Category Archives: places

invasion of the crabs

Happening now on our local coastline: Tuna crabs roiling in the surf and washing up in huge numbers on the local beaches.

Tuna crabs_Ocean Beach_washed up with eelgrass

Pleuroncodes planipes lives in the warmer waters in shallow water off the coastlines of Mexico to Chile. But given special ocean conditions its range can extend up into California. It’s been an unusual year weather-wise, and the mass arrival of these crabs is being seen as a harbinger of the next coming of the El Niño weather pattern to California. I’ll take an invasion of crabs as a part of meteorological prophecy instead of a plague of locusts any day!

Wikipedia gives “tuna crab,” “pelagic red crab,” and “langostilla” as alternate names, and tells you it’s a “squat red lobster.” A common question among those with a certain relationship to nature has been, “Can you eat it?” (Yes, and no. It’s “used interchangeably with lobster meat in empanadas and enchiladas,” according to Karen Hursh Graber. But the little critter also might eat toxic algae and pass on the toxins, according to a local report in the U-T.)

Here’s a small gallery of photos from the local beaches yesterday, from either the area around Ocean Beach Pier or Sunset Cliffs a half mile to the south, both in the city of San Diego:

People checking out the crab invasion
People checking out the crab invasion
Tuna crabs in the water
Tuna crabs in the water
Tuna crabs in the surf
Tuna crabs in the surf
Tuna crabs on the beach near Ocean Beach Pier
Tuna crabs on the beach near Ocean Beach Pier
The little bluffs at Sunset Cliffs, with some red-orange in the water from the swarm of crabs
The little bluffs at Sunset Cliffs, with some red-orange in the water from the swarm of crabs
Tuna crabs washed up on the Ocean Beach shore
Tuna crabs washed up on the Ocean Beach shore
"Help me. Save me. Put me back into the water," said this still-alive crab. Or was I confusing the scene with the final frames of _The Fly_?
“Help me. Save me. Put me back into the water,” said this still-alive crab. Or was I confusing the scene with the final frames of _The Fly_?

out of the beer cooler, into the fire

Landing in Denver during the last week of February
Landing in Denver during the last week of February

It all seems a little surreal. Less than three weeks ago I was on a plane landing in a very snowy Denver. Waiting for transit to downtown required a 50-minute wait in 8 degree weather. Before that the coldest temperature I’d ever experienced was 11 degrees one September morning shivering on the slopes of Mount Whitney. So this trip broke a personal record.

The lovely view out the windows of one of the hotels I stayed in.
The lovely view out the windows of one of the hotels I stayed in.

That week also was a city record for Denver, the most snow ever to fall in a single February. This view out the hotel window was on the day the record fell (along with the snow). Among sightseeing opportunities, the Coors brewery would have been walking distance if it sounded like an interesting thing to do. On this cold, snowy afternoon the walk did not sound tempting.

Zigzag shadow on snow with dried plantsDenver often warms enough to melt some of the snow between storms, so what was on the ground was a nice light snow blanket, not the smothering white wooly layers much of the rest of the country has had to deal with.

Plant under snow To this subtropical California it was all pretty exotic. So, plants that get frozen like this come back to tell about it? Sounds like an episode of The Walking Dead to me.

More snow! More bare branches!
More snow! More bare branches!
But don’t let all this snowy whiteness fool you. Denver and the rest of the state have undergone a big transformation since they legalized pot, and things are quite green in the indoor grow facilities. Someone in town was commenting that large industrial buildings are suddenly hard to find with all the competition from the growers. It’ll be interesting to figure out the carbon footprint of this new industry. A 2012 piece on energy use in California found that the power used for the indoor cannabis crop in California was equivalent to 9% of all household use. Colorado’s carbon footprint is bound to grow…

Stinging lupine, Lupinus hirsutissimus, already more seed than bloom early in the season.
Stinging lupine, Lupinus hirsutissimus, already more seed than bloom early in the season.
The local perennial "coreopsis," Leptosyne maritima, with a few flowers, but mostly spent blooms
The local perennial “coreopsis,” Leptosyne maritima, with a few flowers, but mostly spent blooms, ready for deadheading

Now, a couple weeks later, back to San Diego, it’s totally “spring” in the gardens around here. Friday was a day spent outside with a bucket and a hose, hydrating new plants and annual wildflowers. And yesterday was the third freakish day with temperatures almost matching those of Palm Springs out in the desert. It is hot. The established plants will be fine if the heat breaks, but the new plants haven’t had a chance to put down mature root systems. The annuals set seed and disappear once the going gets tough, so a little deadheading and extra water will keep them going a few extra weeks. And a few of the perennials respond the same way, including the local sea dahlia, Leptosyne maritima. A few buckets of supplemental irrigation is pretty little investment, especially when you look across the street to the neighborhood lawns.

But the humans have had enough. Can we have our normal weather back for a while, please?

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 has  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!

january anza-borrego desert garden

As far as interpretative visitor’s centers go Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has a pretty awesome one. The area has a rich mix of natural and cultural resources and histories, and the center does a good job of introducing you to some of the highlights. It’s also staffed by knowledgeable staff and volunteers happy to get you started with what to see and do.

ABDSP Visitor center stair leading up to green roof

The building itself is pretty cool in that it has a green roof–if you can call desert plants with white sand in between “green.” It’s painfully hot (and cold) much of the year, so it helps moderate the temperatures inside the visitor’s center.

ABDSP Visitor centor green roof with Agave deserti

ABDSP Visitor centor green roof vent

Up top they’ve done a pretty good job of disguising the fact that there’s a working building underfoot. A few vents tip you off that this might not be a normal desert floor…

Immediately outside the center’s doors there’s an impressive desert garden that’ll get you up to speed on the main plants you’ll find in the area. And it’s a chance to see one of the locally rare specimens of torote, the elephant tree. Among the more common and more charismatic species:

Beavertail cactus Opuntia basilaris var basilaris

Beavertail cactus (Is this plant’s name an oxymoron, at least in the sense that you’d never see a beaver anywhere near cactus habitat?)

Barrel cactus at ABDSP Ferrocactus cylindricus

Barrel cactus…

Ocotillo in January at ABDSP

Ocotillo in January at ABDSP closeup


January greasewood Larrea tridentata at ABDSP

Creosote bush.

Psorothamnus schottii leaf textures Indigo bush at ABDSP

Indigo bush, too early for it to be blooming, but a wonderful vaporous texture.

Jnauary bloomers at ABDSP visitor center

Some things were already (or still) blooming. This is a nice little tableaux of brittlebush, Encelia farinosa with desert agave, Agave deserti in foreground.

Vegetation textues at ABDSP

And this busy tangle features red blooms on chuparosa, Justicia californica. When you encounter it later in the season the plant is leafless, but there was water enough that you could find leaves on many of its branches.

Calliandra eriophylla at ABDSP

The last thing I saw blooming with any umph was this fairy duster, Calliandra eriophylla. It’s flowers are smaller, maybe a couple inches across, than those of the Baja fairy duster, C. californica, that is sold more frequently. Yes, California does have a plant that could easily be mistaken for a bottlebrush from down under.

Pup fish habitat

A pond feature provided habitat for the über-rare desert pup fish. There were plenty in the water, but I guess the critters consider photographers predators and scurried off. Justin Bieber behaves the same way.

New plants at ABDSP visitor center

A few gallon cans lets you know that this, like any other garden, is a work in progress.

Plant grouping at ABDSP Visitor Center

And a final shot, a nice grouping of some of the plants above, arranged to please the eye, though the plants might consider themselves a little too close for comfort. But given a little extra water and grooming, you can get away with it.

When “in the neighborhood,” be sure to check out the center and the garden.

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.

highlights from 2012: disney hall garden

Sorting through last year’s photos I ran across many little piles intended for blog postings that never happened.

One of the roads paved with good intentions led to Los Angeles. We were up June 1 to the Walt Disney Concert Hall for one of the premier concert performances of John Adams’ new oratorio The Passion According to the Other Mary, a big and sprawling work with many amazing musical moments. (The piece is being reprised in early March in a version staged by Peters Sellars.)

Disney Hall exterior reflecting the sunset

Disney Hall southwest side
Disney Hall has established itself as an architectural landmark, for reasons that you can see here. But less publicized is its little roof garden.

Disney Hall Garden big rose fountain for Lilly Disney

The main centerpiece is a delft blue-and-white rose fountain Frank Gehry designed for concert hall benefactor Lilly Disney. During midday the fountain’s blue colors play off the blue of the sky reflected in the thousands of reflective facets of the concert hall’s stainless steel exterior. But we were there at dusk and the reflected colors formed a backdrop of warm tones.

(Writing now, in January, when these short winter days sees darkness falling in late afternoon, it’s comforting to see that within a few months the sun will still be up late into the evening, summer manic to counter the winter depressive. I can hardly wait!)

Disney Hall Garden big rose fountain for Lilly Disney alt

Disney Hall Garden Lilly Disney fountain

Disney Hall Garden plants

Disney Hall Garden Heuchera maxima

Disney Hall Garden coral tree and building

Disney Hall Garden coral tree and building alt

There was a nod to native California with this clump of coral bells, Heuchera maxima, but the other plants drew on the imported botanical palette that you see around Southern California. This blooming coral trees were probably the most prominent among them.

Disney Hall interior with the french fries

Going inside the hall, the wacked out organ pipes behind the orchestra always amaze me. The architect refers to them as his “French fries.”

So ends this delayed little tour of a sight from last year. If my blog hosting service spares me further times without service, I’ll have a few more glimpses back ahead, along with what some Southern California gardens are doing in the lengthening days of late winter.

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)…