Category Archives: landscape

2014: a year in pictures

It’s only recently that I’ve gotten back to posting, and there’s close to a year’s worth of stuff that might have been blog-worthy.

Here’s a short, redacted list of 2014 highlights:

All Year

Some humanoid raccoon tracks from what I'm calling "The year of the Raccoon": I've groused on these pages about gophers killing many plants in the garden. This year, the raccoons moved in. Raccoons eat many things: precious koi out of the fishpond, grubs, fruits, veggies...and, apparently, YOUNG GOPHERS. So far, I'm liking the raccoons a little better, at least in that they don't eat the roots of the young plants I'm trying to establish.
Some humanoid raccoon tracks from what I’m calling “The year of the Raccoon”: I've groused on these pages about gophers killing many plants in the garden. This year, the raccoons moved in. Raccoons eat many things: precious koi out of the fishpond, grubs, fruits, veggies…and, apparently, YOUNG GOPHERS. So far, I'm liking the raccoons a little better, at least in that they don't eat the roots of the young plants I'm trying to establish. And I haven’t seen nearly as many gophers.

Atlanta Botanical Garden. Oops. Sorry. No photos. Someone let the camera battery get drained… Imagine, though, snow on the ground, an outdoor elevated walkway winding its way gracefully through the trees beneath what in summer would be a cooling canopy, several terrific interior conservatory spaces filled with fragrant orchids. Not a huge garden, but worth the visit.

The Southwest

Monument Valley: the grand view from the parking lot
Monument Valley: the grand view from the parking lot

Composite panorama of the Goosenecks of the San Juan River
Composite panorama of the Goosenecks of the San Juan River. Honest. The river does this. No Photoshop beyond merging the photos into one.
Afternoon at Muley Point
Afternoon at Muley Point
Another view at Muley Point, one of my favorite places on earth. Sunrise the next morning was spectacular
Another view at Muley Point, one of my favorite places on earth. Notice how the bottoms of the clouds are pink, reflecting the red color of the earth below. Sunrise the next morning was spectacular, as you might guess.
Horsecollar Ruin, Natural Bridges National Monument
Horsecollar Ruin, Natural Bridges National Monument

A creature waaay more scary than a racoon or gopher…

Halloween: "The Truth about Hello Kitty"
Halloween: “The Truth about Hello Kitty”

The drought continues. Even with some supplemental watering we lost a fair number of plants. This pile of brownery is what was left of the South African protea hybrid, Pink Ice. We had it for over twenty years–pretty good for a plant that’s considered difficult to cultivate. The loss of exotic plants in the garden is an opportunity at the same time: There’s now more space to plug in some more California natives. Already in the protea’s place are a Ceanothus Ray Hartman and a bush poppy.

The dry remains of protea Pink Ice, ready for their final trip to the landfill
The dry remains of protea Pink Ice, ready for their final trip to the landfill

The rain, the rain… Almost five inches of it fell in one month, compared to a total 3.27 inches in the eleven months from January to November. Nobody’s calling the drought ended, but months like this are a great down-payment towards a season of more normal rainfall. Here’s wishing for more rain, and for a great 2015, for the garden, and all of you!

Thanksgiving in the mountains

Thanksgiving Day saw us on the road, with some of that time exploring the crest of the Laguna Mountains about 90 minutes to the east of here. The stretch of S1 over the crest hasĀ  one of those wonderfully poetic names: Sunrise Highway.

View from the road towards the east.
View from the road towards the east.

There’s a chance (ever-diminishing as I look at the forecasts) of winter weather on the way, but things were still blooming away here and there… A patch of Corothrogyne (Lessingia) californica, buckwheats, Datura wrightii, with both flowers and seed pods, a living example of optimism and practicality living side by side…

Corethrogyne filaginifolia
Corethrogyne filaginifolia
Datura pod
Datura pod
Datura bud
Datura bud

MtLaguna_Fall color

Patches of yellowing leaves let you know it was fall, but it’s a pretty low-color year this time around. (The California Fall Color blog has the same opinion, and blames it on the bark beetle and drought.) Without the magic of Photoshop this dull photo would have been even duller.

View over the Little Valley Valley
View over the Little Valley Valley

Anyone traveling this route must stop at this amazing overlook down Oriflamme Canyon and over Vallecito Valley (which translates redundantly into “Little Valley Valley”). The valley floor lies more than a mile below the viewpoint, but the atmospherics today were amazingly clear. Since my last visit, the Chariot fire had swept through the area, taking out over 7,000 acres of landscape and almost 150 structures, including the Shrine Camp and one of the cabins at the Sierra Club’s historic Foster Lodge. That was back in July of 2013.

MtLaguna_Chimney remains and flag

Like most California wildfires in this area, this one had a human origin–a BLM Jeep igniting some dry plants beneath it. Natural processes are geared to try to go back to some semblance of where things were before the fire, but the disproportionate number of human-source fires presses hard on the plants. A landscape that can recover from burning every century doesn’t do well when stressed unreasonably. Invasive plants can move in and change the makeup of the vegetation completely.

MtLaguna_Shredded flag

This area can see some pretty extreme wind speeds, and this spot is not far from the place where wind gusts topped 100 mph this past May during our most extreme Santa Ana Wind condition in recent memory. You might guess that from the shredded flag. Add some embers to winds like that and you have the perfect firestorm.

But…it wasn’t doing that on this bright November day, and for that we were thankful, not to mention being thankful for the great scenery and looks at the great plants that live here.

You can take your own version of this trip courtesy Google Street View. I’ve placed the marker right at the big viewpoint. Enjoy your tour along the Sunrise Highway!

there be dragons

Mt Laguna snowIt had snowed in the local mountains late last month. By the time I got up there you could still find big patches of snow on the ground.

Snow over the desert

At the crest of the Laguna Mountains you can look down down down over the edge of the escarpment of the Elsinore Fault to the Vallecito Valley immediately below. It’s a quick vertical mile of dropoff, a height comparable to many vistas along the Grand Canyon. The change in elevation is impressive, but so is the radical change in landscape. A fairly well-watered green-and-brown mountain plant community–think pines, ceanothus, mountain mahogany–careens into a sere desert landscape, all of it in muted brown and purple and pink and gray tones. Down below the colors of geology quickly overpower those of biology. Someone who doesn’t love deserts might liken the descent into Anza Borreo Desert State Park as a descent into Hell.

On this early January day Hell was pleasant, in the low 70s, sunny and dry. Something I hadn’t visited before was a big installation of sculptures by Ricardo Breceda. Installed on a flat expanse on the edge of Borrego Springs you’ll find a rusty steel menagerie of various creatures. I recognized the camels and horses, including this horse with an unfortunately-placed support column.

Camel scuptures in the desert

Horse with rectal probe

Archduke Charles sculpture
(Note to artist: It is possible to model rearing horses without rectal probes, as this sculpture of Archduke Charles in Vienna’s Heldenplatz shows. (Photo by Peter Gerstbach and used here by the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.))

I recognized some of the creatures but a few started to get pretty fanciful, like they’d escaped from a Maurice Sendak picturebook.

Beheaded beast

This one had either just lost its head or was still in the process of being installed.

Horse escaping creature

Headless or not, it was scaring the horses…

Ricardo Breceda sculpture creature

And what the heck is this creature supposed to be? Whatever it was, it appeared to be mom with a little one on her back.

Dragon head

Dragon with mountains

And now we come to the dragon, a big and fancy and fearsome number with five different segments that go from one side of the road to the other. (Edit January 20: Ricki points out that it’s probably a sea serpent and not a dragon, and I agree with her.)

Dragon segment as gate

Here one of the segments functioned as a really lovely little garden portal.

Dragaon vs cholla

But in the end the most fearsome thing of all out in the desert that day wasn’t the dragon, but this “jumping” cholla cactus, one of the local Cylindropuntia species (maybe C. ganderi?). I’ve never been hurt by a dragon, but this bit of botanical evil is a different story. Be afraid, be very afraid.

tales of the city, and a room of mirrors

After leaving Yosemite we took a whirlwind trip to the Bay Area. We had tickets to see Robert Wilson’s and Philip Glass’ “opera,” Einstein on the Beach, which was staged at UC Berkeley as part of an international tour. I’d known the work since it shook the new music and theater circles in the 1970s, but West Coasters like me haven’t have a chance to see the work until now.

It’s a piece that has to be seen to be really appreciated, but I’ll give you a one-word review: Wow.

(Curtain calls…)

So, while in the neighborhood, we cross the bridge to San Francisco for a quick day of even more culture.

With so many offerings you have to choose. This is the sun hitting the famous green roof of the California Academy of Sciences. We didn’t have time to go inside…

…but we did get a good overall view from the view tower next door at the de Young Museum which was renovated fairly recently. Architects Herzog & de Meuron clad the building in an amazing mantle of copper and added a multi-story tower capped off with a rhombus-shaped viewing chamber.

The odd angles and walls of glass made for a glimpse of what it must be like to live inside a kaleidoscope. The views were great, but the reflections inside the viewing chamber were at least as amazing.

Even the floors were polished and reflective.

The entrance to the de Young features a charismatic piece by Andy Goldsworthy that’s been written up many times by bloggers and journalists. How can you not like a big installation of oversized cut stones and pavers that nods to California’s seismic origins by featuring a delicate but assertive crack that travels all throughout the entry plaza where the piece is installed? You can click this little panorama to the left and see the line exit one of the big stones and end at the museum’s front door.

And below are some of the cleaved stones. It’s easy to miss the little crack at first, but when you start to follow it around the courtyard the piece really comes to life.

Wow, all over again.

final yosemite resting places

While researching what to do with my father’s ashes I came across something I hadn’t known about: It’s perfectly legal to spread your loved one’s ashes within Yosemite National Park. Many (most?) municipalities prohibit doing that except for within the confines of a designated cemetery–for instance my town, San Diego, prohibits it except for burial at sea three miles out. So it was an almost astonishing surprise that one of the crown jewels of the National Park system was lots more accommodating. I haven’t researched other national parks in detail, but they appear to be equally welcoming.

You’ll need to do a couple things before making your last trip to the park with mom or pop. The overhead is pretty reasonable, though, and is detailed [ here ]. First you’ll need to obtain permission from the park. This takes place at a snail-mail timescale, so it might take a couple weeks. Next you’ll need the burial permit obtainable from your local county records office. This will cost you about eleven bucks.

The actual distribution of ashes has a few restrictions–you have to keep a certain distance from trails and waterways, for instance, and your can’t leave any permanent markers. Once the deed is done you file the permit with the local county records office.

While in Yosemite last month, thinking about last days and final resting places, I stopped by the little pioneer cemetery in Yosemite Valley.

Stereotypical Latin crosses were few. This one was the most prominent, and belongs to James Hutchings, an early Yosemite hotelier and major booster of the Sierra Nevada, partly through his publication of Hutchings’ California Magazine.

G. B. Cavagnaro’s resting place also sported a traditional marker. This one was white marble, incised with oak leaves and acorns, a nod to the landscape all around. When I entered the cemetery everything was in shade but for this shaft of brilliant white stone. Talk about theatrical.

The most beautiful and place-appropriate markers took this form, slabs of Yosemite granite, large or small, barely worked.

They reminded me of Isamu Noguchi’s sculptures at their best, or standing stones of the sort you’ll find in the British Isles. This one was as tall as I am.

No cemetery is complete without botanical remembrances. Here the flowers took the form of little plastic bouquets tucked around the stones or attached to them. I suppose it was a little sad to see the impermanent plastic flowers, but many of the inscriptions on the heavily sculpted headstones were already starting to be illegible. Nothing is permanent.

yosemite late october

We arrived in Yosemite the day after the first winter storm of the season came through. Snow had dusted the higher elevations and a thin coat still clung to the top of many of the Valley’s prominent geological features like Half Dome, Sentinel Dome and Cloud’s Rest.

Although Yosemite has always been one of my favorite places anywhere, it had been almost 15 years since my last visits, when I spent half-months in November and May on an artists’ residency program. Fortunately a life-long relationship with Yosemite is one that you can pick up and resume after many years away. It took a little while to get the hang of the road system, but the place felt like home right away.

I mentioned the snow. Here’s the trail to Sentinal Dome. Oooh pretty. But the trail was slippery as the snow thawed and I was holding an unprotected camera and the day was getting late, so I turned around not long after this photo.

Fall isn’t typically the time to experience Yosemte’s waterfalls at their peak. Here’s the face of Upper Yosemite Falls, more like Upper Yosemite Seep. The young French couple that I was pacing part of the way up the trail seemed a little disappointed.

You can see here the meager flow into the little twin pools at the top of the falls, right before the creek takes a leap that will launch it into a the journey that marks it as North America’s tallest waterfall, or in this case, North America’s tallest seep. So, yah, fall isn’t the best time to see Yosemite’s famous waterworks.

But October and November can bring terrific leaf colors to the park. Here’s what the drive into the Valley looked like the day the sun came out.

I hope you like yellow. That’s the predominant autumn leaf color down in the valley. Yellow, and brown. Bigleaf maples and various shrubs were doing the yellow thing. Oaks turned yellow-brown, then brown. The Valley dogwoods can color up a rich burgundy shade, but this year they were skipping the red and going straight to brown. Oh disappointment, thy color this season is brown.

A couple thousand feet higher in elevation, somewhere around 6200 feet, the colors were more varied. Yellow, we have yellow. I’m not sure what this low roadside shrub is, but it was pretty brilliant yellow. Ferns were also going through a straw-yellow stage on as the green drained from the leaves.

And up here we got the non-brown leaves on the Pacific dogwoods, right now going through their candy-pink phase. Some will turn dark burgundy before falling. Others…we’re back to brown again. But brown via pink, no complaints.

And this last one is a subtle eye-candystore of some of the leaf colors: pink, yellow, straw. Almost East Coast leaf colors–minus the blizzards (or scary hurricanes)…

failed eclipse photos

Were you under the path for Sunday’s annular eclipse? Or at least some place where you could get a decent partial eclipse?

I was up in northern San Diego County, doing family stuff. I had a reasonable camera but no filters to help me reduce the extreme brightness of the sun. I tried to stop down the lens and god for the fastest shutter speed. I tried photographing through leaves to filter the sun.

But, here are the results–general failures.


Maybe a little artsy. But still: fail.

The sun is blown out, but the lens flare to the upper left of the sun shows the moon starting to cover the sun, about a half hour before the maximum 83% coverage we would get down here in San Diego.

Aesthetic failure.

Failure to capture the eclipse, but I sort of like the image, especially the plant silhouettes.

I think that’s the eclipse in the lens flare. From the standpoint of technique it’s nothing to show your astronomy prof, but I think the image is cool. Mysterious. Like moonlight, but not.

Life gave me lemons. I’ll take them.

vernal pool side trip

On the recent outing to The Tunnels we took a little detour to view some vernal pools adjacent to Del Mar Mesa.

The area is a patchwork of land administered by several agencies. But the basic message at most of the parcels is: Sensitive Habitat, Keep Out.

Unfortunately, to the basic American pioneer mindset, “Keep Out” is a message to be resisted. The barricade to the right of this photo is fairly famous locally in commemorating the lengths that some people will go to in order to circumvent a regulation that they perceive to be too draconian. On a dark and stormy night (or it might have been in broad daylight on a clear morning, I’m not sure of the details) a vandal stole a bulldozer and drove it here to tear out the barricade. The vandal wasn’t able break through, but the barrier still shows the signs of the struggle.

Other fences were more easily defeated.

On the day we were out the rangers who were with us spent most of their time talking to the occasional hiker and the frequent mountain biker, explaining that the area was off limits. I guess the lifespan of a fence closing off a trail popular with mountain bikers is right up there with the lifespan of biology lab fruit flies. Most of the cyclists are respectful, but there are a few libertarian rednecks with wirecutters out there.

Once common in the county the vernal pool habitat is now one of the rarest. A nice flat spot that collects winter rains is also a nice flat spot to build your subdivision.

Today, in many of the pools that are left, you can watch the accelerated seasonal cycles. Tadpoles are pretty common, trying their hardest to reach amphibian puberty before the pool dries up.

Much less common are these, San Diego fairy shrimp, Branchinecta sandiegonensis, a critter that’s on the federal endangered species list. Your almost more likely to find them in vehicular tire ruts than in natural vernal pools.

Spike rush, Eleocharis montevidensis, emerging from the translucent water. It’s a common vernal pool plant.

And with this plant we return to the federal endangered species list. This is San Diego button celery, Eryngium aristulatum var. parishii. You’ll find it in standing water, like these plants. But it’s also happy setting up household adjacent to the pools, growing so prolifically that you’re likely to be surprised that it’s endangered. It’s one of those classic cases where a plant is rare mainly because its habitat is being obliterated.

Okay, okay, these photos are probably a little artsy and not particularly useful for identifying the plant…

I don’t begin to profess to know everything there is to know about these environments, but it’s pretty cool to check them out when you get the chance.

More information:
[ at the California Chaparral Institute ]
[ City of San Diego Vernal Pool Inventory ]
[ My April 25, 2010 trip to Miramar Mounds National Natural Landmark ]

into the tunnels

The morning opened overcast, foggy, even. You couldn’t ask for a more appropriate day to visit the mysteries of the area the locals call The Tunnels. The location is currently closed to public access until a plan for trails and managmenet is finalized, but I got to tag along on a trip organized by the local California Native Plant Society chapter.

To get to the tunnels you pass a mesa top with blooming chamise, Adenostoma fasciculatum.

More blooming chamise. It’s a signature plant of this chaparral habitat.

Disappearing into the trees: This is the fun-slash-magic part of visiting The Tunnels.

The scrub oak scrub deep in The Tunnels is made up of Quercus dumosa and Q. berberdifolia and towers over you–ten, fifteen feet, even more in spots. Trip leader Frank was calling this old-growth chaparral, an environment so old and established that you can’t tell its age, meaning this area hasn’t burned intensely in many decades or even centuries. In old-growth chaparral you’ll find plants of all ages and stages of life, not just a uniform cohort of seedlings starting over after a fire. Seeing how rich this area is, you can begin to understand how big a lie it is when people insist that fire is essential to maintaining the health environments like this.

Acorns on the scrub oaks.

And before you get acorns the oaks must bloom…

Inside the Hobbit World. Giant scrub oak branches overhead, lots of it with lichen attached.

Did someone say “lichen?”

More branches with lichen.

Even more lichen, close up. I never get tired looking at the stuff.

No Hobbits so far, but wood rats had set up this nest overhead. Strange. They usually nest closer to the ground.

Below there was a diverse understory of plants, rare or common or weedy. This is the common wood fern, Dryopteris arguta.

In the weedy category is this new annoying non-native, bur chervil, Anthriscus caucalis.

One of the cooler understory plants, miner’s lettuce. The species here is Claytonia parviflora.

Toxicoscordon fremontii sounds like a scary plant–so does one of its common names of Death Camas–perfect for this netherworld. Yes, the plant, particularly the bulb, is poisonous.

The buds of Fremont’s star lily. Actually it’s the same species as the death camas I just showed you, only this is its prettier name.

Melic grass, Melica imperfecta, thriving in the shade of The Tunnels.

Another of the understory plants here: early onion, Allium praecox.

Another understoy plant: western dichondra, Dichondra occidentalis. I get dichondra popping up in my garden at home. At first I got excited since D. occidentalisis a rare plant. But then I realized he plant in my garden was a relic of the dichondra species (D. micrantha) used as a lawn substitute in the well-watered suburbia of days gone by.

Yet another denizen of the shade, the pretty prolific and common Eucrypta chrysanthemifolia.

So… what other wonders do you think you’ll find in this magical underground world? How about an abandoned pot farm?

Actually, when I look at this hillside, I don’t really see a pot farm, but I’m assured that there used to be one here. There are little telltale signs, like little basins dug into the slope to retain moisture.

On the way out, back on the mesa top you see sights like this: branches of the chamise, with golden yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum) blooming inside them.

Also up on the mesa is this, Adolphia californica, a plant listed as endangered in California, though it’s common elsewhere (Mexico). San Diego County is the only place in California that you’ll find it.

Mine was a group of people dedicated to leaving a place as pristine or even more so than when you experienced it. Here’s one of the bags people had going of assorted artifacts left by previous visitors (and inhabitants, apparently). Shoes, bottles, wrappers–nothing transcendentally weird this time.

bee swarm!

There was a e-mail that went out this afternoon at work: the bees are swarming. And they’re swarming on a window, not some more appropriate opening in a log. Of course I had to check it out.

Armed with my crappy cellphone camera and protected by only half an inch of plate glass I braved the downstairs of my building where the bees were swarming to bring you these photos.

Here’s the swarm from the side you don’t ordinarily see. If Hello Kitty were made out of live bees she would look something like this.

The lighting and reflections didn’t help make for good photos. I think this might be a better self-portrait than a picture of the swarm…

I wasn’t the only picture taker out this afternoon–something you can see in this shot if you look close enough.

And being on the back-side you could get a pretty close look at the colony.

Crappy photos but pretty cool event, huh?