Tag Archives: Nature

Baby Monarchs

I had only just set up the tent when the heavens opened and all of Noah’s flood was upon us. The wife and kids took shelter in the car while I dodged hail and lightning to dig trenches with my camp shovel and drain the pooling water from around what would be our home for the next week. Amazingly, it worked. When the storm passed we found that the inside of the tent was still acceptably dry, nothing that a day of sunshine wouldn’t mop up.

Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park is one of my favorite places. We’ve made a family tradition of our annual camping trip there. The meadows are about 8,600 feet above sea level and it takes a couple days to adjust to the thin air. The peaks framing the meadows reach elevations over 12,000 feet. When people think of Yosemite, they think of Yosemite Valley with its big granite cliffs and domes, but the valley accounts for only five percent of the park. The area around Tuolumne Meadows is wilder and less crowded.

An easy half-mile hike across the meadows brings you to Soda Springs, formerly a camping site of the park’s patron saint, John Muir. There are nice views of the Cathedral Range to the south and the Sierra Club maintains an old cabin here called Parson’s Lodge. Day hikers loiter inside examining maps, historical displays, and guides to the local flora and fauna.

At Parson’s Lodge a maybe twelve-year-old boy noticed my daughter’s butterfly net and asked if she’d caught any. She said she had. “Were they orange?” he asked. Yes, she said, they were orange and black. “Well then they were monarchs,” he said. My daughter knew this wasn’t right. She said that they were too small to be monarchs (in fact they were Pacific fritillaries). Sensing perhaps that he was in over his head, the boy discredited himself further by suggesting that “they were probably baby monarchs.”

He went on to ask my daughter what else she’d seen. She was looking for frogs, she said. “Frogs are reptiles, you know,” said the boy. Probably because he was a stranger, my daughter was gentler with her correction than she might otherwise have been. She explained that she was pretty well convinced that frogs were, in fact, amphibians. “Sure,” said the boy uncomfortably, “if you want to get technical about it. But a frog is a frog, if you ask me.”

We laughed a lot over this. My wife wondered if it weren’t a typically male trait, this need to be a know-it-all. The next day at Dog Lake we discovered a bird’s ground nest with three eggs in it. A paterfamilias who happened to be walking by with his brood declared the bird – which was bobbing and squawking to distract us from its eggs – a killdeer. It definitely was not, since it lacked the black bars across the breast which are typical of a killdeer. We later decided it was probably a spotted sandpiper.

The only book I brought to read while camping was John Glassie’s biography of Athanasius Kircher, A Man of Misconceptions. Kircher seems to have suffered from the “male” condition too. He knew, as far as he was concerned, an awful lot about everything, but in fact he got most of it wrong. For example, he boasted himself into a reputation for being able to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. He was called upon by popes and emperors to translate them. We know now that he was making it up as he went along, but no one else in Kircher’s day could actually read hieroglyphs and so he got away with it.

I don’t know if this desire to convince others of our own encyclopedic knowledge is a male trait, or simply a human trait. I do know that I sometimes overspeak. I’m trying to shake the habit, to unlearn things that I never really knew and embrace my rediscovered and probably invincible ignorance. This tree, for example. Is it a mountain hemlock or a lodgepole pine? How can you tell a dragonfly from a damselfly? And these little beetles with the iridescent backs – what are they called? I really have no idea.

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“I know I’m getting a little romantic here, but I like to think of them as gardeners.” The National Park Service ranger was giving a lecture on the Clark’s Nutcracker, an ash-gray corvid with striking white and black wing and tail feathers. The birds have a special relationship (a “mutualism,” he said) with the Whitebark Pine which grows near tree-line in the higher parts of the Sierra Nevada. “You see, every Whitebark Pine in these mountains, every single one of them, was planted once upon a time by a Clark’s Nutcracker.”

The Whitebark’s cones do not open on their own. Its seeds are not spread by wind or fire. Only the Nutcracker can extract them. The bird will store between eighty and 100 seeds in its throat pouch and cache them away three or five or seven at a time in the shallow soil of rocky alpine slopes. A single nutcracker will make over 9,000 caches each year and retrieve the seeds in winter by memory. A fraction of these are forgotten, or intentionally spared, and so the Whitebark grows, wherever it grows, in clumps of between three and seven trees. When they mature, after some sixty or eighty years, they produce cones of their own to tempt the descendents of the Nutcracker that first planted them.

The ranger, a young man with a short beard and long hair and the earnest enthusiasm of a character from a Wes Anderson movie, drew the picture for us: Flying among the granite peaks and glacial valleys, the Clark’s Nutcracker surveys a landscape of very personal significance, not a wilderness but a family garden planted and tended by a thousand generations of his forebears, which he will tend in turn and leave for his children. Within his territory he knows, quite probably, every tree, every root.

From our campsite at Tuolumne Meadows (at an elevation of 8,600 feet), we made a day hike up to Elizabeth Lake (9,600 feet), just below the granite horn of Unicorn Peak. This was no mean feat with two children in tow, considering the gain in elevation and the thin air. But while lunching on salami, apples, and hard-boiled eggs, we saw the Whitebark growing in small patches of krummholz, trunks and branches weather-tortured into grim, Dantean statuary, all knees and elbows and twisted necks. And flapping away across the water we saw what could only have been a nutcracker, a crow-sized bird with flashing white patches visible at the distance of a quarter mile.

Back at camp, reading the old paperback I’d brought along (Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography), it occurred to me that if we can expand the definition of “tree” and consider books – made of wood pulp, after all – a sort of sub-species, then I am deep in an arboreal mutualism of my own. My library at home becomes a tended forest, inherited down a makeshift genealogy from those (readers and writers) who have come before me. The books themselves provide me necessary nourishment and I, in turn, propagate them through lending and recommendation, and by keeping them in fair enough shape to pass on while they still have fruit to bear.

Perhaps there’s a biological basis, then, and I’m not simply being a Luddite, for preferring real books printed on actual paper made of wood pulp over electronic books downloaded as digital files, to be read from a screen. Electronic books break the mutualism, sever the natural relationship, that we reading people have so long enjoyed. Some, I suppose, might see in the advent of the digital library a leap forward in the evolution of reading – another descent from the primordial trees onto the open savannah. I’ve always preferred the forest.


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Marginalia, no.258

…the mobile shade of the trees.

~ Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

Add “the roundness of the sun” to the list of things that determine my experience of the world in ways I never guessed. Yesterday we made a pinhole camera and projected the solar eclipse onto a sheet of paper. The image was clear, but small; the kids only shrugged. I walked into the greenbelt behind the house. The crows were calling in the branches. Turning back, the texture of home’s familiar shadows had changed. Filtered through the leaves, a thousand winking crescent suns danced on the wall.

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Marginalia, no.256

Internally, however, we are no more symmetrical than snails.

~ Armand Marie Leroi, Mutants

They may have other faults, but snails do not deceive. Depending on its species, a snail’s shell will spiral either to right or left, like a hat worn at a tilt. We humans are less honest. We make an outward show of balance – two each of eyes, ears, nostrils, arms, legs, etc. – but declare allegiance with the gastropods by the arrangement of our innards: stomach, spleen, pancreas, liver and gallbladder. Most telling, the heart is off-center.

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Birds and Boulders

Sick of the city, you wake the family early and hit the road. The countryside in San Benito County is green and empty. The land opens out below Gilroy and the asphalt is submerged in a lake of grass that fills the bowl between the eastern and western hills. Highway 25 skirts the miserable strip malls and tract-housing of Hollister, then slips into the long chiseled groove that marks the San Andreas Rift Zone between the Diablo and Gabilan ranges. South of Paicines oaks press the verge of the road and you pass through territory held by a colony of Yellow-billed Magpies (Pica nutalli). Crow-like with patches of white, their primaries and tertials flash an iridescent seaweed blue. The yellow muzzle is unmistakable.

Pinnacles National Monument is best avoided in summer. The isolated inland hills flare up infernally, even when not actually burning, and afternoons above 110 degrees are common. All the creeks run dry. In spring, however, the brook at Bear Gulch tinkles below a stone and timber ranger station built in the 1930s by Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration. You follow a hiking trail up the canyon through oak groves and weird vaults of rock. There’s a low buzzing of bees or wasps, but you can’t find their nest. A Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) in his black Robin Hood cap follows through the undergrowth. The trail leads into a cave where a flashlight shows little waterfalls purling through gaps in the rocks. Looking down into the dark your daughter spots (she says) some dinosaur bones. The far end of the cave is closed so that no one will disturb the weeks-long drowsy intercourse of bats.

The ‘pinnacles’ themselves are the fossil bones of a primeval volcano whose flesh has long ago rotted away. From an igneous shelf above the reservoir, where you eat a picnic lunch, there’s a nice vista of the high peaks: boulders and broken ribs of rusted stone that rear up from amid the chaparral and the few scattered pines. It’s about here that your son misplaces his one perfect walking stick in the world and insists on retracing his steps. Your daughter runs the other way to chase an Orangetip butterfly through blood-barked manzanitas. Overhead, lucky you, a massive California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) slides past, soundless and assured, its finger feathers splayed and ten-foot arms stretched wide, a shipless rudder in the sky. Hold your breath. You have just seen one of Earth’s rarest birds.

Driving north on Highway 25 the weather shifts and clouds run in from the Pacific. You begin to dread that portion of the road ahead where the horrid strip malls start again, and the ugly houses, and the acres of concrete. You hope, in a way, that Mencken was right when he called mankind nothing more consequential than “a local disease of the cosmos.” Here is Paicines again, and now the little hamlet of Tres Pinos. Outside a sheet-metal warehouse some meat-headed kid is marching weighted barbells down the street, while a friend shouts encouragement. Thank God for birds and boulders, you think. It may be that we are nothing better than a rash on the leg of dame Nature, but what a gam!


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