Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The San Joaquin Valley, California: A Pretty Good Place

Some of us have an insatiable craving to understand the land around us. Sometimes, amazing books come along to help in this task. One such is Robert Edminster’s Streams of the San Joaquin. Written about California’s “El Valle De Los Tulares,” the San Joaquin Valley, this self-published gem reflects a lifetime of scholarly, on the ground observation of his home place, a part of California not often appreciated. Almost every point he makes is accompanied by an illuminating color photo.

There’s understated poetry in his story about his uncle’s dislike of the family farm, saying to his father, “Jack, Jack, why did you move to this godforsaken country?” I wondered about this as a boy because, not knowing anything else, I thought it was a pretty good place….Now, after more than 50 years of research…, I still think of the wet marshes and dry alkaline plains of the San Joaquin as “a pretty good place.”

If only there had been a Robert Edminster for every part of California.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

California's Fading Wildflowers

An intriguing new book in the field by Richard A. Minnich, is called California's Fading Wildflowers; Lost Legacy and Biological Invasions, hardback . Literally crammed with information, this heady book condenses a vast amount of firsthand information about southern California's wildflower fields of the past and present. Minnich promotes the viewpoint that wildflowers were even more prevalent than was previously thought. It's fascinating to read the many newspaper accounts of impressive bloom times. He makes it clear that we are not the first to worship California's wildflowers - "Many Los Angeles suburbs celebrated annual flower festivals as late as the 1920s."

The Grain Fields

Since many wildflower seeds were used as food, (roasted and ground to make pinole), it makes sense that harbingers of a good seed harvest in the form of beautiful flowers produce an unconscious but palpable positive response."Permaculture" in California had a unique face because for many indigenous tribes, the seeds of ephemeral wildflower seeds were a crucial source of sustenance. A wildflower field was an unplowed, unmowed, unfertilized, untilled, unpesticided, unwatered, always returning grain field - part of the California definition of permaculture. Given our nitrogen addiction, and its dire consequences, it's thought-provoking to walk through this very lean, low humus, low nitrogen field with its intoxicating abundance of food-producing bloom.

Wildflower Rant

Wildflower Field in Central California, with Owl's Clover
As I roam the wildflower fields in the spring, I speculate that humans have an actual biochemical response to wildflower fields. I fancy that these beautiful flowers stimulate powerful bursts of serotonin, chemicals surging through the blood that allow the ignoring of painfully strong winds or baking heat or scratchy seed-laden socks, as we search and wander, continually amazed. The places that still sing this song of annual wildflowers are fewer all the time. They teach us what we need to know, so that wandering through wildflowers might happen at home too.
Last spring was a particularly inspiring wildflower season. In a favorite central California flower field, where the wind howled, I filmed the wind in the wildflowers. Click here to view the video. It was amazing how frequently the mix changed, to different proportions of species or different species altogether. The soil in this field was lean and sandy, even white in some places. Some "dry creeks" of pure sand ribboned through the field, and they too carried their full freight of wildflowers. Every year, as well, the mix of species changes, and the reasons for this variation are both obvious and obscure, an under-investigated arena. Speculating while wandering is an important part of the wildflower experience.

Quick Biology Lesson

Annuals are those species that go through an entire life cycle, from birth to flower to seed production to death, in one season. In California, that means that they germinate with the rains in the fall and winter, make good root growth through the rainy season, then begin bloom with the sun in the early spring to mid and late summer. Wildflowers go to seed through the summer,which waits for the fall rains to begin the cycle again. The gardener can go along with this ancient pattern, or choose "horticultural play," manipulating bloom time by manipulating the time of sowing.