Along an empty coast

It feels unsettling to drive north along nearly empty roads. Other cars are few. Puddles stand in empty pullouts, blocked by a ragtag assembly of orange cones, sandwich boards, sagging yellow caution tape.


Over the last month I have watched the activity along this stretch of coast drop off nearly inconceivably. I make this drive weekly, driving north along Highway 1, bringing essentials to a relative with COPD. Three weekends ago, the beaches were packed to the gills. By last weekend the pullouts had blocked off—yet I still lost count of the cars parked in pullouts, and people down on the beaches, flouting the closures. This Sunday beaches were deserted, the pullouts empty. Not a single car parked, and few on the move. People have finally gotten the message—stay home.

Yet the gulls still wheeled. The cormorants still perched, sentinels, on their rocky islands. Below the bluffs, the sand was unmarred by footsteps. The brilliant orange spires of Indian paintbrush are in full bloom, waving from the shelter of the coyote brush As I waited at a stoplight, looking out to sea for passing whales, I could feel to my bones how most life on this planet is untroubled by the human crisis that has come to seem all consuming.

In a flash, a dream I had years ago tumbles vividly into mind. I was approaching the Golden Gate Bridge on foot. The road was quiet—two-lane tarmac with a sunny yellow line down the middle; bright green grass grew in tufts on the verge. No cars passed. There was no plot to the dream; no climax. It was a moment, and I was happy, at ease.

It is hard to find ease in this moment in time. The emotional weight of a world anxious, suffering, and grieving simultaneously is unprecedented, and most are feeling it keenly. The last weeks have been grown harder for those of us who gain our grounding and solace from being in nature, as our access has—necessarily—been restricted. These days I am finding solace in the most unexpected places: a crow feather under the neighborhood oaks, the joy with which my daughter shows me treasures: lichen, a mushroom, a handful of grass.

And so, behind the wheel, I’m grateful for a sweet moment of understanding that the web of life keeps unspooling its grace throughout all.

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Mushroom Season

Fabulous Fungi - 1Mushrooms are delightful but all-too-often-unsung blooms of the winter, and this has been a great year for them. I highly recommend that you put on a raincoat right now and head for the woods, even if–maybe especially if–you haven’t paid much attention to the fungal kingdom before. Scuff around in the leaves. Look for flashes of color. Be ready to get your knees muddy. Though easy to overlook, mushrooms (and other fungi) are pretty dazzling when once you begin to notice them. There is no need to ID what you are looking at to delight in their myriad patterns, shapes, colors, and sizes–though keying can be really fun too.

Fabulous Fungi - 7This year, some of the memorable mushrooms I have seen include a tiny white parasol growing from the very tip of a cut-off branch, as if the still living tree were holding it up. There have been toadstools broader than my hand, and an orange-headed crowd gathered on a cow pie (yes, I made a political joke when I saw that one; how could I resist?). At Christmas, the woods near my house were carpeted with little delicate white mushrooms as dense as a field of spring flowers; in many places you couldn’t walk without stepping on them.

If for some reason you aren’t rushing out the door right now to go mushroom hunting, you might be interested in a field trip that the Marin Mycological Society is co-hosting on Point Reyes next weekend, along with the Marin chapter of the California Native Plant Society. Check the CNPS web page for more details. And have fun out there!Fabulous Fungi - 9Fabulous Fungi - 10Fabulous Fungi - 11Fabulous Fungi - 12Fabulous Fungi - 13Fabulous Fungi - 3Fabulous Fungi - 2


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Glossyleaf manzanita

arctostaphylos_nummularia 2Glossyleaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos nummularia) is a bit unassuming at first glance; not as tall or graceful as common manzanita, which I posted about a few days ago. But it still caught my eye, nestled in the scrub on a flank of Mt. Tam. The shiny, roundish leaves are often rimmed with red; the twigs look notably furred with long white hairs. And of course, there are the flowers–the classic manzanita lantern shape, though when keying note it has only four petals unlike the five-petalled type more common in this area. glossyleaf manzanita is mainly found from Santa Cruz to Mendocino counties.

I found myself reflecting today about the nuance necessary for appreciating our scrublands. I love them, but I know to many they can look like a mass of grayish green. For me, keying species–or doing nature drawings, or photography; any discipline that helps me take the time to look closely–is really helpful for starting to see the richness of this landscape. The sea of bushes is often a riot of different species, intermingled. Here is the shiny roundness of glossyleaf manzanita, there are the jagged blades of Yerba Santa, here are the fine leaves of chamise, and so on. Walking through the scrub begins to feel more like walking into a room full of old friends; each with their own personality, but still mingling comfortably.arctostaphylos_nummularia 1



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Common manzanita

On a hillside above the bay, the ground is covered with tiny, bell-shaped flowers so thick they look like a January snow fell here. Overhead, bees and hummingbirds are busy among the myriad blooms covering the arching, red-limbed shrubs, growing in places into low trees. This is a beautiful patch of common manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita) alongside the Turtleback Nature Trail at China Camp State Park, but is prime bloom time for this and many species of manzanita that occur throughout the area, so get out and enjoy them if you can!

This fantastic genus can be daunting to key, as the different species appear very similar at first, but the Marin Flora breaks them down so the local ones are not actually difficult (though when you go farther afield, it can get much more daunting). And even if you don’t want to key them – still go see them. Maybe bring a companion, a book, or a picnic. They are a delight, and worth spending a bit of time with. Common manzanita has a graceful, tall growth form that is particularly inviting. If you happen to be accompanied by a toddler, as I was, then you can likely spend an easy hour in the “castles” beneath their branches.

The name “manzanita” means “little apple”, and like apples, the fruits of these shrubs were once a cherished staple among local tribes. The fruit of the small berries has a mealy texture, but a lovely sweet flavor–go ahead and take a nibble next time you see some. The edible seeds were ground to make pinole, and the fruit can be crushed and soaked to make manzanita cider or jelly.

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Late bloomers at Pinnacles

These were spotted during a visit in late June, so they aren’t as late as they would be if I had just seen them now. But despite my tardiness, they were too lovely not to post –

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Wooly bluecurls (Trichostema lanatum)

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Heliotrope/Chinese parseley (Heliotropium curassavicum)



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Jimsonweed/sacred thorn apple (Datura wrightii)

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Jimsonweed unfolding



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Vicious little buttons

Coastal button celery - 3Coastal button celery. Sounds harmless, right? But no. Another common name–prickly coyote thistle–is much more appropriate for this diminutive but sharply armored little plant. Found on bluffs and in coastal prairie, it can spread into dense mats that are impassible to dogs and even humans. It is common on my family’s land in northern Sonoma county, and many a hike has been hampered by sandals or forlorn dogs standing motionless, an afflicted paw held up in the Coastal button celery - 5air. Once the sharp bracts have dried and hardened, it can pierce through tennis shoe fabric, and you really don’t want to fall over in the stuff. Or sit down in it. Or bring it home in the treads of your shoes, and find it later with a bare foot.

But it is a pretty little plant, and a native. Latin name Eryngium armatum, it has several cousins, many also types of “celery” with varying degrees of prickliness to them spread across California and beyond. Some of these other Eryingium look extremely similar, some notsomuch. A few of the leggier species look much more like culinary celergy does, and make the name seem less like a cruel joke. I was unable to find any references to it being edible in any way.Coastal button celery - 1

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Cicada husk

There is a tiny alien clinging to a Douglas fir trunk. Oversized claws curled to its chest, bulbous head, and a rent down its back where… something… emerged. But no, not an alien. This is actually the empty exoskeleton of one of California’s ~65 cicada species.

Cicadas - 1You hear them humming in the trees all summer long, but the main glimpse of them is the husk–or, exuvia–that they leave behind. The nymphs, which live in the soil, emerge during the night to cling to a twig, leaf, or trunk. By the time the sun rises, the new adult’s fragile wings and soft body have had a chance to harden and it has long since flown off.

Cicadas are in the same family as leaf hoppers, with similar triangular bodies and intricate traceries of veins on their transparent wings, which always remind me of stained glass. Cicadas don’t bite, and apparently are edible–something to keep in mind if you’re lost in the woods (though you’d have to find them first). When I was growing up, we called these katydids–turns out that was wrong, the real katydids look more like humpacked green grasshoppers, and they lack the delicate transparent wings.

On the west coast we have annual or “dog day” cicadas, not the infamous 17-year cicadas of the east. Ours have life spans of a few years, so no summer is without a batch of these insects. I’m not sure if there’s a way to tell which species from the husk–if I figure it out I’ll let you know. Cicadas - 2

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Sweet little phantoms

Cephalanthera_austiniae - 1It’s blooming season for phantom orchids (Cephalanthera austiniae), a lovely denizen of mixed conifer forest. If you stop to admire some, be sure to give them a sniff–they have a mild but very sweet fragrance, reminiscent of vanilla.

The lack of chlorophyll indicates that these little beauties don’t photosynthesize. Instead they are “mycoheterotrophic”, meaning they absorb nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi, which in turn gain their nutrients from nearby trees. They have earned their ghostly designation – they can remain dormant for up to 17 years, and reproduce sparingly in the wild and not at all in cultivation. The patch that grows in this location appears most years, under an open redwood/Doug fir/pepperwood canopy. Cephalanthera_austiniae - 2

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Buckeye bonanza

Resized_20170528_164017Look quick, the buckeye trees are putting on a fantastic show this year! Along creeks, roadsides and rocky outcrops, masses of creamy flowers are on dramatic display against a backdop of vibrant green leaves. In drier areas the flowers are already fading, though, so be sure to look for them soon–a drive through the back roads of West Marin is an easy way to spot some.

This species (Aesculus californica) is probably our most eye-catching flowering tree, with its pinkish-white spires of blooms that are popular with butterflies. I also love its gnarled limbs and graceful umbrella-like canopy, as well as the large, shiny brown nuts that ripen and drop in the fall.


Buckeyes, aka California horse chestnut, in bloom at Rancho Nicasio

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Exuberance of oaks

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Coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) seem to be delighting in the rainy spring–everywhere I go, trees are drenched in blossoms, a green-on-green superbloom that is just as exuberant as the wildflower displays (though much more subtle). If you start to notice them, like I have, what you are seeing are the showy male catkins. These start out pale when young and age to an olive-yellowish color; the female flowers are tiny, and hard to see even up close.

This vigorous bloom doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be a heavy acorn crop come fall, however–too much rain can suppress pollination if it comes at the wrong time.

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