Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rattlesnake Oaks

Nothing like a brisk jog through rattlesnake country to enliven the senses and quicken the pulse.  Yesterday I went running in the hills near our new neighborhood - I would say "where the sidewalk ends," but this is Los Osos and there aren't any sidewalks.  Or street lights.  Or sewers.  But that's another story for another day.

We have been told that rattlesnakes are prevalent in that area, and that this year they have been particularly active with several dogs getting bitten.  I couldn't resist the chance to explore what from a distance promised to be oak-rich hills, but I was definitely on high alert.

As I gained altitude (makes me sound like a condor when the shuffling pace of a tortoise with asthma is closer to the mark these days) I passed through low scrubby vegetation, into some taller (head high - or more accurately eyeball high - remind me to wear protective eye wear next time) scrubby stuff, then into some assorted low trees.  Stop me if this is getting too technical for you.

But that is essentially the level of my current knowledge of this area's vegetation and cover types.

I realized, much to my great joy and sadness, that I am in for new awakening, an epiphany of the sort I haven't felt in nearly 25 years.  That was when, as a student in forestry school, I spent a few weeks at the University of Minnesota's research center at Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota.  In just that short time, after intensive field classes in forest ecology, botany and soils, I came to view the forest with a whole new set of eyes.  I never looked at the woods in the same way again.

It's probably very similar to learning to read.  At some point as a very small child you become aware that those symbols on the page mean something, and you can recognize and name a few of them, but you have know idea how the whole system works, how those symbols fit together to tell a story.  Until you learn to read.  Then you can never see the printed page with those "old eyes" ever again.

There's something a bit sad about the process a well, and I have always felt a sense of loss, that the forest - at least the eastern hardwood forest and the northern boreal forest - for me no longer holds the same mystery and wonder for me that they used to.  And it was that sense of mystery and wonder that pushed me into forestry in the first place.  Bit of an irony, that.

I have always wanted to regain that sense of ignorant wonder - of not understanding, of not being able to read the forest like a book - in some new place.

But this isn't it.  All I could think about as I ran was:  I need to learn these plants, and how they fit together, and what story they tell.  I can't wait to put a name to them, to know them.  To see them with new eyes (assuming they don't get poked out by the brush first).  And to share what I learn with you.  Because the story these plant communities has to tell sustained some of the healthiest, happiest people on Earth for millennia.

OK, that's not ALL I could think about.  Mostly, if I'm being honest, I was thinking about rattlesnakes.  I lived in Tucson for three years, and used to run in a dry wash.  I saw rattlesnakes several times, but the wash was wide, sandy and barren so I could see them from some distance away.  The path I ran yesterday cuts a shoulder wide swath with head high "mini cliffs" on both sides of you, so you could come around a bend and be eyeball to eyeball with a rattler.  Not that the thought occurred to me at all.

My ascent ended in a grove of 20 foot tall California live oaks, all filled with green unripe acorns.  I'll be keeping a close on them as they ripen.  I will be gathering, growing and eating these acorns soon (and sending them to anyone who'd like to grow some).

Assuming the rattlesnakes don't get me first.

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