Category Archives: Naturalist

Kids activities: Nature’s Soundscape

I was recently hiking a rugged mountain trail when I realized that a man was approaching from behind me. I realized this when he was still over half a mile away, since the individual in question had obviously taken the advice to use his “outdoor voice” far too literally. I prefer to think that he was not completely inconsiderate, but instead a person who had never had the chance to get more ‘in tune’ with nature and see himself (and his voice) as part of her natural soundscape.

Much as the bright lights of the city obscure the flickering glow of stars, so too our modern sounds drown into oblivion the delicious lilt of nature’s own subtler soundtrack… Double paned windows, while keeping us warm, isolate us from the sounds of nature. Leaf blowers, cars, jets and other engines of their ilk confound our ears and not so subtly assault our souls. So we compensate, by becoming ever louder ourselves, and listening ever less to our surroundings.

The dance of sound through the wilderness tells a story millions of years old- the insistent mating calls of songbirds, the yip-yowling midnight rave of a coyote pack, a rolling wave of wind sweeping through the pines… Each of these sounds has a context, a ‘backstory’ that, long ago, we used to know how to read….

Luckily these stories haven’t been lost! Listening to nature is a skill that can be regained. Here’s some play centered suggestions to help get you (and any little ones you have in your life) back ‘in tune’ with your natural soundtrack:

1. Take a Bird (Sound)bath… Ever have trouble telling the difference between a raven and a crow? Listen to their individual calls and there’ll be no doubt!

Do a little research and find out who the common local birds are. The local ranger station usually can point you to some good birding resources. Recordings of bird calls are generally available on Internet birding sites (or even in your smartphone App Store).  Choose several for you (and any little tagalongs) to identify. Then take a walk and have at it!

2. Silence is a Soundscape. Vegetation softens sound- millions of little pine needles disperse sound waves in a jumble of directions, softening the edges of close sounds and deadening them over a distance. Hard, flatter surfaces like rock will reflect the sound back more uniformly, keeping it crisper and more intact. (Anybody ever heard rock climbers on Half Dome yelling to each other – all the way in the valley below?!) Knowing this, ask your little hiking tribe what is the quietest space(s) they think you can find on the trail? What would be the loudest?

3. All sounds have their place. Record the sound of your feet on the trail in different (unique) spots for segments of 10-20 seconds. Play them back: walking on gravel has a distinctly different sound than sandy soil, rock or pine duff… Who in your little tribe can guess where you were at for each recording?

4. Can you be as quiet as a deer?  There are a lot of ways to train children that their “outdoor voices” (and movements) shouldn’t necessarily be loud ones. One fun game:  Using a decibel meter (available at music stores or for free on your smartphone App Store) try moving through the terrain and measuring the sounds you make.

Who in your group can talk the most quietly and still be understood? Who can move the most quietly?  How fast or slow do you have to move? Are you louder in hard soled boots, soft shoes or even barefoot?

This exercise helps kids (and adults) truly get why choosing each step carefully is a natural part of a wild animal’s life! Turn it into a game and reward points for the quietest traverse of a particular terrain.

So next time you’re outdoors stop for a moment to sit on a rock and stretch your ears out to hear… Nature’s soundscape is a richly textured story, if only you care to listen.

Guided By Nature

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Finding your way in the woods without a map or compass can be a daunting task, yet our ancestors travelled their wild world, sometimes hundreds of miles on foot, without a breaking a sweat… How the heck did they do it??

Being guided by nature is based in reading the subtle patterns in nature that modern domesticated humans normally ignore. The directions of the world are worn into the very rocks, reflected in the undergrowth leaves reaching towards the sun and in the gnarled branches of trees twisting their way to the sky. Our ancestors could read these natural patterns as easily as you read a street sign, guiding them to their destinations and back again.

So how do we (re)train ourselves in this ancient human skill? There is no one fail safe, true in every location “trick” to natural navigation. Finding your way naturally relies on understanding of the larger natural patterns of the area you live in- the amount and direction of light, prevailing wind(s), level of moisture… These cumulative forces cause subtle asymmetries that you can learn to interpret. In short, you must spend time out in nature, observing and interacting.

Here are some handful of rough directional patterns to get you started:

1. “Into the light”. In an effect known as Heliotropism many plants orient themselves towards the greatest source of light. In our forest one of the more sensitive (and obvious) Heliotropic flora would be our lovely fiddlehead ferns. Ferns in direct sun will tend to orient much of their growth southwards to catch the most light. Note: make sure to look for obstacles to light that can change the fern’s orientation. Under heavy tree cover, heliotropic plants will orient towards the nearest bright opening in the canopy, no matter what direction it is. Open meadows may be your best bet.

2. Look for a tree’s “Heavy Side”. Lone Trees tend to be “heavier” with more leaves and branches to the south side (in our northern hemisphere) in order to catch more of the life giving sun. Take the time to walk around the tree and view it from multiple angles. Note: this effect can be muted or overridden in a grouping of trees as their shadows interact with each other.

3. Branching out. Sunlight also directs the growth of individual branches. Southern branches tend to grow more horizontally (towards the sun), while the shaded northern branches tend to grow more vertically in their quest for more sunlight. This can be most easily seen when observing the tree from East/West. Once again, individual trees are easier to read than groves.

4. Moss and moisture. Isn’t moss supposed to grow on the north side of trees? Yes, but… for the record, moss does not always grow just on the north side of trees. Where moss grows depends mainly on the level of moisture, and this is not always on the north side. Also, disregard growth in the first 2 feet up from the ground around the trunk – which tends to be influenced by the evaporating ground moisture.

Interested in exploring this further? For an engaging guide to these skills look for Tristan Gooley’s book “The Natural Navigator”. There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of more tips to explore and many more of your own to discover as you go out and start looking for your own patterns in nature.

(NOTE: This does not give you an excuse to go out into unfamiliar territory without a map!)

Happy navigating!

A Wall of Green

If you’re like most of the populace, many of your trips into nature are characterized by toiling up a dusty path through an unidentifiable and somehow vaguely unsettling corridor of green.

Sadly, most domesticated humans have an appalling lack of understanding of their vegetal surroundings and may even feel threatened by their leafy neighbors. (“Is that thing poisonous???”) Even worse, we often pass down this ignorance (and fear) to our kids.

Want to end this environmental ignorance and help your little ones learn to relate to our photosynthesizing friends in an entirely new way? Well then, it’s time for you to get to know your wild green neighbors!
well informed nature walk can be one of the best ways to help your kids (and yourself) get to know the residents of your natural neighborhood. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your trip.
 
1. Knowledge is power! Take the time before you go to learn about your green neighbors. There are an amazing amount of resources out there- from Wikipedia, to books on local flora (check the library or Amazon), to meetup groups and outdoor schools with naturalist and wild foods walks.
 
2. Ask the right questions. With so much information out there it can seem overwhelming to boil it down.  Here are some good questions to get you started in understanding a plants’ place in his ecosystem:
-Where does your plant like to live? (And why?)
-Who are his usual neighbors?
-Who likes to eat or use him?
-(How) does he defend himself?
-How does he change throughout the year? (Flowers, fruiting, growth, deciduous…?)
-How have we humans interacted with (and depended upon) him over the millennia? (medicinal uses, food prep, as building or clothing materials…)
-What are his key identifying characteristics?
3. People remember (and respect) people. When working with young kids I’d recommend initially skipping the Latin names and instead focus on helping them to see the plants as separate people with different abilities, complex personalities (not all good or bad), and likes/dislikes.
Talking with my 4 year old niece might sound a little like this: “Miss Blackberry can be really prickly -if you move too fast around her she’ll scratch you with her thorns.  She likes to live with her feet in the water and take deep drinks so that she can make extra juicy berries.” 
 
4.  Respect plants’ boundaries (and protect yourself). Make sure your kids learn not to touch or taste without knowing “who” the plant is and what his temperament is.  Most plants have defenses to be aware of.
“Mr. Stinging Nettle’s hypodermic hairs sting invaders with painful, itchy toxins to keep animals (and you) from eating too much of his really nutritious leaves.”
Help your kids to understand that plant defenses are part of the natural environment -these plants are not “bad” for defending themselves, they’re just trying to take care of themselves.
5. Avoid black and white views. Describing a plant as all “good” or “bad”gets in the way of understanding the plant’s role in its neighborhood (ecosystem).  These “difficult” plants often also have a bounty of benefits- for you and for their green neighbors.
“Mr. Nettle can provide a whole bunch of nutrients- collect his newest leaves carefully with gloves, and cook them long enough to deactivate his sting- and you will get a really yummy green.”
So get out there and explore! Understanding a plants’ complex role in its natural neighborhood, and our relationship to it- helps your child begin to see themselves as a part of their natural world, not separate from their green neighbors.

What’s Eating You?

  Every day spent hiking out in our forest brings more mysteries to be answered. This week let’s explore some partially “parasitic” partnerships that have always fascinated me out on trail.

 

INSECT GALL:

Ever see a round woody ball growing out of a tree branch? Often it’ll have a random pattern of little holes dotting it’s smooth surface. You are looking at a bona-fide insect larvae condo! An “Insect Gall” is a custom construction project of living plant tissue with the resident insect playing lead contractor. In order to hijack plant growth to form galls, the insect must seize a time when plant cell division occurs quickly: in our part of the world, that means Spring!

The insect (and/or it’s larvae) feeds on the rapidly growing plant tissue while injecting chemicals to encourage further growth. Quickly growing (meristenatic) tissues like buds, bark, and leaves are most vulnerable to these little guys.

After the gall is formed, the insect larvae develop inside until fully grown. Galls provide the industrious little larvae with not only a 4-course buffet, but their own impenetrable fortress, protecting them from predators as they grow. When they are ready, they bore out an exit hole and venture out into the wide world.

Galls, especially those located In the woody portions of plants) also tend to be a rich source of concentrated tannins, which makes them a great medicinal resource as strong astringents. 

Although insect galls get bad raps for their role as “unsightly” tumors on plants, they are completely harmless. The insects are usually excellent caretakers and make sure that their construction projects do not threaten their hosts. Most species even provide an overall benefit for their host or local environment including quite helpful pollination services for the plants, and food sources for our beautiful birds and bats!

As a healthy bonus for those of us with a tendency for wildcraftin, the galls of many plants contain a high concentration of immune stimulating substances. but before you go out collecting, make sure that you have checked on the safety of the plant in question and thoroughly checked it for any unwanted denizens or harmful fungus, etc.

MISTLETOE:

Particularly noticeable in winter as an oddly green bushy clump high up in the barren branches of trees, Mistletoe is a (in)famous parasite that attaches itself to trees and shrubs, pirating water and nutrients from it’s host.

American mistletoe’s scientific name, Phoradendron, means “thief of the tree” in Greek. However, Mistletoe’s common definition as a tree-killing pest may be too simplistic a view. Mistletoe may take from the tree for its own survival, but it pays back to the local ecology in several unexpected ways.

Despite it’s nasty reputation, studies reveal that an abundance of mistletoe in a forest means that many more kinds and numbers of birds and critters can thrive there. An amazing variety of critters rely on mistletoe for their food, especially in winter. Animals from birds to squirrels, chipmunks, porcupines and even deer eat the leaves, tender young shoots and juicy berries, leaving behind mistletoe seeds in their droppings.

These seeds will again grow into mistletoe’s medusa-like masses of branching stems, providing excellent shelter and nesting sites for many animals. The northern spotted owl is always on the lookout for a nice mistletoe to settle down in. The caterpillar stage of several beautiful butterfly species also use mistletoe greenery as their shelter, and as their only food. Even better, Mistletoe flowers often provide the very first pollen available in the spring for extremely hungry honeybees and native bees.

Thus, although it can shorten the life of some trees, mistletoe can also have a very positive effect on on our forest, providing high quality nutrition and homes for a broad range of critters. So next time you get a chance, take another look at these “bad guys”.

Pine Pop Quiz

Have you ever asked yourself…

Why do pines have both big and teeney tiny cones?

The answer lies in the basic biology of pine tree reproduction. Every conifer tree species produces male and female cones (usually both on the same tree!). The male cones start out small and stay small, usually going pretty much unnoticed by the unobservant public.

These diminutive male cones fall off the tree soon after they do their job in pollination and will never really open up into what we often consider a “real” decorative cone. Meanwhile, the female cones grow ever larger and larger- maturing to their full size in a matter of months up to several years depending on the species.

Why do Ponderosas smell so darn good?

Ever catch a mysterious whiff of baking cookies as you stroll through the woods? No, you’re not out of your gourd. You’re probably just passing near an old stand of Ponderosas, or their cousins the Jeffery pines.

These trees perform a fascinating trick as they age. When a Ponderosa or Jeffery reaches around 110 years old (a mere teenager!), their bark changes color from black to yellow-tinted and they start producing a special chemical in their sap that emits an absolutely delicious aroma when warmed by the sun.

So look for these older “yellow-bellied” trees, stick your nose into a deep crevice in their bark and take a good, deep sniff …ahhhhh… Now go home to satisfy your sudden craving for some warm cookies and cold milk!

Are sugar pines really all that sweet?

Actually… yes! The Sugar Pine exudes a sweet gummy sap which hardens up into rock-candy like shapes, just ripe for the picking. The Native Americans prized this sugary sap as a delicious sweet treat. The “sweet” in the sap comes from a sugar alcohol named pinitol which is under investigation from modern medicine for possible insulin sensitizing and muscle building properties.

Don’t just decide to go out gathering pine sap though, unless you are prepared to get covered in sticky goo. and remember, sap serves as part of the tree’s immune system against pests like the bark beetle and gathering it can put the tree at risk.

So, get out there on the trail and enjoy a new view (and smell) of our old friends, the pines!

Natural Wonders…

Have You Ever Wondered?

Hiking around these mountains there’s all sorts of things in nature that just seem designed to boggle mind. Have you ever wondered…

1. Why is your pine tree foaming at the mouth in the rain?? Don’t be alarmed, it doesn’t need rabies shots!
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This foam is caused by the formation of a crude soap on the bark from fatty acids in pine sap/resin. Over a drought a mix of sap salts and acids accumulates and coats the bark surface to form the basics of a rough detergent.

When it rains, these ingredients mix with the water and start sudsing up. The froth (foam) is from the agitation of the mixture as it runs down the rough bark during its flow toward the ground.

So it’s a perfectly natural thing when a pine suds up in the rain- although if it does so excessively, it may indicate that there is some insect or other damage that is causing it to “bleed” more sap.

3. Why are there sticks walking around at the bottom of the stream?

Next time you’re down by the creek in the summer take a look at the bottom of the small pools and you’ll see a collection of small sticks that seem to be crawling along against the current.

These little guys are caddisfly larvae. They are sheltered by a shell of pebbles, bark and other debris that they have built-up and “glued” in place around them with a form of silk that they excrete. It’s a great protection and camouflage all at once. Some types of caddisfly not only form shells with the silk, but also make nets in order to collect food and build hideaways.

2. Do you know how to tell who ate your pinecone? Lots of critters like to munch away at pine cones to fatten them up for the winter, but each has a distinctive way of chowing down.

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You can always tell where a squirrel has eaten lunch, since they leave a clean pine cone ‘core’ (like an apple core!) and a big pile of stripped pine scales on the ground behind them. (Didn’t their mom ever teach them to clean up?)

Woodpeckers and many other of our feathered friends also peck away at pinecones. They use their pointy beaks to pull out the pine scales, one by one. This leaves a ragged, “pokey” edge (the scales of cones eaten by squirrels have clean-cut edges because of their sharp teeth).

So next time you’re out and about and you run into a strange natural phenomenon (or just something you’ve always wondered about), take the time to do the research. There’s almost always a fascinating answer that can help you understand more about natural patterns around you- and it’s great hiking trivia!

Is Your Pine Tree Foaming at the Mouth?

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While walking through my rainy woods on a wild edibles foraging trip I noticed this funky phenomenon… The pine trees were… well…foaming

After copious pics, poking and prodding, I rushed home to research.

In short order I found out that there was no need for me to get my forest checked for rabies.

This foam is caused by the formation of a crude soap on the bark from fatty acids in pine sap/resin. Over a drought a mix of sap salts and acids accumulates and coats the bark surface to form the basics of a rough detergent.

When it rains, these ingredients mix with the water and start sudsing up. The froth (foam) is from the agitation of the mixture as it runs down the rough bark during its flow toward the ground.

So it’s perfectly normal when your pine suds up in the rain- (although if it does so excessively, it may indicate that there is some insect or other damage that is causing it to “bleed” more sap.)

Alien Invaders

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It started with a sprout. A very healthy sprout. It shot up alongside the garden gate, growing what seemed like inches each day. Its waxy yellow-green oval leaves seemed impossibly lush in the heat of our summer climate, where all around it the dried out husks of foxtail grasses and scrub brush rustled aridly in the wind. It crowded out anthing else that dared grow in the vicinity. It was so healthy, so just plain vigorous, that I decided to let our little prodigy grow- in the hopes of finding out what it could be…

And it grew and grew and GREW… I’d never seen anything like it. It seemed like a plant possessed, a real go-getter, if you will. From a small (if energetic) sprout in the early summer, it grew into something much more like a tree by the beginning of fall, towering over the gate and providing an area of unexpected shade and relief from the sun. I bought a bench and placed it underneath, creating a reading area in the new island of cool. Along its long graceful branches blossomed hundreds of small cheery yellow, trumpet-like flowers . If I sat still under it long enough I was surrounded by a stream of hummingbirds, chirping and darting in to take advantage of the flowers.

I was surprised by my (not so little) over-achiever and more than a little mystified. Where did this plant of herculean vigor come from? What leant it the almost bionic skill, the ability to be “better, faster, stronger” than the other plants surrounding it? A fruitless search on the internet was cut short by a discovery outside the realms of “da interwebs”. During a field trip for a Natural Resources class I was taking, the identity of our mystery plant was revealed, and the unveiling wasn’t entirely a pleasant one. Our little guest was technically more of an invader- Nicotiana glauca, otherwise known as tree tobacco. A native to Bolivia and Argentina, this aggressive plant had little to no competition in the area and easily towered over the local shrubs.

According to invasive.org and several other websites, “ Wild tobacco is a highly invasive opportunistic weed, and easily out-competes natural vegetation in regrowth or disturbed areas. It is also thought to be toxic to livestock if eaten in sufficient quantities”. It is a “tall shrub or small tree in the nightshade family (Solanaceae, of family that contains potatoes and tomatoes) with pendulous tubular yellow flowers an inch or more long. The oval leaves are 2 to 8 inches long with a waxy grayish covering. It is a rather weedy plant, yet somewhat attractive, especially to hummingbirds.” The seeds of this plant are eaten and spread long distances by birds.

My shady, graceful, flower covered Tree Tobacco is apparently pure poison. It is on the list of toxic plants in several states, including Texas, California, and North Carolina. To enhance the spiritual experience, tree tobacco is sometimes smoked by California Native Americans in combination with Datura wrightii, which may be dangerous as both plants induce respiratory depression. “Although Nicotiana glauca has been publicized as a safe, hallucinogenic plant on some internet websites, smoking or ingesting the plant has frequently lead to death and parents are encouraged to keep the plant’s leaves and stems out of the reach of their offspring, for fear of accidental death.” Say what?!

In addition to this damning testimony, our professor contributed another volley of condemnation: the plant was one of the worst invasive offenders- extracting water from the soil at a frightening rate and transpiring it away into the atmosphere- effectively desiccating the soil around it while at the same time outcompeting local shrubs and trees and displacing them.

After much reading about invasives, I felt I had as much of a handle on the issue as possible for the moment. Here is the basic argument against invasives, summed up in a few paragraphs:

A healthy ecosystem is composed of a complex set of interdependencies between its members that has developed over time. This set of relationships should be in cyclical flux over time. The introduction of a new invasive species (like my Tree Tobacco) can and will change this set of interdependencies- and affect far more than just a single plant or animal that is “replaced”.

Although not all introduced species have such detrimental effects, many invasives have the potential to do great harm to the local ecosystem into which they are introduced. This can result in the extinction of multiple local plant and animal species. The entire food web along with its members (from bacteria and fungi to arthropods, earthworms, up to birds, mammals and beyond) can be decimated by the introduction of invasive species of plants or animals. (of course, this brings up the issue of many of our agricultural species such as apples, colonial bees, etc, which we will have to deal with at a later time)

With the advent of rapid methods of modern transportation, this introduction is occurring at a much higher pace than in the past, species are now mixing much like a blender set to puree. And this “blender effect” is accelerating. The process of change occurs gradually as a matter of course in nature- but the speed at which the change is being spread is astronomically faster than in the past- not allowing many local ecosystems to adapt to the onslaught of new species. If you want a damning example look at the deadly effect of the Miconia on the forests of Tahiti…

Even in situations where the invasive does not cause a breakdown of the entire local ecosystem it still leaves the system highly vulnerable to a breakdown. As a genetic monoculture spreads over an ever-greater region, wiping out the specifically adapted individual species, the entire ecosystem becomes more vulnerable to an assortment of pathogens that can spread quickly and broadly through the population.

Now the dilemma. Do I heartlessly uproot this interloper? Or would it turn out to have some redeeming qualities? I had watched it grow for an entire summer, nursed it along sometimes, to tell the truth, with extra soaks from the watering can to support its ever-spreading canopy. Now I had to decide if I should tear it from the very ground of my garden and cast it out- a modern day Bible story reenacted.

Further research only muddied the issue… It seems that this noxious, sometimes deadly, aggressive ‘weed’ is also often used in decorative gardening as a way to attract hummingbirds to the garden. In “Hummingbird gardens” by Nancy L. Newfield, it is earmarked as a “very choice” plant species particularly suited for attracting our little darting feathered friends. And there was the delicious shade it had so quickly and temptingly provided in my otherwise searingly arid ‘gardenscape’.

Now that I knew the identity of my uninvited guest, I saw his relatives everywhere. Along the roadsides, in drainage ditches and even dominating a corner of the occasional garden. In our class we had learned how to efficiently uproot these invaders. With saw, root wrench and shovels, we had eagerly applied ourselves to the task- removing dozens of trees from the bottom of a clogged up riverbed near Irvine Ranch.

Finally, it was the very abundance of the plants that decided me. If I could slow the invasive tide and it’s consequences that much more by removing my one tree, then it would be worth it. One morning, with a sad heart and a heavy shovel, I set out to cleanse my garden of this exotic invader. Next year I’ll plant a native shrub in its place… but I have to admit, I’ll miss Nicotiana glauca’s graceful branches and yellow flowers in my garden.

Prescribed (heart)burn

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I live in a rural area that has about the same amazingly fire resistant properties as fluffy cotton ball tinder- on a hot, dry day…. with a butane torch held under it for good measure.

Our family ranch in Sage (on Sage Rd) is surrounded by large amounts of dry Sagebrush, dry chaparral, oaks (with dry leaves), occasional pines (with dry needles) and dry debris, with plenty of dry invasive grasses to add extra oomph to the potential conflagration. (Bonus! Now with more fuel!) This leads to conditions that might be generally described as “you’re f*^#ed!” when fire season comes around. We pretty much know each of the local firemen by name. We’ve run the fire prevention gamut: prescribed burns, backfires, helicopters dropping water and retardant in wide swathes like graffiti from giant orange spraycans across the land.

Each time a backfire or prescribed burn is suggested, my heart drops down into my stomach and panicked thoughts run through my head; what about the safety of the process? The possible risk to land and home? Will the animals make it out alright if something goes wrong? Will we?

Our family homesteaded this land. That’s pretty uncommon in California, with its big box stores, strip malls and cookie cutter houses. Here everything is new- anything over 10 years is considered dated. 20 is old and venerable and fifty is practically enshrined as ancient. Our family has lived here for over a century and a half. Most of the houses and structures are well over 100 years old and have housed several generations. That may not seem like too long on, say an evolutionary scale, but it’s plenty long enough to grow more than slightly invested and attached. Every time a fire passes nearby a chill runs down my spine. The suggestion of purposely setting a fire as a preventative measure makes me nervous- even if I see the necessity.

Several years ago, 3 adventurously dumb kids with motor bikes and a desire to avoid boredom in the most destructive way possible set a fire (by mistake, one sincerely hopes) near our property. The blaze proceeded to burn a large section along our Northwest flank, leaving the land resembling an unhealthy bald patch on a mangy dog.

The fire department took one look at the fire raging (ushered along by our good friend, the Santa Ana wind) and made the decision to let it burn through a section of overgrown, dense chaparral to remove the accumulated dry debris. In essence this was an accidental form of a ‘prescribed burn’. It was a nervous time for us- there is always the fear of the fire escaping the tenuous ‘controls’ and burning down everything that we’ve built. But as quickly as it had come, the darn thing decided to peter out. The winds died down, and the fire quickly followed…

Later next year, a much larger fire swept through the area again (not an odd occurrence in an area where we have a fifth season- Fire season), ravaging much of the land to our Northwest. We watched from (relative) safety as the fire block provided by the accidental “prescribed burn” from the year before protected our house, leaving us in a little island of our own.

Breathing in the air heavy with smoke particles (some of them so large I could swear that I could feel them rolling grittily down my throat and into my lungs…) Oddly enough, despite feeling a bit sick to the stomach and having a pounding headache from the smoke, I ended that day feeling rather good. Our home wasn’t a crisply charred black charcoal shell, my garden with its bounty of luscious tomatoes was still there, the old butchering oak and hammock with the view of Mt. San Jacinto still stood in place, swaying in the breeze.

I know that there are many obstacles that fire managers face when using fire as a management tool- The unpredictability of wind and weather, the issue of obtaining enough funding and crew with experience necessary to carry out the job, the need to make extremely quick decisions concerning millions of dollars of property and human lives that will later be judged by the general public are just some of the difficulties in fire prevention and prescribed burning.

I’ve been in this situation myself, and even though my heart was pounding the entire time and my stomach does flip flops until the last flames die down, I have been more than happy with the results. Thank you, Sage volunteer fire crew.