16 November 14

A Day On The Rift Zone

Walked down Shoreline Highway in Point Reyes Station yesterday in search of lunch. I was quite happy with the burrito I eventually found at a Whale of a Deli, but feeding myself cheaply was otherwise going to be a challenge. Pica spent the day at the 2014 Fibershed Wool Symposium, and I tagged along to wander along the San Andreas Fault for a bit, hiking along the Rift Trail and visiting a few cows.

Point Reyes Station is an odd place. Marin is one of the very richest counties in the United States, and on weekends the town is a gateway for recreational and culinary tourism. Cyclists meander in over the hills from towns on the San Francisco Bay side of the county, stop to browse at the Bovine Bakery. The food here is pricey, emphasizing the local and organic — if I hadn’t found my burrito, I was going to settle for a $8.95 mac-and-cheese. West Marin is quite stably rural though — most of the land is in agricultural easements, mainly for dairy ranching. It made perfect sense for Pica’s symposium on locally-sourced fiber production to be held in this town.

Barn at Pt.Reyes Station At left is a view from Point Reyes Station, looking west towards the ridge of the Pt. Reyes Peninsula.

Posted by at 08:38 PM in Nature and Place | Link | Comment

21 May 14

A Trip to the Southland

In 1996 I moved west from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be with Numenius while he finished his PhD at UC Santa Barbara. In the manner of these things it took longer than the year we were both expecting, and we moved up the mountain after the first year to live in a cabin porous to weather (it was a ferocious El Niño year) and vermin, mammalian and insect. (We didn’t consider the canyon wren, whom we named Marcel, to be vermin, but we did discourage him from building a nest in the light fixture of the entryway.)

We left this idyllic setting to move to Davis in 1999. We’ve been back a couple of times since, but this past weekend was to help a friend celebrate his 25th anniversary of ordination as a Paulist priest. Catholic gatherings are often large, chaotic and sloppy, and I enjoyed spending a quiet couple of hours on the beach with Frs. Ed and Ruben, and Jeff and his family, ahead of the big celebration before meeting Numenius on the train from Burbank.

I did sneak in a quick trip to Solvang, home of Village Spinning and Weaving, in the morning. I wasn’t spinning yet when we lived in Santa Barbara and it was a delight to drive up past the Trout Club, yuccas all abloom, and over the pass into the Santa Ynez Valley. (I used to climb that hill on my bike! I could hardly believe it.) The following morning, after a walk around Lake Los Carneros and submitting our entries to the final International Flower Report, Numenius and I took Cathedral Oaks Road into town, seeing old haunts and reciting street names as they unfolded through the windshield.

Memory is a strange phenomenon, treacherous and fickle, much poked at by the likes of a different Marcel. It’s triggered by externals we can’t control, befuddled by others (driving through the UCSB campus was an exercise in complete disorientation). How we crave stability, control. How futile that is. How very futile. Best to enjoy the ride, like the bright young things on the beach in Isla Vista, surfing through the weekend…

Posted by at 06:35 AM in Nature and Place | Link | Comment

11 May 14

Whole Earth Festival 2014

Karmaflage The hippies returned to UC Davis this weekend for the 45th year in a row, as it was the 2014 edition of the Whole Earth Festival, held on the main campus quad over Mother’s Day weekend rather to the annoyance of the university powers-that-be. It is my favorite event in the annual cycle of Davis community activities, and love its direct connection to the early flourishing of the culture of sustainability in the 1970s. Pica held down the fort at the booth of the Davis Spinner’s Guild, while the highlights for me included 1) local science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson having a panel discussion with his friend Michael Blumlein, another sci-fi author and a UCSF physician. They talked about the future in the face of climate change and resource limitations, economics, and epigenetics. Thomas Piketty was mentioned often. 2) learning about the Third Space Art Collective, an recently founded group that since August has occupied physical studio space in a third of a warehouse just the other side of the freeway and 3) doing lots of sketching, filling up a small sketchbook over two days. Despite the abundance of tie-dye color, I stuck with monochrome pen, sketching rapidly with a black Gelly Roll or a brown UniBall Signo pen. Here are several of my many sketches. year of the dog

Posted by at 09:23 PM in Nature and Place | Link | Comment

27 March 14

Pollinators in the Garden

Last week we attended a workshop put on by the California Center for Urban Horticulture on Gardening for Pollinators. A full morning of talks followed by a trip to the Honey Bee Haven, followed by a trip to the Arboretum Plant Sale (for the record, we bought a manzanita, three Spanish lavenders, a giant buckwheat and an ericameria). All but the lavenders should grow into large shrubs that qualify as four feet, and the lavenders should end up filling that slot.

Sketchnotes from pollinator gardening workshop I’ve written a blog post for the ANR Green Blog that provides more background, but here are the big take-homes for me from the workshop…

  • Planning for succession blooming (in the Central Valley, that means late winter through fall)
  • Putting plants in clumps at least 4 feet long if possible (honeybees, especially, like to specialize)
  • Putting in plants that provide both nectar and pollen (nectar is fuel for adult bees, pollen is protein for the young)
  • Using native plants where possible; they’re drought tolerant and have what our native bees need
  • Avoiding most-toxic pesticides and herbicides
  • Providing a clean source of water (a slow-dripping tap on a sloped surface is ideal; bees like to drink from very shallow sources)
  • Providing cavity nest holes in wood for carpenter and other bees
  • Leaving some areas of gardens unmulched for ground-nesting bees
Posted by at 08:10 AM in Gardening | Link | Comment

15 March 14


Our rain gauge stands at 6.21 inches for the water year (in California, precipitation is measured from October 1 through September 30, since it is a Mediterranean climate), which is about at 38% of what we’d expect to this date. And there is not much more of a rainy season left. Some say we’re on pace for the driest year since 1580 and discussion has begun on whether we’re entering a megadrought.

The paleoclimatic history of California is a fascinating story which I am just starting to read up on. (I’ve just started geographer Lynn Ingram’s recent book, The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow) In the past several millenia, the Pacific Southwest has seen droughts lasting decades to upwards of a couple centuries. One of the more dramatic pieces of evidence comes from geomorpologist Scott Stine’s work at Mono Lake. In 1941 Los Angeles started diverting water from its tributary streams, causing the water level in the lake to fall some 50 feet, which exposed a lot of lakebed. When hiking across the lakebed at one point, Stine found dozens of tree stumps. Jeffrey pines do not grow in the middle of lakes, and the conclusion follows that the lake level was much lower in the past due to prolonged drought. Radiocarbon dating on the tree stumps showed that these trees came from two periods of drought, one lasting about 140 years ending about AD 1100, and the other lasting at least a century ending about AD 1350.

It is interesting how megadroughts illustrate an aspect of climate change that is independent of anthropogenic global warming (there was not much in the way of greenhouse gas emissions in the 13th century) that is nevertheless quite worrisome. Megadroughts have occurred recently enough so that they are clearly part of the general pattern of climatic variability in California at this point in geological history. Unlike a millenium ago, the past century-and-a-half has been fairly benevolent in terms of California’s climate. How would we cope now with a 140-year long drought?

Posted by at 09:24 PM in Nature and Place | Link | Comment

19 January 14

The New OpenStreetMapper

I didn’t expect I’d launch into 2014 with a whole new hobby. Towards the end of winter break, I bought an 7” Android tablet, the Google Nexus 7. I was not entirely sure what I would do with it, but since it has a GPS chip, it didn’t take long for me to start exploring mapping applications for it. This led inevitably to OpenStreetMap.

OpenStreetMap is a project that has been around almost 10 years; essentially it is the equivalent of WIkipedia for worldwide street mapping. In other words, it is a massive crowdsourcing project to build a quite detailed map database for the world that’s freely available as open data. (There’s an excellent recent blog post entitled simply Why the world needs OpenStreetMap.) I’ve known about the project for a long time (in fact its founder once gave a talk about it to our lab group), but had never signed up to contribute data. Buying the tablet closed a loop for me, since I could now go on walks, pull out my tablet, and check a recent copy of the map to see if there were unmapped details I should record.

Putah Creek trails What does one map? Anything and everything. Looking at the map, I quickly found that neither the California Raptor Center nor the network of trails on the other side of the creek from our house were in there, so I set about mapping them. And now these features are in OpenStreetMap! The figure show the trails I’ve added; they’re the tracks marked in dashed red lines just north of the creek.

It’s amazing amounts of fun. It helps that I’m a map geek already, but walking, exploring, and maps, what could be better?

Posted by at 08:54 PM in Maps | Link | Comment [1]

12 January 14


Common lichens of Northern California, pen and wash with watersoluble pencil Numenius and I attended a workshop yesterday put on by the UC Davis Center for Plant Diversity and the California Native Plant Society (Sacramento Chapter). Pam Kirkbride taught the workshop, which was a morning of lecture and practice keying (at which I have very little experience; Numenius has much more) followed by a field trip to just over the Napa County line, where lichens are far more diverse and numerous since it’s just inside the fog belt.

I had learned a little about lichens in connection with natural dyes at my spinning retreat with Judith Mackenzie in 2012. I learned a whole lot more yesterday — the various forms of lichens, their unique symbiotic biology (they are a relationship between fungi and algae), their sensitivity to pollution and other environmental stressors… and their great beauty. This was my first time using a dissecting workshop and now I want one.

I came home with some Ramalina (Spanish moss) I found on the oak woodland floor. I’d like to try it out on some white yarn I have. Lichen dyes don’t need a mordant because of their acidic chemistry. I’ll update when I have something to show!

Posted by at 09:24 AM in Nature and Place | Link | Comment

9 August 13

The Nevada City Riddle

We’re going on an outing tomorrow for our anniversary, want to head towards the Sierras, and have come up with the idea of going to Nevada City for a short hike followed by lunch in town. Nevada City is not a town either of us knows much about, so the question becomes what do we do for our little spot of tourism?

After a brief look online I found myself headed to the campus bookstore to look in a guidebook for the Sacramento-Gold Country region to get a better sense of the town. Upon reflection this is curious. We’re in Year 22 of the World Wide Web, we’re told from many quarters that print is dead, long live the screen, yet my sense is that it’s easier to find reliable local knowledge about a place in a book than readily online. The first pages that come up in a search are for the city government (good if you need a building permit, not so much if you’re trying to get a sense of the place), the chamber of commerce (avoids playing favorites among the businesses), and then digging a little further one comes across reviews in services such as Yelp, but these are easily gamed and always have the air of the outsider about them.

By now the Internet has ossified into a number of structural forms that are changing on a fairly long time scale (5 to 10 years), and for whatever reason there is a big gap between on-the-ground local knowledge and virtuality. In Davis we are lucky to have the Davis WIki which is a knowledge base to which many locals contribute. Though the Davis Wiki has a few progeny, the list of such communities is quite short and the sense is the Davis Wiki and its ilk are the exceptions that prove the rule.

For now, we’ll find a short trail near town, and then have a wander downtown. Walking is always the best way to learn anyway.

Posted by at 09:22 PM in Nature and Place | Link | Comment [2]

18 March 13

Underway on the Rails

I’ve been away for a week now and have seen hundreds of miles of country, some arid, some snowy, such as it is here in Tyrone, home of Via Negativa’s Dave Bonta.

Travelng by train is a curious mix of fast food convenience, nineteenth- century nostalgia (several stations in Illinois had hosted debates in which Lincoln was a participant), and the feeling that you’ve entered a fifties-style diner where a group of locals is sitting around shooting the breeze, but by virtue of having boarded the train, you are automatically a member of the group.

Several people pointed me to a recent New York Times article about train travel in the US. Most of what’s in the article has rung true for me, though I think every single passenger on every train I’ve boarded since last Tuesday could have written a different version of that article.

Nice to have two nights at Dave’s. I’ll be on my way to Boston tomorrow via Philadelphia. I’ll travel through my mother’s childhood and adolescence, feeling their force with none of the details that memory catches like butterflies, rising on a warm spring day. I am not sure what my own childhood train memory trip would look like, but I’m about to follow my mother’s.

Posted by at 11:54 AM in Nature and Place | Link | Comment

8 March 13

As Spotted From The Bus

I went on an outing to San Francisco today, ending up at the Legion of Honor museum after taking the train to Emeryville, the Amtrak bus to the Financial District, and the 38L bus out Geary to the Outer Richmond district. The following were some noteworthy items spotted from the buses:

  • A truck labeled “Matthew International – Casket Division” (note – although Matthew International is traded on the NYSE, they do not mention their casket division anywhere near their home page)
  • A restaurant: Volcano Curry of Japan
  • Another restaurant: Five Happiness Restaurant (why five? why not four, or six?)
  • The Right Way Market and Deli
  • Two closed down old movie theatres on Geary: the Alexandria, and the Bridge. The marquee on the Bridge said “SO LONG, AND THANKS FOR THE POPCORN
  • The Anti-Saloon League (established 1920)
  • In fading paint on the side of a building: “E. M. O’Donnell Copper Works”
Posted by at 09:14 PM in Nature and Place | Link | Comment [1]