Common Ground

Splashes of bright, even garish, yellow punctuated the chaparral on the hillside. The color was an anomaly. It was from a completely different palette than that of the chamise, buck brush, and manzanita. French broom provided this brilliant jolt. Broom is not a California native. It has not learned how to fit in, to relax California-style and blend comfortably with the lives of the plants and animals that surround it. It is fierce, vigorous, rampant and raucous. Nothing can stop it.

Pampas grass bursts up in fountains of foamy seed heads along shores and inland valleys. It washes in waves up coastal hills shaping the land. It replaces the plants once blanketing the slopes leaving little to eat for those creatures whose larders it has overrun. Its name declares its place of origin.

Star thistle covers hillsides where cattle graze, outlines back roads, fills lots left vacant. Thorns bristle like spikes on a mace around flowers of bright clear yellow. This nomad from Europe is foreign and friendless. It cannot be approached or trod upon lightly.

These waywards have their animal counterparts, creatures from a distant soil—bullfrogs, starlings, the red fox. They disrupt the natural order of things as have all intruders since time began. They devour land and destroy forage providing nothing in return. They have no predators and can move swiftly, and so the upstarts thrive.

But what is a native? To be a California native, and brag about it, for humankind means simply to have been born here. Most California natives these days are not Native Americans even though they are native to America by birth. To be a Native American one’s ancestors had to have been part of the human migration that came from Asia when it was connected, or nearly so, to Alaska by a bridge of land.

Native or not, we are all here to stay. There is no way to get rid of any of us–the thistle, the bull frog–or me, the native Iowan with ancestors from Scotland and Wales. Surely time will have its way with all of us, and we will settle into middle age. No longer the aggressive newcomer, we will have found, or been put in, our place.

The eucalypts, those adaptable Australians so favored a century ago, have come on such times. Having been here for decades, they have lived in our midst long enough to have become tolerated, if not comfortable, neighbors living peacefully like fugitives in a foreign land. But they could not hide out here forever. At last Australian psyllids, small bugs that fly from tree to tree and suck eucalyptus sap for refreshment, have found them. What happenstance reunited these Americanized eucalypts with their now-foreign foe? A chance reunion, no doubt.

Life is aggressive, not passive. It looks out for its own. Native–the word itself–permits an opposite, an intruder, a foreigner, or foe. Will a time come when we, as native Earthlings, find we have more common ground than we know?

Birds of A Feather

Cormorant with outspread wings on a rock in the lake

All nature takes the plunge into Spring

I felt like a cat stretching out in the sunlight as I walked along the creek on a brilliant March day. When fall turns to winter my whole being curls inward for warmth. Both mind and body contract, protecting the soft inner core of my being against an increasingly alien environment. I am content to stay with the cat not far from the fire. The months of cool–sometimes cold–damp days had narrowed my vision. But this first burst of spring erupting from the cold pool of days made me unfold more rapidly than a snowflake melts in a sunbeam.

I was not the only one on this balmy Sunday to come alive, throw open the doors and the windows, head for the sunlight. There were hikers, bikers, roller-bladers, shoppers, gardeners, runners, and lovers everywhere. Nine and ten-year olds played softball in the park. Volleyball nets were raised. Smoke from a few backyard barbecues curled skyward.

These early days of first spring distill the sometimes subtle, but delicious, flavors the season offers. Spring is a time to relax the body and unfurl the spirit. As daylight and warmth beckons, anything seems possible. I can believe I will have time to plant the garden, paint the house, take weekend trips to the city and the country, wash the car, go to the park, visit oft-neglected friends, hang up the hammock, nap in the sun. The list is endless.

Everywhere the impossible seemed possible. A poppy had taken root in a crack in the concrete of the bridge spanning the creek. It grew more vigorously than it might in a well-tended garden. The creek, funneling the most recent rains along its rocky bed, was alive with aerial displays of birds and insects intoxicated by the sunlight. On a large rock a cormorant perched putting on a show that clearly mirrored my feeling.

The bird, obviously a regular (I could tell by the wash of white on the large boulder it claimed) dove into the torrent, popped up a few yards downstream and flew back to the sunny rock. A shimmy traveled down its body from head to tail sending droplets of water flying in all directions. Two or three more shakes and a waggle loosened its feathers. As it stood soaking up sun, it slowly turned from sleek to plump, gradually settling on the rock until it stood without twitching a feather. After several minutes this reverie ended. With a shift in position it turned toward the sun and lifted its wings. And there it stood, fully outstretched, motionless, sharing a day we all understood.

Spring may be my favorite season. But I know I am fickle. Give me some months and I’ll trade it for summer. And maybe, in time, I’ll yet long for winter. But cats, cormorants, poppies, lovers, children and I know when days grow long and sun shines bright, the time has come to stretch out for the light.

Seeing Green

Image of mountain trail

Soon to be on the beaten path?

The Irish know a thing or two about marketing. First there is green. It appears even in food–like cabbage and beer. There are evocative logos–leprechauns, shamrocks, harps. At this time of the year wearin’ o’ the green becomes obligatory even for those whose roots are far removed from the “old sod”.

All of this ballyhoo comes at an appropriate time of the year. Our very own hills wear Irish green for a few brief months. Since many of us have willfully chosen to join our Irish friends in their celebration of all things green, why not extend this clever marketing to a celebration our own “new sod”?

Wherever you are in the South Bay, if you raise your eyes slightly, you will see voluptuous green hills–hills that, for the most part, remain unaltered by human hands. This is partly because it is more difficult to build on a slope than flat land. But it is largely due to the vision of many who have sought for years to preserve this lovely sight for anyone who wishes to gaze on it.

The recent acquisition of the Kirk Ranch, adjacent to Alum Rock Park, by the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority and the Trust for Public Lands adds another piece to the jigsaw puzzle of hillside properties, in hands both public and private, that ring the Bay.

A Bay Area Ridge Trail encompassing four hundred miles, nine counties, seventy-five parks, that completely circles San Francisco Bay has been in the works for many years. In earlier years the Department of the Interior provided startup money for this ambitious dream. More recently many local groups have collaborated in continuing the project. Two hundred twenty miles of trails have been completed so far.

What a gigantic endeavor this is! Some of the land has been purchased at fair market value by private donation. Some is public land, parks and open space. Some of the trail is on right-of-way agreed to by private owners. And the trail itself, sometimes wrested from seemingly impassable terrain, has been built or maintained by a cross-section of humanity that defies demographic definition.

Clark Smith, a former YSI Board member, currently serves on the Ridge Trail Council. As one of those committed to preserving the green for all to enjoy, he serves as vice-chair of the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority.  He is but one of hundreds who have spent years bringing the hills to the people and this Saturday he will take the people to the hills. At noon on Saturday, March 18th, anyone who wishes can take a hike with him along Penitencia Creek on a part of the Trail that will eventually link Alum Rock Park to Coyote Hellyer Park along Coyote Creek.

Even if you aren’t a Bailey or a Walsh, even if you never have and never will quaff a green brew or wear a shamrock, consider the green, green hills of home. They are yours. Wearin’ o’ the green never looked as good as it does on our very own Bay Area hills.

To hike the hills this Saturday, meet at the Visitors’ Center in Alum Rock Park at noon for a moderate hike. Bring lunch, water, and comfortable walking shoes. Rain cancels. For more information call Clark Smith (408) 294-6008.

Spring Starts Small

Two round spots of lichen growing on a rock

If you blink, you might miss them—lichens show a sign of Spring

Sometime in January a hint of green appeared on the brown plastic doormat leading into the house. The moisture and cool air had started something growing in this otherwise inhospitable environment. The mat covered a concrete porch several steps above the ground. Kept dry by a roof and on the sheltered side of the house, it hardly seemed a fertile spot for abundant plant life.

A few weeks later visible but miniscule plants began punctuating the now-bright green film with tiny first leaves barely clearing the surface of the mat. This rectangle began to take on the appearance of a well-tended garden albeit on a tiny scale.

My curiosity piqued, I turned to other specimens in the miniature world I rarely notice and would never know without my glasses. I began to notice lichens and mushrooms, insects and algae. There are mildews and mosses, tadpoles and larvae everywhere. Some of this life will grow to become recognizable plants and animals–frogs, dragonflies, chanterelles, or poppies. But some will remain small–even microscopic–in a part of the world where I rarely venture.

For many years I have been watching the slow growth of a lichen colony on a sheer rock wall along the road I travel daily. I first noticed it as a gray-white quarter-sized patch that glowed with eerie fluorescence at night at exactly the spot where my headlights landed as I rounded a bend in the road. I have heard that lichens can be used as an indicator of the presence or absence of air pollution. They disappear totally in areas of heavy pollution. So I have adopted this colony as my own personal monitor of the quality of the air I breathe.

It always heartens me when I spy it. And, I am happy to report it has been growing, although at such a rate I would never know if I hadn’t been monitoring it for decades. It has achieved a diameter of almost four inches in the course of twenty years. During cool moist winter it plumps up, swells ever so slightly, and ends up a little larger in the spring than it was in the fall, somehow binding itself firmly to this uncompromising surface. In summer it dries out and looks like a scaly scab on the iron-red rock.

Other mosses and lichens, some orange and chartreuse, decorate the brown skeletal frames of the trees that are dripping with rain. The tree on the patio is now clad in mossy elegance on the side away from the sun. This velvet robe in rich green points north as clearly as a compass. The regal raiment turns shabby and brown in the summer, more burlap than velvet, waiting to be revived with the first rains of winter.

These tiny life forms are as distant as the stars from my world in both size and conception. They too speak of space imagined but not understood. But in them the richness of spring is apparent. Ephemeral or enduring, their size only hints at the changes to come.

Deer Friends

I first noticed it about three years ago—the horse down the road had company. The horse belonged to neighbors who kept it in a meadow which occupied a flat at the top of the ridge. A young deer stood munching contently in a far corner having its fill of the tender spring grass. The meadow was partially ringed with four courses of sagging barbed wire, a fence that sufficed to keep the horse from wandering but was hardly a barrier to a nimble deer.

Deer sharing a meadow with a horse

Making friends and just horsing around.

The house faced into the meadow and secured one side of the enclosure. There was no doubt that the horse was part of the family. In the early morning I would see it, its two front hooves resting on the stoop, waiting quietly for the door to open. I was into this familiar setting that the young deer wandered.

This singular sight was repeated many times in the next few months when I happened by at the right hour. That hour seemed to be when full sunlight warmed the glade. Normally the deer of the mountain come out in late twilight and bolt at the sight of a car. But this deer, fully exposed in the daylight, scarcely raised its head as I sailed by. Was the protection of the fence—or the horse—enough to overcome the inborn caution of a skittish deer?

Day by day the deer inched closer to the horse. Eventually the doe, now full grown and about half the size of the horse, could be seen grazing head to head with it, each apparently fully at ease in the other’s company.

The following year the horse was joined by more deer, some not yet fully grown. Were these the offspring of the doe who first took liberties in the meadow? By the third year the place was alive with deer—and the single horse. A sense of peace pervaded the meadow. No longer did the horse stand impatiently on the stoop waiting for company.

History is filled with such tales of unlikely alliances and in congruent pictures. It seems we animals share more than we sometimes realize. Was there a bond or simply a tolerance that developed between the horse and the deer? Or was there indifference in the face of abundance?

And then there is the aquatic tank at YSI in Vasona Park where the Western pond turtle frequently perches on top of the bullfrog for hours on end. The bullfrog, faster, larger and with powerful leg muscles, could certainly avoid this subservient posture or even hurl the turtle off if it chose. What is there in it for the turtle to ride atop the frog in this fashion? Why does the bullfrog comply? What force creates such cozy familiarity?

There is a lot that goes on in this world we know very little about. As for teaching tolerance, maybe there is a thing or two we could learn from others in our kingdom. A little horse sense never hurt anyone.

Between Two Worlds

At almost the exact moment the sun slipped behind the hills leaving a brilliant salmon colored sky, the full moon rose over the shadowy marshes of the Palo Alto Baylands on the first evening of autumn. On opposite sides of my universe these two brilliant luminaries played off each other revealing more about this piece of earth midway between the domains of the ocean and of the air than might meet the eye at high noon or at midnight. Across San Francisquito Creek lights in kitchens came on one by one. A group gathered for a backyard barbecue. The sound of a Scott Joplin tune, its title now forgotten, floated in the air. Crickets sang as birds went silent.

As the sky grew darker, shapes close at hand grew dimmer. Geese clacked in the distance, gained volume, and appeared as a lopsided V formation on the horizon. They came closer and closer, flew directly overhead, and then disappeared into the southeastern sky. In the hills to the west and across the Bay to the east, distant lights began to twinkle and shimmer. A plane approached for a landing.

Civilization reluctantly relinquished its foothold. The illuminated green of a golf course fairway turned abruptly into a darkening tangle of marsh grass; an airport runway outlined in red lights cleanly cut a flat slice off the top of the jumbled and uneven bog. Shadowy forms of manzanita and coyote brush slowly yielded to tall reeds and rushes where the Bay turned solid ground to swamp.

A family strolled with their dog along a dirt path; another sat on the bank of a levee eating a late supper, kids laughing and playing in the bright darkness. Young people chatted as they listened to rock on the radio, the sound evaporating into the stillness. People walked, friends talked, runners passed each other, mothers pushed babies in strollers.

Why had so many of us left the light and comfort of our homes to come to the water’s edge to watch the moon? There we were, people of two worlds, unwilling and unable to forsake either. Who would forsake the world of the industrial, the technological, the medical, the comfort revolution? Not I. And who would give up the mountains, the oceans, the wildlife, the trees? So here we were, trying to reconcile these two worlds, able to see both in their best light.

Maybe they are not separate worlds after all. On a night like this their edges blur. It seems quite possible, even necessary, to live with a foot in each and an eye for both.

The sky grew darker, the moon rose higher, the distant lights glistened. A couple walked across the footbridge over the creek back to the kitchens, the lights, and the music. The rest of us remained, lost in the moment—suspended between summer and winter, the sun and moon, the air and water, the music and silence, civilization and the swamp.

The Palo Alto Baylands are east of Highway 101 at the Oregon Expressway/Embarcadero exit in Palo Alto.