Water

Years ago one of my son’s favorite books was Being Born. You know the book; the one with the incredible photographs of the developing babies floating around in embryonic fluid. Recently I found that book again and read “..then the bubble of water in which you lived popped and — WHOOSH — out came the water.” Those of us who have experienced the birth of children know that when the water breaks, a new little life is not far behind.

After finishing the book I had to do some last minute Christmas shopping, this was after the most recent rains. All along the road I kept seeing “the water breaking”. The image filled my mind. Water was spilling out everywhere, little rivulets gushing out from the hillside, down little gullies that rarely have water. A waterfall was literally jumping out of the chaparral. And I kept thinking…”the earth’s water is breaking, birth is imminent.”

And it is true. In all ways, water is life and this is particularly apparent in places where it is sporadic.
It was in the sea that life evolved. At first the minerals, nutrients, gases necessary for life simply passed directly from the ocean through the membranes of the organisms. But eventually some animals encapsulated the sea within their skins. They literally created an ocean within themselves. Fishes invaded rivers and moved far inland into fresh water and eventually became amphibians. From amphibians came reptiles, from reptiles came birds and mammals.

I saw a newt attempting to cross the road and I stopped to rescue it. As I was crossing back over the barbed wire fence, I cut myself. Not deep, but the blood was flowing. As I sucked on my hand, I tasted the salt of my own body, that ancient bloody ocean trapped so long ago. I closed my eyes and remembered another year , kissing my newborn son and tasting the salt from his recent journey. And I remembered the water breaking. Water then life. This is winter in California, this is the New Year and this is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Weeds

Walt Whitman once said that a weed is a plant whose useful purposes have not yet been discovered. My dad, on the other hand, always said that anything growing in the yard that isn’t grass is a weed.

Botany professors say that weeds are plants, native or non-native, whose populations readily grow in severely disturbed sites. For botanists the key phrase is “severely disturbed sites”: i. e. lawns, landslides, gaps in a forest from a fallen tree, roadsides and abandoned ranchland. These areas are typically open and flooded with light. Many weeds are intolerant of shade and therefore cannot colonize undisturbed sites. (Muir Woods for example does not have many exotic plants on the forest floor.) Because disturbed sites are new, they are often free of competitors. Countless weed sends drift in on the wind and settle. They readily germinate, grow fast, and produce thousands of seeds.

I define a weed as not only a plant that thrives in disturbed sites but also as an alien that invades, outcompetes and drives out the native flora. Most of the weeds in North America are Eurasian in origin; they accompanied the European invasion of this continent. These plants have already spent several thousand years adapting to the severe changes that agrarian societies made in the European environment. In the New World the settlers cleared the primeval forests and plowed the native grasslands. The European weeds were pre-adapted to these “severely disturbed” conditions and took a firm hold. They have been expanding their range ever since.

California has a Mediterranean climate: hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Many of our cultivated, ornamental and weedy plants come from regions of the world that have a similar climate – Australia, South Africa and, of course, the Mediterranean. Legions of these plants now dominate our landscape. Indeed many Californians cannot imagine their state without the golden hue of annual Eurasian grasses or the immense stands of blue gum eucalyptus trees.

Undeniably some of our more prolific weeds – multicolored radishes, brilliant yellow mustards, radiant ox-eyed daisies and blushing sheep sorrel – add a certain beauty to the fields. At the edge of the forest the tall stately spikes of foxglove seem to stand quietly on guard. But some of this loveliness comes at the expense of native California plants. The California Native Plant Society monitors the encroachment of weeds in our state. Many of our unusual and rare plants are losing ground to the aggressive invaders. Seven of the worst offenders are gorse, broom, pampas grass, eucalyptus, European beach grass (dune grass), artichoke thistle and tamarisk. Most of us consider a plant that was found in California before the Europeans came is a native. I am often asked how long does a plant have to be here until it is considered native. My answer “Never!”

To read a great book on successful weedy species (white Europeans among others), try Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.

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