2012-09-10

CAP'N CRUNCH

There is a pleasing crunch as you walk (or run) over a late summer meadow in Upper Ojai. It is the sun-fried Erodium giving way to your footfall. This long hot summer has given new meaning to 'dried to a crisp'. Despite the few drops of rain from the last gasp of tropical storm John not much is stirring in these chaparral clearings (rarely are these native meadows - more usually they are erstwhile or currently grazed areas, or land graded, at one time or another, for development). The grasses (native bunch, exotic oats and bromes) are a peroxide blonde, the bed of Erodium beneath - the low-lights - the color of dark marmalade.

Sometimes, in these dry grassy meadows, there is a drift of vinegar weed, with its amazing smell and delicate blue flowers; often sprinklings of turkey mullein and tarweed. Then there's an occasional stand of narrow leaved milkweed (Asclepias fasicularis). Most of the winter weeds are now turned to straw skeletons with only the star thistle sometimes still in bloom. There are other faint signs of exotic life: tumble weed appears out of nowhere and horehound is emerging at the margins.

California owes its official nickname (since 1968) of The Golden State to both the discovery of gold in 1848 at Sutter's Mill and the fields of golden poppies that suggested their adoption as the State flower. The fields of mustard that in many areas have now supplanted the poppies have also, conveniently, a golden cast when in bloom. But suffused in crystalline sunshine through this long, intense summer, vast areas of Southern California now have a platinum glint, where the dried stalks of annual weeds create a straw matrix drained of almost all color. The miracle of the deep and dusty greens of the mature chaparral hillsides that often flank these dry meadows is never more in evidence; this ancient adapted ecosystem seems even more remarkable set off against the arriviste, European grasses annually felled by our seasonal warm weather.

The conversion of native plant communities in California to exotic annual grasslands is one of the most dramatic examples of habitat alteration associated with exotic plant invasion (Heady 1988). The hills and valleys of coastal California were once dominated by native perennial bunch grasses and sage scrubland (the not-quite-chaparral to which our local disturbed soils, given half a chance, revert). In the endemic ecosystem, native plants (forbs) grew between the perennial grasses and shrubs. The introduction of European annual grasses and weeds together with intense grazing that began in the late eighteenth century has converted these habitats into the golden fields, interspersed with the occasional stands of live-oaks, that now dominate much of the summer landscape and which are regarded, in the popular imagination, as iconically Southern Californian.

It is the dominant exotic forb, Erodium, that gives the crunch to our dry meadows. Hidden in its rusty leaf litter (that effectively hampers the germination of natives), are its corkscrew seeds that wait for the Fall rains before swelling, twitching, and given the right lay of the land, spiralling down into the soil to take root: by mid-winter the meadows will be carpeted with this 'scissor grass'. The native species (and I, as inveterate weeder) are powerless before it: by the time the locals get around to germinating mid-winter, the Erodium has fully taken hold.

The heat of this summer has brought to an end the carpet of deerweed that in the past few years has spread across the graded 'bowl' behind the house. In Cool: Very Cool, written at the end of July 2011, I noted that the deerweed was aflame - turned a bright orange after a season of brilliant green with a frosting of yellow blossoms. It mostly made it through last winter, although we culled it in the spring, but now it's done: dead. Nothing too remarkable here, it's a short-lived native; but having now removed it from the slope, tiny bunch grasses, under-storey survivors from our initial hydro-seeding, now pepper the ground. By next summer we should be able to look north towards the Topatopas and see in the foreground something resembling a native meadow.

Isn't it romantic? Another step in the construction of what we must now rate as a reactionary, pre-historical landscape. I am not alone in such endeavors. The National Park Service carefully manicures Yosemite (if that is the word for felling 100 foot redwoods) to preserve historically significant views. In an attempt to freeze time at around the moment when Carleton Watkins photographed El Capitain in the early 1880's agents of the Yosemite Scenic Vista Management Plan keep busy removing conifers that obstruct views of the massive lithic face. It is gardening on a grand scale.

As I have suggested previously (My Arundo), gardening is nothing much more than deciding what lives and what dies; then there is the added frisson of deciding which species one will introduce to the territorial ark over which one holds sway. Here on our acreage in Upper Ojai I have been vigilant in meting out death to exotics and highly nurturing of the pre-lapsarian natives. The fall from indigenous grace that befell California occurred most precipitously after 1769, but there had been human interference before in the hands of torch wielding Chumash who understood the regenerative power of fire. While the two and a half centuries of European colonization (both human and vegetal) are as nothing in the context of 30,000 years of a reasonably stable local eco-system, we nevertheless exist at a time of profound change to the environment which is unlikely to be reversed any time soon.

What we are attempting - the creation of a picturesque, 'natural' landscape in which our net-zero-energy house sits - is whimsy, but is also profoundly pre-historicist: we are privileging the aesthetics of a seemingly simple botanical past over the difficult, complex present.

As I make my imperious footfall over prostrate Erodium, crunching gently through the dawn light, I am certain that our presence here in this exalted part of California (precisely: the chain of dry ridge-top meadows beyond Koenigstein that run south towards the Silver Thread oil leases and afford views of Santa Paula mountain to the east and Nordhoff Ridge to the west) is contingent. We will be expunged from this place through drought, plague, war or natural cataclysm in at most, a millennium or two. I am equally certain that Erodium cicutarium will remain and by then, should any sentient being exist to pass judgement, be considered an essential California native.

1 comment:

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