Explore: April 2011

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26 posts from April 2011


Year in Yosemite: A Job Well Done

  Yosemite5Until my family moved to Yosemite National Park 18 months ago, I had spent most of my life in cities. City life can be frustrating — crowds, noise, traffic — but it's also easy. Need something? Pick up the phone. Pizza? Plumber? Paramedic? It doesn't matter; most anything is just minutes away. Not so in Yosemite. Nothing is close. Little is easy. You are basically on your own. Maybe that's why the community is so tight; everyone watches out for each other.

Even so, life here is not for everyone. (Many a couple have split up or left the park when one partner could no longer tolerate the isolation). Most of our neighbors are law enforcement rangers and fire personnel who have to be in Yosemite 24/7. It may just be me, and my limited exposure to rural Americans, but on the whole, I've never met anyone like them. Simply put, they're doers. They see a problem and they solve it — quickly, efficiently, without a lot of fuss and nary a complaint. Most amazing, the size of the problem doesn't seem to matter.

Yosemite3 On Saturday, our little one-room school had its big spring fundraiser. There are only nine children at our school and they represent only seven families. Yet, with help from a supportive community, we received enough silent-auction donations to raise over $8000 in three hours. That's impressive. But here's what struck me. At nine o'clock that morning, a couple who work in fire management showed up to volunteer. They have no children at the school. Yet they stayed the entire day. They picked up the food from the Wawona Hotel, and then manned the kitchen for hours on end to see that everything ran smoothly. We fed lunch to over one hundred people that day, yet one woman, working alone, oversaw it all — quickly and efficiently.

That seems to be the park service way. A couple of weeks earlier, when rangers and fire personnel were called out in the middle of this year’s biggest snow storm to help with a medical emergency, efforts that I would deem heroic were described by the responders as "just doing my job."

They treated the person on site, then, when the weather and road conditions made it impossible for an ambulance or a helicopter to reach the victim, they drove him to safety. But driving on this day — on a highway covered in two feet of snow, strewn with downed trees, electric wires, abandoned cars and stranded motorists — involved removing each obstacle one at a time. While caring for the patient, five people — a Park Service Ranger, a Forest Service medic, Yosemite's forester, and two fire personnel — had to move cars off the highway, cut through fifteen trees (at times armed only with hand saws), then snowshoe through the forest in search of linemen to cut electric lines that lay across the road. So difficult was the task, it took them one-and-a-half hours to go only two miles.

Here is Yosemite as visitors see it. The first two images show Yosemite as first responders see it. (Photo credits: Ranger Heidi Schlichting for the first two images; Charles Phillips for this image.)

After it was over and the patient was safe, they all returned to work (two of the fire staff were actually volunteering that day), and put in another seven hours on the job. Average time worked that day? Eleven hours. When asked about it, every one of them just shrugged and said, "It was no big deal."

Admittedly, I'm a wimp. Maybe it's the decades I've spent just picking up the phone for help. But living here and watching these people in action gives me hope. Hope that I'll learn to be more self-sufficient. Hope that our daughter will learn that lesson, too. When we first told our friends and family that we were moving to Yosemite, people reacted with a combination of shock and concern. I live with a potentially life-threatening medical condition. No one we knew could believe I would choose to put myself so far from hospitals and medical help. But watching our friends and neighbors in action, I have to say there's nowhere on Earth where I feel more safe. And there's nowhere on Earth I'd rather be.

-- Jamie Simons

In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Today she and her family have made the move to live for one year in Wawona, where her daughter attends the one-room schoolhouse, Jamie writes, and her husband longs for noise, fast food, people, and the city. (Though he's learning to appreciate mountain life.)


Across California: Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail bordered by flowers.

About 5 PM on Friday, we arrived at Highway 58 on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), covering 14 spectacular miles. I have so much to relate I don't know quite where to begin, but that won't stop me.
Sorry about the big gap in messages, but I could not hit a cell tower that worked.

Some note about the past six days:

Ascending to the PCT from the Western Midge took several days that included an encounter with a fearsome looking rancher who turned out to be friendly and permitted us to cross about a half mile of his pasture land among the cows.

The dramatic change in vegetation reminded me of the purpose of the trek. We went from desert shrubs to Joshua trees then on to western junipers, gray pines (Pinus lambertiana), Cyanothus, Yucca whippelii, and mountain mahogany to ponderous pines in a few hours of hiking. Suddenly we were in the Sierra, except that everything was scrunched together with desert plants continuing almost to 6,000 feet, where we met the PCT.

The following day slammed us into the misery mode. Freezing clouds enveloped us, and the winds kicked up to 30 mph. Ice formed on all the trees and shrubs. The ice on pine needles kept blowing off in thin tubular versions of the hollow ice cubes served in restaurants. 

Soon everyone had on three or four layers of clothing, including windpants and longjohns -- everyone except me, whose thin trousers were getting soaked and icing up on the cuffs. Needless to say we made camp early -- 2:30 as I recall.

April 14 was gorgeous -- sunny, mildly breezy. We encountered many tracks of Felix concolor (puma, cougar, etc.) and black bears on the muddy trail. Unfortunately, we also were stumbling over ditches and gouges made by motorcycles -- dirt bikes -- which have illegally invaded the PCT as well as public and private land making gullies, transporting invasive weeds. One landowner back down Jawbone Road has a sign reading, "Trespassers will be shot at and then prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

We descended 2,800 feet as I recall to Highway 58 in Tehachapi Pass to our "sagwagon", beer, and a hot supper, all so welcome after eight days from Highway 395. Joan T from Palm Springs, who joined us at Jawbone, was retrieved by her husband. And David Reneau, my son-in-law will join us for the rest of the Trek to the Sea.

The four of us, Madeleine, Tom, Dave, and I will continue south on the PCT and rendezvous with Tejon Ranch folks. Once again I may be out of cell contact, but we'll see.


Hikers are allowed. Unfortunately, we saw not a single living desert tortoise in crossing almost 200 miles of the Mojave. Maybe it was not warm enough. They are dying of respiratory disease, predation by ravens, and now from attempts to relocate them to make way for solar projects.


Here's a forest of wind turbines in the Southern Sierra.

-- Cal French

Cal, 74, a member of the Sierra Club for 42 years, is trekking 530 miles from the Colorado River to the Pacific Ocean to highlight the threatened natural corridors of Southern California. Cal sits on the Sierra Club Santa Lucia Chapter Board. He is blogging from a BlackBerry.



Nature Art: Skunk Cabbage Season

The cherry blossoms are magnificent here in Washington, D.C., but you can see a photo of them anywhere. What doesn't get much press is the lowly skunk cabbage. Its plate-like, vivid green leaves make a damp woodland look lush at this time of year, as shown below.


By its looks, you'd think skunk cabbage would be tasty, but it isn't--not even to winter-hungry deer. Deer filled the forest I was in yesterday, at the top of the Potomac River watershed, and they've grazed most of the new green growth from the understory plants. But deer won't touch skunk cabbage. And it isn't that deer can read; they won't eat the yellow flowers of the spicebush, either.


Spicebush, or Lindera benzoin, is a native shrub that brings early spring to the woods of the East and loves the same damp woodland as the skunk cabbage. Its tiny yellow flowers twinkle in these over-grazed, still leafless wood,s and its leaves smell of cinnamon and ginger when crushed.

Spicebush is notoriously hard to transplant because it must have damp feet most of the year. It Is the host to the Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly, a dramatic blue and black winged creature, but if you'd like to host swallowtails in your garden, take the easy road and plant fennel instead.

Skunk cabbage has an edible relative, Bright Lights Kale. You can plant this too, in cool weather, and enjoy the ornamental ribs and mild cabbage taste. See my sketch of it below.


-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.


Astronomy: Easter Dates Determined by Astronomy

4-15-11 Egg Nebula
The Egg Nebula as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), W. Sparks (STScI) & R. Sahai (JPL), NASA

Easter falls very late this year, on Sunday, April 24. My own children's spring break is not until the last week of April, to coincide with the Easter holiday, which made this winter seem extra long. And we only have astronomy to blame.

The date of Easter is determined by the spring (vernal) equinox and the full moon. The spring equinox changes a bit depending on the year, and in 2011 the date of the spring equinox fell on March 20. Easter always falls on the Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. Because a full moon occurred on March 19, hours before the equinox, we have to wait a month until the next full moon, which happens this weekend on April 17 at 10:44 p.m. EDT. Because this is a Sunday, it is the following Sunday that becomes the date for Easter, April 24. The very latest Easter can occur is on April 25, which will not happen until 2038.

The full moon this month is also called the Egg Moon. For those who don't celebrate Easter, the Egg Moon is also a perfect symbol of spring and rebirth after the long, cold winter. Even though there are many astronomical objects that are egg-shaped, such as asteroids and galaxies, there is only one celestial object I know of that was named for an egg. The Egg Nebula, shown above, is a star that is nearing the end of its life and casting off dust and gas to make a planetary nebula before the star eventually becomes a white dwarf. The Egg Nebula, also known as CRL 2688, is too dim for amateur observers to spot. The image here was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and the springlike pastel colors are a happy side effect of false-colorization to better show the dust shells.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


Across California: Jawbone Station


Arrived at Jawbone Station after crossing Koehn Lake, which actually had water in one end with Avocets, Widgeons, and shore birds. Our food for the next six days was here. Thanks to Letty and BLM. More later. Gotta do five more miles tonight.

-- Cal French

Cal, 74, a member of the Sierra Club for 42 years, is trekking 530 miles from the Colorado River to the Pacific Ocean to highlight the threatened natural corridors of Southern California. Cal sits on the Sierra Club Santa Lucia Chapter Board. He is blogging from a BlackBerry.


Lazy Organic Gardener: It’s Not Easy Being Lazy in Spring

Even in my relatively balmy backyard in Berkeley, California, where I can garden year round, spring is as much a new beginning as it was when I started gardening in central Illinois, back when computers were the size of houses.

When I say it’s not easy being lazy in spring, I don’t mean that I haven’t succumbed to sitting on the deck and drinking a beer after a long day at work, savoring all that lush greenery without doing a damn thing. What’s hard is knowing that if I want to have a productive garden this year, I have to put the beer down and do some work. But the sitting is over.

But then, armchair gardening counts as work, too, right? I’ve got planting strategies to review, workplans to draft, priorities to set. I wouldn’t want to head into the wild jungle out there without a plan, would I?

You can see how wild and verdant my yard is. Rain plus sun plus lengthening days equals happiness. (For all those plants, not necessarily for the lazy gardener.)

Not so many flowers yet, except some white and pink blossoms on my spindly apple tree. Another month, and the Peruvian lilies (a.k.a. alstrameria) and lavatera will be bursting into flower, and will keep blooming for months. (Z said the other day that I should trim the lilies back, they were out of control, but I don’t know. She’ll sing a different tune when I bring her flowers every week.)

The drought is officially over. The reservoirs are full, the snowpack above normal. The state is still broke, but it’s got water in the bank for the first time in, well, you can look it up — I’ve got weeding to do.

Because, more than anything, most of that green is weeds and unwanted grass.

Ten years ago, I rid my yard of its pathetic lawn, but I can’t keep it from coming back every winter. With the Bay Area's long dry season from about April to November, grass only stays green for a month or so after the winter rains end and then looks ratty all summer long unless I water and tend it. But laziness and a well-maintained lawn do not go together, not even in the same sentence.

Over the past two years, I have found that as I garden I think about what I might write about later. It's almost as if gardening without reporting on it has become the proverbial tree falling in the empty forest. That’s what finally gets me out of my chair to pull weeds. There’s not much to write about just sitting on the deck.

But, before weeding, I reaped some of my winter bounty. The other evening, at dusk, I gathered up some chard, kale, arugula, and sorrel for a stir-fry. Those five minutes I meandered through garden with my orange-handled scissors and filled a white plastic colander with greens — that was the epitome of lazy gardening. After months of doing hardly any work, I was able to go out into my yard and harvest my dinner. Just add rice, onions, tofu, and some curry sauce. Nothing to write home about, but fresh from the garden, and who writes letters home these days anyway?

I planted the chard and kale last fall and harvested some of it over the winter — I just snipped off the leaves and the plant kept growing new ones. The sorrel comes back on its own every winter. I even transplanted it a few years ago, to a better spot, and it’s as prolific as ever. (It’s sour, so I only use a little. Which means I never run out.) The arugula grows wild in some spots, reseeding from last year’s plants, though hard to find amidst the weeds, and I now also have a perennial arugula plant, with small leaves shaped like sage.

If you’re starting to think that I haven’t talked about weeding yet because I haven’t done any, you’re mostly right. It’s overwhelming. Look at this spot here by the birdbath and apple tree. There’s a walkway under there somewhere. You can see a hint of the pink paving stones.

Even though I talk about mapping out my plan of action, the advantage of having so much to do is that I don't need a plan. I can walk out into the yard with gloves, clippers, and plastic bin, and pull up or clip whatever is in front of me. If I wander away from one spot to another because I want to be in the sun or I'm tired of kneeling on the flagstone, so be it.

While the ground is soft, I’m going to pull out as many of the weeds as I can by their roots, but I’ll probably give up before I’m finished and pull out the weed-whacker, the only machine I use in my garden. It’s noisy, heavy, and messy, and certainly not my image of the bucolic gentleman farmer, but it is more efficient and it’s especially good for clearing the flagstone walkway that curves through the garden. (The weed-whacker counts as organic. Takes only a few pennies worth of electricity from PG & E. You can look it up.)

Two winters ago, I built two 4’ x 8’ garden beds — you can read about that in Garden Beds, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 — and that will make this spring much easier. There are only a few weeds in the beds. One is full of fava beans that I planted to add nitrogen to the soil, and the other is full of lettuce, which has almost all bolted by now.

The favas produce an edible bean, though I tend not to eat it because it’s a lot of work to shell and peel the beans. I collect the seeds to sow the next winter. I heard recently that the leaves are edible too, but I’ve never tried them. Maybe this weekend. (There’s even a Facebook page for Growing Fava Beans for Edible Leaves and Greens. Who knew?)

I did pull some weeds the other night, around the apple tree. For maybe an hour. Filled up the blue bin three or four times, but didn’t make much of a dent. There are so many weeds left it almost makes me dread the weekend. Almost.

—John Byrne Barry, a.k.a. Lazy Organic Gardener

Year in Yosemite: After the Storm

Photos by Nancy Casolero.

After almost two weeks, we returned to our home in Yosemite National Park to find barely a sign of the storm that had sent us scurrying. Electricity was on. Our house was warm. The snow, which had been piled high when we left the park, was now almost melted. Only huge graveyards of downed trees bore witness to what had been.

We were the lucky ones. Faced without heat and water, we had packed up and left for warmer climates. Law enforcement rangers and emergency fire crews didn't have that option. Their job is to remain on site, no matter what. And so the ranger with the two-day old baby stayed. As did the assistant fire chief with two small children and a pregnant wife. This year, Wawona got a new district ranger. He and his family spent the last 13 years at Lake Powell, Arizona. Snow, cold and no electricity were not really on their agenda. Yet when I asked his wife how they fared she said, "It wasn't so bad. I had everything I needed, even if I did have to shower at the neighbors." Then she added the words that had been playing in my mind since the storm began. "How can I complain when you think about Japan?"


Japan. The word echoed in my mind as we packed up our belongings, winterized our house and made our way out of Yosemite. Japan. I thought of it again as we drove past mudslides, fallen trees and downed electric lines. Japan, with its nuclear catastrophe, decimated villages, dead and missing people.

In January of 1994, I was awakened in Los Angeles to violent shaking, glass shattering and neighbors screaming. In the dark, I crawled under a desk and, for whatever reason, called my sister who lives 400 miles away. She could feel the earthquake at her house. When it was over (a mere 7.0—huge for Los Angeles—minor compared to Japan's), our whole neighborhood headed out into the street. There I discovered the reason they call them shock waves. Stupefied, we all wandered in the dark, not knowing what to do, where to turn and wondering if worse was to follow. For days, many of us roamed the neighborhood, looking at the destruction like voyeurs at an accident, gripping whatever was close when the ground began to shake again.

Two weeks after the earthquake I went to synagogue. There I listened as perfectly intelligent, educated and thoughtful people got up, one after another, and asked, "How could God do this to us?" When I could stand no more, I stood up and asked, "How could we build a city on fault lines?" At this, the head rabbi, a victim of polio, struggled to his feet and said, "The question we should be asking ourselves is not, 'How could God do this to us?' but, 'Why is the world unfinished?'"

For this question, I have no answer. Twenty-five years later, I still ponder this koan, thinking of it when I hear of earthquakes, tsunamis and killer storms. I don't expect to understand its meaning in this lifetime. The most satisfactory explanation I've ever found was in the words of John Muir when he wrote, "One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made. That this is still the morning of creation." For many of us, that at times, seems a curse. I suspect for the Earth, it is a blessing.

-- Jamie Simons

In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Today she and her family have made the move to live for one year in Wawona, where her daughter attends the one-room schoolhouse, Jamie writes, and her husband longs for noise, fast food, people, and the city.(Though he's learning to appreciate mountain life.)

Across California: Highway 395


This is a big year for goldfields, but many of the Joshua trees we have seen in the Western Mojave are stressed and dying. This younger specimen looked healthy.

What a day! We reached Hwy 395 in four days from Ft. Irwin Rd. Today was a doozie! Eighteen miles (estimated), 15.33 straight line, wind 15 mph, gusting to 36 right in our faces. Then in the last two hours, we had pouring horizontal rain soaking my pants and shoes. I was starting to become hypothermic, hands so cold I could not do snaps or zippers.

Finally I spied our "sag wagon" about 1.5 miles away. Mad and I found Tom already there.

Now, 3+ hours later, warmed, dried, and fed, we are singing old Kingston Trio songs, telling stories. So the four of us, plus two dogs, will spend the rainy night in a 4x8-foot pop-up camper and the cab.

Carpets of goldfields (flowers) paved our way, turning our boots yellow with their pollen. That was before the rain. I am now two days ahead of schedule and concerned about connecting with Joan T. at Jawbone Canyon for our Pacific Crest Trail segment.

Obsidian stood out against the sand. The craftsmanship of this arrowhead indicates it's from a late stage.


Originally it was notched, but the base may have broken off with the shaft when the jackrabbit or other small game ran. Points became smaller and more delicate as the large animals began disappearing from the desertifying late Pleistocene Mojave region. Native people became more skilled at toolmaking, finding and storing plant foods, and locating sources of water. When the "pioneers" died of thirst and starvation, they were crossing through inhabited country where the knowledgeable natives had adequate water and food.

-- Cal French

Cal, 74, a member of the Sierra Club for 42 years, is trekking 530 miles from the Colorado River to the Pacific Ocean to highlight the threatened natural corridors of Southern California. Cal sits on the Sierra Club Santa Lucia Chapter Board. He is blogging from a BlackBerry.



Astronomy: Keeping an Eye on Saturn

Saturn from Iapetus
A unique view of Saturn as seen from its moon Iapetus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

For planetary observers, Saturn is the only player in the game this month. The other planets are close to the sun and heading into the morning sky. Fortunately, Saturn is an amazing planet for observing.

First find the planet Saturn using just your eyes – no optical equipment needed. The planet will be rising in the east after sunset this weekend, shining at magnitude 0.4 in the constellation Virgo. Be careful not to confuse the star Arcturus with Saturn. Saturn is the point of light a bit farther to the south. Arcturus is actually brighter than Saturn at magnitude 0.1. Arcturus, in the constellation Bootes, is a bit more orange in color than Saturn, which should look yellowish. Just below Saturn is the brightest star in Virgo: Spica. Spica is a bit dimmer than Saturn and different in color, shining a bright white, or possibly even a tinge bluish to discerning viewers.

Next, examine Saturn through a pair of binoculars. You need to hold the binoculars awfully steady to get a decent view. The higher-powered binoculars the better, but don’t expect too much, especially right now, when the rings are near their minimum. The best you can probably hope for is to detect an oval shape to Saturn where the ring makes the planet look less circular.

Telescopes can show much more detail on Saturn, with a wide range available depending on how powerful your telescope is. The first thing anyone notices when looking at Saturn through a telescope is the ring system, which is a stunning sight. Patience at the eyepiece can reward observers with moments of crystal clear seeing, allowing a sharper focus of the rings and possibly revealing shadows of the rings on the planet or of the planet on the rings. It can be hard to distinguish the rings from where they cross in front of the planet, so look for differences in coloration on the planet’s surface, which may be both from the rings and storms in the planet’s atmosphere. A telescope will also show the largest moon of Saturn, Titan, which is the only satellite in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

Across California: Mojave Rattlesnake


Finally got good connection after two days. We are heading west by northwest across flower fields. Desert candles are now in bloom on inflated stems. We found our water cache of eight gallons set by Tom some days ago exactly on GPS target.

A big sonic boom just scared the socks off me. We are just south of the China Lake Naval Weapons center.

We encountered a Mojave green rattlesnake. Tom startled it but did not see it. Madeleine heard it, but its rattle is too high pitched and faint for Tom or me to hear. Mojaves have both a neurotoxin and a hemotoxIn, so they are doubly dangerous.


Madeleine in flower:


Here we find the water cache:


-- Cal French

Cal, 74, a member of the Sierra Club for 42 years, is trekking 530 miles to highlight the threatened natural corridors between the Colorado River and the Pacific Ocean. Cal sits on the Sierra Club Santa Lucia Chapter Board. He is blogging from a BlackBerry.




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