JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills
somewhat east of Placerville, Califnornia, USA

May 29, 2005

YERBA SANTA/ BLESSED HERB
A conspicuous "weed" flowering along roadsides right now is one with funnel-shaped, lavender flowers nearly ¾-inch long, dock-like leaves, and a woody, branched stem averaging about four to seven feet high. The local name is Yerba Santa, meaning "Blessed Herb." It's ERIODICTYON CALIFORNICUM, a native member of the Waterleaf or Phacelia Family, the Hydrophyllaceae. Some nice pictures of it are at www.coestatepark.com/eriodictyon_californicum.htm

If you crush the plant's leaves between your fingers you'll find them a bit sticky and aromatic with medicinal overtones. The stickiness explains other names the plant sometimes goes by -- Gum Bush and Tarweed. The medicine-like odor cues us to why the species is so "blessed," and sometimes goes by the other names of Consumptive's Weed and Mountain Balm.

Yerba Santa is regarded as good medicine for respiratory problems. A brew of its leaves serves as an expectorant that loosens and removes mucus from breathing passages. Poultices can be made to relieve soreness from bruises and sprains and, back before Band-Aids were popular, sticky Yerba Santa leaves were stuck on wounds to seal them.

Apparently in the old days people also smoked the leaves like tobacco. Around here, in gold-mining territory, people called the plant Miner's Tobacco.

Who would expect that such a common roadside weed could be such a generous neighbor?

*****

RACERS BUT NOT BLACK RACERS
This week my friends' cats left a mauled and dying snake by the door. It was a slightly pinkish cream color with no patterning except for greenish- yellow-tinged sides. It was a beautiful, slender snake about 15 inches long and I'd never seen anything like it. A bit of work with my Audubon fieldguide -- noting that the snake bore 17 rows of smooth scales and a divided anal plate -- convinced me that it was a Racer, the subspecies known as the Western Yellow-bellied Racer, COLUBER CONSTRICTOR ssp. MORMON. You can see several of this subspecies' variations, with none looking just like ours, at www.californiaherps.com/snakes/pages/c.mormon.html

Both in Kentucky and Mississippi I've seen a lot of racers and they were always black -- Black Racers. I just hadn't realized that the single racer species is distributed from the East Coast to the West (though absent from much of the West and far North), and that several of its intergrading subspecies are anything but black.

For example, in west-central Louisiana and eastern Texas there's a light tan subspecies; from North Dakota to northern Arkansas there's one that's pale blue to olive-green to gray or brown with a cream to bright yellow belly; Mexico has one that's mostly green to yellow.

These are gorgeous snakes and when you consider that they are non-poisonous, streak away as you approach them and eat mainly insects, frogs, lizards, other snakes, small rodents and birds, you just have to consider them marvelous beings, almost too pretty for us to deserve.

*****

BRODIAEAS BUT NOT BRODIAEAS
Nowadays there's a strong feeling in the air that the hot dry season finally has arrived. Already grassy slopes are developing straw-colored blotches and I suspect that wildflower season is coming to a close. However, there's still a delightful spectrum of wildflowers blooming, a typical semi-open slope being nearly as floriferous as an Alpine meadow in August, and almost as pretty.

Lupines and clovers account for a lot of the gaudiness but here and there vivid outbreaks of other species occur. Along my jogging trail two fairly common ones are clearly members of the Lily Family -- six-lobed blossoms on slender stems (scapes), leaves arising from the base, the flowers' ovaries "superior." Though one of these Lily-Family members is bright yellow and the other is dark purple, their blossom structure is very similar, and older books refer to them both as Brodiaeas. Brodiaea is a genus in the Lily Family.

The Yellow one, Golden Brodiaea, is TRITELEIA IXIOIDES, its flowers bearing curious crown-like appendages behind each stamen, and each "petal" having a dark green midrib. Its picture can be seen here.

The purple one, variously called Wild Hyacinth, Forktooth Ookow, Blue Dicks, Congested Snakelily and other confusing names, is DICHELOSTEMMA CONGESTUM. You can see its densely clustered blossoms here.  

So, both of these species are sometimes known by the English name of Brodiaea, but neither now belongs to the genus Brodiaea. They used to be in that genus, but modern taxonomic thought has repositioned them.

Notice the domain names of the above two links -- pacificbulbsociety.org and californianativebulbs.com Out here an enormous amount of creative energy has been invested in gathering and presenting information on such civilized topics as gardening, nature study and environmental concerns.

How different from Mississippi where often I couldn't identify common wildflowers because of a lack of good fieldguides covering that area. On the other hand, back there I had the fun of being something of a pioneer naturalist, while here it seems every community is home to one or more very nature-savvy folks.

*****

SLATE
Fred and Diana have a friend who paints miniatures on small slabs of slate but she lives in a slateless part of Utah. Therefore, a few days ago we made a trip up into the Sugar Pine zone, to Slate Mountain. We drove only about five miles but the trip was nearly entirely uphill and along unpaved national- forest roads so Slate Mountain looked, smelled and felt a lot different from here.

Now, if you take a layer of clay such as that found in a mudflat or on an ocean floor at the mouth of a big river, and for millions of years submit that clay to very high pressure and maybe even add some heat, the resulting product will be the rock type known as shale. Then if for more millions of years you add more pressure and/or expose the shale to very high temperatures, the shale will metamorphose to the rock type known as slate. Therefore, the slate in Slate Mountain started out as loose clay or mud and, remembering last week's story of how this part of California rose from the Pacific's floor and fused with the future North American continent, probably that clay was once mud on the Pacific Ocean's floor.

(This mud --> shale --> slate story isn't unusual. Sand lithifies to sandstone, and sandstone metamorphoses into quartzite. Similarly, calcium- rich goo on an ocean's floor hardens into limestone, and limestone metamorphoses into marble. Deposits of rounded pebbles harden into conglomerate.)

As no sharp dividing line separates clay from sand - - it's all a matter of particle size with the smaller particles being clay and the larger sand -- there's no precise boundary between shale and sandstone, and slate and quartzite. There's a lot of shaley sandstone, and sandy shale.

If you metamorphose slate more than usual it becomes phyllite, which can be greenish, grayish or reddish instead of "slate colored." I think some of what we collected that day on Slate Mountain could be called phyllite because often its fracture plane was wavy instead of flat and much of it was grayish. I photographed some of our slate and you can see it at www.backyardnature.net/g/slate.jpg  

*****

CHIEF LEO'S WEEK OF FIGHTING WILDFIRES
The little community I've moved into is part of a volunteer-fire district with a resident chief who is a pretty good writer. Each month his writing is featured in the local community newsletter.

Last summer Chief Leo and a couple of local volunteers were enlisted to fight the major wildfires in southern California. When I read Chief Leo's account of his adventure I asked if I could place it at my new "Plants & Animals of the Sierra Madre Foothills" site. After all, other than the impact of people, nothing affects the plants and animals of this area more than the extreme dryness of the summer dry season, and the resulting fires.

If you like good "eye-witness" accounts of disasters and can admire a description of a fire coming down a street saying that "its texture was that of water being released as in a torrent from a collapsed dam," you'll be tickled with Chief Leo's story at www.backyardnature.net/sierras/chiefleo.htm

*****

MOUNTAIN MISERY FIRE
The other day I had my own little fire-emergency here. I was burning some scrub that earlier had been cleared from around the house. After the brush pile was reduced to a heap of ashes I went around stomping everyplace that was still smoking, and then went to work elsewhere.

About 15 minutes later Fred noticed some smoke and had me go look. The fire had restarted, moved through the grass and now was racing through a thicket of knee-high Mountain Misery, CHAMAEBATIA FOLIOLOSA, a wiry, ferny-leafed, woody-stemmed member of the Rose Family. You can see it at www.backyardnature.net/sierras/m-misery.jpg

Mountain Misery earns the miserable part of its name from the fact that it forms very dense, pure thickets with interlaced branches, and its leaves are so resiny that when you walk through them you end up with big wads of gummy leaves and stems on your feet. On a hot, sunny day the plants emit a not-unpleasant but somewhat medicinal odor maybe between that of creosote and sage. You might guess that the resin burns like crazy. In fact, that day my Mountain Misery was burning as if it had been doused with kerosene.

I'd kept a fire-hoe handy just in case something like that happened and soon had the fire under control. However, the entire Mountain Misery thicket had disappeared leaving nothing but black, smooth ground. No traces were left of its woody stems and the heat had been so intense that surely no seeds from the previous year had survived. I just stood and wondered why a plant would evolve in this fire- prone environment actually encouraging conflagrations with its abundant highly inflammable resins.

Now I know the answer to that question. For, now the Mountain Misery's underground roots are robustly resprouting emerald-green, ferny shoots, and no other species in the fire's vicinity is doing that. In short, Mountain Misery created a fire hotter than normal "knowing" that it itself would survive, even as other species would not. Thus, in the long run, it makes sense for Mountain Misery to encourage its own above-ground, total destruction by fire, because when the burnt area revegetates, Mountain Misery will have an advantage over other species. No wonder you find such large, pure areas of nothing but Mountain Misery.

*****

TERRORISM & MOUNTAIN MISERY
It's interesting to think of similar instances of such self-destructive strategies among humans. Consider the mind-set of suicidal terrorists who attack society's basic institutions. They know that once society is destroyed it'll be that segment of humanity unquestioningly and unthinkingly following the strong, inflexible leader -- the fundamentalists with their religious leaders, the right wing with their dictators -- who'll most effectively accumulate resources, consolidate wealth, and assume dominance over others. The resulting monolithic, mind-controlled societies will be like pure thickets of Mountain Misery on these fire-prone slopes.

Of course, in the long run, Mother Nature never favors monocultures. After all, Mountain Misery remains just one plant among many here, not growing at all in healthily complex, deeply shaded forests. And history shows that the kinds of societies fundamentalists and right-wingers strive for never last for long. The general flow of evolution at all levels of reality and ever since the Big Bang has been toward ever-greater diversity and sophisticated liberality. That's the Creator's Nature.

Birds blossom from lumbering dinosaurs, and the descendents of those who spent lives in regimented toil and hoarding often turn to philanthropy. In any conflict, fascists dominate in early battles, but overall wars are won by those harmonizing their efforts with the liberal, ever-evolving flow of nature.

*****

BUCK'S TRUCK & A SATELLITE DISH
Several readers wrote saying how they admired my friend Buck's 1928 Model AA Ford, featured in the April 10th Newsletter. Here's another story:

Last Sunday morning I was invited upslope to a neighbor's home to dig up and dismantle their 10-ft- wide satellite dish, so I could convert it to a solar oven as I did in Mississippi. You can see my old dish at www.backyardnature.net/j/solardsh.htm

Once I had the thing apart I called Buck and in a few minutes he was there with the ol' Ford and some friends to help muscle the dish onto the truck's bed.

Now, most folks around here strike me as yuppie escapees from San Francisco and Sacramento (not my friends and Buck, who have deep roots here, Buck being the oldest original citizen) so it was one of those somnolent, glossy Sunday mornings with the occasional odor of an expensive coffee brew wafting through the pines. It happens that a 1928 Model AA Ford backfires a good bit, and when you're going downhill it backfires every few seconds. Moreover, if the truth be told, I suspect Buck of twiddling the knobs to make the popping even more impressive.

As the fellows descended the slope I followed along on my bike so I got to see how many people rushed onto their front porches to find out who was shooting a shotgun. Dogs barked, children ran waving their arms, and grownups just stared goggle-eyed at the old truck with its 10-ft satellite dish.

Fred, who is a photography nut, got his camera ready when he heard the backfires approaching. You can see the resulting picture, which shows me gasping for breath after peddling up a very steep slope, here

In that picture you can also see how nice and green things still are here. A good bet is that within a couple of weeks all the grass and wildflowers will be brown as the dry season gets in gear. Those blue flowers on the right of the truck are lupines who have blossomed much longer this season because of the unusual rain and chilly weather.

*****

DUSK AT THE CANYON'S EDGE
Twice each day this spot at the canyon's edge is charmed with a sort of magic.

The first occasion is at dawn. Then the magic's main agent is wind. I've explained how at dawn the cold air upslope pours westward and downward into the canyon, streaming around us, shaking the Ponderosas and filling the air with swooshing sounds.

It's a chilly wind. It keeps me from having my campfires, even of sitting down to look around. Mornings are electric and not at all at ease with themselves, basically the opposite of all those mornings of recent Mississippi-hermit years with their sparkling dew, drifting smoke, the easy beams of sunlight smiling into the smoke, the steamy cornbread graced with garlic, greens and peppers.

Breakfast here is half a cup of raw oatmeal in a blue metal Mexican cup, sometimes with cold water, sometimes with hot, just eat it to fuel the body, keep the body moving lest it chill, then do computer work until the air warms, the wind lays, and I can get into the garden to work and warm myself in the sunlight.

Yet, these edgy mornings are indeed magic and from the corners of eyes squinted against the wind and low-slanting sunlight I observe each one in detail, for this is something new to me. I see sun-glaze on wind-bent grass-stems, and wind-buffeted goldfinches winging through turbulence from pine top to pine top, and I love these mornings on the same principle that one can love the shock of cold water after a sauna. You need a certain long-term, jaded, philosopher's insight to think and feel like this, and I guess I have it.

The second magical moment comes each day at dusk. It's calm, the western sky is pink and the ridge across the canyon and the silent Ponderosas around me are silhouettes and the air is warm and generous, smelling of pine and the slope's resiny, sun-warmed bushes, especially those Mountain Miseries.

But, that magic is everyman's magic, too predictable and wholesale to be talked about. Something there is within me that feeds on the mornings. It's that uneasy morning magic that spins me edgewise and hungry into the rest of each of my days.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net