issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills
somewhat east of Placerville, Califnornia, USA

April 10, 2005

You have to cross a big canyon to get where I am now. Most of the time the narrow road into and out of the canyon has a very steep to vertical wall on one side and a very steep to vertical drop-off on the other. You should see the lupines and poppies growing along that road and its slopes right now.

There'll be a broad stroke of reddish-purple lupines intermingled with golden-yellow poppies, and then there's the rugged, gray granite outcrops, the big canyon down below, and the distant peaks. It's a classic scene, like Spanish Moss dangling from big oaks in Mississippi, like mists rising from an Appalachian hollow in Kentucky. When you see it, something clicks in your brain that says "This is perfect for right here, for right now, and what an honor for me to be part of it."

You can see a mingling of California Poppies and lupines, with more poppies than lupines, at www.terragalleria.com/california/picture.usca9220.html.

I read that 60 to 80 species of lupine (pronounced LOOP'n here, unlike my LOO-pine) occur in California. I don't have a comprehensive botany manual here to figure out exactly which species is so pretty along our twisty road but I'm guessing it's the Bush Lupine, LUPINUS ALBIFRONS. The poppies are California Poppies, the state flower, ESCHSCHOLTZIA CALIFORNICA.


When I was here last September I sowed several crops in the garden, visualizing my returning this spring to a lushness burgeoning with mustard greens, spinach, lettuce and the like. Well, upon my return last week my mustard and turnip greens already had bolted and flowered, a critter had eaten my spinach, the collards were stunted, the lettuce, carrots and parsnips were half-stunted, and most other things didn't even come up. It'll take me a while to learn how to garden here. It's always like that: Move to a new part of the world and gardening becomes a whole new ballgame.

Despite the failure of my greens crops, I haven't missed them much. One reason is because of a certain wild, native plant growing in abundance here as a weed in the garden, the lawn, along roads and in openings in the woods. It's all over the place.

People here call it Miner's Lettuce but I've also seen it referred to as Indian Lettuce and Winter Purslane. It's CLAYTONIA PERFOLIATA of the Purslane Family, the same family in which is found rock-garden Portulaca and the little eastern-North America wildflower with white flower-petals adorned with pink veins, the Spring Beauty. In fact, Miner's Lettuce is in the same genus as Spring Beauty. You can see Miner's Lettuce at www.uni-essen.de/botanik/Exkursionen/Claytonia_perfoliata.jpg.

If you view that page, notice the unusual feature that makes Miner's Lettuce so easy to identify: The stem bearing its cluster of white-to-pinkish flowers grows up through the middle of what appears to be a large, circular leaf (actually two leaves grown together).

The wonderful thing about Miner's Lettuce is that it's edible raw. My friends told me it made a good salad ingredient so I filled a big bowl with it, snipped in some radishes and added a few Rosemary leaves, made a nice dressing, and by golly I enjoyed it so much that when I finished it I made an even larger bowl full.

I wouldn't say that Miner's Lettuce has a great taste. Rather, it has little taste at all. It's just a pleasant-textured, green succulence that takes on your seasonings' flavors. One of its most important features as a wild salad ingredient is that, unlike so many wild greens, it often grows in pure stands and you can pick its leaves, stems and flowers. Often you can pick a big mess in just a minute or so.

Miner's Lettuce is native from British Columbia south through this area to Mexico, but it's been introduced into other countries whose citizens know a good salad ingredient when they taste it. Unfortunately, most plants here now are going to seed. However, by the time they've faded completely I hope my newly planted beds of mustard and turnip greens will take their place.


Possibly awed by my appetite for wild greens, on Thursday my hosts told me about Soap Plant, CHLOROGALUM POMERIDIANUM, famed in these parts as providing an edible bulb. A member of the Lily Family, at this time of year nothing of it is visible except its tuft of slender, green leaves about two feet long and an inch wide, with characteristic wavy margins. Later in the year the plant will send up a flower stalk bearing numerous, small, white flowers with purplish veins.

To me this seemed such an exotic wildflower that I hesitated to dig up a bulb to see how it tasted. However, my friends said it grew everywhere, including right next to their house, so it wasn't long until a bulb was dug up. You can see my hand holding it at www.backyardnature.net/simple/soapplt1.jpg.

In that picture you'll see two of the bulb's important features. First, it's fairly large. Second, it absolutely bristles with coarse, dark-brown, hair-like filaments. In fact, books say that the local Indians used those fibers for making brushes.

My friend Diana roasted the bulb on the coals of her wood stove and I have to say that among all the wild bulbs I've ever tasted this is one of the best. Unseasoned it tasted remarkably like white potatoes fried in onion. It tastes so good that I'm astonished that the plant wasn't eaten to extinction by Indians and later-day gold miners who once swarmed through this area.


Everything here is up or down, and steeply so -- including my jogging road. For a long time I've been running on level ground and I must have developed the habit not only of letting my mind wander as my body ran on auto-pilot, but also of lifting my feet no higher than needed. Consequently, the first two mornings I jogged here I tripped, collapsing spectacularly onto my belly. Now as I run I try my best to lift my feet and pay attention, though old habits are hard to break.

Maybe my new heightened state of awareness accounts for why the flowering Madrones strike me as so pretty right now. Occasionally their smooth, rusty-red branches arch over my jogging road bearing evergreen, magnolia-like leaves and grapefruit-size clusters of dozens of white, globular flowers 1/4-inch across. Madrones, ARBUTUS MENZIESII, are members of the same family, the Heath Family, as the azaleas blooming so gorgeously back in Mississippi. You can see a flowering Madrone branch at www.dereila.ca/dereilaimages/Arbutus.jpg.

The blossoms' corollas, once the flowers are pollinated, fall onto the ground, and in certain spots along my running road the ground is snowy with them. The corollas leave behind on the branches tiny green flower-pistils that during upcoming months will slowly mature into spherical, 1/2-inch across, warty, red-orange fruits.

The cast-off corollas are worth looking at closely. They are shaped like certain old-time lampshades -- the globular ones with scalloped fringes. Botanists describe them as "urn-shaped," though most of us have forgotten what an urn looks like. The technical name for such flower shapes is "urceolate."


The other day some friends and I hiked to the bottom of the canyon next to the house and we came upon a bright orange, seven-inch-long California Newt, TARICHA TOROSA ssp SIERRAE, crossing our pine-needle- strewn trail down the steep canyon wall. Rain was about to break upon us and that's probably why the newt was out. The books say it spends dry periods under moist forest litter and inside rodent burrows.

Seeing this species was especially exciting for me because it's endemic just to California -- found no other place on Earth. In fact, California Newts are separable into two subspecies. One lives only along the state's coast while the other -- ours -- is found only in the Sierra Nevada foothills up to 7,000 feet in elevation. You can see a picture of this species taken by my friends earlier this spring when an individual appeared right outside their glass door at www.backyardnature.net/sal&newt.htm.

Male California Newts are known to enter the water in March or April in preparation for mating. Once they've assumed an aquatic life their skin becomes smooth and puffy, and their tails compress into a finlike shape to aid in swimming.

How is a newt different from a lizard and other lizardy things?

First of all, lizards are reptiles with scaly skin, claws and external ear-openings, while newts are amphibians, thus with scaleless skin, feet without claws, and heads without ear-holes. Remembering that amphibians evolved before reptiles, one way of describing the situation is to say that salamanders and newts are so primitive that the first of their kind appeared before Mother Nature had come up with the newfangled concepts of scales, claws and ear-holes.

In North America we have two main amphibian groups, or orders: One of those orders embraces frogs and toads while the other includes seven families of salamanders and salamander-like creatures. One of those families is the Newt Family. One feature separating members of the Newt Family from regular salamanders is that the skin of newts isn't slimy like a salamander's, but rather rough-textured.


You may recall that during recent newsletters issued from Pantepec in Chiapas, southern Mexico, I mentioned the local Zoque-speaking Indians passing by our little hut sometimes pushing homemade wheelbarrows.

My traveling partner Vladimir has sent me a picture of one of those wheelbarrows. You can see it at www.backyardnature.net/temp/wheelbrw.jpg.


Yesterday, Saturday, for an hour or so I walked around the house, upslope and downslope, compiling the following birdlist:

1: Dark-eyed Junco - ±15 on ground among lupines
2: Anna's Hummingbird -
visiting Madrone flowers
3: Red-shouldered Hawk -
3 screaming, circling in sky
4: House Finch -
±7 foraging among oak catkins
5: Turkey Vulture -
soaring in sky
6: Orange-crowned Warbler -
singing among oak catkins
7: Stellar's Jay -
fussing from high in oak
8: American Robin -
earthworming in a grassy area
9: Western Scrub Jay -
spooked from brush
10: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker -
watching me from oak
11: Acorn Woodpecker -
±5 noisily socializing
12: Black-headed Grosbeak -
silently watching from oak

To me the main feature of the list is that it's so small. If you look over my "official lists" compiled at this time in Mississippi during recent years, you'll see that they are much longer. Probably the main reason for the above list's brevity is that here we have fewer habitats -- no fields, no marshes, no streams -- just oak-pine woodland on a steep slope, with a few openings.

Also, I suspect that here we're a bit too far east of the Pacific Flyway. Finally, I suspect that the Mississippi Flyway is North America's most spectacular in terms of diversity of species, especially because of the large number of woodwarblers nesting in our eastern forests and migrating along the Mississippi Flyway. If you'll thumb through your bird fieldguide looking at woodwarbler distribution maps, you'll see many more species with eastern than western distributions.

For me the star in the above list is the Black-headed Grosbeak, a summer resident just arrived here. He's a large, chunky songbird with a massive beak made for cracking seeds and nuts. When I saw him he was sitting perfectly still, not making a sound, watching me from near the top of an oak. His big, round, honey-colored chest glowed in the morning light, and he looked like nothing more than a chubby gnome or elf perched almost out of sight, giving me the once-over.

You can see a Black-headed Grosbeak at www.christinevadai.com/BHGR.jpg.


On Tuesday I hiked upslope to my friend Buck's house where we'd agreed to meet and use his truck to haul horse manure from a neighbor's place to our garden. I hadn't seen Buck since last October but it didn't surprise me that when we met he just sort of nodded, didn't gush all over me, or even offer to shake my hand.

Buck is an old fellow who has worked hard all his life and accomplished a good deal. He sees things with a level eye and doesn't care much more about social graces and clean work-britches than I do. When I was a farm kid in Kentucky back in the 50s my impression was that you only shook hands with preachers and insurance salesmen. All other people you looked in the eye and you could see what they thought of you, and you knew they could see what you thought of them, so what was needed beyond that? Hand-shaking was superfluous city- stuff, and if we'd known about the kind of embracing and face-kissing some people do nowadays we would have regarded it as perverse.

Buck's truck was a 1928 Model AA Ford. You could start it with a hand crank if the battery got low. When we were climbing back upslope with our manure the truck stopped and I thought we were out of gas because the gauge registered zero. However, Buck rocked the engine and saw the gas-needle bob up and down, so he figured if there was enough gas for the float inside the tank to bob up and down we weren't out. He blew on the fuel line to unclog whatever he suspected to be stuck there, and then the truck started with no problems.

The admirable thing about the old Ford is that it's so simple that its problems can be diagnosed and usually they can be fixed without a lot of fuss. Using such an unpretentious vehicle, you're more in control of your life. This same dynamic functions at all levels of living. The more simple your life and the more self- sufficient you are, the less vulnerable you are to a host of potential aggravations and dangers. When I see new cars in which you can't even open the windows by turning a handle, I just want to spit.

How pretty it was to haul manure with my friend Buck. What a noble thing we accomplished that day. With what savoir faire Buck blew on the fuel line, and with what grace we pulled the whole thing off!

You can see what an elegant crew Buck, the truck and I made that day -- I'm the one holding a fistful of dock greens collected from next to the manure pile -- here.


Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,