Monday, February 27, 2012

View Obscured

I'm embarrassed that this took so long... but six months after moving to the California Central Coast I finally visited a spot in Morro Bay State Park, immediately behind a very cool natural history museum, where the Chumash people had carved mortars in the exposed bedrock for grinding acorns.

They couldn't have picked a more serene or beautiful spot, overlooking across Morro Bay to the sand spit and the massive, signature Morro Rock, one of seven (or is it eight?) "sisters" - a line of volcanic plugs that extend east toward San Luis Obispo.

I squatted next to the mortars (insert sound of knees cracking here) to get a feel for what it must have been like to spend hours in that beautiful place turning the another bountiful - and virtually labor-free - harvest of acorns into a year's worth of nutrients.  I pivoted to look out over the bay...

... and found myself staring straight into an impenetrable wall of eucalyptus trees.  Gah.

Given the reckless way in which eucalyptus were planted in California (and the wannabe timber barons of Montana de Oro State Park is another story for another day) I'm only amazed that the place isn't overrun with koalas.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Native vegetation of Hawaii

Months ago I promised to write a series of posts exploring various aspects of the native versus exotic plant debate.  The idea was to publicly moderate my 25 year internal debate - trust me, it wouldn't have been as thrilling as it sounds - on the issue of planting native versus non-native trees.
I got into this whole glamorous and wildly lucrative forestry racket coming from a strong "nativist" position.  Nature knew better than we about what plants to put where, and moving plants willy-nilly around the globe had unleashed Pandora's boxes full of ecological disasters (see also:  Chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease, kudzu, etc).  I primarily viewed myself as, if not a preservationist - I have always been too much the conservationist/"wise use" advocate to fit that particular mold - then as a restorationist; our management and planting activities should be conducted with an eye toward restoring native landscapes.

My thinking has changed over the years.  Depending on the day, or even the minute, I can argue equally passionately in favor of planting non-natives when appropriate (by which I mean appropriate according to me).  The arguments in my head get very heated at times.  I'm hoping therapy will help. Or drugs.
My basic thoughts in favor of planting non-natives (such as a highly productive southeastern hybrid oaks on corn-deprived Midwestern soils) are:
1) We live in a "post native" world - our soils and ecosystems have been disturbed and altered to the point where they are no longer able to support a "native" ecosystem

2) Plant ranges shift over time - what is native today might not be native on that same spot tomorrow.   In the course of our lifetime the range in which paper birch is "native" has shifted a couple hundred miles north in my "native" Minnesota (to which my ancestors immigrated by way of Missouri, Switzerland and Alsace).

3) Every single plant species growing on Earth was, at some point, non-native to the spot in which it now grows.

I was reminded of one post I had intended to write when I went to watch the movie The Descendants last weekend.  Actually, the movie reminded me of three things:

1) Oscar-caliber movies ain't what they used to be (what did George Clooney pay those critics?)

2) Hawaii has vegetation

3) A guy I really hate

Point #2 is one of my dozens of half finished posts, so this is a good chance to check one off of that list.

Read that again:  Hawaii has vegetation.  An archipelago formed from molten rock spewing from underwater volcanoes has plants.  By definition, not one single species is native to the islands.  By definition, every single one of Hawaii's "native" species was planted there unintentionally and without giving thought to the wisdom of their actions by animals.  Without question some of those introduced plants created huge ecological disturbances and forced some earlier species to the margins of the ecosystem.

I have also mulled this same concept when paging through Sibley's Guide to Birds and seeing the section on accidental bird sightings (a phrase that amuses me for some reason). Every so often some Eurasian bird gets lost, or maybe decides to have a gap year abroad, and gets spotted in North America.  And one would suspect that some of these wayward travelers deposit decidedly non-native plant seeds on North American soil, without the express written consent of the USDA.

Plants ranges move.  They move faster and farther than we really think.  We humans love to do two things: Move plant materials, and beat ourselves up over the consequences.  But really when we choose to plant a non-native species we're really doing nothing new.  

We also tend to look at a forest or a landscape and assume that it always looked like that, that it is supposed  to look like that, and that any changes are therefore bad.

... then again maybe all of this is just a l-o-o-o-n-g way to go to justify to myself the planting of Korean sawtooth oak here in North America as part of a woody perennial agriculture system that beats the hell out of beating the hell out of our soil with corn.

As to point #3:  Every time I see George Clooney I'm reminded of the surgeon who performed a minor procedure on our daughter a couple of years ago.  The guy looked like George Clooney's younger, better looking brother.  Even more annoyingly, he was a really nice guy and a highly skilled surgeon.

God how I loathed him.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rest stop educates those who stop to read

For travelers driving east out of Paso Robles, CA (Pass of Oak Trees) there are essentially two places to stop during the hour drive on Hwy 41/46 over to Interstate 5:  The Jack Ranch Cafe, famous as the site where James Dean died in a wreck (and for the monument that now stands there in his honor), and a rest stop just east of Shandon.

I have stopped at that rest stop dozens of times.  Actually it is probably more accurate to say that for many years I hoped to stop at that rest stop, and often times I really, really needed to stop at that rest stop (given the amount of coffee required to drive that barren stretch of highway in the wee hours of the morning without, at the risk of sounding insensitive, doing my own imitation of James Dean), but it always seemed to be closed for renovations.  For about 15 years. 

Thankfully the rest area is open now and has become a frequent stopping spot for me while driving to and from the San Joaquin Valley for work.  The rest area is now a very nice one, with an interpretive display / historical marker in the walk way from the parking lot to the rest rooms.  It's beautiful.  It's informative.  So of course for months I walked right past it without even noticing it.  It was only while I was pacing around talking on the phone that I actually bothered to notice it, stop, and read it. I just about fell over.

(Click each photo to enlarge)

Which means this rest area in Shandon, CA has educated a lot more people in the last few months about acorns as food than this blog has!