Lightning and Flames: Stebbins Burns Again (8/17/2020)

I have been studying fire recovery at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve for five years now, since the Wragg Fire in 2015. It has been an amazing journey watching the ecosystem grow and thrive after the fire.

It is almost certain that Stebbins burned again this week in the early days of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire. When Stebbins burned in 2015, it had been about thirty years since the last fire. Thirty years between fires is a relatively healthy interval for the chaparral and woodland ecosystems at the Reserve. Five years between fires is not.

These habitats are resilient and plants will regrow and animals return immediately, but we are inexorably changing them as we edge the climate further past the point of no return. California has always burned, and needs to burn, but in small, patchy fires, not like this.

Cultivating a Deep Sense of Place and Time

This was written as an invited post on the International Nature Journaling Week blog.

rlc spider and caterpillar

I always feel better when I have a sketchbook in my pocket and a little naked if I’m out in the world without one. I’m a biologist by training and my previous career was in salmon restoration. Then and now, I use field sketching to feel closer to my surroundings and more deeply understand the world around me.

rlc hare's foot inkcap

In 2015, I was looking for a way to use art in a long-term project to explore local environmental change. I was moving away from data and information and into a career as a natural science illustrator and was hoping to increase my naturalist knowledge and become intimately acquainted with a local landscape. That summer, there was a wildfire in the hills to the west of my town, and one of the areas that burned was a well-loved natural area run by the University of California Natural Reserve System. I went up to take a look at the site shortly afterwards, and realized that this would be a perfect opportunity to watch rapid habitat change as the reserve responded to the fire.

RLC wragg fire

rlc stebbins resprouting

I started to hike the trails at the reserve monthly, drawing and documenting everything I could. The spring after the fire, I watched the first fire-following wildflowers appear, chaparral shrubs begin to sprout new growth from their bases, and animals return to the canyon. It has been over four and a half years now since the fire. The depth of understanding that I have gained from this practice—into fire ecology and into the specifics of the habitats at the reserve­—has given me immeasurable joy. You can find this journey on my blog, Wildfire to Wildflowers.

rlc wildflowers and insects

rlc stebbins visits

We are all watching the world change around us in unprecedented ways. With climate change accelerating, many things we once took for granted are no longer certain: weather patterns, seasons, wildfire frequencies and intensities, the populations and behavior of the plants and animals around us. Artists, naturalists and all close observers of the natural world are in a unique position to chronicle this change. We have the tools to document, analyze and share what is happening in our own neighborhoods and the environments we encounter regularly. We have a great power to become more deeply enmeshed in our world: understanding its past and watching as the present unfolds into the future.

rlc stebbins march 2020

This is ecoreportage: close observation of the environment at a specific place and time, repeatedly returning to build a picture of ecological change. As a long-time field sketcher, biologist and artist, I have focused on this practice. I want to know how my surroundings came to look the way they do and I want to understand how they change as I observe them over time. I have come to see the work as a form of journalism, requiring me to understand my subject’s past and ask probing questions about what it looks like now, compiling a detailed picture as I return again and again over the years.

rlc cultural burn

Just before the pandemic, I had embarked on a new project to explore my immediate surroundings more deeply. I live in Yolo County and am working on an investigation of the history of this landscape, including all of our human impacts over time. With the latest restrictions on movement as we shelter in place, I am currently focusing on my own neighborhood, with suburban homes and agricultural research fields. What plants, animals, fungi are thriving in this built and actively managed environment? Which ones have been or are on their way to being eliminated?

rlc gulls and landfill

rlc burrowing owls

As sketchers, journalers, artists, naturalists and observers, we each have our own fragments of the picture—a full understanding is something we can only discover as a community. Although sketching is often a solitary pursuit, in order to reveal the bigger picture, we must combine our own small parts. As we do, we are seeing the emergence of a great, ever-evolving tapestry of change in the natural world, in our homes, and in ourselves.

March Visit (3/5/2020)

At the beginning of March I set off to hike the full loop up to Blue Ridge, down the spine of the ridge, past the homestead and back along the creek trail. It is only a five mile hike, but one that I generally do not have time to do given that I stop to draw to frequently. Blissfully ignorant of the new reality that was about to descend on all of us, I marveled at the opportunity to get the full perspective of high and low habitats at the Reserve.

I started by trying something new: marking the spots where I stopped to draw and noting the thing that had caught my attention there. (I drew the map in advance and added the cartoons of the flowers after the fact.)

StebbinsSketchbook1_2020Mar5

I was extremely pleased to find California pipevine in bloom! Last year, I caught the flowers once they had dried out, so was determined to find them fresh this year. They look so stunning when backlit with the light glowing through their hollow, yellowy-green bodies veined in red.

StebbinsSketchbook2_2020Mar5

Variable checkerspot caterpillars were plentiful on the ridge. I originally misidentified the first one I saw, but realized my mistake when I came on a crowd of them feeding on woolly paintbrush, one of their main host plants.

StebbinsSketchbook3_2020Mar5

Two of my favorite tiny wildflowers—purple sanicle and miniature lupine—were growing in bright exposed areas along a steeper part of the trail.

StebbinsSketchbook4_2020Mar5

An anise swallowtail (originally misidentified in the drawing) held still long enough for me to do a careful drawing. The grey hairstreak was not so patient, so I drew it based on memory as it flitted from twig to twig.

StebbinsSketchbook5_2020Mar5

This is the first year I’ve seen fruits on the manzanitas that were burned!

StebbinsSketchbook6_2020Mar5

So many beautiful colors on the hike: so hard to remember to keep moving and not try to draw every single new flower I see.

StebbinsSketchbook7_2020Mar5

The effects of our extremely dry February were abundantly evident in the creek, which was incredibly low and filled with algae. It was completely dry near the entrance to the Reserve.

StebbinsSketchbook8_2020Mar5

Now that I know that this was my last visit for a long time, with Stebbins closed to support the shelter-in-place rules, I am so grateful for this wonderful gift of a hike.

February Visit (2/6/2020)

In February, I felt particularly lucky to be escorted the entirety of my hike by robins. They were busy stripping the stands of toyon of their berries, swooping here and there, calling to each other and scolding me. They would let me get close to them and stand under the bushes for a while, but then they would move away one by one down the trail to the next cluster of toyons.

StebbinsSketchbook1_2020Feb06

I was struck on this hike by how much white pitcher sage I saw in clearings, soaking up the sun. The abundance of white pitcher sage and also chaparral currant seem to me to be a sign of the growing dominance of sub-shrubs in the Stebbins habitats, as the annuals start to be shaded out and we follow the ecological stages of plant succession after the fire.

StebbinsSketchbook2_2020Feb06

I stopped for a captivating view with swaths of toyon, hairy-leaved ceanothus, and white pitcher sage. Below are some of the deposits left by mammals and a bird along that same stretch of trail.

StebbinsSketchbook3_2020Feb06

I believe the galls I spotted on the interior live oak are made by the gouty oak gall wasp (Callirhytis sp.).

StebbinsSketchbook4_2020Feb06

A clump of feathers in the grass at the side of the trail told the story of some kind of struggle, probably with a robin since they were so active and plentiful then. No sign of a body (or parts thereof), so either the bird escaped or the evidence was swallowed.

StebbinsSketchbook5_2020Feb06

As I neared the end of my hike, I noticed the unmistakable red of a robin’s chest in the brush down the hill along the side of the trail. The still form looked so peaceful – no sign of predation or struggle. It was a moving end to the drama that the robins had provided all along my journey.

StebbinsSketchbook6_2020Feb06

Ode Volume One: Orcas Island

CascadeCrInsetMap

Last August, I spent a few days on Orcas Island getting to know the Cascade Creek Watershed at the invitation of Ayn Gailey and Sara Farish, authors of the just published Ode Volume One: Orcas Island. Having seen my Orcas sketchbook pages on Instagram (@anthropocenesketchbook), they wanted to include a few of my drawings in the book. This project turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to put together an ecosystem exploration in cohesive set of drawings. I am working on a more narrative presentation of the entire process, but for now, here are all of the completed sketchbook pages!

I visited four different spots along the watershed, starting at the mouth of Cascade Creek where it enters the sea at Buck Bay:

CascadeCrSketchbook Spread 2 sm

I hiked the loop trail at the Coho Preserve:

CascadeCrSketchbook Spread 1 sm

I visited Cascade Creek near the middle of its length, at a series of waterfalls:

CascadeCrSketchbook Spread 3 sm

And finished at the creek’s headwaters at Mountain Lake:

CascadeCrSketchbook Spread 4 sm

Cache Creek Conservancy Cultural Burn (1/20/2020)

In January, I had the opportunity to participate in another cultural burning event: the Cache Creek Conservancy‘s second annual Indigenous Fire Workshop, held in their Tending and Gathering Garden. Drawn below was the gathering prior to walking down to the garden. The event was attended by an inspiring variety of community members, students and researchers, and members of a number of nearby tribes. The Conservancy is within the homeland of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, with whom they collaboratively manage the Tending and Gathering Garden and other riparian projects along Cache Creek.

The burning was focused on four plants: deergrass, western redbud, tule, and cattail. These are important plants for basketry and other cultural necessities, and fire ensures that they grow in the manner best suited for these uses. I mapped the locations of the plants burned, in the context of the entire Conservancy.

 

The first fires were started in the deergrass:

Patches of flames in deergrass:

This was so impressively a full community event! People of all ages were helping tend the fires, wandering between the burning patches and poking at fire with sticks.

Redbuds were cut to near their bases, the branches piled in cones above the stumps. This ensured that the bases and brush all burned well.

Tule and cattails were set alight, and their thick stands burned fiercely, sending flames high into the air. The long strips of leaves turned to ash and floating away on the smoke were quite dramatic. I was also struck by the individual plumes of smoke rising from each still-smoldering cattail head after the flames had passed. The twisting strips of char on the burned cattail stalks show the pattern of air movement as the flames rose around them.

A redbud that was burned nearly a year ago showed the straight branches and deep red color that are desirable for basketry. I also investigated a fungus happily growing on the burned stumps.

In a perfect demonstration of survival strategies during fire, one of the members of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians Tribal Fire Department found a juvenile alligator lizard that had been curled up in the base of a bunch of deergrass that had just been burned. The moisture content at the base kept that spot cool enough that the lizard was unharmed by the fire.

CacheCreekGoodFire19_2020Jan20

 

December Visit (12/30/2019)

A boulder with moss forming rivers of green in its fissures looked just like an Andy Goldsworthy creation, so I had to capture that vivid image when I saw it at the start of my hike. The day was cool and sunny and the boulder cast interesting shadows on the rocks below it in the creekbed. There was running water in the creek although it was not all that high.

StebbinsSketchbookP1_2019Dec30

There are a few mysteries on this page. First, the lichen I drew in November and haven’t yet sorted out. Maybe it isn’t a lichen after all. And then a “weed” perhaps, but something with pretty mint-green leaves that turn red as it ages. When it flowers in a few months I’ll figure out what it is, but have been frustratingly unable to yet.

StebbinsSketchbookP2_2019Dec30

The hare’s foot inkcap (Coprinus lagopus) was a treasure; it caught the morning light and glowed. The fungus (Phycomyces blakesleeanus) on the dog feces was perhaps less a treasure, certainly a shame since it is growing on evidence of the abundant presence of dogs in the Reserve, where they are officially not allowed.

StebbinsSketchbookP3_2019Dec30

It had rained recently enough that the purple shelf fungus Trichaptum albietinum was moist and colorful. It grows on conifers and I found this one on the grey pine that has fallen across the creek. There is a sister species that grows on hardwoods and is similar in appearance.

StebbinsSketchbookP4_2019Dec30

The toyons’ red/gold/green were captivating against the blue of the sky and enlivened my drawing along with the textures of the burnt oak limbs and the waves of dried grass. I drew even more gold below following the patterns of spores on the undersides of goldenback fern (Pentagramma triangularis) leaves.

StebbinsSketchbookP5_2019Dec30

November Visit (11/29/2019)

First pages in a new sketchbook are always exciting. This is my third sketchbook for Stebbins drawings; so far that’s a rate of 2 years per sketchbook. I was looking forward to some cooler fall weather on this visit and wanted to get to the Reserve before the onslaught of rain we were expecting. Thanks to a little rain a few days earlier, the mosses and lichens were activated and colorful.

SketchbookPage1_2019Nov29 sm

I hiked up the trail toward Blue Ridge and stopped to draw a diagram (across a full spread, here in the pages above ∧ and below ∨) showing the zones of grassland (south-facing slopes) and chaparral (north-facing slopes) on Pleasants Ridge. I also noted seed pods of bush monkeyflower, reminding me a bit of corn still wrapped in dried husks. Hummingbirds caught my attention repeatedly, several times perching in trees near enough that I could watch their movements.

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Chaparral currant was blooming in its beautiful bright pinks, always a nice contrast to the rest of the fall/winter vegetation. Chamise was luxurious on the hillside, with sandstone boulders scattered in between.

SketchbookPage3_2019Nov29 sm

The vivid colors of the scene below with burnt blue oak, striking blue sky, and red and green toyon were crying out to be painted.

SketchbookPage4_2019Nov29 sm

I stopped to try to capture the warm light on the Blue Ridge crest and was then drawn in completely by the lichens. The first were on boulders about half way down from the ridge:

SketchbookPage5_2019Nov29 sm

I made a diagram of the spatial complexity of different species on a rock:

SketchbookPage6_2019Nov29 sm

I got lost in a world of lichens on some fallen blue oak branches:

SketchbookPage7_2019Nov29 sm

And then stopped for a last painting at a boulder in the creek at the crossing back to the trail to the parking lot.

SketchbookPage8_2019Nov29 sm

Journaling #GoodFire (Oct 2019), Part 2

Saturday 10/12 started with a relaxed morning in a meadow below the second burn site, West Sims. John Muir Laws and Laurie Wigham engaged three local children in some nature journaling exercises and Miriam Morrill showed us some examples of how she captures her fire observations visually.

Frank Lake, Research Ecologist with the US Forest Service and member of the Karuk Tribe, is a multi-talented scientist and artist. He generously showed us a variety of cultural objects using plants managed with fire, including some of the tribal regalia and other artwork he has himself made.

Frank then accompanied us to the West Sims site so that we could observe some of the day’s burning up close. The terrain at this site was steeper than the day before, and overgrown with blackberry, so we observed some different techniques for starting and managing the fire.

We watched a few large trees go up in showers of spark and flame.

We watched the progress of the burn from above using a drone, and learned a little about fire investigation techniques.

Toward the end of the afternoon, we moved to a site below the area being burned for a different perspective. Frank talked more about how fire keeps the forest healthy, and demonstrated healthy vs. infested acorns. Fire helps control oak moth infestations in tanoak.

Our last evening in Orleans was a community event where we were fortunate to hear talks by Elizabeth Azus and Margo Robbins about basketry plants and fire; Frank Lake about fire and forest health; and Lenya Quinn-Davidson about the movement for community involvement in fire. We nature journalers also presented our work from the weekend and had an opportunity to share our sketches with the community and with the all of the participants in the TREX.

I found this entire experience deeply moving and enlightening; it gave me so much better an understanding of the work of fire in the landscape and what that looks like up close. I can’t wait to see how we develop this project further!