Toast and Jelly…fish?

No, I’m not eating jellyfish, but I’m not accustomed to seeing them during my morning walk with my dog on the Embarcadero as I did this morning. I know that there are jellyfish along the coast and in (and out) of the bay, but I didn’t expect to see them gently drifting up and down in the tides so close to the piers along the sidewalk.

I still experience a thrill when I see wildlife at an unexpected time or in an unexpected place. I’ve done this particular walk, extending out onto the vacant Pier 32, many times and have seen numerous sea birds and seals, but this is the first time I’ve seen jellyfish drifting along. At first, I was drawn to areas of bubbles emerging to the surface–i’m not sure what was producing them. [I know that jellyfish absorb oxygen and expell carbon dioxide through diffusion, but I didn’t think that produced many bubbles. Were the jellyfish feeding (slowly)? Was something feeding on the jellyfish?]

Anyway, the naturalist in me compelled me to stay and watch, which is what ultimately lead to me observing the jellyfish (and the above video). I’m thinking it was a sea nettle?

Here are some great resources to learn a bit more about jellyfish:

A short but captivating experience reming me of the power of nature to calm and relax! Be sure to check out the Jelly Cam link!

Oh, The Gall of it…

I just splurged on the online purchase of an out-of-print book from an independent used bookstore.  You see, I became obsessed with a particular field guide once I started more closely observing the many galls abundant in my area.

the gall

the gall that started it all–California Gall Wasp

Our native oaks are abundant hosts to an amazing variety of galls—they host more gall insects than any other native tree or plant in the western United States[1].  Looking into an oak tree in California, it might be easy to mistake some of the types for fruit—the variety produced by the California gall wasp are often referred to as “oak apples,” though I wouldn’t take a bite out of one.

Galls can be considered a nursery for insect larva that the tree is forced to produce in response to the activity of the larva—chemical secretions produced by the larva after emerging from their egg causes the host plant to produce material that eventually forms the gall specific to that plant and insect combination.

There is nothing I (or anyone really) can write about galls that hasn’t been better and more exhaustively covered by Ron Russo; the article I linked above gives just a taste (here it is in its original publication).gall book

His extensive and renowned guide on the topic is now “out of print” at UC Press but available at some online sites for a bit of an investment (a hard cover copy is available for just over $1,000). Hence my obsession. I managed to find a used paperback (for much less that the price of the hardcover I mentioned) that is in remarkable shape.

Field guides are a treasure—the cumulation of dedicated research and observation by an enthusiastic, committed individual (or team). The thrill of a well-researched, well-written, well-documented and well-illustrated field guide is difficult to explain to someone who isn’t inclined to the natural world.

This 340-page tome by Mr. Russo is no exception—a thorough and beautiful guide to the amazing diversity and variety of plant galls in California (and other western states).  He worked as a naturalist for the East Bay Regional Park District for 37 years, retiring as the chief naturalist in 2003. He has discovered over sixty-five new species of gall-inducing organisms (including bacteria, fungi, aphids, moths, midges, and wasps).

In most instances, such a collection of concentrated knowledge on a narrow subject would be considered an obsession…well, actually, often the best field guides are indeed an obsession—so be it!

As “social progress” seems to favor the extremes of general, homogenized, mass media or niche, targeted, “tribal,” self-interested content, I’m more content to regularly connect with in-depth, specialized material, especially those intended for sharing knowledge.  True field guides often represent years and years of study, research and careful compilation. Much to enjoy.

Take a few moments to find something like this in an area that interests you…

[1] Oaks of California by Bruce M. Pavlik, Pamela C. Muick, Sharon G. Johnson, and Marjorie Popper; Cachuma Press.

Hungry birds in the rain

I could NOT take my eyes off the bird activity in the backyard during the recent heavy rains—mostly a few dozen robins (& others) enthusiastically devouring berries from what might be a Sambucus or Elder (the smooth leaf margins are confusing my efforts to id it). Of course, robins are known for sometimes foraging en masse like this. This day, it was in the middle of the heaviest downpour.

December Hummingbird

Just a brief interlude in the backyard garden at the hummingbird feeder.

Curious about backyard bird feeding?  Checkout this great information presented by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

Should I stop feeding birds in fall so they can start their migration?

Keeping your feeders up has no influence on whether a bird will start its journey south. A number of factors trigger the urge for birds to migrate…

Fill Your Feeders! Project FeederWatch and BirdSpotter Are Back

Feeder season. It’s one of the best things about fall and winter. With the cold weather and bare trees, your bird feeders become hubs of activity.

FeederWatch Staff Answers Your Feeder Questions In Live Q&A (previously recorded)

Drawing Nature

I spent the day in Pepperwood Preserve, a conservation and nature study center in the heart of Sonoma County, as part of the California Naturalist Program certification. I’m taking the course at this location to learn more about this incredible natural setting in order to become more involved as a volunteer.

This first field session was focused on drawing skills—an important part of one of the naturalist’s key tools, a field journal. Now, I am not an artist, but that’s not so much the point. The act of drawing gives us the ability to capture key details of what we see in the field and emphasize key elements that strike us at that particular moment.

TR Charcoal sketch

A quick study across the senic vista. What I most like about this is that I used a piece of burnt log from the nearby fire pit to make the drawing. The 4 smudges in the lower foreground are fog collectors for climate studies.

Of course, being a huge fan of digital photography, I really appreciate my Nikon point & shoot. So ultimately, I find it useful to combine digital pictures with good field journaling, sketches, and detailed notes.

A most outstanding resource on the subject of field journals is The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling. John Muir Laws is just an outstanding and very personable resource with an excellent website. The book is really amazing and in depth. I’m taking it section-by-section.

My naturalist class urges us to use the “Grinnell” Method, developed by Joseph Grinnell (1877–1939), an American field biologist and zoologist. It is, to say the least, precise. Hopefully practice will make…well, not “perfect” but good enough. (To be mindful…)

Our field-records will be perhaps the most valuable of all our results. …any and all (as many as you have time to record) items are liable to be just what will provide the information wanted. You can’t tell in advance which observations will prove valuable. Do record them all!

~Grinnell, 1908


a drawing of the clouds and rain from the journals of Thoreau

I do find that this time-honored technique is an important part of the naturalist experience for the individual while also leaving an important and personal record.  Beyond simply recording data, field journals offer engaging and compelling observations and reflections that provide important context. I was just reading an article that quotes the field journals of Henry David Thoreau (also not necessarily artist), and I was struck by his boundless enthusiasm and curiosity as well as his detailed observations.

Towards the end of the session on Saturday, we stopped under this Bigleaf Maple, native from Alaska to southern California. (Yes, maple trees in California, big bold hardy ones, not those precious palmate maples.) The hills around us are dotted with splashes and zones of deciduous color right now—likely this tree. The patterns that appear indicated specific preferable growing conditions. Given the summer heat, these trees do best with some humidity, like the fog blanketing the area the morning we started, so I’m postulating that the specific and demarcated color splashes in the hills represent growth patterns defined by the effect of the fog rolling over and concentrating on the hills.

Bigleaf maple zone

An example of the color patterns of what I assume are deciduous trees in the hills of Pepperwood Preserve. Sadly, because of the ongoing effects we have had of Sudden Oak Death in the forrests here, some of us were wondering. Closer examinaton may be required.


Great Minds Think Alike: Thoreau Embraces Darwin

I just read an absorbing and detailed excerpt adapted from The Book That Changed America, by Randall Fuller, which details the impact of Darwin’s then just published Origin of Species on American intellectual life, specifically in this section at the deep draw it had for Henry David Thoreau.


Photo of Darwin & First edition of The Origin of the Species

Initially fascinating as an examination of how one great mind was influenced by another, the chapter expands on how Thoreau not only embraced the writing of Darwin, but also allowed the theoretical framework to redefine his intellectual understanding of the world.


First edition of Walden by Thoreau

Some compelling quotes from the chapter:

Darwin’s portrait of a teeming, pulsating natural world deeply resonated with Thoreau. The Origin of Species revealed nature as process, as continual becoming. It directed one’s attention away from fixed concepts and hierarchies, toward movement instead. It valued moments of evanescent change above all others. If it endowed each organism with a history, it also pointed to a future that was impossible to predict.

Thoreau latched onto this particular moment in the Origin for several reasons. For one, it implied that the history of an environment was recoverable. If one accepted the premise that perpetual struggle between species led to the creation of place, then one could uncover its history and thereby determine why “precisely these objects which we behold make a world,” as he had written in Walden.

In Darwin’s vision of nature, species and individuals honed themselves in strife. They came into being through continual friction with one another. “Many cases are on record showing how complex and unexpected are the checks and relations between organic beings,” Darwin wrote, “which have to struggle together in the same country.” Thoreau didn’t express it in quite the same way, but he seems to have begun envisioning a natural world that resembled a democracy more than a kingdom, its citizens connected and yet perennially jostling for advantage.



Harvest the Best of the Worst?


Cultivate the tree which you have found to bear fruit in your soil.

~Henry David Thoreau

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.

~Robert Louis Stevenson

harvest-moon-sidney-australia-e1474044536249Look for the full Harvest Moon on September 16 (including a subtle penumbral eclipse on the night of September 16-17, visible from visible from half of Earth, but unfortunately not North America).


A bad tree does not yield good apples. (English proverb)

This has been a great year for apples. The trees at RMH have been generous with their fruit, and the flavors have been delicious, consistently great. I didn’t find myself having to choose the “best of the worst,” unlike with politics these days. Imagine how sad you would be if, during harvest, you picked two apples, checked them over, and handed them to a friend, saying, “they’re both mealy, not the best examples of apples, but this one is the least bad of the two.”

Mmm. Tasty. Of course, an apple doesn’t have to be perfect to be part of a great applesauce or apple butter

“The sweeter the apple, the blacker the core. Scratch a lover and find a foe!”    ~Dorothy Parker

Would you apologize for the garden? The growing conditions this year? Your ability to pick fruit? Luckily, even bad fruit can be used to make good compost, especially if mixed with a bit of manure.

Let’s just say, one does reap what one sows, and, especially, what one cultivates. I believe this metaphor applies to socio/political gardening.

Reap & Sowbee-rose

Thankfully, gardening is much harder work than reading the news online or my inane social media feed, and, thus, is remarkably more rewarding. More so, given my current state of being, as I’ve become one of those Tylenol or Advil commercials of a person of a certain age who “over did it today” and needs a bit of “gentle safe relief” from my exertion.

As I’ve said many times, I love every season, and especially the transition between two. Summer into Autumn is a delight because while still harvesting the summer garden, one is planting cooler-weather crops. In fact, around here we typically have a nearly constant harvest of fruits & especially vegetables throughout the year. (Providing, of course, one appreciates the lovely flavors and healthfulness of leafy greens, a staple of the cool weather garden.)

Crushing fall

It’s always funny how the angle of the light in the sky and the crispness of the air give a classic statement of Autumn. Of course, it doesn’t officially begin until September 22 (at 7:21am, PDT, to be precise), and yet the human urge to rush seasonality is almost inescapable.


From right outside my office at RMH–a percussive addition to the sounds of fall

It doesn’t help that around here wineries in the area have been deep into the grape crush for weeks—something I refer to as the “hum of crush.” As I’ve blogged before, one notices different traffic patterns and energy as people rush to vineyards for picking—a specific urgency as workers hurry from one location to another, as their workplace is in a different location every day. Also, just to make sure we know it’s harvest, the nighttime horizon of a given vineyard is often dominated by the remarkably bright and oddly intimating glow of harvest lights.  (It’s easy to imagine some alien landing or government conspiracy event that might take place in a field; in fact, I often think of the dessert landing scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when I first discover them.)

Crush is an odd reality unto its own.  A dimensional time shift in which the leisurely pace of grape growing during the idyllic “dog days” of summer is suddenly sped up to an urgency of harvesting, crushing and pressing to extract the elixir of the Vitis vinifera to speed it on its way fermenting.

Growers and winemakers suddenly become driven to urgency seemingly out of context for something as simple as wine. But, then again, it is wine, fine wine around here.

Squash, that gourdcindarella-smaller

I think the pumpkins have a lot to do with it also.  We’ve got a lot growing here at RMH, and their flame-colored delineation becomes more and more pronounced as their developing width and increasing mass catch the growing golden tinge of the sunlight as their now-spent fan-like leaves begin to fade.  In the case of the classic Cinderella pumpkin, an heirloom from France (a cultivar of Cucurbita maxima, also known as the Rouge Vif d’Etampes), their crimson carriages do indeed take on a magical feel.

And yet, ours will be used for the delicious but less enchanted categories of decoration & food. Especially since these “winter squashes” are edible for such a prolonged period after their harvest. Which points to their value as an “old world” food so essential to human habitation on this continent.

Reflected Light in the Night

As I stated up top, this weekend is the full Harvest Moon. Curious how much lunar lore dominates human culture, especially given that “moon light” is all reflected light.

A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

Oscar Wilde

snow-moon-risingI’m moved by the moonlight, as was evidenced by my distraction last night as I noticed the glow of the rising moon, incongruous, as the moon was not yet visible in my part of the night sky.  When I think about it, I become mesmerized by the effect of the beautiful luminosity of our star (the sun), not visible, as it shines its burning light over 90 million miles, past the earth (while illuminating the Eastern Hemisphere), to the moon. Then, the reflected light of a practically full moon bounces back nearly a quarter-million miles to the night sky.

It was a nice moment, capping a day during which I was able to both garden and take some pictures of the later summer flowers around here.

I’ve been distracted from spending as much time working on projects connected to nature, which is not my nature.  Office work of running a business has been “eclipsing” time I might spend on these projects, while at the same time, in some cases, issues at various organizations have deflected my engagement.

So, the metaphor, of course, is that sometimes reflected light is more illuminating than we realize.  The phenomena of nature are all around us, holding us, shaping us, the stuff of us. So, though one might be in an absence of direct enlightenment, inspiration is still available.


Seasonal déjà vu

Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.
~ Henry David Thoreau

The Autumn counterfeited Spring
With such a flush of flowers,
His fiery-tinctured garlands more
Than mocked the April bowers,
And airs as sweet as airs of June
Brought on the twilight hours.
~Dinah Mulock Craik

When Summer gathers up her robes of glory, And, Like a dream of beauty, glides away. ~ Sarah Helen Whitman

I really enjoy the transition of one season to another, a bridge between the phases of nature’s inevitable advance. One of the ways I experience it most profoundly is when I am out working in the garden and become seized by a profound awareness of recognition–seasonal déjà vu.near fall evening

After months of growing comfort, working to be in tune with the unique personality of the current season, it’s invigorating to get a whiff of the approaching season—like a good, old friend when you think you caught a glimpse of them across the street, or a remarkably familiar smell that suddenly forces a sharp, visceral recall into your consciousness. (With my grandmother, it’s certain smells of hearty “old school” cooking or, improbably, Lysol, reminding me of the process of cleaning the garbage room of the apartment building she managed with my grandfather.)

Of course, September 23 is the equinox, so we are not yet in autumn; however, we just had a desperately needed day of rain, so today had that incredible smell of wet dry grass mixed with just slightly moistened parched dirt. The plants & trees at River Myst Haven have been smacked in to a vividness by their first rain in many months that evokes an autumnal “spring awakening.” Correspondingly, the “call of fall” is evoked by various temperature extremes typical for this time of year—nighttime temps will dip to 48° but hit 90 during the day on Saturday. We know the drill: sweatshirt in the morning, t-shirt in the afternoon (and, of course, sun screen)—only more so this year!

The unusual weather in California isn’t news any more—our drought has reached exceptional scope and speculation about El Niño is all the rage. It is important to note that this phenomenon of the ocean currents is regular, unpredictable, and erratic in the out comes it produces. This first push of rain hit southern California with up to 2 inches of rain in some areas and heavy flooding in other western states, but left my simple rain gauge at about a half-inch.


Relief agencies.

[You’ve probably heard about the multiple wildfires in the state. Lake County has been hit particularly hard, so I want to post an update on relief needs.]

So, these last several years have been odd but may be the “new normal.” The affect on how things grow is quite noticeable. We experience the change in weather, data points to a change in climate, multiple studies call out the effect of human activity…what I can say for certain is that if these changes remain constant, what we eat when will be affected, as will the cost of food.

The Nature of Hotness

One of the joys of gardening in Sonoma County is growing chiles (or chili. Or chilli.) of many different varieties. The hotness of chiles is rated on the Scoville Scale and is dependent on how much capsaicin is in the fruit. Recently I learned a lesson in the intensity of the Scoville Scale and a bit of humility regarding what I will shove in my mouth without thinking it through.chili

I decided it wise to take a bet with someone to trade and try hot chiles that we each grew. Seems he eats very hot chiles every day for lunch; however, I on the other hand will typically only use them for cooking.

He ate the one I grew like it was candy, so it was my turn. Being small, I ate it in one bite. At first it has a fresh taste and a mild warming sensation. Turns out the chile is referred to as El Diablo, and it lives up to it’s reputation. First I felt a slow, steady burn develop as it I had taken a mouth full of a hot beverage that was uncomfortable but not burning. Ahh, if only it had stopped there. Very quickly, it began to feel like I had taken a mouth full of some chemical that wasn’t supposed to be consumed, and, even more quickly, I began to worry that I would soon be experiencing blistering. Cut to me dashing to the refrigerator… ahhhhh, the calming effect of the fat in several glasses of milk…lesson learned.