As I write these words, a massive and powerful wildfire is raging through the Santa Cruz Mountains, approaching the city of Santa Cruz from the north and west. This morning's stats:
63,000 acres burnt/burning
1157 people fighting the fire (roughly 10% of what is needed to fight a fire of this size)
firebreaks constructed to protect the city and university
firefighters coming from out of the area and out of state
Much of the terrain burning is redwood forest. Big Basin Redwood State Park has burnt extensively. All park buildings and campgrounds have been severely damaged if not destroyed. Up the coast from me at Waddell Creek, the fire burned all the way to the ocean. Rancho del Oso, the nature center at the bottom of Big Basin at Waddell Creek, is in the middle of the forest; I don't know whether or not it still stands.
Each of these leaves tells the story of the destructive power of Nature. Most of them are from tanoak trees (Neolithocarpus densiflorus) or California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), both of which are very common understory trees in redwood forests. For the past week, charred leaves have been tossed by updraft and carried along the wind, to be deposited miles away. Fortunately they are no longer acting as live embers when they touch down.
My camera gear is all packed up, in case we need to evacuate. I took these photos with my phone when I went to the marine lab this morning. They are completely unaltered. If they look a little too orange, well, that's how everything looks right now.
Why did I feel compelled to take these pictures? I think it's because the damage to Nature caused by Nature should be acknowledged as well as the damage to human lives, homes, and health. What I'm about to say may sound insensitive. I do not want to diminish the human tragedy of lost homes, livelihoods, and health. But I do want to shift my personal focus a little bit, because dwelling on all that has been and could be lost only renders me unable to function. If I can think about the future, perhaps even the long-term future far beyond my own life, I feel more grounded and ready to deal with the now.
What is and has been happening to the redwood forests is absolutely tragic. But the redwoods themselves are fire-adapted and resilient. The forest will recover. Already there are Facebook groups organizing to help the residents who have been displaced, begin the long and arduous process of cleaning up once the fire crews give the okay to do so, and start thinking about long-term monitoring of the forest's recovery. From a purely ecological perspective, it will be fascinating to document the process of secondary succession.
But before any of that can happen, human safety is the top priority. We are far from the end of this ordeal. While the weather has cooperated the past couple of days, with cooler temperatures and higher humidity thanks to the return of the marine layer, the forecast calls for 20-30% chance of lightning weather Sunday through Tuesday. That means more lightning strikes and more fires starting. We were visited by a firefighter yesterday afternoon, who told us that while we were not in the immediate evacuation zone we need to be ready to go. She advised us to do the usual fire prevention stuff—clear out a defensible space around the house, make sure there's no leaf litter or debris on the roof, etc. So we did. And now we stay indoors as much as possible, as the air quality outside is dismal. And we wait.
Combine the words "gold" and "California" and you automatically come up with the Gold Rush, don't you? After all, California is the Golden State. And while that nickname may be to honor the golden hills of summer or the poppies that are the state flower, it may also be a tribute to the discovery of gold in 1848. For better or worse, the Gold Rush initiated rapid development of this area, and California eventually became the 31st state in 1850.
For me, and I suspect for many people, gold is one of the quintessential colors of autumn. Yet here we are in the middle of winter heading towards spring, and I saw a lot of gold in the forest the other day. I had taken my Ecology students to Rancho del Oso for the first field trip of the semester and set them loose to saunter through the woods and practice noticing (and recording) patterns in nature. Incidentally, I have adopted the word 'saunter' as a replacement for 'hike' for most of my own outdoor adventures. I have always been a slow hiker, and felt that in order to keep up with other people I had to miss seeing what was going on around me. Not to mention the fact that I'm always stopping to take pictures or examine some weird thing on the ground, or in the trees, or wherever. By giving myself permission to saunter along at the pace at which nature occurs, I have time to slow down and observe more carefully, and come away with a much better understanding of the world I've passed through. It certainly doesn't work for everybody, but I've learned that the journey is as important as the final destination, and that has made hiking sauntering much more enjoyable for me.
So, back to the gold. One of the very first thing I noticed when we hit the trail was this brilliant yellow-orange slime mold growing on twigs on the forest floor. This area is a mixed forest of hardwoods (mostly oaks) and various pines. I can't be certain what these sticks hosting the slime mold are, but they may be some kind of pine.
Slime molds are very strange organisms that don't fit into any of the major eukaryotic kingdoms of life (Animalia, Plantae, or Fungi). The current taxonomic position of slime molds is up for debate and far from settled, so I won't go into it here. Like fungi, slime molds feed on dead and decaying plant matter and are part of the decomposer niche of organisms. Also like fungi, most of a slime mold's life is microscopic. In the case of fungi most of the body, called a mycelium, is a network of extremely thin threads called hyphae. The mycelium for most fungi is underground and thus invisible to the casual observer. What we call a mushroom is only the reproductive fruiting body, which pushes to the surface so that spores can be released into the air.
For most of the time, or at least as long as food is plentiful, a slime mold exists as single amoeba-like or flagellated cells that feed on bacteria. These cells are haploid, containing only one set of chromosomes. Sexual reproduction (labelled SYNGAMY in the figure below) occurs when an amoeba-like cell encounters a compatible flagellated cell. I would also be willing to bet that the amoeboid and flagellated cells are triggered to find each other and initiate syngamy when food is scarce, as is the case with many animals.
The result of syngamy in a slime mold is a zygote which develops into a macroscopic stage called the plasmodium. The plasmodium undergoes nuclear division multiple times but cytokinesis doesn't occur, resulting in a large cell bounded by a single plasma membrane and containing many nuclei. In animal tissues we describe this condition as syncytial; I don't know if the same word is used by slime mold specialists, but the concept applies.
One of the things that makes slime molds truly bizarre is their method of locomotion. Using time-lapse videography, you can actually see how the contents of the cell swash back and forth in a process called cytoplasmic streaming. The net result of all this cytoplasmic streaming is the physical movement of the plasmodium into new territory. It's a process much easier to understand if you can see it, so here's a video from KQED's Deep Look series:
As with many fungi, slime molds are difficult to identify if you don't see the fruiting body. The slime mold that we encountered the other day was an immature plasmodium that hadn't yet produced fruiting bodies. The experts who took a look at my observation on iNaturalist agreed that it is likely Leocarpus fragilis, based on location and time of year, but they cannot be certain.
Continuing with our theme of gold, we saw several small blotches of golden jelly growing on tree trunks. These were the Tremella fungi. There are two species of golden Tremella in our region, T. mesenterica and T. aurantia. It seems that differentiation between the species depends on examination of microscopic structures, so I am unable to tell which species this little blob is. However, I will point out that the species epithet aurantia means 'gold', so I really hope that's the name for this blob.
Saving the best for last! Moving away from the creek and into the more enclosed forest we entered the realm of everybody's favorite terrestrial pulmonate gastropod, the banana slug. They were out in full force, chowing down on mushrooms and sliming up the foliage. One of my students picked up a banana slug and let it crawl on her hand for a while, but to my knowledge nobody licked one. All of the banana slugs that I saw were bright yellow with no brown or gray blotches, so I conclude that they were either Ariolimax californicus (the so-called Peninsula banana slug) or A. dolichophallus (the Santa Cruz banana slug, also the school mascot for UC Santa Cruz).
But this is where things get interesting. According to their mitochondrial DNA these two species, A. californicus and A. dolichophallus, do not have overlapping ranges. And the dividing line between them is Rancho del Oso, with A. californicus occurring to the north and A. dolichophallus occurring to the south. So, if Rancho del Oso is the magic line defining the ranges of these two species, what species are the slugs at Rancho del Oso? I think that answering this question will require a much finer scale study. For now, I'm just going to call them Ariolimax sp., because that seems to be the safest option until things get sorted out.
I've written about banana slugs before, but I've never had a chance to photograph them doing the actual nasty. Luckily for me and the students, banana slugs have no shame. I think the entire class got to get a close look and photos of this copulating pair:
This perfect yin-yang symbol is the result of how banana slugs align themselves during copulation. Each hermaphroditic slug has a genital open behind the head on the right side of the body. There's a lot of kinky stuff that happens during banana slug sex, including the chewing off of one partner's penis, but suffice to say that one animal's penis is inserted into the vagina of the other and, well, we don't know how quickly sperm is transferred, but the animals remain locked together for several hours. Yes, HOURS. Ahem. The penis chewing thing doesn't happen every time slugs mate, and biologists are still trying to figure out the function for this unusual behavior.
We have another several weeks (hopefully!) of rainy weather, so there will be lots of time to explore the world of fungi, slime molds, and banana slugs. The combination of rain and lengthening days creates great conditions to revel in the gold of a California winter in the forest.
I am fortunate to live in a place of great natural beauty. While the Pacific Ocean dominates much of the landscape, we are also partially surrounded by mountains. I grew up in the flatness of the San Joaquin Valley, a couple hours' drive from both the sea and the Sierra Nevada but not near enough for either to have any appreciable effect on daily life. When I first moved here from the Sacramento area to start graduate school, I felt claustrophobic because I had been used to looking out in any direction and being able to see for miles around. I've long since grown accustomed to the fact that the only miles-long vistas we get are over the ocean and have come to appreciate the proximity of the mountains.
Here we are ideally situated so that ocean and mountain forest are close enough that both can be explored in a single day. And in fact, I did just that the other day, on Boxing Day. The elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) breeding season has started, and I wanted to go up to Año Nuevo State Park to see them. Alas, this idea didn't occur to me soon enough to purchase tickets for the docent-led tour to the elephant seal reserve area, so we didn't get close to the seals. But it was a gorgeously clear day and the scenery was every bit as spectacular as you'd expect from this part of the coast.
Año Nuevo Island lies a short distance to the southwest off Año Nuevo Point and is reachable only by kayak. The island is a marine wildlife refuge closed to the public, uninhabited by any humans except scientists. Elephant seals, northern fur seals (a type of otariid, or eared seal), rhinoceros auklets, western gulls, and Brandt's cormorants all breed on the island. California sea lions don't breed on the island, but several thousand use it as a haul-out site throughout the year. During the elephant seal pupping season white sharks come to the waters around the island to feed on pups as they learn how to swim.
It is not common for the air to be so clear. Usually there is fog or haze that obscures the buildings. There used to be a lighthouse on the island; the dilapidated tower was pulled down in the early 2000s to safeguard the wildlife. Some of the other buildings--a 19th century residence and foghorn station--are currently used as research facilities.
Even without a ticket for docent-led tour of the elephant seal reserve area, you can hike to the staging area from where the tours depart. The trail passes a freshwater pond that is home to two endangered California herps: The red-legged frog (Rana draytonii) and the San Francisco garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia). Years ago I had a colleague in graduate school who studied the elephant seals up at Año Nuevo. I went in the field with him one day and got to wear the special blue research windbreaker. He told me that before being allowed to drive into the reserve area all of the researchers have to take a driving test that involves not running over plastic snakes that are placed in the road. This is to make sure that the endangered snakes won't be inadvertently killed.
We ate lunch at a lookout point of the tour staging area. Because the air was so clear we could see quite a way down the coast. Highway 1 as it passes under the cliffs immediately north of the Waddell Beach is visible at the far right edge of the photograph.
After lunch we headed away from the coast and drove up Gazos Creek Road a few miles into the forest. It took all of about 15 minutes to go from beach to redwood forest. How cool is that? Two completely different ecosystems to explore easily within a day. Even the weather was different: sunny and warm at the beach, much cooler and damper among the trees.
Although we were up in the redwoods, this day I was fascinated by all of the moss growing on the trees. We've had a decent amount of rain so far, and the forests are satisfyingly wet and squishy. The creek we followed had washed out a bit of the road in a couple of places, and was closed to all traffic about 5 miles from the highway.
We didn't have a lot of time to poke around in the forest, but since we were in the area we stopped at Rancho del Oso on our way home to visit my favorite tree. Rancho del Oso is at the bottom of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. I take my ecology students there for the first field trip of the semester, because there I can introduce them to two of the ecosystems that define the natural history of Santa Cruz.
My favorite tree is a coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) that lives just off the trail at Rancho del Oso. I love its gnarled branches that grow horizontally at ground level. It is an old, wise tree. Looking through its branches you see into the redwood forest of Big Basin. I normally photograph this tree at a different angle, looking into the forest away from the trail. This day I decided to shoot it from an angle parallel to the trail. I don't think it's quite as dramatic from this angle but there's no denying the magnificence of the tree.
Rancho del Oso is also the downhill terminus of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail. The entire trail is about 30 miles, and most hikers take two or three days to hike the whole thing. I'm not much of a backpacker but one of the things I'd like to do this spring is the day hike from Big Basin down to Rancho del Oso. Doesn't that sound like great fun?
In recent years the day after Thanksgiving has become known as Black Friday, a day when retailers across the nation offer fantastic sales in order to separate Americans from their hard-earned cash. I hate shopping even under the best of circumstances, and you couldn't pay me enough to step foot in a shopping mall on Black Friday. Fortunately, a trio of organizations have put together about the most awesome alternative to Black Friday that I could imagine. They call it Green Friday.
The idea behind Green Friday, as I understand it, is to get people to spend the day after Thanksgiving outdoors enjoying nature instead of fighting over $5 t-shirts at some big department store. The three organizations--Save the Redwoods League; the California State Parks Foundation; and the California State Parks--sponsored some number of free parking passes at the state parks. I have a Golden Poppy pass, which gets me into state parks in northern California and we didn't need one of the free passes, but I've been wanting to go hiking up in Big Basin so I rounded up my husband and a few friends and off we went.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park is the oldest state park in California, established in 1902. It has long been my favorite of the state parks I've visited.
I have to say, the Green Friday thing seemed to be working. The park was very crowded, with lots of families. We chose to hike the Sequoia Trail, a 4-mile loop that begins at the park headquarters and goes past Sempervirens falls, a monument to the founders of the park, and a treacherous passage called Slippery Rock. The oldest and tallest redwood trees in the park are seen from the Redwood Loop trail, which we didn't hike this time. But it is impossible to see any redwood forest, and not feel awed.
The oldest of these trees have outlived multiple human civilizations. It's humbling to be surrounded by such ancient beings.
The forest floor is shaded by the canopy of the redwood and other tall trees. At this time of year, and especially after a rain, the understory is spectacular with greenery and life. It's all about the mushrooms. California had four dry winters before last year's El Niño rains, and so far this autumn has been fairly wet. Well, October was wet; we didn't have rain in November until last weekend. The fungi have been biding their time, waiting for enough water to fall from the sky before sending up their fruiting bodies. Now, I freely admit that mushroom identification is a major weak spot of mine, so take these names with a grain of salt. But I'm learning! The duff on the ground in the area we hiked was a mixture of redwood needles and leaves from tan oak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) and California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica). Many mushrooms were growing directly through the duff, while others were growing on living or dead trees.
This so-called coral mushroom is, I think, Ramaria formosa. We saw a few clumps of it right at the beginning of the hike, in this pale orange color. The branching at the tips appears to be more or less dichotomous, and the overall shape and size of the body reminded me of the intertidal rockweed Pelvetiopsis limitata.
These really pretty bracket fungi may be turkey tails (Trametes versicolor). We found lots of them on both dead and living trees. The ones that are brilliant orange and brown I do recognize as turkey tails, but when they're pale and creamy like these I'm not sure whether or not they're the same thing.
And there were spectacular displays like this:
and strange things like this:
I was able to identify those strange white things as Clavaria fragilis, or fairy fingers. The mycelium of this fungus lives underground in grasslands and wooded areas; it is described as common in this area, especially during the wetter months. The arrangement of these fruiting bodies in a more or less straight line is interesting and makes me wonder if the mycelium is living in a log buried under the duff. I don't know what else would cause the mycelium to grow in such a linear fashion.
My favorite mushroom photo of the day was of these LBMs (little brown mushrooms) that were growing out of a downed redwood. The mushrooms themselves are extremely cute, but what I really like about this picture is the bokeh. I've become intrigued by the practice of composing and exposing photographs so that the the non-subject matter is deliberately blurred and becomes part of the overall aesthetic quality of the image. I think I've noticed it before, but never really thought about how to achieve it. Practicing it is a whole lot of fun, and I think there will be many more photos like this in my future.
Where there are mushrooms there are mushroom predators such as banana slugs. I think we counted about 10 of the bright yellow gastropods on our hike. Alas, none of them were copulating. But one of them was eating a mushroom!
What a great afternoon it was! Given how crowded the park was I'd say that Green Friday was a success. I'd so much rather see people hiking or at least spending time outdoors than shopping for material things. I hope that Green Friday is here to stay!