Euell Gibbons used to go into an empty lot in order to show how easy it was to find and use edible plants.
One sunny day, my wife and I pulled off of the road to find a shady spot. We parked in a cul-de-sac next to an industrial park and behind a large shopping center where there was shade under a tree planted in the lawn bordering the industrial area parking lot. I stepped across the cul-de-sac and made a quick five-minute examination of the field which was obviously pretty much ignored by the local people except for riding bikes and tossing bottles. My short examination (I did not actually walk out into the field more than a 100 feet) revealed about 40 plant species. As I sat with my wife under the tree, we watched a Jackrabbit travel cautiously across the field, stopping every so often for a good look around, saw a duck and numerous birds bath in a shallow pond left over from the rain and watched as killdeer feigned injury to protect their nests and eggs. I’ve never understood how people can dismiss open spaces around them as merely “that old field” and then pave it under or cover it with houses. Toto, from “The Wizard of Oz”, suffered the indignity of winding up under the asphalt of a parking lot when his pet cemetery was ‘developed’. Which parking space he is under is unknown.
We really have only so much space. Some of the more interesting things I have seen and photographed have been in empty fields soon to be relegated to the builder’s machinery. Several years ago, seeing a shore bird pretending injury, I thought I might be able to find the nest. I did. The nest was a small shallow in the gravel in which several speckled eggs rested. I shot a picture of the eggs and returned a few days later to obtain a picture of the chicks, which were huddled motionless so as not to be seen by me. The two photos are among my most treasured.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of adapting the book SUBURBIA, a photojournalistic essay by Bill Owens, originally published in 1972, to the Web. It was extremely revealing to compare his photos taken from 1968 to 1972 with the Livermore-Amador Valley area that I know today, a virtual carpet of homes stretching almost as far as the eye can see. A considerable amount of open space shown in those photos no longer exists, along with the things that lived there. Just over the East Bay hills a few miles to the west, I lived across the street from a creek, where, as a little boy, I played pirate, caught polywogs and splashed in the creek. On the creek bank there was a hollow tree which we would slide down. At the bottom end of the hollow trunk we would pop out into the creek bed. Much, much later I would learn that the aromatic tree which we slid through was an Umbellularia californica or California Bay tree. Today, as a flood control measure, the creek is completely encased in concrete and off limits behind high chain-link fences. Only a small 200 foot section of the original old riverbed still exists – as nothing more than a dry depression next to the grand cement-lined canal. While the floods may be controlled, a whole generation of children has been denied what I consider one of life’s great joys, living the life of a pirate in a wild creek, fighting swash-buckling battles with imaginary enemies, all the while wearing mom’s last pair of clip-on earrings soon to be lost like all the others before in mock pirate battles.
Often, when I pull off the side of the road, doing a little botanizing in some empty field, people will stop me and ask if I lost something. I’m tempted sometimes to say “Yes, I lost my childhood and I’m trying to find it.” That grassy or weedy field might contain some awfully interesting things if I just keep my nose to the ground and pay attention to what the field is trying to tell me. I might find some low growing vine or a mouse trail through the matted old grass of the previous years’ growth or last years’ shed deer antler without it’s mate, a whole snakeskin or a Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) with strange blue flowers instead of the normal orange ones. Once, in the midst of a very dry grassy field, I found a lone wine colored Clarkia raising a single flower on a singularly wire-thin stem. The next day, the entire field had been cut by weed-eater; sometimes, timing is everything.
In spite of our ever growing urban sprawl, a person could spend a lifetime hiking and botanizing without ever running out of new areas to explore; that is one of the wonders of living where I do. Within a short drive you can go from damp coastal redwood forest to dry inland grasslands, from chapparral to shaded riparian. Our climate being moderate mediterreanean, we are likely to run into just about anything, especially since so many exotic species have been introduced into our area and found it to their liking. In some cases, such plants have become real nuisances or pests, such as German ivy, Giant grass (Arundo) and Scotch broom (Cytissus). Some of the introduced species have, in some areas, crowded out natives, creating near solid mono-communities. Cytissus grows in nearly inpenetrable stands in parts of the Santa Cruz mountains and, when dry in summer, becomes extremely flammable. The seed pods pop open in the heat of summer, sounding as though you were in the middle of a popcorn popper. The seeds, generated by the millions, ensure a new crop of Cytissus for the following year, enlarging the stand and crowding out even more natives.
The towering Blue gum from Australia (Eucalyptus globulus- and its shorter family member, Eucalyptus globulus compacta, commonly planted alongside our freeways), is often assumed by many to be a native to our state because it is so widespread. Many hilltops and parks are graced by large stands of this very, very messy tree. Beneath the Blue gum stands, however, one finds a near biological desert often inhabited by only poison oak, the only plant that seems to tolerate the strong substances leached out of the Blue gum leaves that carpet the ground in thick layers. If you examine some nose and throat lozenges and medications, you will find Eucalyptus oil in the list of ingredients…tough stuff! I’ve made my own medicinal steamer for my poor plugged nose and sore throat by tossing some young Blue gum leaves along with some Bay tree leaves in a pot of water, heated the water to boiling, thrown a towel over my head and the pot of now steaming leaves (of course the pot is off of the stove to avoid a fire!) and inhaled the aromatic mixture to the great relief of my suffering sinuses . Where other plants are concerned, however, the Eucalyptus globulus is pure poison. If you ever had the misfortune of having to cut any eucalyptus, you would have found it to be extremely hard to slice into, gumming up even the strongest power saws in short order. Since the original purpose of planting the Blue gum was for firewood, it quickly became apparent that the extensive plantings were going to be allowed to live out their natural lifespans in peace. The twirling texture of the Blue gum wood causes it to twist and crack as it dries, so it also proved useless for building material. So the San Francisco Bay Area today sprouts Blue gum from many a hilltop. Some of the century-old plantings gracefully blow in the wind in nicely ordered rows, betraying their origins as human-created plantations.
Recently, a pest was introduced into the region which attacks the Blue gum. Until then, the Blue gum had no real enemies in the region except the human kind and grew pretty much unmolested by any predator. Damage to the tree is becoming more apparent and moves are under way to find a natural predator to the pest. One really bad habit that the Blue gum has is, without warning, on a nice warm afternoon, dropping a large branch out of the tree. On every large Blue gum in any well used park there should be a sign that reads, “Caution! Armed and Dangerous!”.