Garter Snake

P90525KThis little critter surprised me at work last week. Even though I knew it to be harmless, my instinctual response was to get away from it fast. I have encountered enough rattlesnakes to know better than to take the time to identify a snake before getting some distance from it. Even after identifying a snake as a harmless garter snake, I still prefer to avoid it as it leaves. This one was in no hurry, so got picked up with a rake and set safely aside.
Between high school and college, I took a summer job for a (primarily) retail nursery in Miramar on the coast of San Mateo County. At this job, I sometime went with the maintenance crew to work in a few home gardens. At one such job, just overlooking the beach in Montara, I needed to mow an overgrown lawn. Rather than mow back and forth from the upper edge to the lower, I mowed a concentric pattern inward from the outer edge.
What that meant was that I mowed the edge first, and then just inside the freshly mown edge, and then just inside that second track, and so on, with the intention of finishing at the center of the lawn. What I did not consider was that this technique concentrated the several garter snakes that happened to be on the lawn at the time into the diminishing unmown center. Needless to say, I needed to stop mowing while I chased them off with a stick.
What I also neglected to consider during my Indiana Jones experience was that these were no ordinary garter snakes. They were the more colorful and endangered San Francisco garter snake. I remember their extra pair of red stripes on top. Supposedly, they also had an extra pair of blue stripes underneath. I did not get close enough to notice.

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Horridculture – Fake Environmentalism

P90515Fake environmentalism is a HUGE topic, so for now, will be limited to fake environmentalism as justification for the eviction of homeless encampments.
The yellow triangle in the picture above was the site of the Hero’s Camp, which was more commonly known as Ross Camp, and located behind Ross Dress For Less in Gateway Plaza in Santa Cruz. It is gone now. This satellite image was taken by Google Maps prior to the development of the Camp. I did not get pictures of the camp while inhabited, but you have likely seen enough other camps in the news to imagine what it looked like.
It really was as big as it looks, and really did exhibit all the problems that you hear about in the news, although not to such an exaggerated degree. Not everyone there used syringes to inject illicit narcotics. Not everyone there was an alcoholic. Not everyone was violent, from somewhere else, or a criminal. This is not about such issues anyway. It is about how the two hundred or so unhoused people who lived here affected the environment.
Was there trash? Of course there was. Was it more than what two hundred people who live in homes generate? No. Houseless people do not generate as much trash as the housed, simply because they lack resources to purchase the commodities from which so much trash is generated. The houseless certainly do not waste as much as the housed. Their trash just happens to be more visible for outsiders who do not know any better to see.
Furthermore, what is so typically described and perceived as trash is actually the belongings of those who live in such camps. Without closets, cabinets or furniture, our belongings would look about the same, except much more voluminous. When we take just some of the belongings that we don’t want or need and put them out in front of our homes, it is a garage sale, and likely amounts to much more than individual homeless people own.
The satellite image from Google Maps below shows the neighborhood where my grandparents lived in Felton, less than seven miles north of where the picture above was taken. Their old home is right in the middle of the picture. There were not so many other homes there when they arrived, just as World War II was ending. They lived a relatively modest lifestyle, on a small suburban parcel. They were not concerned about the environment.
Why should they have been? Even now, the people who live in homes here can generate as much trash as they want to, and no one will complain about it. They can fill their homes with their belongings, and put them neatly away in closets, cabinets and drawers. There are alcoholics in this neighborhood, as well as a few who are addicted to illicit narcotics. Some are criminals. Some are violent. Few are native. Again, this is off the main topic.
None of that is visible in this satellite image anyway. What it shows instead is how the lifestyles of those who live in homes are more detrimental to the environment than the lifestyles of those who lack homes. This picture is the same scale as the picture above, so you can see that only a few homes would fit into an area comparable to that in which about two hundred unhoused people lived. Only a few people live in each of these few homes.
What that means is that two hundred people like those who lived at the Hero’s Camp live dispersed over a much larger area, on land from which trees and vegetation needed to be removed. They all live in homes that are made of wood derived from trees that grew in forests. These homes are furnished with synthetic plaster, carpet, paint, glass, vinyl, metals and all sorts of materials that needed to be quarried, processed or manufactured.
It doesn’t end there. These homes consume energy for heating, lighting and whatever else that gas and electricity are used for. Cars driven by those who live in homes are also constructed from raw materials, and then need fuel to function. Water is consumed as if it were not a very limited resource. Much of it gets mixed with soaps and detergents before going back into the environment. Chlorine volatilizes from chlorinated swimming pools.
Then there are the landscapes and gardens, the parts of domestic lifestyles that we actually believe to be beneficial to the environment. They contain exotic (non-native) plants that compete with native species, and interfere with natural ecological processes. Irrigation of the landscapes stimulates redwoods and accelerated decay of oaks. Soil amendments, fertilizers and some of the pesticides change the chemistry of the soil and ground water.
Just compare these two pictures. As bad as the mess at Hero’s Camp was, the two hundred people who lived there were less detrimental to the environment and the local ecosystem than those who live in just a few of the homes visible in the picture below. Those who claim to be concerned about the environment should be more concerned about the ecologically detrimental lifestyles of those who live in homes than those who lack homes.P90515+

Banana Slug

P90421They are not as dangerous as they look. Really. If they were, just one could do more damage than an entire herd of average slugs. The fortunate truth is that banana slugs consume only decaying plant parts and fungus. Yes, they literally cruise about the garden eating bits of decomposing debris that we may not want there anyway, and converting it into a very nutritious and nitrogen rich ‘fertilizer’. They are actually beneficial to home gardening.
Of course, this does not necessarily mean that we ‘want’ them in our gardens. They really do look scary. This one is only about four inches long, but larger ones can get nearly twice as long! Some rats are not that big! Their bright yellow color, which is typically brighter yellow than this one is, is an expression of defiance. They only stay out of the way because they prefer damp and shady situations. Otherwise, they do not care if we see them.
Contrary to popular belief, they do not really taste like chicken. They taste more like the blandest of escargot. If not purged with corn meal and partly deslimed with vinegar, they can taste much worse. Even if the myth about the slime on their undersides containing more vitamin C than a bucket of oranges is true, it does not justify licking them. It is more degrading to you than it is to them; and no one needs that much vitamin C anyway!
As revolting as they are, they are not completely disdainful. It is fun to point them out to friends who have never seen them before, but only after they have gotten close enough to be startled, and jump away as if being chased by something that can actually move . . . quickly. Banana slug races are also fun.

Pantry

P90324Birds do some odd things. They seem to know what they are doing. The odd things that they do make sense. Nonetheless, some of what they do out there is just plain odd.
I mean, who was the first woodpecker who thought it might be a good idea to bang his head against a tree? What prompted the first sapsucker woodpecker to bore through bark of a healthy tree to lap up the sap from the cambium within? Why do other woodpeckers bore into rotting dead trees for grubs, and to make nests? The different types of woodpeckers seem to be related, but they are after different things. Did one just accidentally bore into the wrong sort of tree, and discover something more than what was expected?
Various species of woodpeckers are surprisingly omnivorous. Those who eat termites also eat other insects, nuts, acorns, berries and fruit. Sapsuckers also eat insects, berries, small nuts and such.
Many woodpeckers are social, and live in significant communities. Those who bore into dead tree tops to nest prefer to live where there are several dead trees tops to bore into, probably because too many nests in the same tree would compromise the structural integrity of the already decaying trunk. Besides, if they all lived in the same dead tree, they would all become homeless at the same time if the tree fell down.
Colonies of some species of woodpecker store nuts or acorns in rotting dead trees. They can store quite a bit in each tree because the holes bored to hold the individual nuts and acorns are not as big as the holes that they nest in, so do not compromise the integrity of the trees as much. Besides, it is easier to defend many acorns and nuts in a few trees than it is to defend them in many trees. Squirrels who want the same acorns and nuts are very sneaky!
The problem with putting all their eggs in the same basket, or all their acorns in a few trees, is that when one of such trees falls, it takes a significant portion of their stored nuts and acorns with it. Once on the ground, it is impossible for them to defend it from squirrels and rats.
This particular rotting ponderosa pine fell and needed to be removed from the roadway that it fell onto before woodpeckers could recover the acorns that they so dutifully stored in it. The precision with which the holes were carved to custom fit each acorn that they hold is impressive. The woodpeckers who did this really know how to manage their pantry.

Wild Turkey

P90224This is a relatively new development. The first few arrived here only two years ago. By last year, a few more arrived to make a significant herd that split into two smaller herds. Now these two smaller herds are quite significant. If they continue to proliferate as they have been, they will become more of a problem. They are already shredding flowers and colorful berries that are within their reach, and digging up flexible irrigation hoses.
They are not really wild turkeys, since they are not native here. They are actually feral turkeys that escaped into the wild and naturalized. They may have moved in from surrounding areas, or they may have escaped locally. Turkeys have been roaming parts of Scott’s Valley and my neighborhood in the Los Gatos Hills for a few years. Much larger herds roam other regions, particularly the Diablo Ranges east of the San Francisco Bay Area.
My former neighbor knew how to select the good ones. They all look the same to me. When they showed up on the road at my home, I could just chase them to the neighbor’s home, where he would take what we wanted. They were so stupid that he probably could have grabbed the good ones rather than shoot them. It is amazing that they could survive in the wild so stupidly.
I suppose that it was good that they survived to keep the meat fresh. However, I am now concerned about how these exotic and prolific birds might affect the ecosystem. Are they taking food from other wildlife? Are they dispersing seeds of the fruits they eat differently from other birds who eat them and fly away to other areas? Are they providing too much food for predators, and allowing them to proliferate more than they should naturally?P90224+

Corndog Orchard

P80728KUrban sprawl replaced the formerly vast orchards of the Santa Clara Valley a long time ago. Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine that they were ever here. Apricots, prunes, cherries, almonds, walnuts and all that the region was once famous for are all now rare commodities.
Only a few minor corndog orchards remain. They survive only because they are not actual orchards that are grown on land that is useful for something else, but instead grow wild on otherwise useless marshland and along the few creeks that flow through the region. Some marshland that could not be converted into usable space was developed into parks, and within many such parks, the remaining marshlands are protected as native habitat.
Vasona Lake County Park and the small Vasona Lake within were once a large marshy area that sustained what was probably the biggest corndog orchard within the Santa Clara Valley. It is at the transition where the Los Gatos Creek flows swiftly from the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and then slows as it reaches its flat alluvial plain within the Santa Clara Valley. Although not nearly as abundant as they were prior to development, corndogs still inhabit the banks of Los Gatos Creek and Vasona Lake. We know them as cattails.
Because they are a native species that had historically been more common locally than anywhere else nearby, and because of their common name that is coincidentally associated with cats, cattails had been nominated to be the official Town Flower of Los Gatos (which is Spanish for The Cats). There are not many natives that would be as appropriate, and the only comparably culturally significant flowers would be those of the old fruit orchards, such as apricot blossoms. No other flower is both native and so culturally significant.

The Birds And The Bees

80613thumbThere is so much more to gardening than mere horticulture. There is so much more to horticulture than mere plant life. Plants get eaten by insects and animals, and also take advantage of insects and animals for pollination and dispersion of seed. Some of us who enjoy gardening also like to attract some types of animals and insects to our gardens because they are nice to have around.

The birds and the bees, as well as butterflies, squirrels, lizards, snakes and other small animals add color, motion and vibrancy to the garden. Destructive animals like gophers, rats and deer, and cumbersomely big animals like moose and bears, are not so popular. Mosquitoes and flies are the sorts of insects that we would like to repel with aromatic herbs. Some but not all are welcome.

‘Pollinator’ flowers have become a fad recently, not only to attract bees, but also to provide them with more of what some believe they are lacking out in the wild. There is certainly nothing wrong with attracting bees. Those who are enslaved in honey production are best! Children learn as much about nature from bees as from other wildlife. The soft hum of big herds of bees is quite nice.

Beyond that, we should think outside the box of our home gardens. The unnatural disruption of local ecology can not be repaired by throwing more unnatural resources at it. Honeybees who were imported to make honey are not native, but displaced and interbred with natives enough to interfere with their natural pollinating behavior, as well as their resistance and susceptibility to disease.

Almost all plants in urban as well as agricultural areas were imported too. They were perpetuated until they dominated the localized ecosystems. There is now much more flora in places like the Los Angeles Basin and the Santa Clara Valley than there has ever been before! There is no shortage of bloom for bees. In fact, there is an overabundance of bloom potentially distracting bees from pollinating native specie who need them. Invasive exotic eucalypti might enjoy their popularity at the expense of California poppy.

Pine

P80429Redwood Glen was the ‘camp’ that we all went to in the sixth grade. It was probably our equivalent of what is now known as ‘nature camp’. For most of us, our experience at Redwood Glen was the longest time we had ever been away from our homes and families. We arrived on Monday morning, and returned home on Friday afternoon. It was something that we looked forward to with great anticipation for the few years prior.

While there, we studied nature in a variety of ways. We found animal tracks and made plaster casts of them. We went hiking through a variety of ecosystems, and went on a night hike. We searched for fossils; and I found and still have the most complete fossil of half of a fish. We studied ecology and native flora and fauna. We identified redwoods, Douglas firs, ponderosa pines, bays, live oaks, bigleaf maples and box elders. We collected a few edible herbaceous plants and made our own salads with them. The three leaves that I collected to distinguish leaves with pinnate, palmate and parallel veins was a project in one of our botanical workshops. I described it yesterday at: https://tonytomeo.wordpress.com/2018/04/28/pinnate-leaves/

For my class, that was back in November of 1978. In 1995, when I went to grow rhododendrons nearby, I became a neighbor to Redwood Glen. I always knew where it was, but never had any excuse to stop by; until now. Some of my colleagues who manage the facilities and landscapes at a nearby conference center toured the site. I was right there with them.

Some of the buildings were new since 1978. Some had been renovated. The big dining room had not changed. What was most excellent about touring the facility was finding the same old cabin I stayed in back in 1978. I think that it was simply designated as Cabin 4 back then, but is now known as ‘PINE’.

Except for a modern roof and windows, Pine looks just like it did when I was there three decades ago. The middle front door was for the counselors who stayed in their own tiny room between the two wings to the left and right. I stayed in the wing on the right. My bunk was the lower of the two just inside the front door to the right. I so wanted to see the interior of Pine, but the door was locked.

I rarely want to see places that I remember so fondly. I prefer to remember them as they were rather than find that they had been renovated disgracefully, or demolished and replaced with something new. I sort of expected to find something new here. What an excellent surprise!P80429+

More Misplaced ‘Environmentalism’

P80214Nature has been getting by just fine for a very long time before humans started to interfere. It has survived all sorts of catastrophes literally longer than anyone can remember. It was here when dinosaurs were exterminated by a meteorite or comet or vulcanism or whatever catastrophic yet natural event finished them off. In fact, Nature was here for all of the few mass extinction events of the very distant past, including the Permian – Triassic Extinction, which only about 4% of life on earth survived! We all know that β€œIt’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.”, or serve her margarine that tastes like real butter; but we should also realize that it is rather presumptuous to think that we can be more efficient with correcting all environmental damage. Very often, it is best to let nature do what nature does best.

For example, forest fires are perfectly natural. They are more frequent now because of human activity; but they are less extensive, likewise because of human activity. Humans contain fires that would naturally burn much larger areas. Preventing vegetation from burning allows it to accumulate and become more combustible. If deprived of fire long enough, vegetation within ecosystems that rely on fire as part of their natural restorative cycle eventually deteriorates, or become so combustible that when it does burn, its seed gets incinerated.

Many box elders along the San Lorenzo River have been dying for the past many years. We have not identified the pathogen associated with the necrosis, but it is probably a naturally occurring pathogen that is an intricate component to the natural ecosystem, (although after last winter, an inordinate number of box elders succumbed at the same time). Regardless, trees succumbed and fell. A significant void developed within the collective forest canopy on the Eastern Bank, near the Graham Hill Road Bridge. ‘Environmentalists’ wanted to ‘help’.

These new trees in the picture were planted within the area vacated by a few deceased box elders. The closer of the two is a coast live oak. The other is a bay laurel. There are a few more beyond those in the picture. Native vegetation that developed ‘naturally’ but happened to be in the way was removed to facilitate this project. To prevent native deer from damaging the trees as deer would do ‘naturally’ the trees were imprisoned in small cylindrical cages. Because the trees did not grow there and disperse their roots ‘naturally’, they must be irrigated until they can survive on what they get ‘naturally’ from rain.

The irony of all this is that native vegetation that was growing ‘naturally’ was removed to install ‘unnatural’ nursery grown trees intended to restore a ‘natural’ ecosystem that was already doing what it does ‘naturally’. Although native, the coast live oak ‘naturally’ prefers to avoid riparian environments such as this. It ‘naturally’ prefers a more exposed and drier situation. Bay laurel trees live there ‘naturally’, which is why a few had already started to grow from seed. These seedlings would not have needed to be caged or watered, but were removed to plant the new trees. Yes, bay laurels that would have survived on their own were replaced by bay laurels that must be watered and protected. Willows and cottonwoods that were quite prolific in the area were likewise removed, although many more remain lower on the bank of the River.

In the background, in the upper right corner of the picture, the bright yellow flowers of an Acacia dealbata can be seen. It is a seriously invasive exotic species that displaces native vegetation. Although it is impossible to exterminate the species, this individual tree that has been dispersing profuse seed into the San Lorenzo River for many years, really should be removed. Even if nothing were to be installed to replace it, the removal would benefit the ecosystem. Nature would have no problem finding native trees that would like to occupy that spot.