Archive for California

LESSONS FROM ANOTHER CALIFORNIA

We Californians like to think of our environment as unique – a place like nowhere else. We certainly live that way. Taking lessons from elsewhere is seldom part of our game plan.

 

But, truth be told, there are other places that share much with the Golden State. Of these, nowhere else resembles California so closely as the central portion of Chile, a nation on the western coast of South America.

 

Much unites the two places that seem so far apart on the map. Both fall in the mid-thirties latitude range, meaning they have temperate climates, and both adjoin relatively cold oceans, a bit a geography that means they share Mediterranean climates with dry summers and relatively wet winters.  

 

Both have coastal mountains, an interior valley exceptionally well suited for irrigation agriculture, and then, farther inland, high mountains that collect snow and provide summer runoff. We have the Sierra Nevada; Chileans enjoy their visits to the Andes.

 

As one might expect, when the two places have similar geography and climate they will also share similar plant life. In our mountains, we have giant sequoias; Chileans visit their forests of alerce trees, which grow to be almost as large as our Big Trees. Along the coast and in the foothills of the Andes, Chilean also live near extensive tracts of brushland. We apply the name chaparral to such environments; Chileans talk of their “matarral” country.

 

Now the similarities become even closer. Chilean matarral, just like California chaparral, burns easily during the dry season. And Chilean cities, just like our California communities, have invaded the matarral brushlands. Additionally, Chile is now in the fifth year of a prolonged drought.

 

I think you can see where this is going. Right now, it’s early fall in the southern hemisphere, and just as California annually has big chaparral fires in October and November, so does Chile suffer the same sort of events in April and May.

 

In recent weeks, Central Chile has seen intense matarral fires that have burned into the city of Valparaiso, destroyed more than a thousand homes and killed at least a dozen persons.

 

Very much like Santa Barbara here in California, Valparaiso is a coastal city built up against steep chaparral (matarral) covered hills. And just like in Santa Barbara, dry fall winds sometimes blow down from the mountains toward the beaches and all the development there. Such winds push fires towards the ocean and the city neighborhoods that adjoin it.

 

All this has been huge news in Chile, but only a footnote here. The fires in Valparaiso earlier this month were the worst ever seen in that fire-prone seaside city, which is saying something. At the height of the conflagration, about 5,000 fire-fighters were deployed, a response equal to the peak response here to last summer’s  Rim Fire near Yosemite.

 

Among those who pay attention to the natural world, there’s an old saying that “nature always bats last.” When we human invade chaparral environments, it is with the knowledge that whatever we build there eventually will burn up.  This is not just a possibility; given enough time it is inevitable.

 

Here in California, we relearn this lesson, or at least we ought to relearn this lesson, each fall. Tragically, our Chilean neighbors have just been reminded of the same inevitable natural cycle. Mediterranean-climate brushlands want to burn toward the end of the dry season. Later this year, threatening footage of similar fires here will be filling our California TV screens.

 

And, before I close, there’s yet another similarity we ought to note. Like California, Chile is subject to periodic strong earthquakes. On April 1st, northern Chile experienced an 8.2 quake, a shake as strong as the one that so severely damaged northern California in 1906. Fortunately, this recent event occurred in a lightly populated desert region.  However, in August 1906, four months after the famous San Francisco temblor, a seismic event of similar power essentially leveled Valparaiso; several thousand people died.

 

Why do I bring all this up?  Recent events in Chile remind us of the inevitability of similar events in California.  Drought, fire, earthquakes – all are inevitable here as well. In response, we can either work together to be prepared or we can ignore the risk and wait for the inevitable. The choice, as always, is ours.

 

© Wm. Tweed

WOLVES IN CALIFORNIA

The recent entry of a wild male wolf into far northern California has started a conversation about the future of these controversial animals in California. Surprisingly, however, we know little about the history of wolves in California.  What role did the animals play in wild California? The answer is far from obvious.

According to the California Department of Fish and Game, the last confirmed record of a wild wolf in California occurred in July 1924 when a government trapper caught and killed an old and emaciated male near the tiny Lassen County town of Litchfield. The carcass if the unfortunate animal was studied and identified as a “Cascades Mountain wolf” that had wandered into the state from either Oregon or Nevada.

Interestingly, the lone wolf that entered California on December 27, 2011, seems to have followed a similar pattern. We know its route because it has a radio beacon on it. It entered California from southern Oregon and began exploring Modoc and Lassen counties, apparently searching for a mate. Several weeks ago it passed within a few dozen miles of Litchfield.

Pushing back a little further into the historical record, the path becomes harder to discern. What does seem clear is that wolves were rare or even locally absent in most of California as early as the middle nineteenth century.  The native peoples of California had stories that included wolves, but actual records of the animals are quite rare. Some biologists speculate that Spanish and Mexican ranchers wiped wolves out in many areas, but since these same ranchers had very little luck controlling grizzly bear populations, I find this suggestion doubtful.

Army explorer John C. Fremont reported seeing wolves in the Central Valley in 1847, and the railroad survey study of 1857 reported the animals as living over much of California but being much less common than coyotes. Thomas Jefferson Mayfield, who lived among the Indians of the lower Kings River in the 1850s, recorded that those people at least had a word for wolf – “e-way-it.”  After that, the local valley record offers little except, surprisingly, for a wolf killed while raiding a chicken coop near Woodlake in 1962. A careful study of that animal, however, suggests that it was not a North American wolf at all and instead an animal of Asian descent that was apparently an escaped pet.

In the mountains, the record is equally elusive.  Guy Hopping, long-time national park ranger, reported seeing and hearing a wolf in the Roaring River country of what is now Kings Canyon National Park in the summer of 1912.  His contemporary Walter Fry, early ranger at Sequoia National Park, recorded the killing of an old wolf at Wolverton in September 1908.  Those are the last records for the local mountains.

From this, and other equally scattered records, the biological mainstream  has come to believe that, (1) at least in historical times, wolves lived naturally in some numbers in northeastern California and the northern Sierra,  (2) that some ranged further south in the Sierra, and (3) that wolves may have been present earlier in lowland California but that they had largely disappeared from most of those areas by the middle nineteenth century.

What limited the wolf in California?  No clear answer to this question presents itself, but some biologists propose that the wolf’s ideal role as a high-level predator in California was largely filled by the California grizzly bear, an animal that was present in large numbers through the lowland valleys of California until about the time of the California Gold Rush.

But there is one more twist to this story. Today, at least in the genetic sense, Tulare County is full of wolves — the population runs into the hundreds of thousands. This is because all our pet dogs are direct descendants of wild wolves. Each of our domestic canines has within it all the genetic material necessary to make a wild wolf. Our dogs are not wolves only because we have bred them selectively to suppress most of their predatory instincts and to follow our lead (at least most of the time).

As for the return of wild wolves to Tulare County, the event may occur someday but is far from imminent.  The only wild wolf now in the state is not only hundreds of miles away but also without a mate. For the foreseeable future, we will have to be content with the domesticated wolves with which we share our homes.

© Wm. Tweed

A LESSON FROM LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY

 One of the great pleasures of books is that they can take you to distant worlds, places you can hardly imagine.  I’ve been on such a journey recently.

The book isn’t on any best-sellers list, and isn’t likely to be. It first came out, in fact, in 1921 and was last updated in 1940. Moreover, it was published in New Zealand.

So what am I reading?  The subject of my interest has been a 460-age tome entitled Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station. Sounds fascinating, don’t you think?  Well, oddly enough, it is.

Written by English-born Herbert Guthrie-Smith, Tutira is the story of the author and a piece of land on New Zealand’s North Island.  Guthrie-Smith arrived at Tutira, a property that we would call a sheep ranch in California and spent the next sixty years there. What makes this interesting is that for this very long period he paid very, very close attention to what was going on around him in the natural world.

Biologically, New Zealand is one of the most isolated major landmasses on earth.  Because it was cut off from the rest of the world for so long (something like 80 million years), it developed very distinctive plant and animal life.  Before the arrival of human beings about a thousand years ago, the area featured creatures like seven-foot-tall flightless birds. Except for bats, the islands had no mammals at all.

Into this peculiar place came first Polynesian peoples (again, about a thousand years ago) and then Europeans, who began to settle in New Zealand in the early years of the 19th century.

The Polynesians, who we know today as Maori, brought with them pigs and small rodents. They also ate all the large flightless birds. But that was nothing compared to what the Europeans brought to the islands beginning in the 1830s.

Most of New Zealand’s mid-nineteenth century immigrants came from the British Isles, and as they settled in to make new lives for themselves in the far, temperate reaches of  South Pacific, they missed their native land. The result was an urge to remake New Zealand into a place as much like Britain as possible.

In the 1860s and 1870s, the colonists even banded together to form “acclimatization societies,” organizations whose sole purpose was to import European plants and animals and let them loose in New Zealand. At the same time, the growing sheep industry set out to replace the island’s native plants with more familiar European grasses and herbs, plants that domestic sheep knew how to eat.

This is where Guthrie-Smith comes in.  The man, to put it mildly, was fascinated with the changes going around him and began taking very careful notes.  He burned native fern forests, planted Scottish grasses, and documented the results. He noted when and how other European plants arrived. He did the same for birds and animals, and he did it decade after decade.

It is Guthrie-Smith’s perseverance that makes his book stand out. To be honest, we humans are not very good at watching nature over long periods of time and documenting the changes.  We are just too impatient, and today, who spends sixty years studying one place?

What ultimately is significant about Tutira is that everything that happened to New Zealand also happened here in California. We started out with very different plant, of course, but also imported many species and let them loose. This is why, for example, all our foothill lands are now clothed with annual grasses from the eastern Mediterranean region.
 
Many of the birds that are so common in our cities and gardens today, species like house sparrows and starlings, are the same European birds that were released in New Zealand. They have prospered in both places.

Sadly, I know of no book that provides for California the kind of detailed log of biological change that Guthrie-Smith developed for New Zealand. All we can do is read his account and speculate about when and how the same things happened here.

Understanding change is the greatest of all the challenges a naturalist faces.  The natural world endlessly evolves, and we humans have a long record of intensifying the pace of change. Just look at how we have remade the San Joaquin Valley in the past two hundred years.

If you’d like to browse a bit in Gurthrie-Smith’s world, the University of Washington Press now has a paperback edition of Tutira available for readers in the United States.  If you are looking for a winter read to take you far away from home, this book just might be it.

© Wm. Tweed

Historic People And Places: FRANÇOIS MATTHES

To study the high country of Sequoia and Kings Canyon is inevitably to ponder the effects of glaciers, for the huge Pleistocene ice sheets that covered the Sierra had a profound impact on the landscape. Over time many have studied the resulting questions, but one man stands pre-eminent in this group, Dutch-born geologist François Matthes. 

Matthes (born 1874) began his education by studying engineering in Germany but then was recruited by an American professor and shifted his studies in 1891 to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Following his graduation there in 1895, Matthes took a position in the city engineering department at Rutland, Vermont, where he perfected his mapping skills. A year later, he joined the United States Geological Survey as a topographer.  

By 1898, he was in charge of a survey party mapping the Bighorn Mountains of Montana. There, in the evenings, he drafted an additional product, a report detailing how the terrain he was mapping had been shaped by glacial ice. He had found the specialized field of study to which he would return over and over again. 

In 1900 and 1901, he continued his glacial studies as he produced the first detailed topographic maps of what later became Glacier National Park. Then he turned his attention to mapping the Grand Canyon of Arizona. Matthes had now established himself as one of the Geological Survey’s premiere field men when it came to mapping wilderness terrain, and further assignments saw him map both Yosemite and Mt. Rainier. His charts of these places, and particularly his maps of Yosemite Valley and the heart of the Grand Canyon, are still considered classics. 

In 1913, the Geological Survey, recognizing Matthes’s analytical skills, shifted him from the Topographic Branch to the Geological Branch and sent him back to the Sierra Nevada to study glacial erosion. Although other projects would periodically interrupt this work, it remained his primary focus for the remainder of his life. 

Matthes became a well-known fixture at Yosemite and the reigning expert on the valley’s morphological evolution. This work culminated in the 1930 publication of what remains the single most influential work ever published on the glacial geology of Sierra: Matthes’s Geologic History of Yosemite Valley, USGS Professional Paper 160. 

Meanwhile, even as he continued to study the Yosemite region, Matthes broadened his work to look at the southern Sierra. Repeatedly during the 1920s and 1930s Matthes organized backcountry field trips into the Sequoia and Kings Canyon regions, including a series of geologically themed over-flights in 1936, apparently the first of their kind over the high country of the southern Sierra. 

Out of this work emerged a number of publications that still define our understanding of the southern Sierra.  Matthes had largely completed work on these publications before he retired from the USGS in 1947 (after 51 years of service!), but publication of these important works lagged after his death in 1948. 

Finally, in 1956, from the University of California Press, came Sequoia National Park: A Geological Album. Diverging spectacularly from his earlier technical work, this book relied primarily on photographs to tell the Southern Sierra’s geological story to laymen. Even today, it is a fascinating read.

And in 1965, almost twenty years after Matthes had retired, the USGS issued Professional Paper 540-A, Glacial Reconnaissance of Sequoia National Park, California. Here, at last, was the detailed fruit of all the fieldwork Matthes had done in the region – detailed maps of glacial activity. 

Today, the remnant glaciers on shady side of the ridge that forms the northernmost boundary of Kings Canyon National Park are known as the Matthes Glaciers and climbers have unofficially named a “Matthes Peak” (elevation 12,989+) along the park’s boundary.  This is one unofficial name, at least, that deserves to be made permanent. 

© Wm. Tweed