9/7/10 – 3:00 PM
Weather: Sunny, temperature in high 80s, humid
This observation began as part of my ecology lab, since I was already in the Crum. I was on a steep slope near the edge of the forest, in the area generally behind Martin. As my professor led my group to our field site, he pointed out poison ivy to us, and it became clear that I was the only one who didn’t know what poison ivy looks like. Everyone else in my group was from the east coast (I’m from a sand hill near Santa Cruz, California). I have seen exactly two examples of poison ivy in my life: one on our tour on Sunday, and the one today, which has really driven home to me how little time I’ve spent in east coast forests.
Practically since I learned to walk, I have had ways to identify poison oak drilled into me: “Leaves of three let it be, but if it’s hairy, it’s a berry”, “Look for mitten leaves”, “In the winter, poison oak can just look like little shoots.” Every time I passed it while walking in the woods with my parents or with a school group, it was pointed out to me. To suddenly have that taken away from me and replaced with a hairy alien vine that climbs up trees is disorienting and makes me feel somewhat like a fish out of water.
This may seem like a highly trivial concern, and that’s because it is. But it is evocative of something deeper. I spent my childhood wandering around two biomes (excluding marine biomes), both of which are fairly rare in the scheme of the planet. These biomes were the California sand hill biome and the California coastal redwood forest biome. Each contains rich and fascinating ecological phenomena, scores of endemic and highly endangered flora and fauna, toxic plants, edible plants, invasive plants, and native plants – like any biome. But these were my biomes. I know about the Ben Lomond monkeyflower and the Mount Hermon June beetle. I feast on groves of redwood sorrel and minor’s lettuce. I understand how the western fence lizard prevents ticks from spreading Lyme disease and I revel in the complex ecosystem that forms hundreds of feet in the air amidst the redwood canopy, or surrounding a parasitic albino redwood. I know how the Ohlone native Americans made Manzanita tea and acorn mash, and that the sand hill I live on has shells and fossils embedded in it because it was once under the ocean. The Crum woods undoubtedly have just as rich and fascinating an ecosystem. And there are undoubtedly many commonalities between them and the ecosystems I’m used to. I just don’t know for sure what they are. As we began attempting to identify trees for ecology lab, I was struck by how many were the sort that I’d read about in books but had never seen in real life. It boggled my mind that they actually grow here. But then, just as I felt like I was starting all over from scratch, I would come across an oak tree, or see some wild ginger along the side of the trail. These plants are both very common in the area where I live. Moreover, even if the species are entirely different here, there are surely parallel interactions.
An odd compounding factor to this feeling of being awash in unfamiliar ecology is the fact that it is all oddly familiar. The east coast being the first part of North America to be colonized by English speakers, a large proportion of American art, literature, and simply popular vernacular focuses on the ecosystems of the east coast. We’ve all seen movies like Bambi, with their familiar slates of animals, deciduous forests, complete coverings of snow, and beautiful spring flowers. Interestingly, the same general types of large animals tend to populate the forests I’m familiar with. We certainly have deer, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, owls, and (formerly) bears in redwood forests. In fact the only “common woodland animal” that I can think of off the top of my head that exists only in the east is the moose. This is both surprising and interesting, as the forest type and climate are so drastically different in the two ecosystems. I wonder how this works. Potentially, the climate in east coast forests is harsher on mammals, so any that can survive here can survive in other climates as well. Although that seems questionable; Calfornia, for instance, has a dry period and a rainy period – something would seem highly important to life history development. Regardless, differences between California ecology and east-coast ecology are something that I definitely want to study further. As I finished up my ecology for the day, gathering leaf litter, I realized that having a deciduous forest creates the potential for a far more predictable and complex (i.e. studyable!) leaf litter ecological cycle. Even though it’s strange and unnerving at first, I’m looking forward to getting to know this new ecosystem.
A tangential afterthought: Emotional Autobiography: People say California doesn’t have seasons. This is blatantly untrue. While I don’t specifically remember my first experience with nature, since it was such a common part of my childhood, some of the earliest feelings I remember have to do with the changing seasons: the crispness of air as early fall progresses to late fall, signaling that Halloween is coming. There is a certain smell to the air around that time, which I always attributed to pumpkins. But upon further consideration I sincerely doubt that the two are directly related. Next comes the subtle drop in temperature and elegant morning frost that comes with the end of fall/beginning of winter. Everything is covered in a thin layer of lacy crystalline frost patterns. Rooftops across the valley sparkle with ice crystals as I leave for school. Then comes the torrential rain of late winter. While I was never one for going out in it, I have many fond memories of sitting in front of my window, drinking tea and watching my pool change colors and textures depending on how hard it was raining. As spring approached, these downpours shrunk into smaller showers. The air smelled fresh and tasted clean and new. As I left for school in the morning, I would watch the mist swirling up from redwoods in the valley below and imagine that I could control the intricate and distant patterns with my hands. Gradually, we would shift into late spring, and the air would warm up to just the perfect temperature. The trees outside my house would bloom, and wildlife in the forest would sound more alive than ever. I would go out, climb to the top of my sandhill, and feel my skin absorbing the sunlight. Sometimes I’d pretend I was a reptile.
Then there was summer…but that was just really hot and not that poetic.