I understand that Muir Woods plays a prominent role in the latest Planet of the Apes movie. And while the film was not actually shot there, tourists are flocking to see that magnificent forest. But we almost lost those trees. In 1906, as we all know, an earthquake and resulting fire destroyed much of San Francisco. In the rush to rebuild the city thousands of convenient acres of redwood trees were logged. Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties were especially hard-hit. However, there was a nice stand of redwoods in southern Marin that was not immediately logged. The reason? The hills were too steep to drag the trees over to Mill Valley and there was no good ocean access for the logging schooners. So several hundred acres of timber on the upper end of Frank Valley in southern Marin County were saved.
However some entrepreneurs proposed damning the creek to create a reservoir, which would have inundated the forest. William Kent, a local and successful businessman used his own personal funds to purchase and save the trees. President Theodore Roosevelt accepted the gift from Kent on behalf of the citizens of the United States and declared it one of our first National Monuments. He wanted to name it for Mr. Kent but Kent politely refused the honor stating that if his own sons could not carry on his name then the name was not worth saving.
Mr. Kent preferred to tribute John Muir, who had recently lost one of the bitterest battles of his life. The Hetch Hetchy reservoir drowned one of the most magnificent valleys in Yosemite. Muir was delighted that these dam builders had been stopped in Marin. He said that a glacier had been named for him as well as a mountain. But he noted that while the glaciers would melt and the mountain would erode away, redwood trees already spanning 100 million years would outlast them all. He did have a way with words.
The premier African safari destination in the mid 60’s was not Tanzania, not South Africa and not even Kenya. It was Uganda. In particular it was Murchison Falls National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park – both flagships of newly independent Uganda. There were so many elephants in Murchison they had to cull some in 1963. Thousands of cape buffaloes, giraffes, hippos, knob antelope and even black and white rhinos thrived there. Uganda is unique because it is an ecotone – an edge area between two major ecological zones – the far western edge of east African grassland/savannah and the eastern edge of the tropical Congo rain forests, giving Uganda unparalleled ecological diversity.
By 1980 most of the large mammals were gone. What happened? Basically Idi Amin happened in 1972 and chaos, disorder, death and destruction followed. The game parks not only suffered from poor funding and neglect but rampant poaching by locals and the military. When neighboring Tanzania invaded to throw Amin out their troops plundered the remaining large mammals. There were less than 300 elephants down from 4500.
However two key elements remained. The first was intact habitat. The park itself was not severely harmed. The plants, trees and grassland survived albeit in an evolving landscaped now little affected by grazing animals. Trees now grew where elephants had foraged. Ecological succession took place. The second key was that large numbers of elephants, buffaloes etc remained in neighboring Congo.
So as peace came to the region slowly but surely the animals have made their way back into the park and a recovery basically unaided by humans has taken place. The moral of this story is the overriding importance of preserving habitat and the potential for immigration into the area. It’s a lesson not only for Uganda, but for ourselves.
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.