Last Flutter of Point Lobos?

Within these most evocative of earthen footfalls, two rare, picturesque species of conifers roof the trails, and the impact points of ocean and human vision are incomparable.  Then the monarch butterflies come and turn the depths of winter orange at Point Lobos, northern head of California’s Big Sur.

Closest Big Sur outpost to dense settlement, at Carmel, removed from the mountain aesthetics to the south, Point Lobos is civilized Big Sur, a technical boundary, but its scenery is counter-technical, theatrical.

I first visited this place with the less-than-lofty intention of using its acreage as a mushroom gathering ground.  On the transforming interface of the Cypress Grove Trail, Point Lobos became a soft mushroom cap of eloquent land atop the stem of a Pacific promontory.

I returned me to childhood days.  Footfalls were soft and obstruction-free.  Here the ocean crashed behind wind-graced tree outlines; there it crashed again; there at a third commanding angle, again.

The light falls in shafts, as through the filtered pane of a grade school classroom.  From still and humid shadow comes the old scent of pencils from fragrant cypress logs stacked by the trail-keeper.   Don’t lose your pencils, your teacher’s voice warns:  The Monterey Cypress grows in only this one locality on earth.

The word Monterey serves for County, Peninsula, Cypress and Pines.  The field trip ascends beyond the cypress into Monterey Pine forest.  The trees appear endless, but they occur in only three locations on this planet and demonstrate a misleading abundance.

We are going to a peaceful place to see pieces of orange stained glass and to watch them come to life as monarch butterfly wings.  The stained glass wings move in a kind of flutter that advertises the occurrence of an event, a stationary performance rather than a flitting journey.

The wings multiply.  The fluttering graces pine needles dangling with moss, the washed blue of Pacific sky as backdrop.  This forest has hosted the flutter dance for thousands of years.

The character-filled topography of the Point Lobos coves features slopes sheltered from ocean wind where the still air remains mild.  Point Lobos is the entry point for an indented Big Sur coastline that stretches for 85 miles and provides 7 flutter sites for wintering monarchs.  Like the Monterey Pines, the monarchs lend an idyllic quality to the landscape.  Again, the apparent abundance of the wings is a tragic illusion.

The social reality is that wherever the people of the Pacific coast migrate from, they tend to carry with them the exchange scheme of manicured lawn for monarch butterflies.  The fragrant, uncouth jumble of milkweeds, essential to monarch reproduction, has disappeared from untold thousands of sites, cancelling out new butterfly generations.

This eloquent decline is addressed with an equation.  Do we agree that the sacrifice of 10 square feet of manicured lawn or closely plowed farmland, multiplied by millions, equals a monarch flutter on this sea-sheltered hillside?  Do we mow our life’s lawn with precisely identical strokes, vision absolutely level, or look upward for these memorable moments?









Big Sur’s Ancient Dining Room

“The Indians knew all the cool places,” Cindy, Ragged Point Inn Gift Shop manager, told me.  Her voice trailed off wistfully.

The resort’s restaurant is adjacent, and I was enjoying the Small Stack of gourmet pancakes one morning.  As I poured maple syrup, sun beat down through the glass ceiling amidst the wood beams and stone.  Dining there is at once indoor and outdoor.  Waiting for me, in the sea-washed air through the abundant glass, behind the outdoor tables, was an exhibit of modern/ancient fusion.  It was a lesson offered in an outdoor classroom leading to a superb Pacific view.

Four circular holes pocked a hard serpentine outcropping jutting above the manicured lawn and garden path.  Called “grinding holes,” not uncommon here yet largely unknown to tourists, they formed as native Americans ground foodstuffs.  Right here along Route 1, I found the California spirit, that lost and longed-for land connection.

Anthropological research at CalPoly in San Luis Obispo established the Ragged Point grinding holes as Salinan in origin.  Such sites can be as recent as 150 years or can be much, much older.  The Salinans who fashioned them were a division of the tribe called Playano — “beach people” — by Spanish explorers.  Salinan villages stretched from Morro Rock to Dolan Rock, Salinas to Cuesta Grade Summit, and as far as 70 miles eastward to the Diablo Range, Temblor Range and the Painted Rock of Carrizo Plain.  Today, the Salinan Tribe, which once numbered 3,000 souls, consists of about 800.

Salinan Tribal Administrator Patti Dunton explained how the tribe “mapped” the territory of the beach people.  Their map was one of existential poetry: a Western Gate facing a Great Fire.

I wondered if the Salinans were making acorn pancakes 1,000 years ago out back of the resort restaurant.  They ground this staple in these rock mortars and then leached out the tannin in water, making acorn meal that they baked into cakes.

I learned the complex lore of these grinding holes when Tribal Chair John Burch honored me with his insights on Ragged Point.  That outcropping was actually a long-ago organic kitchen.

“Tegula shellfish were as important a food as acorns,” he explained, as I recalled the whorled snails washed up on the Big Sur beach.  “They ground them up shell and all and mixed them with acorns or other meats.”  Their high salt content not only lent food flavor but preserved their tiny meats on long journeys.  He continued, “They ground herbs there.”  As hunter-gatherers, they made use of unusual foods such as tree lichens.

Then John Burch told me the age of the Ragged Point rock mortars.

Whatever they were grinding, they ground it long ago — 10,000 years ago.  He could tell the age by the convex form of the mortars, created in an ancient process using a wooden implement.  They first broke the rock apart with an agate drill and then smoothed the contours through the circular grinding motion.  He reminded me that this mortar site, when in use, was a clifftop 25 miles inland from the ocean.  It was still a cool place, but bereft of crashing ocean sound, which approached over the intervening ages.  Time tends to smooth over boundaries.

These days, as Tribal Chair, John Burch deals with the politics of boundaries.  The ancient neighbors of the Salinans, the Chumash to the south, overlapped with the Salinans around Ragged Point.  The Salinans objected to Ragged Point’s inclusion in the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.  Millennia ago, Salinans packed their shellfish on foot over the proposed sanctuary’s seabed.

The grinding holes behind the restaurant establish the clifftop as Salinan, but the Chair prefers to look at it in an older way.  “It doesn’t matter whether those grinding holes were Chumash or Salinan,” he says.  “What matters is that they offer a window into learning.”  Through the Ragged Point Inn restaurant windows, I looked out at a 10,000-year-old kitchen classroom facing a Great, Sacred Fire.





Point of Rocks Raven Nest

Hikers along Maryland’s C&O Canal National Historical Park who look up at the rugged cliffs at Point of Rocks, Milepost 48.2, now see an unusual sight:  an active raven nest.  Sticks and grass from the huge nest spill over a flat niche in the cliffs.

Ravens typically avoid heavily populated settings such as the Washington, D.C. region, but the C&O Canal trail offers them ideal food and cover conditions.  The Potomac River, paralleling the trail, provides fish.  The swampy bed of the old canal holds turtles and frogs.  The cliffs shelter the nest from predators.

The high cliffs here, namesake for the tiny community of Point of Rocks, mark an historic 19th-century event.  After his invasion of the north ended unsuccessfully at Gettysburg in 1863, Robert E. Lee led his army across the river back to Virginia near the overlooking cliffs, never to cross again.

The raven nest is about 200 yards north of a large day use parking lot.  Restroom facilities and a boat launch make it an attractive contact point for C&O visitors.



Fragrant Frederick Mountains

For those who love fragrances, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Frederick County, Maryland offer a storehouse of essential oils.  They are best sampled on the blue ridges themselves, high up, where their source plants best grow; and in spring, when the oils surge to life.

A short walk, whether on the Blue Trail through the Frederick Watershed or the Catoctin Trail in Catoctin Mountain Park, exposes a curious wanderer to a coalition of fragrant botanical agents. There is sassafras, sweet fern,  sweet birch, trailing arbutus, wild azalea, mountain pine, wintergreen; and later on in summer, hayscented fern and blue mountain tea.

These essential oils await everywhere underfoot and overhead.  A deer rubs its horns on a pine and sweet sap oozes out.  An icestorm breaks open the wintergreen scent of sweet birch or uproots a sassafras tree, unearthing root beer fragrance.  Boots flatten the outdoor moss terrarium hosting the classic perfume of trailing arbutus.

This is the nursery of the informed person who truly experiences nature.  This is the escape from a bland world where pesticide odor overwhelms the faint fragrance of high-tech flowers in parking lot garden centers.


Two Skylines

Most recent installment in the VPP survey of climate change on public lands in California

Skyline Boulevard and Skyline Drive — Pacific and Atlantic bookends of outdoor America, they share much.  Their latitudes are similar.  Both occupy conifer-shrouded mountain crests.  Hikers and mountain bikers fill their roadside parking lots — from San Francisco, 30 miles away; and Washington, D.C., 90.


Each has memorable dining.  Neil Young made his Harvest Moon video among the redwoods at Mountain House Restaurant along Skyline Boulevard.  Skyline Drive’s Skyland Dining Room features blackberry ice cream pie from a view 3,000 feet above the Shenandoah Valley.


Each retains spirits of wilderness.  Mountain lions roam near Skyline Boulevard; essentially spirits, rarely sighted.  The timber rattlesnakes of Skyline Drive appear materially at the tourist overlooks.  The snakes thrive in the tangled abundance of the cleared forest adjacent to the stone overlook walls.


“Rattlesnakes like the food and cover that some overlooks provide,” says Shenandoah National Park biologist Rolf Gubler.  “They like rock walls, boulder fields and rock/log access for cover.  They also use these areas to bask in the sun.  They like the openings of overlooks and scenic vistas because they provide food (small mammals like voles, mice, chipmunks, etc.).”


The two Skylines rise into a world of climate change.  Along Skyline Drive, warming temperatures aid and abet the destructive hemlock wooly adelgid.  This insect strips the eastern hemlock of its needles and has killed nearly all of them there.  This ecosystem is ancient, however, and this just a turning over of its elements.   It opens up the scenic views, with their transcendent freedom of sunsets and hair-waving wind.


Along Skyline Boulevard, at  El Corte de Madera Open Space Preserve, the nearby Pacific acts as a great preservative.  Its mist feeds the redwood stands with moisture, re-purifying air already cleansed by their dense greenery.  The turning of the ecosystem is slower:  The Methusaleh Redwood at roadside is 1,800 years old.  The freedom here is an ancient freedom of sensuality, the red woods of redwood and Pacific Madrone, deep green filling the air like the backdrop of a painting.


Paintings, millennia are insignificant alongside the enabler of the redwoods:  The Pacific Ocean.  Any change in the redwoods points to a global, climatic change rather than one of mere weather.  When that Pacific system of moisture sends less mist among the redwood trunks, a broader concept is implicated.


Residents of the San Francisco Bay area view with alarm their pet redwoods succumbing to a 5-year moisture deficit.  In parks and along streets, the model redwood groves die.  In the old groves, the established ecosystem sustains them; but elsewhere, nothing remains but to analyze the loss.


In a recent research initiative, Save The Redwoods League had volunteer citizen scientists monitor the ferns in the redwood understory.  The meter-long fronds of sword fern, Polystichum munitum, featured in so many photographs send out new growth each year.  During wet years, the frond length is correspondingly greater.  Measurements over many years tell not so much the weather but the climate, the amount of moisture entering the ecosystem.


Emily Burns, Director of Science at Save the Redwoods, 415-362-2352, summarizes the results of a recent fern study focused on the 2012-2014 California drought, likely a 1,000-year event.  Per her research abstract, “Results showed that P. munitum throughout the ecosystem range avoided the drought by reducing total crown leaf area by approximately one third.”   This size reduction corresponds to a latitudinal size gradient from wetter to drier sections of redwood range.  Put simply, the ferns retreat under stress and then resurge.  The avoidance tactic succeeds, hinting at similar mechanisms elsewhere in the ecosystem.  Yet, it signals stress throughout the forest, among the redwood trees themselves.


Climate change limits the social/natural bond.  The supply of virgin redwood forest is fixed.  Now climate change further constricts our scope of experience by challenging the token plantings.  As for the return of the eastern hemlock forest, the redwoods will likely be waiting for them; yet, we don’t know that it will return.


The pattern of forest succession does not favor the return of the hemlocks.  Incipient sweet birch forest tangles trailsides near Skyland.  Logging industry history tells us that hardwoods replace hemlocks; global warming further inhibits their resurgence.  The ever-green, earth’s elevated self, the coolness — whether in Virginia or California, we pay homage to its climatic conservatism.








Virgin Pines Press News: Upcoming Mushroom Walk

Join Bill Rozday for an informative look at mushrooms in the central Pennsylvania Appalachians on June 25th.

Meet at the information kiosk at Fuller Lake in Pine Grove Furnace State Park at 10:00 AM.  The walk will last for 2 hours, during which time we hope to find as many as a dozen different species of fungi.2015-07-22 17.39.22

The Brown Ponderosa of Yosemite

Fourth in our intermittent series on climate change in California


The picture is of a dead Ponderosa Pine.  The waterfall is Yosemite Falls.  The debate is whether bark beetles, drought or climate change caused the tree’s demise.  It is a debate we should not be having, and it highlights the divorce within our culture of literate, clear-thinking people from a scientific community that grows a lot of low-hanging thought branches and obscures the forest.

Of course climate change killed this tree.  When we speak of climate, we speak of something fixed and indeterminate; a condition or state, if you will.  This is as opposed to weather, which consists of events.  Consider climate the enabler of weather and natural events such as droughts and beetles — dictionary material.

By definition, climate implies a lengthy time period.  This Ponderosa, as a species, has several hundred if not 500 years of potential life.  Were it a transplanted sapling from a nursery, we would say a weather or insect event killed it.  However, it takes hundreds of years of corresponding destructive force to kill a tree with a 500-year lifespan.

That destructive force is rising forest temperature over a protracted period.  The earth warms and hence combusts more readily, as with Yosemite’s tragic Rim Fire.  Vegetation stews in increased heat and draws insects, as with bark beetles.

This is not an isolated pine death.  Entire mountain slopes in the surrounding Sierra stand brown, with the destructive force no respecter of species.  Both Ponderosa and Sugar Pines — another long-lived species — are victimized.  An observant tourist notes the orientation — foresters would say “aspect”  — of this spectacle.  The orientation of those slopes is south and west, toward the Mojave Desert and the hot Central Valley.

Scientists have no instruments capable of measuring conditions 500 years ago.  They only have reasoning and instinct, which must be sharpened by immersion in the forests through walking or camping.  A reading of John Muir’s The Mountains of California reveals how his glorious paragraphs of nature appreciation are commingled with deductions about the forces behind landscapes and their relation to one another.  We lack John Muirs.

Oak trees are supplanting these lost conifers — not succeeding them, which is a natural process; but replacing them, since the conifers represent the climax forest.  Muir’s conifers might exist today as stumps within oak woods, proof that a life zone is shifting in elevation.  It would only require a forest walk to find out.  Then again, that would be too sensible a means to satisfy the conservation organizations who profit from circular thinking.

Meanwhile, I understand that the Yosemite Ponderosa may have been cut by now, ostensibly to protect visitors from windfall.  The credit card companies at the gift store also benefit.  Who would want to visit a park victimized by climate change?  Worse, who wants to admit that the park itself is a mere event within a matrix of millennia and that larger forces govern its very existence?DSC_0229





Climate Change Intensifying Deadly Desert Heat

DSC_0117-300x1992015-04-06-21.46.071-199x300Third in an intermittent series exploring the effects of climate change on the diverse and numerous ecoregions of California.

There is a region of California where heat creates a distinctive desolation, and that desolation worsens each year.  Climate change is transforming a landscape that kills unprepared hikers into one that bakes away its own vegetation.

To perceive this change firsthand, travelers need only enter Joshua Tree National Park at Oasis Visitor Center, 50 miles from Palm Springs and 107 degrees on an average July day.  The park road ascends gradually beyond the visitor center, attaining a cooler plateau studded with rock formations.

What look like giant green paintbrushes stand among the high ground rocks — the saplings of Joshua Trees, the park’s namesake.  In an exodus from the overheated flats, the species seeded itself at the higher elevation, taking with it the yucca moths that pollinate it, together with the rest of its ecological subsystemof  plants and animals.  The pollinating moths occupy the flowers of the tree, as well as the ground at its base.

Dr. Cameron W. Barrows, ecologist at the University of California-Riverside, discovered the Joshua Tree migration.  He currently analyzes the many lower profile relationships among life forms in the park to determine how climate change is stressing those bonds.  In 2016, he will inaugurate a study on 45 species of mammals, birds, plants, reptiles and amphibians, ranking each according to its projected vulnerability to climate change.  Researchers will apportion a segment of Joshua Tree landscape and monitor the presence of these lifeforms over a period of years.  They intend to enlist the aid of citizen-scientists in order to facilitate the laborious and time-consuming legwork that the project requires.

The road leading from the Oasis Visitor Center follows a transition zone between two ecological regions, enhancing the visibility and impact of climate change.   Global warming is readjusting  life within the transition zone.  The fiercely hot Sonoran Desert at the visitor center sends its emblematic cholla cactus into the Mojave Desert several miles up the mountainside, in evident pursuit of the Joshua Trees.  This makes for an intriguing study environment for Dr. Barrows and colleagues.

joshua treeDSC_0117

A second life form that desert newcomers view as an emblem of this environment is considered vulnerable to climate change.  The chuckwalla lizard, sunning on the rocks like a miniature dinosaur, reaching 18 inches in length, subsists on vegetation.  Drought patterns  that reduce abundance of plants place stress on the fearsome, but harmless, lizard.

Climate change at Joshua Tree is an adjustment involving death through heat and dryness, but it amounts to a redrawing of boundaries rather than a disaster.  The average perso views the flight of the Joshua Trees and sees the Sonoran Desert overtaking the Mojave Desert.  Dr. Barrows cautions that the entirety of a region is more  than the existence of a single plant.  Ecology is a science that studies patterns and admits the limits of its statistics.

“The boundaries of what we now call the Mojave Desert, climatically and biologically, will shift as a result of modern climate change.  That will probably mean shifts to higher elevations and perhaps further north and west.  That could mean a contraction or an expansion.  The complexities of what constrain and enable movements/shifts of ecoregions, such as the Mojave Desert, exceed our current understandings.”