Thursday, August 12, 2010

At the Falls

At the Falls
Originally uploaded by The Marmot
Eaton Falls

“Hither come the San Gabriel lads and lassies, to gather ferns and dabble away the their hot holidays in the cool water, glad to escape their commonplace gardens and orange-groves.”

- The Mountains of California by John Muir

About the beginning of August 1877, the naturalist John Muir made a trip into the San Gabriel Mountains to the northeast of Los Angeles. The world has changed quite a bit since then as the range no longer overlooks the vineyards and groves he describes. Today, there are “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city” as some other author has famously written. However, somethings do remain the same as my daughter, granddaughter, and I discovered this past weekend.

Muir’s ramble, as described in The Mountains of California (in a chapter called The Bee-Pastures), took him through Pasadena and up the boulder strewn bed of Eaton Creek into Eaton Canyon. The three of us, starting off at the Nature Center, probably did not exactly follow in his footsteps as flood, fire, and human intervention over the intervening years have altered the landscape. Our path began as a fairly easy, sun-baked, 1.1 mile amble along a fire road through the Eaton Canyon Wash, which has some commendable live oaks, to the Mt. Wilson Toll Road bridge. After that it got a little more interesting.

Passing under the bridge the path narrows, enters the mouth of the V-shaped gorge that is the proper canyon, and follows the creek bed for the most part. The going is not too rough, although there is some boulder-hopping and/or wading involved in several stream crossings. The less agile, such as myself, may have to scramble in a couple of steep places. Afoot & Afield Los Angeles County by Jerry Schad calls this a "Moderate" hike,i.e., suitable for all physically fit people. Becca, collegiate athlete that she is, bounded right along and got only one foot wet the entire hike. I was in the water so often that I was very glad to have worn my “canyoneering” shoes and shorts. I have little doubt that I was the oldest hiker out there that afternoon and people of all ages, shapes, and sizes make the trip. And, about a half mile past the bridge, we all see what Muir saw.

The cascade of Eaton Falls still plunges through a notch in a ledge and falls some thirty-five or forty feet into a pool. The face of the cliff still has ferns and mosses. Even though there are no more orange groves to escape from, people still come to seek relief from the summer heat and enjoy the sound of the crashing water.

While it was more than a little crowded, we enjoyed sitting around watching people and dogs splash and frolic in the roundish pool which seems to be about three feet in depth at its deepest. I took a few photos and we returned the way we came arriving at the parking lot some two and a quarter hours from our original starting time.

I highly recommend this hike to anyone who wishes to see what might be the finest waterfall in the San Gabriels. Just Google map your way to the Eaton Canyon Nature Center at 1750 North Altadena Drive, Pasadena, CA and take the Eaton Canyon Falls Trail.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

On Seeing Deer

Mule Deer
Originally uploaded by The Marmot
An Artificial Obvious

One of the most asked questions along the Thompson Creek Trail is - “did you see the the deer?” To which, alas, I usually have to answer “no”.

I have seen quite a few deer in my lifetime. When I was in high school I spent a lot of time running through the hills and dales of Los Angeles's Griffith Park and saw them all the time, usually on the golf courses. It is kind of difficult to miss a good sized herd of large animals on a closely trimmed fairway. And, I did manage to see this one along the creek and photograph it.

Seeing them in the mountains is another story. This was painfully brought to my attention about forty years ago when a young woman of my acquaintance invited me to spend a weekend at her family’s cabin in Mineral King. One evening the two of us and another couple sat on the east-facing porch to watch the setting sun illuminate the west-facing slope across from us. The other three began seeing what must have amounted to dozens of deer. I never saw a one, much to my embarrassment.

Steward Edward White tells in The Mountains that deer can be invisible to the untrained eye even when they are standing in “plain sight. Seemingly, many people, like me, can look straight at them and not see them at all. White discusses what he calls creating “an artificial obvious” as the key to seeing deer.

I first came upon the phrase while reading Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. She did not shed much light on it as far as was concerned. But, now that i have gone to the source, I now understand that in a way we all view the natural world through a filter of sorts. This is to say that in any given situation we tend to see what we want to see and disregard the rest. Thus as I walk along the creek I first pay attention to the light as a photographer. Secondly I tend to notice plants, flowers, and birds based on my work at the botanic garden. Therefore, my eye tends to skip over the brown or gray splotches that would be deer. White, on the other hand, as a hunter will pass his eye over a slope and miss the flowering bush but see the buck which was hidden to me.

Holly seems to have constructed her own artificial obvious as well. Hers appears to be based on size. A lizard of say two to three inches is of no importance. A larger one is worthy of investigation. Her interest then ranges through birds such as towhees, squirrels, rabbits, cats, and other dogs. I find it noteworthy that she can spot a cottontail the same distance from us as the deer in the above photo and become excited. Yet, she exhibited no indication that the deer was there at all. Perhaps she feels that at her size large mammals are best ignored. If you pretend they are not there, they might not see you and just go away. While small reptiles and insects may be beneath her dignity. It occurs to that the little random bred's make-up is primarily terrier. Terriers were bred to pursue vermin such as rats and foxes. These certainly fall within the size of animals that attract her attention. So, Holly's artificial obvious could be genetic.

Do we all live in a world of our own design?

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Eucalyptus (1)
Originally uploaded by The Marmot
Gum Trees

“. . . they’re planting windbreaks of of gum trees. Eucalyptus-comes from Australia. They say the gums grow ten feet a year. Why don’t you try a few rows and see what happens? In time they should back up the wind a little and they make grand firewood.”

- East of Eden by John Steinbeck

According to my 1988 copy of the Sunset Western Gardening Book, Eucalyptus are the most widely planted non-native trees in California and Arizona. It maintains that you can drive several hundred miles in parts of California and never lose sight of one. I am not sure that is the case any more for Southern California. I know that in my youth miles and miles of of Baseline and Foothill, from the foothill communities out through Fontana and beyond, were lined with eucalyptus. But, as vineyards and farms became housing developments and shopping malls the trees went with them.

The first eucalyptus came to California in the mid-1850s and over the years became popular, as noted by Steinbeck, for windbreaks and firewood. Additionally, many thousands of acres were planted in the hope of getting rich by selling the wood to the railroads to be as ties for the rails. Companies advertised in the newspapers and issued booklets and broadsides describing to unsuspecting souls the beauty of California and how a fortune could be be made from the trees they could provide when you bought their land. Sadly, the only people who got rich were the companies selling the land and trees. It seems that, of the some 500 species of eucalyptus, the trees they sold were singularly unsuited to be used as hardwood railroad ties as the wood would not stay straight after being cut and cured.

Even so, many types of eucalyptus have easily adapted to our lands which parallel similar climate zones in their native Australia. Thus they thrive here in Southern California’s Mediterranean climate and in what I consider to be the considerably harsher environment of California’s Central Valley.

There used to be, and perhaps still is, an interesting difference in how the trees were planted in the two areas. Growing up down here I was used to seeing the trees planted along roadsides and in rows between fields. However, in the Central Valley, along 99W near the town of Dunnigan for example, large farms would have seemingly hundreds of Eucalyptus all jammed in to one small corner of the property. The trees were planted so closely together that a cat would have had trouble walking between them. My friends from Davis were of the opinion that this was a clever way of scamming the homesteading requirements.

The government would give sections of land away in exchange for a promise to make certain improvements, including the planting of so many trees per acre. I am sure that the bureaucrats envisioned that these trees would be nicely spaced out over the land. That, of course, would interfere with the cultivation of crops and the farmers quickly figured out how to meet the letter of the law (if not the intent) while maximizing room for food or fodder.

The trees were still lovely.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Toloache or Jimsonweed

Toloache or Jimsonweed
Originally uploaded by The Marmot

Datura wrightii

Datura, the name I first learned, is a member of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae) and is not uncommon from Central California to northern Mexico and east across the Southwest to Texas. There is certainly plenty of it around Thompson Creek. (This plant is near the intersection of Mills and Mt. Baldy Road. You can also see near the Girl Scout camp.) So you can imagine my surprise when two of my new field guides: Introduction to California Chaparral and Introduction to the Plant Life of Southern California: Coast to Foothills fail to mention it.

Perhaps this is due to the plant’s seedy reputation. Easily recognized by its trumpet-shaped flowers , it has been used for hundreds of years for its hallucinogenic properties. However, it is as toxic as it is narcotic and has been responsible for the deaths of some seeking to use it for its traditional religious purposes; or more likely, recreation.

Like many Americans of my generation, I first learned of the properties of Datura, also called Jimsonweed, through reading Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. His purported experiences led many to go out and try it for themselves. Surprisingly, I never did.

I say surprisingly as I have gone through what I called a Euell Gibbons phase and have an abiding interest in ethnobotany, as evidenced by my work at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. These pursuits have led me to consume more than a few native plants of California. But, I have a healthy respect for for things that might kill me if I do not know what I am doing and figure to give Datura a permanent pass.

The book California Indians and Their Environment: An Introduction by Kent G. Lightfoot and Otis Parish has a few interesting entries on what they call Toloache. They describe religious uses, such as gaining the ability to transcend reality, and medicinal purposes. Some groups prepared it in a drink as a painkiller and a treatment for a variety of ailments.

Speaking of names, the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers refers to the plant as Southwestern Thorn Apple. It says that the common name Jimsonweed is a corruption of Jamestown Weed. The story goes that it got the name when many soldiers sent to quell Bacon’s rebellion in 1676 were poisoned by it.

By the way, the typically white flower may be some times tinged with violet.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Spermophilus beecheyi

Spermophilus beecheyi
Originally uploaded by The Marmot
California Ground Squirrel

I spotted this ground squirrel munching away in a wildflower meadow, surrounded by pink Clarkia and Birds-eye Gilia.

While they are said to avoid thick chaparral and deep woods, it is the most widespread squirrel in California and the only one one to be found around the edges of chaparral. As with many other species of both plants and animals, human disturbances such as road cuts, trails, and housing developments have allowed Spermophilus beecheyi to expand its range.

It forages on more or less open ground and does not climb trees. As one might expect, they live in burrows which can be 5-200 feet long. The young are born in March or April. My field guide says that they remain underground for six weeks. This seems to be born out by the fact that I just started seeing some little ones about two weeks ago. They stick close to the opening, but seem to enjoy games of tag and wrestling.

Most adult ground squirrels estivate in July and August. I can not say that I blame them, when the temps get in to triple digits I tend to get kind of torpid myself.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Black Mustard

Black Mustard 2
Originally uploaded by The Marmot
Black Mustard

Last week, Holly and I began seeing patches of Black Mustard (Brassica nigra) on the far side of Thompson Creek, west of Higginbotham Park, while walking on the paved path. This is another one of those plants that is so commonplace most people assume that is a native. But, it is not.

Popular lore has it that the early Spanish explorers, such as Juan Bautista de Anza, spread the seeds of this plant along the routes that they forged ala Hansel and Gretel. Presumedly, the plant would be in bloom during the return trip and they could easily find their way home. I would like to think that this story is true. But, table mustard is made from black mustard so no doubt many people planted for that purpose

Whatever the reason, it is now common through out California and dominates the hillsides in our area at this time of year. Each Spring finds the hills covered in bright yellow flowers. The bloom begins in April and can extend through July.

Some sources say that black mustard, though widespread, is not considered to be as big a problem as some other invasive species. It prefers disturbed habitats, such as roadsides, and is not as likely to extend in to truly natural areas. However, fire counts as a disturbance and other studies have shown that mustard has totally displaced many of our endemic fire annuals. It has decidedly naturalized and as people further encroach in the sage scrub and chaparral environments it and other broad-leaved herbs are sure to follow.

Mustard and the majority of the native plant species in Southern California have their roots in the Mediterranean Basin. The climates are pretty much the same which allows these plants to adapt, settle in, and then take over when conditions are ripe.

These conditions are decidedly in force along Thompson Creek. The landscape surrounded on all sides by homes, parks, a flood control channel, and the effects of the Grand Prix Fire of 2003 still in evidence it is the very definition of a disturbed environment. Still it is a welcome oasis from the urban surroundings.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Green Waves of Grass

Well, the wind sings its own song

Moving patiently along

  • Thomas George Russell

“Santa Ana Wind”

An odd wind rose up seemingly from nowhere the other day as Holly and I were out walking along Thompson Creek. It was not a Santa Ana, nor did it seem to be ill-intentioned like the wind in the Tom Russell song. However, it did have its own tune and I marveled at the way it made the grass on the far hillside move.

I was, at first, somewhat dismayed that I had no way to capture the moment, then I realized that I had my new iPod nano in my pocket and was able to create the accompanying little video. I think it came out well considering the limitations of the technology of putting a video camera in such a tiny device. I did eliminate the audio track as the rush of the wind just turned out as a dull roar. Not a song after all.

It is fairly certain that this is a non-native grass. Introduced grasses in this area include the bromegrasses (Bromus spp.), wild oats (Avena spp.), and ryegrasses (Lolium spp.). If they were sentient, they would be ill-intentioned as introduced grasses have effectively replaced our native grasses in this disturbed area. Between the wear and tear of encroaching human activity and the big fire of October 2003 most native plants are in a struggle for existence.

There are two non-native shrubs that are plentiful along the creek. They are rock-rose (Cistus spp.) (see photo) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Most of these appear to be planted. However, their occurrence is not uncommon in the chaparral throughout California as they are Mediterranean plants that have naturalized and do quite well on their own in our environment.

I think that I have also spotted Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) although I can not get close enough to verify it. It is another invasive species that grows so well in the Santa Monic Mountains (my home range) that I thought it was a native until I learned better. I feel that its ability to take root (pun intended) can be paralleled to the earliest human settlement of California, in the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene, and the subsequent waves of migration. Unlike some communities, where if you are not a member of the founding families you will always be an outsider regardless of how many generations your own family has lived there, moving here practically makes you a native overnight if you want to be one. However, we do draw a line for vegetation.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


The American Heritage Dictionary defines “ramble” as to walk about casually or for pleasure; or to move about aimlessly. As a noun, it can mean a leisurely, sometimes lengthy walk.

While I prefer the first and third definitions, it was more likely the second usage that was intended in the Laugh-Out-Loud Cats cartoon that inspired my thoughts on this word. In it, Pip says - “Hobos don’t go on quests. We rambl (sic).”

That and my love of Steinbeck, specifically Travels with Charlie, gave me the idea to call this blog Rambles with Holly (also, Travels with Holly was already taken). This is supposed to be a place to talk about the trips and little adventures that I intend to take with my terrier mix. However, with my schedule now tied up between volunteering at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and taking an English class at Pomona College it looks like we will be doing a lot more rambling than traveling for the foreseeable future.

The “ramble” is also a classic form of nature writing according to Lori Litchman in an article in The Writer’s Chronicle - Volume 42 - Number 3, December 2009. This form of writing is marked by a “perfect balance” between the natural history and the presence of the author. She cites John Burroughs and Annie Dillard as being good examples of this craft.

Well my English class has really underscored the fact that my prospects as a writer are severely limited. However, I am not going let that stop me from trying my hand at it as far as these pages are concerned. I have a dog, as a certified Nature Interpreter I have a proven faculty for natural history, and can make the time to write - so we shall see where this takes us.