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Pepperwood

I’m typing this on a computer with a wonky letter s, so think of that when I miss a letter. I’m at my friend’s place in Sacramento; he’s asleep, I’m awake, and noon is a half hour away. Outside the window I can see my friend’s backyard and it looks the same as the nature preserve I visited yesterday – yellow and (most likely) full of senescent annual grasses. California used to be full of long-lived perennial grasses, which were green and varied and beautiful to behold. Then the non-native annual grasses spread and completely took over, more so than in Texas (or, for that matter, other states).

Annual grasses live fast and die young. They have the most basic, boring shape imaginable: one stem, shooting straight up, with a handful of seeds at the top, which they push out and carpet-bomb the land with before dying and turning into litter. That’s why all those hillsides in California look yellow, because they’re 95% full of only one or two annual grasses. They were introduced by European settlers to California as pasture for grazing and have been the dominant plants in even the most remote California areas for 150 years now, so that’s not likely to change.

california_grasses

The view from the field looks a lot like this.

My hands still have cuts and spray paint from the work I did yesterday at Pepperwood preserve. We took the highway out to Sonoma, which is out in the country; me, my advisor and a couple intern types passed a few vineyards along the way that weren’t much to see. The field site looked a lot like the University of California research station I stayed at earlier, though the view from the guest house they have for researchers was a million-dollar 360-degree mountaintop view (we only stopped in there to refill on water and marvel at how good they have it). Our work for the day was to spray-paint the shiny metal barrier around nine 10 ft. x 10 ft. makeshift enclosures made out of a thin sheet of steel spread out around the top of a chicken-wire fence, to keep out rodents.

Pepperwood is owned by a ranching family which has converted their land to a nature preserve, as a research site for ecology and education; they have a great new center built to LEED standards which we drove past, on a way up the winding road to the nine different enclosures spread through the reserve. We had to stop the car every so often to open up a gate, which is put there to keep the cows out, same as the electrified fence around some of our enclosures. Don’t imagine some lethal barrier out of Jurassic Park, though; if you touch it while it’s still electrified, you get a shock like a bug zapper (I know this because we touched it to find out, lol). The spray painting was to reduce the reflectivity of the metal barrier, and also simply because the people who run Pepperwood requested it. So we walked through these yellow field to get to the barriers, soaped down the metal top part with water and acidic vinegar,  and then spray painted them, using about 2 cans per barrier. It was an ugly paint job, honestly – if this was your fence, you wouldn’t like it – but it was good enough for our work.

The most beautiful part of the landscape is the trees. Most of them are oaks, covered with pale green lichen and Spanish moss (or something that looks just like it, to be scientifically accurate). They say that these lichen are an excellent indicator of air quality, which is why there aren’t nearly as many in the city as there are an hour outside it. It’s the same story in Houston, incidentally; go to Spring, and you’ll see lichen growing on trees everywhere. At Pepperwood, they basically form a coat over more than half the bark, and look sort of like a frilly lace wrapped around all the branches. There were also madrone growing there too, or ‘lady’ leg’ as they’re also commonly known, since they have smooth reddish-orange bark that peels to expose pale whitish-beige underneath. For the most part, if you imagine yellow fields with stands of trees every so often, you’ve got it right.

One of the interns found a red tailed hawk feather, which was about a foot long and perfectly preserved. The other one found some coyote scat; he poked through it and found a tooth, along with a lot of gopher hairs (apparently, gophers are like 90% of their diet – they camp out outside their holes, wait for them to poke their heads out, and then pounce and drag them away: whack-a-mole for predators). We also found a deer skull with the nose area bitten off, with two bony horns sticking out of it; you could see the curvy line where the skull bones fused, among other things. The same intern later got bit by a bee or (more likely) a wasp that looks like a bee, since I later saw it hovering around me. Our advisor found a plant growing near a rock and said this was a medicinal plant, according to some people, and then said the name in German – Johannes something – and one of the interns guessed “St. John’s wort?” – and that was correct. It was growing near a rock (like poison oak often does, for some reason) and was about 3 1/2 feet tall, and had delicate yellow flowers and spots on the leaves.

We finished early and headed back to Berkeley. In the car we took out the snake bit kit and tried it out, and felt the weird suction thing it does to your skin when you use the pump to create a vacuum. One of the guys talked about finding a rattlesnake on a nature walk, about 4 feet long and as big as a cat around; he ran away from it before it could rattle, but his professor walked up, lifted it off the ground and showed it the class, like a boss. He also talked about the California newt, which groups together with other newts in a big ball when it reproduces and can also produce a lethal oily poison on its skin if you make it angry (one newt contains enough poison to kill about 20 people, he said). Then he talked about learning Swahili and going to a summer program at a Kenyan reserve, and said a few phrases in Swahili for us. We also talked about jobs in conservation (many of them on small overseas islands), graduate school, bad roommates, and the $1.49 deal on any size coffee and a donut at the gas station where we stopped for gas. They dropped me off at my place on Piedmont, my friend came a half hour later, and I’ve been in Sacramento since then, just taking life easy and enjoying the weekend.

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