On a recent walk I smelled the distinctive odor of poison hemlock. It smells like corn chips — yes, Fritos — and it got me thinking about ancient Greece.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were the three prominent thinkers whose philosophical works underpin much of Western culture. Socrates came first: he was the original hippie. Born around 470 B.C., Socrates chose a life of poverty and voluntary simplicity. He refused to accept money for his work. He felt his independence would be compromised. He wore the same coat in winter and summer. He spent most of his time in the marketplace and out on the streets, teaching and holding class whenever his followers gathered. His well-known admonishment was “know thyself.” He considered that task the greatest challenge a man could have.

Socrates encouraged his mostly young students to criticize the Athenian democracy and its authorities. The “establishment” could finally take it no longer, and as an old man Socrates was indicted for “corruption of the youth.” It was a pretty fuzzy charge. His real sin was being outspoken and critical of the power brokers.

At his trial, the prosecution gave him every opportunity to plea bargain. Socrates refused to go into exile, the usual sentence for dissidents. In fact Socrates rejected all compromises and the judges were forced to condemn him to death. By drinking a cup of poison hemlock tea, he immortalized himself and the plant in one swallow.

Right now, poison hemlock is in full flower throughout California. Nearly every roadside ditch, disturbed field and urban lot below 5,000 feet sports this Mediterranean weed. Hemlock resembles a giant carrot. It even has a long taproot. The stems are hollow and covered with purple spots. All parts of the plant are poisonous but the young leaves and the roots contain the greatest concentration. One mouthful of the root can kill an adult.

I have noticed that the older I get, the more unsettled I am by new ideas and ways of thinking. And I know myself well enough that given the choice of being exiled to North Dakota or drinking poison hemlock… well, Fargo here I come.

Return of the Harbor Porpoises

I spent many days in the 1980s and 90s leading trips off the coast of Northern California whale watching and out to the Farallon Islands. And as we went under the Golden Gate Bridge and out to sea, I would encourage folks to keep their eyes out for a very small porpoise — the harbor porpoise. Only six feet long at most, they are one of the smallest cetaceans of the 75 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises. And as the name indicates they are found in shallow water, usually less than 150 feet. They are confined to the cool waters of the Northern Hemisphere and certainly our local ocean waters are cool and shallow.

Harbor porpoises are not very showy. They usually do not bow ride vessels nor leap out of the water. What you see is a small brown triangular dorsal fin cutting quickly through the waves. Nevertheless, it is always thrilling to see a porpoise. Aristotle first recognized they were air breathing mammals and not fish when he named them “Porcus pisces” which literally means “pig fish.”

In the last several years these porpoises have moved east of the Bridge into San Francisco Bay much to the delight of nature lovers. In times of environmental degradation, it is pleasing to see an animal returning on its own volition to its original habitat. We aren’t exactly sure what changes there are in San Francisco Bay to encourage this. It may be that environmental regulations, which have limited industrial and domestic discharges into the Bay, have created a healthier situation. Or it may be large-scale changes in the ocean environment that have resulted in more biological productivity in the Bay. And it is true that some species of fish such as herring have increased in recent years and these harbor porpoises feed on small schooling fish.

At any rate, these porpoises are easy to see from Fort Baker in Marin County, the Financial District, Treasure Island, Angel Island and especially from the walkway on the Golden Gate Bridge. What a delight.

Argentine Ants

There are about 22,000 species of ants on the Earth. They are found nearly everywhere except in Antarctica, Greenland and a few oceanic islands. There are several organisms that have evolved complicated social organizations; termites, bees, ants and of course human beings. In all of these groups there is a lot of selfless behavior. That is, the individual relinquishes his own needs for the good of the entire group.

If you have teeny weenie ants in your house forming long lines heading toward your sugar bowl, they are most likely Argentine ants. In the 1890s these diminutive critters, only 1/8 inch long, arrived on a boat bringing sugar and coffee from South America to Louisiana. From this founding group the ants have moved relentlessly across the southern part of the United States all the way to California. Their southern range has been limited by the aggression of fire ants, another introduced species.

In their native region Argentine ants form normal sized colonies. When these colonies meet each other they often fight and they certainly don’t cooperate. However, something entirely different has happened in their new promised lands. Here, these ants are so genetically related to one another they have formed mega-colonies. And I do mean mega. The one in coastal California is 560 miles long and ranges from San Diego to San Francisco! The one in the Mediterranean is even larger – over 3,700 miles long. Mind blowing. And they are wreaking havoc on local ecosystems.

In Southern California, Argentine ants have displaced the native ants. Coastal horned lizards thrive on ants. But unfortunately they cannot survive on Argentine ants. Consequently these wonderful charismatic animals are disappearing from the landscape. And that may be only the beginning of the consequences of Argentine ants on the environment.

The Argentine ants now are the largest, most numerous social insects in the world. It obviously pays to cooperate. We should know.

Garter Snakes

There are three species of garter snakes in the San Francisco Bay region. The terrestrial garter snake, the aquatic garter snake and then there are two snakes that are very closely related and are considered subspecies: the California red-sided garter snake and the famously endangered San Francisco garter snake. The latter incidentally is not found in the city of San Francisco but only on the Peninsula.

Garter snakes are the most commonly encountered snake in North America. Their range extends all the way into Canada and even Alaska and of course down into Mexico and beyond. They are found from the West Coast all the way east to the Atlantic Ocean. There are a lot of species and subspecies but they share many characteristics. None of them are particularly large (never more than four feet). They have longitudinal stripes down their body. They come in a wide range of colors — red, orange, brown, blue, green and black. They are relatively gentle and rarely bite, though they can. And they have glands next to their cloaca that emit a foul smelling substance as a defense mechanism. By the way for years they were considered not poisonous but actually they do have mild venom. But it’s not harmful to humans.

They are so successful because they can survive in a wide variety of habitats and have a very diverse diet. Basically anything that’s smaller than they are is considered food. They are even immune to the powerful toxins created by toads and newts. Unlike many other snakes, they do not kill their prey first but swallow them alive.

That classic scene in Indiana Jones with all the writhing snakes actually occurs with garter snakes. I have had the good fortune to witness hundreds of them emerging from their den on a warm March day in Northern California’s Tule Lake region. Males and females both emit characteristic pheromones and they find each other by following the scent trails. When the females emerge and are receptive to mating, more than 10 males will attempt to mate with them and form gigantic mating balls. That I’d love to see someday.

California Grasslands

When I am out hiking this time of year I am constantly reminded, especially as I look at the golden hills of California, how much the landscape has been altered since the Europeans first arrived in the New World. 500 years ago the sunny, baked hills above Livermore would have been greenish not yellow. Perennial bunch grasses with taproots penetrating down 18 feet took full advantage of permanent groundwater. And the plants would continue to photosynthesize throughout the extended drought of our Mediterranean climate maintaining their vibrant living color until the first invigorating rains of the autumn arrived. Grazing animals certainly existed here 20,000 years ago and impacted the grasslands. There would have been mastodons; giant ground sloths, as well as modern animals such as Tule elk, pronghorn, and black tailed deer. When the Native Americans arrived they also encouraged the grassland by periodically burning it. Grass has evolved to not only tolerate but often thrives under continued grazing and periodic fire. Agronomists suspect that some of our native grasses regularly live to 200 years and perhaps as long as 1000 years!
The most significant change in California’s biodiversity was the transformation of these bunchgrass-dominated ecosystems to the near total replacement by Eurasian annual grasses. The Spaniards brought horses, cattle, sheep, and their attendant European barnyard weeds into California in the late 1700s. These aggressive, non-native, annual grasses could germinate, flower and fruit in the short growing season and were already adapted to the heavy grazing of domesticated animals. Wherever livestock was introduced, the new grasses quickly outcompeted and replaced the perennials in an incredibly short period of time. This occurred so rapidly that there were basically no scientifically trained witnesses to record the startling conversion.
99% of the native grasses in California are gone. California’s early settlers transformed this place in so many ways – culturally, economically, ethnically – and they even gave us our golden hills.
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