Explore: April 2011

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26 posts from April 2011


Across California: On the Trail Again


Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge is a key connector between Tejon Ranch, Wind Wolves, and the Carrizo Plain National Monument (CPNM). Mike Stockton, the manager,is doing a fantastic job of bringing an old 9,000 acre cattle ranch back to more natural conditions. In addition to condor recovery, the Refuge has a growing herd of tule elk. Biologist Joseph Brant led us on a merry chase up on steep hill and down into narrow canyons. On Wednesday, we had easy level hiking up the center of the plain. We saw one pronghorn earlier and three after we made camp. This is the farthest south I have ever seen them on the Monument. Fence removal projects I have worked on for six years are paying off. "Prongs" do not jump over barbed wire fences.


We found several of these as we crossed Wind Wolves Preserve. They are becoming increasingly scarce. Their main food is harvester ants, which are destroyed by Argentine ants. Wherever human development encroaches, horned lizards disappear.

From the crest of the Caliente Range: after a layover day at Selby Camp on the CPNM, we are back in the walking mode. Today -- 29 April -- we cross the Carrizo Ecological Reserve and enter the Los Padres National Forest. Six days to go to get to Morro Bay. They will not be easy.

-- 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: Keeping a Nature Journal

I'm always on a quest to find the right sketchbook. It's not easy to find the particular combination of spiral binding (easy for a lefty to keep open!) and heavy paper. I tried this one, Holbein's Multi-drawing Book, for the first time on a lime-green plant--Euphorbia polychroma, or Yellow-green spruge. Not a catchy name, but an amazing color against pink tulips at this season, below:


I tried a few new things in the drawing, below. Instead of beginning on unpainted, white paper, I floated a light yellow watercolor wash on the paper and let it dry. Then I contour drew the plant on top of the dry wash. Finally, I added the blues and greens to make the darks.


Once I was warmed up, I painted the plant again from two different angles without drawing it. I used my brush to make the leaf shapes, loading both yellow and blue on it at once, to show the sunlit and shadow sides of the leaves. I was trying to capture the plant in as few strokes as possible. You can see these little paintings on the right side of the full sketchbook page, below. At the top of the page, to the left of the dark shadow, is a pen and ink drawing of another garden plant that is a good ground cover in dry shade, Epimedium:


You can find this particular spiral-bound sketchbook at New York Central Art Supply in Manhattan, but any sketchbook with paper marked over 80 lbs. is fine for watercolor painting. A pencil, a kneaded eraser, a sketchbook: that's all you need to start your record of the seasons. If you want to paint, you can include a travel watercolor palette and one #8 size round brush, too. Pour a bit of water into the cap of your waterbottle to wet your brush. Give it a try!

 -- 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: May Observing Highlights

May's best observing occurs before sunrise. Credit: SXC

May is the perfect month for early risers. The best activity happens before sunrise this month, including a gathering of four planets and a meteor shower leftover from Halley’s Comet.

The three inner planets, Mercury, Venus, and Mars, plus the largest planet, Jupiter, will hang together in the morning sky in the east for all of May. The planets will bunch together in a variety of configurations, with some of the planets coming less than a degree from each other.

Over the course of the month, Venus will shine the brightest at magnitude -3.9, Jupiter second brightest at magnitude -2.1, Mercury will be third brightest as it fluctuates from crescent shape and magnitude 0.9 to gibbous and -0.3, and Mars will be the dimmest at magnitude 1.2.

On May 1, Jupiter and Mars are less than a half degree apart in the east before sunrise as Mercury and Venus lie above them. Also note the crescent moon near the grouping. The planets will shift positions a bit over the coming week as Mercury and Venus get closer together until their tightest pairing on May 8 at 1.4 degrees apart. May 11 and May 21 are the dates of compact trios between Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury and Mars, Venus, and Mercury, respectively. On May 23 you can spot Venus and Mars less than a degree apart. These close pairings are great opportunities to study the differences between the planets through a telescope.

Early mornings in the first week of May are also perfect for spotting Eta Aquarid meteors. The peak of activity, with up to 45 meteors an hour, occurs on the morning of May 6. Look east-southeast for flashes of light that can be traced back toward the star Eta in the constellation Aquarius.

Read more about the Night Sky for May.

-- 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.

Year in Yosemite: Come On Down

Photo credit: Jon Jay

In the summer, hordes of people visit Yosemite National Park. The campgrounds are full (many require reservations a full year in advance), the restaurants are crowded, the Valley floor is a virtual parking lot as people crawl along in traffic. I have just two words to say to all these people….come now. Come when the weather is Goldilocks-perfect — not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Come now when the waterfalls are at their most spectacular, crashing and careening down the steep granite walls, raising dazzling showers of water droplets that turn to rainbows in the sun — because they'll be mere drips by late summer. Come now when it's possible to drive without feeling like you're sitting on a freeway and the park is coming alive after hibernating from a winter of snow and ice. Come now when the foothills surrounding the park are emerald green with new grasses and masses of wildflowers cover the hills and valleys, showing off their sweet, gentle freshness like a debutante at a coming out ball.

If I sound exuberant, I can't help myself. I'm one of those people who love to decorate my home for my guests. Imagine how I must feel living in a place where Mother Nature was the decorator and she got everything right. No need to move even a rock to make it picture perfect. But apparently she doesn't agree with me as whole hillsides regularly come tumbling down, rearranging her design. As someone who rearranges furniture in the middle of the night, I understand her urge for change.

We've been visiting family for the past week, my daughter's spring vacation coinciding with my dad's 86th birthday. When we drove back into Yosemite last night, I found myself taking in deep breaths of fresh air. I was so happy to be home that I walked the dirt road into the village even though reports of mountain lions in our part of Wawona give me the willies when I'm walking alone.

Photo credit: Charles Phillips

I still marvel that in a year and a half there hasn't been a single time that I've driven the final curve into Wawona to see the golf course and its meadows lying out below me that I haven't thanked the heavens that I live here. Now that tourist season is gearing up, I want to stop each car on its way to the Valley and say, "You're so lucky. You can't believe the beauty that awaits you." Unlike many who live year round in the park, I never tire of the tourists. There's too much of the hostess in me. If I could, I'd stop each car and tell them all of my "must-sees."

Photo credit: Charles Phillips

Since I can't, and since most people won't be coming now, I can only offer this.

If you can't make it here until summer, hit the trails in Yosemite Valley after 4 pm -- they are usually pretty empty by then. Drive around the park at night. Tunnel View by moonlight is a view you’re likely to have to yourself. Think Glacier Point Road. Many of its hikes — Taft Point, Sentinel Dome and Dewey Point in particular — offer breathtaking views of the park without the crowds. And Wawona fan that I am, don’t miss the locals favorite Saturday night hangout—the barbeque dinner on the lawn of the Wawona Hotel, followed by the barn dance in the Gray Barn or Tom Bopp playing the piano inside the hotel (humor, local history and talent all in one man). We'll be there. But my main advice for enjoying Yosemite? Come now.

-- 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: Wind Wolves Preserve

We have crossed the Wind Wolves Preserve in three days. I have been out of contact with the Internet since my entry about the six condors. Wind Wolves is a marvelous place. The part we traversed was like a Wilderness area. Bear and mountain lion tracks were prevalent. The road we were following became a trail impassable to 4-wheel drive vehicles. It looks as though no vehicle had been over it in years.

We camped in a rough, sloping place called "The Bathtub," where I had to kick bear scat out of the road to set up my tarp in a light rain. Everything got filthy overnight. My hat is now a mud collection. The next day we continued on with Tom and me taking the short route and Dave and Mad the longer, more scenic way. We all ended up at the group campsite for Wind Wolves called The Willows. Mad was excited about the flush toilets, but even more excited about the blue grossbeak she saw. That night the Wind Wolves manager Dan York and his wife Sarah showed up with a bottle of fancy French wine. I managed to spill my organic plastic glass.

Ranger Luis agreed to put a big container of water over near the western boundary of Wind Wolves. So, the next day (April 24) we finished out 3-day crossing, ending up on what we thought was the eastern border of the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, a critical component of the recovery program for the California Condor. Cattle were everywhere, even though they are supposedly not allowed on the Refuge. We spent the night in tall grass with red ants and earwigs invading everything.

This morning, we had hoped to meet Mike Stockton, the Refuge manager. Sure enough, he found us but with difficulty. Apparently the Refuge has fenced its border a couple of miles west of where it shows on the map. We spent the day (April 25) with Mike and Joseph Brant, the senior supervising biologist for the condor recovery program on the refuge. We learned a lot about condors. For example, did you know they have a hinged tongue with a ratchet mechanism for scooping the goodies out of their supper? The Refuge feeds them the occasional still-born calf from a nearby dairy herd, but the big plan is to encourage them to find more of their own food, which they are doing. Well, we had a long day, with tremendous ups and downs trying to follow Joseph, a studly rock climber and surfer who monitors cliff-side condor nests.

My BlackBerry batteries are all empty and the chances of finding cell connections over the next four days are about nil. We are headed north on Carrizo Plain National Monument and will reach Selby Camp on April 27. After laying over there for a day, we'll head west to the Los Padres National Forest. It now looks as though we'll reach Morro Bay on May 4 rather than May 1.

-- 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.



Across California: California Condors

What a day! I just saw six California Condors, the first I have seen in 50 years! We were with David Clendenen, ecologist with Wind Wolves Preserve. What fliers they are! I'm thrilled. This is the highlight of the trip so far for me.

-- 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.

Across California: Tehachapi Mountains

Last night, we camped on a grassy slope low in the Tehachapi Mountains. Within a few minutes of our arrival, a greeting committee of eight horses and one donkey approached, full of curiosity. The Angus cattle also gathered about, so when we were dining on Chinese food brought in by Jen of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, we had quite an audience. Later, during the night, the horses closed in tighter. Even though Madeleine and Tom were under a tarp and Dave was in a tent, I decided to sleep out in the open. Sometime during the night, I heard a horse breathing, chewing, and walking a few feet from my head. Having been around horses a lot as a kid I was not concerned. Mad was of the opposite dis-positioned....

This morning was perhaps the least interesting of the trek as far as nature goes. It was all on roads, first dirt, then paved. The fields were nothing but a collection of invasive grasses -- red brome, ripgut brome, foxtail barley, wild oats ... you name it -- and forbs such as fillaree, black mustard, and tamarisk in the water courses.

We crossed the largest single site user of power in California, the Edmonston power plant that supplies power to pump water over the Tehachapi Mtns. into Southern California. And, of course, we did cross the California Aqueduct itself.


A few nature notes: four golden eagles, numerous western kingbirds, violet green, barn, and cliff swallows.

Because I am now in a motel room using my spouse's laptop, have had a shower, and am wearing clean clothes from top to bottom, I fear this entry may have gone on too long. Tomorrow we cross the last two miles of our passage through the Tejon Ranch and enter the Wind Wolves Preserve, where we'll spend the next three days. So it will be back to carrying our backpacks, finding our own water, and navigating with map, compass, and GPS. Enough of decadence.

-- 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: The Celestial Royal Family

4-22-11 Cassiopeia and Cepheus Torsten Bronger
Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus near the North Star. Credit: Torsten Bronger

In honor of the upcoming royal wedding, we're honoring the monarchy that reigns among the constellations high in the northern sky.

Cepheus the King and Cassiopeia the Queen are north circumpolar constellations, meaning they are positioned close to the North Star and never set below the horizon for northern observers. Their daughter, the Princess Andromeda, is located next to the King and Queen but a bit farther from Polaris, making it best seen in the fall months.

Cassiopeia is an easy constellation to find, because it looks like a letter W or M depending on the time of year. This weekend, Cassiopeia is very low in the north with its points facing down, looking like a W. The image of Cassiopeia as a Queen appears when you think of the W as being a chair that the Queen is sitting on.

Cepheus is just to Cassiopeia's right, or northeast of the Queen. I always think of Cepheus as resembling a house, the kind children draw with a square for the base and a triangle for the roof. In Greek mythology, Cepheus and Cassiopeia were the King and Queen of Ethiopia. Queen Cassiopeia thought herself very beautiful, even more beautiful than the sea nymphs known as the Nereids. The God of the Sea, Poseidon, chose to punish Ethiopia for Cassiopeia's vanity by ravaging the coast with a sea monster. To get the sea monster to leave their land alone, the King and Queen chained their daughter, Andromeda, to a rock in the water as an offering to the sea monster. But Andromeda was saved by Perseus, who is also a constellation that can be found on the opposite side of Cassiopeia from Cepheus.

The story of Cepheus and Cassiopeia is not a pretty one, but at least it has a happy ending when Andromeda marries her hero, Perseus. So, on that happy note, best wishes to William and Kate and may they make their own happy ending.

-- 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: Tejon Ranch

We found our entry point to the Tejon Ranch and waited. Not too long after the appointed time David and Lauren from the Tejon Ranch Conservancy arrived in two vehicles. They took our packs (I said I would walk across California, not backpack) and we hit the road. This 271,000-acre remnant of wild California is a fabulous! 240,000 acres are now in a permanent conservation easement.


We descended Tejon Canyon, ancient route for Native Americans and site of the first reservation in the US. Gone were all the rutted dirt bike gashes up the hillsides because the security here works. We all are carrying passes and someone from the T.Ranch or the T.Ranch Conservancy is mostly with us at all times.

We started in incense cedars and now are grassland populated by cattle and invasive grasses. But, it is still grassland, and the animal species such as kangaroo rats and kit foxes can move from here to the Carrizo Plain, where we'll be in five days, if all goes as planned.

The Conservancy has brought out dinner for us the last two nights and carried our packs in a pickup, a far cry from 17 lbs of water and a week's worth of food on our backs. The Ranch is absolutely the key link among 4 ecosystems and we are seeing bits and pieces of them. What a privilege it has been to be allowed here.

-- 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.

Two Top Ten Lists From the Lazy Organic Gardener

In honor of Earth Day, I'm recycling (and updating) some Lazy Organic Gardener tips from last spring. I put in four-plus hours weeding in the garden last weekend, and that was satisfying, but not very interesting to write about. For those five or six of you who've read these tips before — hi Mom — it's probably been long enough that you've forgotten most of them.

With spring upon us, I was recently asked for some tips for people getting started gardening. I hesitated  — giving tips implies expertise, which I've never pretended to have — but I very much want to encourage people to garden, so here goes. In keeping with my "lazy" brand, however, I'm not promising any research or fact-checking here, nor will I refund your wasted time if the tips don't pan out. Caveat emtor and all that — note: that's the last Latin you're going to see from me. I'm not about look up scientific names of plants.

Before I embark on the Top Ten Tips on How to Get Started Gardening, I want to answer the broader question of why I garden, and why maybe, you might consider gardening yourself, if you so choose. (No hard sell here.)

(If you already know you want to garden, you can jump down directly to the tips. But then you'll miss half the fun.)

Why I Garden

1. I like to be outside, doing physical work.

For someone who sits indoors in front of a computer for many hours every day, working with my hands outdoors gives me balance in my life. Walking, hiking, bicycling, running — for exercise, for pleasure, to get from one place to another — those activities are also a big part of my life, but I like being home, partly because I enjoy hanging out in my garden so much.

2. Gardening is meditative/therapeutic.

An hour in the garden might be frustrating now and then, and sometimes it's boring, but it always grounds me, keeps me sane. Sometimes I listen to music, or talk shows, or chat on the phone with my headset on. Just as often, I let my mind wander or percolate over whatever I'm grappling with. Like exercise, gardening almost always contributes at least a little to making my life better.

3. It keeps me tuned into the rhythm of the seasons, the lengths of the day, the angle of the sunlight.

We're now in the middle of "false spring" — fruit trees are exploding with blossoms and wildflowers and weeds are everywhere, but it's cool and the rainy season is still hanging on. Daylight savings has kicked in so, for the first time since fall, I have a block of daylight to garden after work. (Pulling weeds is a good way to decompress from the work day.)

4. It's an opportunity to be creative.

I've been a graphic designer for decades, but that's only two dimensions. Gardening has four, the usual three, plus the changes that come with the passage of time. There are a lot of elements to play with — color, shape, texture, smell, sound. (I don't have a bubbling fountain, but it's on my wish list.)

One of the designs I'm most pleased with is my curving flagstone path:

I have some garden art that I can move around — here's my pal Kokopelli playing a tune for the whimsical butterfly my sister gave me as a birthday present.

5. Food and flowers.

The only thing I'm harvesting these days is chard, kale, and lettuce I planted last fall, but soon there will be berries to pick and flowers to cut, and then later in the summer come the tomatoes, apples, squash, and so on. The two photos below are from last year in late May — the magenta flowers are lavatera and the orange and red ones are alstrameria, a.k.a., Peruvian lilies.

6. Replenishing the soil, giving back to the earth.

By applying compost, both from food waste and from the horse manure I get from Z's sister in Santa Cruz, I've been enriching the topsoil that the planet is losing at an alarming rate. It's part of the cycle of nature as much as the changing of the seasons. I’ve been amending the soil in my backyard for more than 20 years now.

7. Wildlife.

By keeping things organic and leaving more than half the yard somewhat wild, I attract a lot of critters. Hummingbirds, robins, and other birds. Butterflies, squirrels, lots of insects. Even an occasional raccoon.

8. Gardening builds community.

Gardening is something I share with my neighbors. While I grow most of my annuals in the backyard, which is where I get southern sun and shelter, I also have a small patch in the front, and I like working out there because it's more social. I'm surrounded by gardeners who are more serious than me, so I often end up with their leftovers. This year, for example, I may not need to buy tomato seedlings because one of my neighbors planted a few flats of seeds and won't have room for them all.

9. It's an opportunity to learn new things.

There are always new plants to grow. New designs to test. New chances to do things better. Last year, for example, I built garden beds, partly because things were getting too wild and the drip irrigation was getting too spaghetti-like. That made vegetable growing much easier.

10. Relaxation.

A garden is a great place to sit and veg out. It's an outdoor room, and, because I have a smallish house, my biggest room is my backyard, with its deck and garden. One of the best parts of gardening is not gardening —  sitting and savoring what I've accomplished, or imagining what I'm going to do next. Here I am sitting on the ledge of my garden beds.

Ten Easy Tips on How to Get Started Gardening 

1. Start small.

Fewer plants means less work. But get enough — at least a dozen or two — so if some fail to flourish, you won't be left with nothing.

2. Ask questions.

Go to a local nursery where there are people who know what grows well in your ecosystem and get a recommendation. Or better yet, ask the professional gardeners who frequent those nurseries. It will keep you from making silly mistakes. For example, where I live, in Berkeley, it's not hot enough to grow melons. I tried, and got one, the size of a tennis ball. But the Bay Area winter is perfect for greens like chard.

3. Get seedlings instead of seeds.

Some plants, like beans and zucchini, are easy to grow from seed, but starting with seedlings is easier.

4. Use garden soil and/or compost.

You can plant directly in the ground, but if you're starting anew, chances are the soil is less than ideal. Where I live, the clay soil is hard as a rock, though it's excellent once amended and loosened up with some digging and compost. (But that process took years.) Dig a hole, and fill it with the soil and compost. You can buy bags or truckloads of both, but there’s a lot available for free as well. Many horse stables will let you haul away horse manure. Some coffee shops will give spent grounds to anyone who’s willing to cart it away.

Of course, you can make your own compost too. I learned the intensive method, which involved chopping and layering and turning, but the pile-it-and-wait method works too.

5. Grow vegetables you love to eat.

In most parts of the country, tomatoes are the best bet. They're easy, prolific, and who doesn't love fresh tomatoes? Kale is easy, too, and I eat it, but it screams "healthy vegetable" more than "decadent pleasure."

6. Build your garden around easy plants.

Right now, in mid-April, my back yard is lush and green, and 90 percent of that is what I would characterize as “easy plants” that grow like weeds. (Of course, many of them are weeds.)

Trees and perennials form the foundation of my garden. I have seven fruit trees — pluots, apricot, apple, lemon, lime, and two plums — and raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries. All those are easy. And then there are shrubs like lavender and rosemary that smell lovely and take hardly any care.

My fences — chain link on one side and wooden on the other two — are completely invisible under ivy and morning glory. (Both invasive, a weed for many people, but they don’t take much work to cut back, and the morning glories are beautiful when they bloom.)

7. Grow natives.

Once established, they act like they belong there, and they will propagate themselves. A few years ago, I scattered California poppy seeds around my garden. Now, every year, around now, they pop up all over. Beauty without work.

8. Water regularly — every day or every other day when plants are young, two or three times a week once they get established.

I recommend a drip system with a timer, but that takes some upfront work to set, so you might want to put that off until later. If you do drip, the easiest is the soaker hose or the hose with emitters every six inches or so. You can set one of those up quickly. If don’t have drip and you're going to be away for a while and not able to water, you might try filing up wine bottles with water and turning them upside down quickly and pushing them into the soil. The water seeps into the soil gradually as the soil dries. Not as reliable as drip on a timer, but free and low-tech.

9. Get good gloves.

You can get the loose kind that fit all size hands, but I like the ones that fit more snugly, with a velcro strap to tighten them above my wrist. With gloves on, I almost feel like a real gardener.

10. Don't treat gardening like a chore.

Gardening can involve a lot of work, but you don't have to treat it like work. I work for a while, then rest. See #10 on the Why I Garden list. Sometimes at a logical stopping point, like when the green bin is full, I take a break.

Sometimes I feel like I'm in a hurry to get something done, like get lettuce in early before it gets too hot, but then I say to myself, "There's always tomorrow. Or next year."

11. And here's one bonus tip, which gives me a chance to link to a memorable column that has nothing to do with gardening — Wear sunscreen.

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

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