September 26, 2004
AT A PERCH IN THE SIERRA NEVADA FOOTHILLS
For about three weeks I'm staying with friends in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento, California. Though peaks in the Sierra Nevada range rise well over 10,000 feet, here we're only at around 2,600. Still, that's enough to raise us above the deserty Sacramento Valley just to the west - to set us among tall trees instead of the scrub lower down, and the cold alpine meadows higher up.
You can get a feeling for where I am by viewing this: www.jpl.nasa.gov/images/earth/usa/cal_mosaic_browse.jpg. That's an enhanced NASA image of California. The elongate, dark green blob in the middle shaped like a thick "\" is the Central Valley. Instead of green it should be straw-colored, for the Central Valley is very dry -- except for its large irrigated areas. On the map, to the east of the Central Valley, the rugged- looking, gray-brown area is the Sierra Nevada range. The image clearly shows deep canyons cutting through yellow-colored foothills, feeding into the Central Valley. One of those canyons lies right outside my window as I type this.
Compared to the biological richness I've described in southwestern Mississippi, here species diversity is fairly low. However, to find new species all you have to do is to hike a few minutes upslope or downslope. The local landscape here is profoundly fractured with those very deep, steep-walled canyons. Of course the plants and animals on a ridge are different from those on a slope, or along a canyon's stream, and a northern slope's biota is different from a southern one's. There's diversity here, but you have to work to see it.
Back at Natchez sometimes I bemoaned not having real rocks to look at. Geology there consists of gravel and sand usually buried beneath silty, Ice-Age-wind- deposited loess. Here granite is exposed everywhere, sometimes accompanied by outcrops of slate. Sometimes you find white quartz rocks lying on the ground and you're always tempted to pick them up to look for glistening specks of gold, for here we're in the heart of the old gold-mining district. There's an abandoned goldmine not far from where I'm sitting now.
The vast majority of native plant and animal species here are absent east of the Mississippi River. Though I've already met a lot of them in Mexico's Western Sierra Madres, which are basically extensions of western North America's mountain ranges, I still find species new to me every day and for a naturalist life doesn't get much better than that.
TALL TREES AROUND MY TRAILER
What a coincidence that my friends are able to offer me a trailer almost exactly like the one I left back in Mississippi! However, while I could stand next to my Mississippi trailer and point out a dozen or so big- tree species right around me, around this California trailer there are only two big-tree species.
Ponderosa Pine, or Yellow Pine, PINUS PONDEROSA (www.fw.vt.edu/dendro/dendrology/syllabus/pponderosa.htm) is the most abundant tall tree. Young Ponderosas are very similar to the East's Loblollies, but mature trees are slender instead of spreading, plus their trunks are bright reddish-orange. Their bark breaks into large, irregular plates bearing papery scales shaped like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. A picture shows just this at www.botanik.uni-bonn.de/conifers/pi/pin/ponderosa2.jpg.
The other abundant tall tree is the California Black Oak, just called Black Oak here, QUERCUS KELLOGGII (http://ww1.clunet.edu/wf/mtn/flowers/fwr-471.htm). This tree's acorns are wonderful, for their cream- colored kernels are edible not only for many kinds of wildlife but also for humans. A ten-minute walk downslope brings us to a granite rock into which Indians carved two holes for grinding acorns into flour. A similar grinding rock is shown at www.capitolmuseum.ca.gov/virtualtours/park/html/stop11/. Other small- and medium-size trees and bushes grow in the trailer's vicinity, but these two species are the only two becoming large trees.
Here are the three most conspicuous birds in our trees:
Acorn Woodpeckers, MELANERPES FORMICIVORUS www.birding.com/572aw.asp
Scrub Jays, APHELOCOMA CALIFORNICA www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i4810id.html
Steller's Jays, CYANOCITTA STELLERI www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i4780id.html
Each of these species eats acorns and stores them for the winter. Therefore, right now the big Black Oaks around us are busy with all three species. Since each species can be considered as rather noisy show-offs and they often travel in small flocks, you can imagine the shows they sometimes put on.
The most interesting, as well as the most conspicuous, of the above birds is the Acorn Woodpecker. Right now all I'm seeing the species do is to wander about in small flocks gathering acorns. When a bird finally chooses one, it flies away to store it, often wedging it in fissures or behind loose bark-plates on tall, dead pine trunks.
Despite their innocent appearance, I can't forget that among all bird species this one practices some of the kinkiest social behavior. Some Acorn Woodpeckers carry on monogamous relationships among themselves, but others practice "cooperative polygyny." In these polygynous relationships there may be 1-3 egg-laying females who mate with 1-7 males, who compete with one another for the right to mate with one or more of the females. In groupings with more than one female breeder, the female "cobreeders" lay their eggs in the same nest cavity. Each female lays about 5 eggs, but clutches with more than one laying female can have up to 17 eggs.
All is not peaceful in such relationships. Nesting females compete with one another to the point that they regularly destroy the eggs laid by their cobreeders. Once the females have decided among themselves who has which laying rights, then egg destruction stops. Nor are males at ease with this setup. Sometimes you see a male rush in and try to stop a copulating pair. Once the nest is in place, things calm down and both males and females incubate the eggs. Nonbreeding individuals also may belong to such groupings and help raise the young.
You just have to wonder why the Creator has produced a bird species in which moments of "marital conflict" appear to be inevitable. Of course, a bird's jealousy and anguish wouldn't be anything like that of a human's. Still, the fact that females break one another's eggs and that males may try to break up one another's matings is evidence of serious mental disturbance among them.
In the end, it looks like it's the same old story: The Creator really has a thing for experimentation and diversity, even when it means heartaches and ulcers for us creations.
On my first full day here my friends invited me to go blackberry picking with them. At first this struck me as strange, since back in Mississippi our blackberries mature in late May and June. But then I remembered that here the higher in elevation you go, the cooler it gets, and the farther back you go in the season. In fact, our trip to the blackberry patch was upslope, to about 3800 feet.
I have never enjoyed such wonderful blackberry picking! First of all, apparently because of the coolness, there were no chiggers/redbugs to deal with. Second, this was a blackberry species unlike any I've seen in the East. Its leaves were larger and its stems scrambled over shrubs and climbed into trees up to 20 feet high! This was an invasive blackberry, RUBUS DISCOLOR, a picture of which is available at http://ww1.clunet.edu/wf/chap/flowers/fwr-989.htm.
Though to reach the blackberry patch we'd climbed in elevation only about 1200 feet, this was enough to change the forest's character. Most striking was the appearance of 5-needled Sugar Pines, PINUS LAMBERTIANA, really magnificent trees growing to 180 feet high and producing cones 18 inches long and longer -- the longest cones of any American conifer. Cones littered the ground beneath the trees and we just had to stop and pick some up. You can see someone holding a cone by clicking here.
The wind here blows on a schedule just about opposite that of southern Mississippi. Here on most days the strongest wind comes at dawn, and it can be a frisky, chilly one.
What happens is that, during the night, the higher elevations, blanketed by thinner, drier air than the lowlands, reradiate heat into the sky faster than the lower elevations, and thus cool more. Since cold air is heavier than warm air, high-elevation cold air drains downslope, reaching a peak at dawn. Because we're right at the edge of a big canyon the wind just washes around us. I like lying in my sleeping bag hearing it gush through the big Ponderosas.
We're on the Sierra Nevada's western slope, facing the deserty Central Valley and the Pacific Ocean beyond. The Central Valley down below, which shows as a gigantic luminescence beyond the next ridge to the west at night, is so arid because eastward flowing air off the Pacific drops most of its moisture load crossing the Coast Ranges on California's western border. This aridity extends to the western foot of the Sierra Nevadas, just below us.
However, as you go upslope, rainfall increases and the vegetation grows lusher. Precipitation increases 2 to 4 inches for each 300-foot rise, reaching a maximum at about 5000-6000 feet. (The temperature also decreases about 1º F for each 300 feet of rise.) Since we're at about 2600 feet, we're still a bit on the dry side here, and the most luxuriant forest lies above us.
STACKING RICKS OF WOOD
While here I'm glad to do chores, and one of those chores is to stack wood that's been cut and split.
"You can stack three ricks right there," my friend said, pointing to a spot in the garage about eight feet long and deep. "Stack them high as your head."
This was the first time in my life anyone had used that word "rick" while talking to me, and before that moment I hadn't been able to visualize what a rick was.
The dictionary's main defintion for rick is "a painful muscle spasm especially in the neck or back." I'd call that a "crick," not a rick, but I guess the dictionary writer wasn't a Kentuckian or Mississippian. At least the lexicographers admit that a rick also is a stacked pile of something, especially of hay.
You might guess that such a short, hard-sounding word would have deep Anglo-Saxon roots, and that's the case. "Rick" derives from Old English "hreac," which referred to a stack of hay or straw. It even goes back much further than that, to "Khraukaz" in Proto-Germanic, the hypothetical prehistoric ancestor of all Germanic languages, including English. "Khraukaz" evolved not only into our "rick" but also into the Vikings' Old Norse "hraukr," Frisian "reak" and Dutch "rook." It's thought that maybe our English "ridge" derives from the same root.
My friends do pretty well following that "Middle Path" I'm always talking about. They have modern appliances, including a satellite hookup for their computer, but most meals are cooked on an old Monarch wood stove, burning those ricks of wood I'm stacking.
ON CHANGING THE TEXTURES OF LIFE
Yesterday my Natchez friend Karen emailed me a picture of a big Praying Mantis on the Giant Ragweed outside the barn door where I've stayed the last year. For me the transfixing feature was less the mantis than the lush, green herbage in the background. Seeing how densely the trees and bushes grew together there I could just feel the region's habitual heavy heat and humidity, necessary to support such luxuriance.
Here in the Sierra Nevada foothills the forest has a certain bluish tinge and is much more open and airy, not to mention cooler, and also there's that incessant breeze.
Cultural conditions are similarly unlike. For instance, I don't personally know a single other vegetarian east of the Mississippi, but from what I've seen so far in this area about a quarter of my neighbors are not meat- eaters. Here liberals dominate the political scene to about the same degree as social conservatives do in Mississippi.
I wouldn't judge either location or cultural ambiance as being superior to the other. However, it's clear that the texture of each world profoundly colors the feelings I have about myself and the life I lead when I'm in it. In Mississippi I feel like a public curiosity at best, always struggling against local dominant paradigms as well as mosquitoes, ticks, horseflies, chiggers, mildew, and suffocating humidity and heat. In this current world, much in contrast, it's easy to feel part of the community, even cozy. And just breathing the cool, pine-scented, dry air on an inevitably sunny, breezy day exhilarates me.
However, I do not automatically prefer having like-minded neighbors and an airy forest around me. For one thing, I know that too much comfort makes you flabby, both physically and intellectually. People like myself shine most when we are challenged, even attacked.
No matter how the current reshuffling of my life works out, I do believe that occasionally it's good to stir up things in one's life, to abandon old routines, and take a fresh look at what you are, where you are, and how you are. There's something magical, almost mystical, about simply putting your body in a new place, looking around, and imagining new potential scenarios.