed. My parents went elsewhere returning only for our inauguration.
We arrived in the afternoon, my parents greeting us at the doorway and my mother giving me instructions about how to be a good housekeeper, Angora style. “NEVER let any food particles go down the drain!” and with that, they departed down the hill in Jim’s truck as we would do for many years until our nest was empty.
Though our traditional week was the last week of August when the Berkeley Hills were the foggiest, we visited twice at other times for a day. Once was in June – spring in the Sierra when the meadows were wet and green and birds sang everywhere. Angora was transformed by robin song. By late summer, we were left with the harsh voices of Steller’s Jays and the chatter of squirrels and chipmunks. Toward the end of our stay, Clark’s Nutcrackers called as they began moving down from the higher mountains ahead of winter.
Probably the strangest visit to Angora was the first day of the new year before the arrival of the winter snows. The lake before us was frozen and the sun was about to set behind Echo Peak. Once the sun disappeared, we were cold. But what detained us was a deep growling sound coming from across the lake near the cliffs. What was that? Bear, mountain lion? Feeling unwelcome in this unfamiliar Angora, we hurried down the hill until near the Lookout ridge we regained the sun. Later, we learned we had heard the scrapping of the ice against the cliff. Maybe the sound was distorted and amplified by the ice itself or by the cold, deep water below.
Usually after a few days of being under the lee of the cliff, I was ready for some distant views. Walking down the hill to the pond and the big flat area open to the sky, I could see to the south the familiar shapes of the peaks around Carson Pass. The tall Jeffrey Pines are widely spaced. From the upper branches came the clear, three notes of the Mountain chickadee and the somnolent buzzy song of the Western pewee which always made me drowsy on warm Sierra afternoons.
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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Early November The resident hawk Repeats its urgent calls. Where is the rain? The temperature is above eighty. Night falls with red skies Color caught by the high cirrus clouds Too thin for rain.
With darkness comes The cricket stridulations, The final notes of the fading season
After midnight I step out on my porch, Looking high to the south. Orion waits, trailed by Sirius, The hunter’s faithful dog.
Venus will soon separate itself from the rising sun And before month’s end will shine alone In the eastern sky.
Once I’d imagined spending my final years In the town where I was born In a tiny house of my own design One room only With alcoves for bathing, sleeping, fixing tea A steep roof with a skylight or two A generous porch under a sheltering eave High in the Berkeley Hills,
But instead, my final years Will be spent in Santa Barbara in a spacious apartment One of many apartments For elders like myself, Close to family, a hedge against loneliness.
The geographer in me Wants to tell you That Santa Barbara is located At the southern end of central California. Maybe 50 miles below Pt Conception Where the coast bends inland Thanks to the San Andreas Fault Flexing its muscles. So now the coastal mountains run From east to west, and most confusing of all You look south if you want to see the ocean.
For me, the ocean has always been to the west, And the direction of the setting sun Where if you sail far enough You’ll bump into China.
The high Santa Ynez Mountains to the North shield the town from certain cold draughts. But in downpours, the mountains Shed all manner of debris From silt to sandstone boulders As big as cars.
Now as an amateur geologist, I’ll tell you that this knoll I call home, is surrounded By flatter land referred to As an alluvial fan, Crossed by creeks that Only show up when it rains.
Locals brag about the mild climate Forgetting about those vehement moments Of gale-force winds Called sundowners. Or what about the microbursts Which have been known to knock a plane Out of the sky?
And there’s nothing mild about my landscape. Never still — it twists, heaves and cracks. Worse, it is said that all the commotion Is bringing Los Angeles ever closer.
Once we were covered by a warm sea With dinosaurs wandering the shallows. Later mountains rose up, Full of seashells.
Now it seems that our future is drought.
I look out the east-facing windows Down into Oak Park with its Pale limbed-sycamores and faded foliage.
It’s a peoples’ park With mariachis on the weekend Shouting children, Birthdays with piñatas Quinceaneras, sometimes a funeral
Look up to the first ridge To St. Anthony’s towers And to the two rosy domes Of the old mission.
Higher yet is the bulk Of the Santa Ynez mountains and the conical shape Of my mountain – Montecito Peak See how the angled sun Deepens the canyons.
Slide your eyes sideways To where the mountains Slip into the blue line of the sea.
Now face south Over our native garden Bordered oaks from the park To the silent creek bed. I look for hummingbirds, bush rabbits and worry about coyotes
The east hills, called the Mesa Holds off the fog Until after dark, when the hills are breached.
Oh yes, my garden off the front door The narrow porch of a garden, Hung with red geraniums And softened by pots of ferns
I lie in my bed beneath the windows Hoping for wind to move the chimes. I lift my head at dawn. Do I see the silhouette of the mountains Against the lightening sky?
Or are we cocooned in the fog That drips from trees Almost as welcome as rain.
And what is the first bird this morning? The clink of the towhee The querulous wren The sweet ring of sparrows’ song?
Now you are hearing the voice of the birder Leaning on every song In the absence of good eyesight.
Acorn woodpecker, flicker With strong beak and loud call, Or the relentless caw of the black crow, Boss of the neighborhood?
Will I be lucky enough To have an owl’s hoot rouse me In the early morning hour?
I feather my nest With a down comforter Books, Bouquets of pungent sage, Baskets of lichen.
How do I finish this short tale? A day ending, I suppose. With the dark coming on by five A tale of rain arriving?
A gusty wind from the southeast Testing itself.
In the early morning hours Between midnight and dawn The rain falls I smell it first And then sweet fragrance of hope
Could this be The beginning of a season Of abundant rains Enough to end the drought?
COMING IN THE SPRING: The Best for Last: The Nature of Santa Barbara by Phila Rogers. Includes the blogs and a number of short pieces.
After having lived most of my life in the Bay Area, California mountains meant only the Sierra Nevada. My earliest memories are of Lake Tahoe with the bands of blue, the color deepening the further you were from shore. I remember the translucency of the water, the whiteness of the beach sand and the way the sun shining through the water left a dazzling pattern on the sandy bottom. And the granite, always angular and glistening with feldspar.
Vacation in the mountains was a reprieve from home and the rank eucalyptus odors. Now it was sage and pine, and brilliant, hard edged cumulus instead of the dull sheets of stratus.
But it was time to put all that behind and turn my thoughts without aversion to the Southern California Mountains, another transverse mountain range like the Santa Ynez range. The deep power of the San Andreas fault had twisted the mountains sideways, contrary to the northwest trending of the other California ranges.
With some of the family now living in Southern California, a three and a half hour drive to Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardinos won the day over nine hours north to Lake Tahoe.
The San Bernardino Mountains rise abruptly on all sides out of its arid landscape. The curving road makes a quick ascent passing occasional coulter and knobcone pines, dried stalks of yuccas and chaparral. In a land of few lakes, only dams can create a body of water, gathered mostly from snow melt. Big Bear Lake, no exception, occupies its own shallow valley set in low mountains and open conifer forests. Unlike the Sierra, where millions of trees have succumbed to the long drought and insect attacks, Big Bear’s trees look healthy, perhaps being accustomed to dry years.
While noticing the distinct differences between the appearance of Sierra Nevada and the San Bernardinos, I remembered reading of their similarities. Both began as batholiths formed of cooling magma deep underground before being uplifted some three million years ago. Older rocks overlain the newer granites. But in the Sierra Nevada, the old rock eroded away with the heavier rains and the extensive glaciation. In the Santa Bernardinos, with glaciation only on the highest peaks and less rain, more of the old rock remains.
Because we were nine people, we rented a large, recently remodeled house which is currently on the market for three and a half million dollars. While the family took to kayaks and paddle boards, I settled in on the deck to figure out this place.
The dominate pine is the Jeffrey – a close relative of the ponderosa (yellow) pine, which along with the coulter pine, are all members of the yellow pine family distinguished by packets of three long needles which produce nice harmonies in the wind.
The fir family was represented by white fir growing, at the deck rail, with short, dense needles which point upward. Each species seems to have its own distinct odor. Press your nose into the cracks between the plates of bark on the yellow pine and you smell vanilla. Sniff the white fir and you get an essence of pine and citrus. Be like the native American Indians, brew a cup of tea with the needles and you have your daily requirement for vitamin C.
But what took my fancy was the pair of sugar pines above a neighbor’s roof. Aside from being both the largest and second tallest in the pinus family with uncommonly long pine cones, I love this pine. John Muir savored the exuded gum which he said was sweeter than maple-syrup. The branches are arranged on the straight trunk often symmetrically, but sometimes a branch will shun order and stretch out further than the rest. Cones hang near the tip of the branch. I remember watching them in a winter wind swaying as if they were extravagant ornaments. Once, while examining a cone a foot and a half long lying on the ground, I remember someone telling me that the scales expand and contract with the change of temperature and the prickles make a grove in the soil for the seed. I’ve never been able to find another citation for that charming “fact” since.
The forest, at least in the neighborhood of our house on north-facing shore is knitted together by an understory of a tall manzanita called Pringle Manzanita. The season for its pink urn-shaped flowers is long past and only a few dried berries remain.
Time to shake off the lethargy that comes with an occasional fleecy cloud drifting across the blue and then dissolving or the soft song of pines, and explore the rest of the lake. The dam is a modest one required only to hold back the snow melt and the marshy waters in the shallow basin. Once around the corner to the drier south-facing shore, sages and the sturdy Sierra juniper make an appearance.
At the visitor’s center, we take literature on the trees of the region and the description of a champion lodgepole pine further up the mountain which sounds almost reachable by a short trail.
It appears there would be no avoiding the walk once my daughter learned of it. Children, no matter how old themselves, are reluctant to entertain the ills (real or imagined) of their elders. I did bring my boots so maybe I can avoid a compound fracture when I turn my ankle on the inevitable loose rock.
Once we turned off the road that circles the lake, we were in the forest headed uphill. We pitched and heaved over the bumpy road. But once in this sub-alpine forest we felt like we were back in the forests above Lake Tahoe. Though I am considered the chief exclaimer in the family, we all exclaimed over this familiar beauty. No more yellowish rock. Here the granitic core of the mountain revealed itself. The understory became varied – sometimes tender green fields of bracken ferns, other times corn lilies.
We parked at the end of the road where a sign pointed downhill to the lodgepole pine and to the Bluff Lake Preserve. I recognized this kind of trail – decomposed granite made “interesting” by rocks and exposed roots. My grandson Stuart walked close behind me and my daughter ahead of me. I focused on what was underfoot allowing only sidelong glances at the creek next to the trail over hung with wildflowers, the first such sight in these mountains. The trail leveled out as we approached the lodgepole pine grove. Lodgepole pines are uncommon in this southern forest. They hark back to a cooler era. My joy was somewhat tempered by remembering that I had to walk back out. I didn’t care. I hadn’t expected this gift in my 89th year.
The old giant was closely encircled by younger trees (as I am by my family). The tree overlooks a broad green meadow—a meadow which not so long ago had been a pond. In the Sierra, the Lodgepole pine is the first to show up as the pond becomes a meadow. As other trees move in, the meadow becomes part of the forest.
The noble tree is a part of a national registry of the largest known of its species in a particular geographic area. A nearby Jeffrey pine is several hundred years old, an “old growth” survivor in a forest that had been heavily logged
The champion lodgepole pine from its meadow and two oldtimers.
Tucked into the coastal range 40 miles southeast of here, is a valley that fits my description of near perfection. The road which travels its length is five miles long. There are few buildings of any kind. Geographers would describe the countryside as oak/savanna. Only the fence lines tell you that the land has been claimed. On a good year of decent pasturage, you’re apt to see some cattle and maybe men on horseback responsible for their well being.
Even its name Canada (pronounced canyada) Larga has a sweet resonance. “Canada” has a number of meanings: valley, glen, cattle trail. Take your pick. “Larga is more specific, meaning long (or tall in another dimension).
The valley was part of a 6,658 acre Mexican land grant known as Canada Larga 0 Verde. Turning off highway 33 (one road to Ojai) onto Canada Larga Road you see your first bit of early California history – a 7-foor-high remnant of a rubble wall which was part of the aqueduct that once carried water seven miles from the Ventura River down to the the mission San Buenaventura where it satisfied the needs of the 350 inhabitants for their gardens and pastures. The waterworks were built by the Chumash Indians under the instruction from the padres sometime between 1785 and the early 1800s. What’s left of the ruins is protected behind a chain link fence.
Not much remains of the nearby Canada Larga Creek in late spring but a sluggish flow full of clots and streamers of algae. By the bridge, the creek runs beneath a steep slope of near white rock.
What interested us was the old, rather disreputable blue gum eucalyptus (actually several trees in various stages of decline). Ignoring the heaps of shed bark caught between branches, our focus was on a Red-tailed Hawk’s nest with a full-grown young standing at its edge with an adult nearby. Nobody appeared happy with their presence. The Cassin’s Kingbird with their nest in the same tree voiced their raucous objections, while a pair of Bullock’s Orioles, with their nest in a smaller euc behind, went about their business of carrying food to their young.
I sat in the shade of a walnut orchard where ground doves were seen earlier and watched the activity. Getting back into the car, with windows down, we proceeded slowly up the narrow road stopping where there appeared to be activity. Birding along the Canada Larga Road is a challenge as the pullouts are infrequent and hardly adequate and the occasional cars and trucks often travel at a high speed.
Barbwire fences make good perches and we were almost always in sight of a Western Kingbird, a low-slung bird with a yellow belly who would frequently leave its perch to grab something appetizing. One stop was warranted by a phainopepla calling from the upper branches of a half-dead walnut tree.
My eyes were on the yellow mustard growing along the fence where last year I had seen a dazzling Lazuli Bunting amongst the yellow flowers. Plenty of mustard this spring but no bunting. Further up the road everyone (but me) saw a smallish bird sitting on a rusty water tank. The bird turned out to be a blue grosbeak – one of the target birds of the trip. And best yet, it appeared to have food in its mouth. With young to raise, the pair should be around for a while.
Now I could indulge myself with the scenery and days later, at the computer, I would struggle for words adequate to describe what I was seeing. Maybe I should let it go and simply say that this landscape made me superbly happy.
Was it the contours and shapes of the hills, the close and distant views, the colors and always the possibility of an eagle?. You’re not going to be slammed by the brilliance of spring wildflowers. The muted tones of late spring reach a deeper place. Russets, pale beige grass, drifts of mustard reach up into gray chaparral with lavender undertones. A gifted Landscape Architect couldn’t do it as well.
Far to the northeast beyond the rounded hills, gave a glimpse of the higher mountains with their irregular profile. A fresh breeze filled my lungs and lifted hair away from my face. Two kingbirds flew close to a Raven’s tail. My birding friend called it a “teaching lesson.”
The road ended at a horse ranch. Now we were on level ground where we could rest in the shade of live oaks and sycamores with the bubbling songs of House Wrens surrounding us.
We planned on picnicking at a park along the Ventura River where we could count on Yellow Warblers singing in the sycamores and swallows with their small, bright voices sieving up insects over the water.
But I could only think about how nice it would be to set up my cot and roll out my bed roll under the edge of one of the oaks in the Canada Larga valley on a gentle slope with a view in all directions – perfect for night coming on with the changing colors. I could imagine crickets chirping in the dry grass and a small owl hooting nearby. Once darkness was complete I would observe stars undimmed by city lights and listen to a night wind rustling the oak leaves, bringing me far off scents.
The next blog will be about the same distance northwest to another favorite spot. I’m on a roll!
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