Last week I was walking through a grove of coast redwoods in the sunshine with not a cloud in the sky and suddenly felt really depressed. What was wrong with this picture? Simple, it was January but felt like September. The forest floor was brittle not soft, the moss was dry and compressed, there were few mushrooms, the ferns were suffering and I was in a t-shirt. This was NOT California’s winter weather. So odd that blue sky and bright sun can be ominous. I looked at the trees and I realized they were at least 600 years old and had seen many winters like this one. So I should not give up hope for the winter rains quite yet.
California has 2 trees for their state tree- the giant sequoia and the coast redwood. Both are incredible biological wonders. The General Sherman tree – a giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park- is the largest tree in the world. And a coast redwood named Hyperion is the tallest tree in the world at 380’. Which is by the way 75’ taller than the statue of liberty!
But 140 million years ago when the worldwide climate was much wetter and warmer, redwoods stretched across the entire northern hemisphere and were one of the dominant conifer. As the climate changed redwoods have become more and more restricted until now they exist in a very narrow band from Big Sur to just over the Oregon border; they range inland no more than 45 miles. The largest specimens thrive in deep valleys with abundant rain and fog where the soil is kept moist all year. But the key to distribution is the presence of coastal fog. The greatest pressure on redwoods occurs during August and September. The winter rains are but a distant memory and hot, dry east winds desiccate the trees creating intense water stress. But moist air in the form of fog rolling in from the ocean is literally a lifesaver.
As the air hits the redwood foliage the water condenses out and drops to the forest floor. The giant trees have tiny root hairs that are ubiquitous and can take up the precious commodity. Scientists estimate that fog contributes 20% of the water needed by redwoods. They have survived this long so I suspect they will make it through this winter just fine.
There is a plant that the native California Indians use that really reminds me of that old Saturday night live commercial from years ago.
“Try New Shimmer! It is a dessert topping. No it’s not it is a floor wax, a dessert topping, no a floor wax…whoops!! Clumsy me!! WOW look at that shine and you know it tastes so good too!”
Wavy-leaved Soap root, a member of the lily family, is quite common in grasslands and open woodlands throughout northern California. The leaves are long and strap like with curly margins. The scientific name is Chlorogalum pomeridianum. The latter name means flowers that open in the late afternoon, also called vespertine flowers (like the vesper choir). Mostly bumblebees pollinate them.
As the common name indicates you can make soap from the root. Crush the bulb, mix with water and presto – lather. This lather not only cleaned your hands and washed your hair but also was used to catch fish! These same suds could be put into slow moving streams where it interfered with oxygen transport across the gill membranes and stupefied the fish. They would float up to the surface and be easily collected. The fibrous hairs that surround the bulb were made into brushes and combs. There was even glue made from the bulb that attached feathers to arrows. The bulb itself was slow roasted and eaten. Poultices made from the bulb relieved the pain from sores and skin irritations from poison oak and was said to cure rheumatism. The young leaves could be eaten raw and the older tougher leaves were used to wrap acorn mush into so it could be cooked directly on the fire.
“ Try new soaproot.. It is a fish poison; no it’s a roasted vegetable. It is a hairbrush, no it’s glue. Wow this fish tastes good; my hair is so clean, my aches and pains gone, my feathers never fall off now. YES new Soap Root it is everything you’ve always wanted in one California wild plant.”
To see the original SNL commercial from 1976
When you ask most local folks why the Spanish sailed past and missed discovering San Francisco Bay for over 200 years, they usually say it must have been the fog. Wrong. Sailing east from the Philippines many of the Manila galleons became stuck in the doldrums, but one captain in 1565 ventured far to the north and caught favorable eastern trade winds that whipped the ships relatively quickly across the broad expanse of the Pacific. They reached the west coast of North America around modern day Cape Mendocino. Great! Then the cargo ships could sail south easily along the California coast all the way to Acapulco – the trading center.
There was, however, a major navigational hazard along the way – the Farallon Islands. These captains were merchants, not explorers, so in order to clearly avoid smashing into those jagged, dangerous rocks there was a standard operating procedure for all galleons. When southbound and the Point of the Kings was seen – that is the Pt. Reyes peninsula, which juts way out into the Pacific – all vessels were to swing far far to the west to avoid the Los Farallones de los Frialles. Therefore, fog or no fog, they were always 30 miles or more offshore, thereby unable to see the greatest natural harbor along the entire western coast of North America. The Bay was finally discovered, but not from the ocean, but from the land.
Gaspar de Portola was heading from San Diego toward the capital of Alta California, Monterey, when his local guide missed the left turn along the Salinas River thereby passing that important military outpost. The party continued north until they reached the summit of 1200’ high Sweeney Ridge above Pacifica where they are acknowledged to be the first Europeans to see San Francisco Bay. I always presumed Portola said something like – Wow! This ain’t Monterey but it sure is good. The year was 1769.
October 7, 1977 was one of those perfect early fall days. Warm and sunny; clear blue skies. I was nearly done with my cross-country motorcycle trip. I had been puttering along for five months on my little Honda 350- a bike designed for weekend trips not grand adventures. I had accidentally followed the same path across the northern US taken by Robert Persig who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I happened to be reading that book and it was a perfect introduction for my journey into California.
I was in a wonderful mood that day cruising down Mendocino County on Highway 1, that glorious, winding, perfectly banked road, just made for a motorcycle. There was Salt Point in Sonoma County and then Bodega Bay where suddenly Highway 1 goes far inland leaving the coast. HEY!!! Wait minute I want the ocean back. So in Marin I saw the right turn identifying the Pt Reyes National Seashore. COOL and off I went searching for the sea.
I will never forget that ride out to Chimney Rock and to the Lighthouse. It was at that moment I decided my journey was over. The plan had been continue to South America on my bike but once I found Marin, I knew I was finally home. And a major part of home has always been the Pt. Reyes National Seashore. For the last 35 years I have never lived farther than a one hour drive away from the Park.
John F. Kennedy established Point Reyes as a National Seashore on September 13, 1962. And what a great day for America. 71,000 acres of diverse habitat protected forever for all of us. It is the best place to see gray whales migrating, elephant seals birthing, tule elk bugling, snowy plovers nesting, working dairy ranches, regenerating Bishop pine forests, a reconstructed Miwok village, the epicenter of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and it goes on and on. You could spend a lifetime exploring this park. Hmmm I think I will.
By Michael Ellis
Francis Drake left Plymouth, England late in 1577 with 164 men and five vessels. By the time he returned three years later he had traveled 36,000 miles, he had one ship left and only 59 men. Drake had been very busy plundering the Spanish ships and settlements in the New World. The Spanish, in turn, had been robbing and plundering the natives of the Americas. Drake trebled the value of the Royal Treasury and was promptly knighted by Queen Elizabeth the First.
Drake had been operating as a privateer, undercover if you will, for England. Because blatant attacks on the Spanish would have been construed as acts of war had he been representing England officially. Drake moved north along the west coast raiding colonial outposts. He was searching for a right hand turn to head back to Great Britain. We now know you can’t sail east through Canada in the so-called Northwest Passage. In July 1579 he encountered severe weather and ice storms in Oregon and his ship badly damaged.
Drake then turned south and hauled into a protected bay to repair his ship. The local inhabitants came out to greet these white strangers. Admittedly there was a communication problem but Drake was pretty sure those Miwok Indians wanted to be governed by his Queen. So he christened the area Nova Albion or New England by affixing a brass plaque to a tree on the Pt Reyes peninsula and continued his westward journey.
The first stop was the Farallons to gather sea bird eggs and salt some sea lion meat. These sailors were probably the first humans to visit those islands. The locals referred to those isolated, distant rocks as the Islands of the Dead and never ventured out there. Drake continued his voyage back to England becoming the first sea captain to completely circumnavigate the world. Magellan gets the credit but he was killed in the Philippines – only his ship and crew made it back to Portugal.
Today Sir Francis Drake’s name remains all over the place in Marin County er make that New Albion. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.