Honey travels through California’s geographic, plant, animal and bird past

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February 1, 2016 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 


By Honey van Blossom






(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)


Credit for the image is Bonnie Lambert’s “Palisade,” tall palms against the sky in Santa Monica. bonnielambert.com.

Copyright 2015. Permission to use granted by the artist.



Kern County in the southern end of the Central Valley of California began keeping tally of drowning deaths in the Kern River in 1968. As of May 2015, the sign at the entrance to Kern Canyon states that total is 271.

Before Kern County began its tally, children swam in the Kern River. Those of us who survived remember the powerful rush of water pushing us through champagne-colored water, flecks of gold swimming around us glittering like gold minnows in the place just before the rapids.

The Kern River is one of the main waterways that drain the southern part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. In 1853, Richard M. Keyes discovered gold in a quartz vein a few miles from the present community of Lake Isabella in the Kern River Valley. An instant mining town called Keyesville sprang up at the site. In 1858, an Indian called Lovely Rogers chased his mule. He picked up a rock to throw at it, and the glint of gold in the rock caught his eye. Rogersville began at the entrance to the gold mine, shaded by California bay laurels.

Philip W. Rundel and Robert Gustafson’s Introduction to the Plant Life of Southern California (University of California Press 2005):

“Over the past few million years a variety of geologic forces have shaped the Southern California landscape. Perhaps the most significant influence has been the ongoing collision of the Pacific Plate with the North American Plate along our coastal margin. Almost all of the Southern California region and most of the coastal ranges of central California as far north as San Francisco lie to the south and west of the San Andreas Fault and thus are part of the Pacific Plate. The majority of California, however, is part of the North American plate. Contact between these two plates began about 24 million years ago and continues to be a major force shaping our landscape today.”

One aspect of the geology of this state – its gold deposits in the Sierra foothills at the edge of the northern Sierra Mountains and the Trinity Alps – caused the single most transformative event in its history. J.S. Holliday, in The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience (Simon and Schuster 1981) about that gold discovery writes,

“The gold found by Marshall and soon by many thousands far beyond the millrace had been eroded and abraded through eons of time by glacial and climatic forces until it was freed from the rock formations in which it had been encased in veins and fissures. Further abraded and swept along for thousands of years by the wild power of torrents racing down river canyons and gorges, the larger pieces of gold sank upstream, to lodge among rocks and in cracks of the river bottoms or in sandbars and gravel banks, while the lighter flakes, scales and grains were carried farther downstream until the slight currently released them in quiet eddies and behind giant boulders.”

John McPhee’s Assembling California (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1994) sets the stage for California’s literature. California did not exist until the latter half of the dinosaur age and has been assembled as the result of a series of sea floor eruptions that collided with North America’s western margin and added vast quantities of rocks to it.

California’s geographic features isolated it from the rest of North America. The first human beings to arrive relied on this region’s unique native flora and fauna, and their cultures developed over thousands of years in intricate response to this region’s bounty.

Spanish explorers first approached the state from the sea and, as a result, later land expeditions had at first little information to guide them, except for the help given them by native guides. The explorers suffered, and sometimes died from, starvation and scurvy. The explorers did not recognize the plants, acorns, bulbs and seeds that sustained the indigenous people as food sources until a little later, when the natives gave the explorers gifts of food. California was as alien to them as were the fictional planets in Star Trek: the Original Series episodes – produced by Desilu Productions at the Paramount Studio in mid-Los Angeles 200 years later– were to the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The actor William Shatner’s voiceover at the beginning of each Star Trek program echoed rather romantically and certainly inaccurately the real Spanish exploration:

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

The first Euro-Americans that did not arrive by sea encountered enormous physical obstacles – the deserts and the mountains – and often suffered physically and emotionally. Those that arrived by sea endured long and dangerous voyages, and those who crossed by way of Nicaragua and Panama risked death from cholera.

The silent film The Covered Wagon (1923), released by Paramount Pictures, depicts the hardships encountered by American emigrants on the overland route to Oregon. A long portion of this route is the same as the route to California. The producers located the original wagons and used them in the film.

California’s geographic isolation is critical to understanding the experiences reflected in its many peoples’ literature up to 1869, when the First Transcontinental Railroad reached the San Francisco Bay. Stephen Ambrose, in his Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 (Simon and Schuster 2001) wrote:

“Of all the things done by the first transcontinental railroad, nothing exceeded the cuts in time and costs it made for people traveling across the continent. Before the Mexican War, during the Gold Rush that started in 1848, through the 1850s, and until the Civil War ended in 1865, it took a person months and might cost more than $1,000 to go from New York to San Francisco.”

Veterans of both the Confederate and the Union armies and recent immigrants to the U.S. built most of the track across the Wyoming and Nebraska Territories. Large work gangs of over 2,000 men — made up almost entirely of Mormons – built the track in Utah Territory. Many thousands of emigrant Chinese, referred to as “the Celestials,” built the Central Pacific’s roadbed, bridges and tunnels.

John Ford’s silent film The Iron Horse (1924) presented an idealized version of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, culminating with a scene of driving the golden spike at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869. The undervalued Johnny Depp film The Lone Ranger (2013) portrayed a fictional interpretation of the same event.

The Klamath Mountains rise at the top of the state. As a consequence of the geology, they have unique flora, including two relict species, remaining since the last ice age. The Pleistocene epoch lasted between 1.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. The Last Glacial Maximum, the maximum extent of glaciation occurred about 220,000 years ago. The last glacial period, popularly known as the Ice Age, occurred from approximately 110,000 to 12,000 years ago. The retreat of the glaciers allowed groups of people to migrate from Asia into the Americas.

The Cascade Range stretches from the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada down to the south of Lassen Peak, California, in the northeastern part of the state. Lassen Peak was the last Cascade volcano to erupt in California, from 1914-1921. The area is centered on Mount Shasta, a dormant volcano, but there is evidence it erupted in the eighteenth century.

The Sierra Nevada range of mountains in the east of the state run north south for 400 miles, shaped by uplift and glacial action. The large, deep freshwater Lake Tahoe lies to the north of Yosemite. The most massive trees on earth, the Giant Sequoia, grow in the Sierra Mountains.

Americans who went through a southern route encountered the harsh deserts in the Southeast of California, caused by a combination of the cold off shore air current, which limits evaporation, and the rain shadow of the mountains. The Mojave Desert is bounded by the peninsular Tehachapi Mountains on the northwest, together with the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains on the southwest.

To the east of the Peninsular Ranges – the Laguna Mountains, the San Jacinto Mountains, the Santa Rosa Mountains, and the Palomar Mountain Range – is the Colorado Desert and the Sonoran Desert, which extends into Arizona and Mexico.

Baja California, part of Mexico, is to the south. The Spaniards gave the name Las Californias to the peninsula (today’s Baja California Sur) and to the region that became parts of the present-day U.S. states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. The name Alta California, however, became identified with the region now known as the state of California.

Very few dinosaur bones have been found in Alta California because – during the time when dinosaurs lived — most of what is now California was covered by the Pacific Ocean. Hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs that lived near the end of the Cretaceous era) comprise most of the dinosaur bones found in California. In 1987, the skeleton of a Nodosaurus (“knobbed lizard”) was found in an excavation near Carlsbad.

The Natural History Museum in Exposition Park near USC houses Dinosaur Hall. Inside are more than 300 real fossils and 20 complete dinosaurs and ancient sea creatures.

The notion that oil comes from dead dinosaurs is a myth. Oil formed from the remains of marine plants and animals that lived millions of years ago, even before the dinosaurs.

W.W. Robinson’s book for children Beasts of the Tar Pits: Tales of Ancient America (First published by the MacMillan Company in 1932 and republished by the Ward Ritchie Press in 1948 and in 1961) is the story of the various animals whose bones have been found in the La Brea Tar Pits (a tautological name that means the tar tar pits)– none of them dinosaurs but many now extinct: the prehistoric camel, the Imperial Mammoth, Teratornis (huge birds), the Dire Wolf, kjthe Saber-Tooth, the Short-Faced Bear, the Giant Ground Sloth, the Ancient Bison, the Western Horse, the Great Lion. The George C. Page Museum adjacent to the tar pits contains many of the skeletons of these animals. The only person found there is the La Brea Woman, dated to approximately 10,000 years ago.

Robinson wrote:

“At one time large beasts ruled the world. They ruled for millions and millions of years.

“The bones of these beasts have been found in many lands. A large number of bones have been found in Southern California. They were in a place once called Rancho La Brea. This is in the city of Los Angeles.

“Rancho La Brea was low, level ground. On the north were blue mountains. The Pacific Ocean was away to the west. Rich grasses covered the ground. There were springs and streams of water.

“Deep pools of sticky, black tar were on Rancho La Brea. They are called the tar pits of La Brea. Water covered the tar. Animals came to the pits from long distances to drink. The pits looked like pools of water good to drink. The animals saw the bubbles of gas that came out of the water. They paid no attention to the bubbles. These beasts did not know that tar was beneath the bubbles. As these animals walked into the pits to drink, they were caught in the tar.”

In the 1892, Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield struck oil near present-day Dodger Stadium and revealed the Los Angeles City oil field, which still produces tar seeps. The Los Angeles City oil field discovery well, completed in 1893 between Beverly Boulevard and Colton Avenue (At the location of the present-day public swimming pool center in Echo Park) started California’s first oil boom, producing about 45 barrels a day. By 1897 more than 500 wells were pumping oil. The population of Los Angeles exploded as a result.

In spite of the title the film How Green Was My Valley (1941) was not filmed in color. Twentieth Century Fox built the village in Malibu Creek State Park at 1925 Las Virgenes Road in Calabasas. In some of the shots, you can see the chaparral-covered hillsides, and the “Welsh” trees look exactly like California live oaks. This same landscape played Norway in The Moon is Down (1943) with the same town only covered in fake snow (The pine trees, however, were from Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino National Forest.) Deciduous California tree leaves are a different green from Welsh trees. Welsh and Norwegian hillsides are rich dark green.

Ronald D. Quinn and Sterling C. Keeley wrote Introduction to California Chaparral (University of California Press 2006). The photographs in this book illustrate the colors of the natural landscape in this state, beginning with a photograph of hikers in the Santa Monica Mountain Range, immersed in vistas of dark aqua on a mountain, growing more olive in a close jut of mountain in morning light heavily shadowed, the rocks a sandy bronze, and closer a variety of olive, dark olive, a bluish gray, khaki. Later photographs correlate the California colors with the individual plants: chamise a darker green, white manzanita on ridges and higher slopes a light green white ceonothus in the central Sierra; white grasses on Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County; flowering chaparral yuccas – which grow more profusely after fires – like giant white candles, scarlet bugler in Lone Pine Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains; Bigpod ceanothus with tiny dark green leaves and a spray of white flowers in southern California. Golden poppies and dark pink owl’s clover grow in places bordering chaparral and in grassland areas. This palette of Mediterranean colors may be found in only a few places in the world: California, Central Chile, South Australia, Cape Province in South Africa, Spain, a corner of North Africa, Greece, Italy, Southern Anatolia.

Quinn and Keeley:

“Chaparral is both a vegetation type and the name given to the community of co-adapted plants and animals found in the foothills and mountains throughout California. The chaparral vegetation is composed of a diverse assemblage of different species of evergreen drought- and fire-hardy shrubs. Seen from the car window or scenic lookout, chaparral looks like a soft bluish green blanket gently covering the hills. Up close, however, this ‘blanket’ no longer appears soft. Instead, what is revealed is a nearly impenetrable thicket of shrubs with intertwined branches and twigs with hard leaves and stiff and unyielding stems.”

In wet springs after fall or winter fires, the profusion of plants rising from the blackened earth is unworldly and aromatic. Plants that had apparently vanished before the fires rise from their fake deaths. In 1848, New York journalist Edwin Bryant – assigned to cover the Gold Rush – described Tar Weed, or Yerba Buena, as intoxicatingly fresh. Hummingbird sage smells minty but other sages are pungent. Cowboys used to ridge through California Sagebrush and came home with the smell on their clothes. It is popularly known as Cowboy Cologne. On trails in the Santa Monica Mountains, something smells like yellow honey but I don’t know what it is called.

Without trails worn or cut through chaparral, the plants are close to impenetrable. The first Euro-Americans traveled along trails that had existed for thousands of years. It is important to understand how dense and tough these plants are to understand why the Spanish explorers sometimes had to turn back even when that meant much longer travel distances. Animals created the trails before the native people followed them. These trails are not straight like city streets. They meander but in a direction.

In wet seasons, broad paths through chaparral in clay soil become mud morasses. The mud is sticky and deep. Walkers find their feet heavy with mud. Shoes loosen in the mud, and walkers stop every few feet to scrape the mud off. Hooved animals like pack mules and horses become stuck and have to be pulled out of the mud. Oxen might do a little better but altogether, passage except in gravely areas and in grassy areas, takes a long time. Mountain climbs and descents had to have required significant strength and persistence. California hikers in wet seasons attempting to go along mud paths have a hard time.

The first American streets in Los Angeles were dirt. Wheels and hooves gouged the mud in rainy seasons, creating slippery hillocks and sliding ravines. In dry seasons, dust rose with every step taken on the pitted and scored streets. Journalist Edwin Bryant, writing about his return to San Jose as Americans rebuilt it to be the state capital, first saw the former pueblo from a distance as a thick cloud of dust. What is now the City of San Francisco was built on sand hills. Waterways, springs, and marshes that occupied portions of the new American cities further complicated travel.

Poison oak is native to California. Poison oak is gorgeously red in fall and flowers in the spring. The California towhee builds its nests in poison oak and eats poison oak berries. Animals appear to be unaffected by its toxic oil and large herbivores eat it.   Early writers about this state apparently missed coming across it, although — because this plant can grow up to 40 feet high — even horseback riders will encounter it. Yet, the Spanish land explorers don’t mention it.

“Leaves of three, let it be,” is a common mantra for hikers. It is a good idea not to pet animals that have passed through poison oak. The oil sticks to their fur. Hot water and soap applied soon after contact will remove the oil. Exposure to burning poison oak plants may result in lung lesions. Mugwort, a native plant that frequently grows near poison oak, is an antidote.

The native people not only burned brush, including poison oak, some tribes also used poison oak in their basket making. Indians in Mendocino County used poison oak leaves to wrap up acorn mush in preparation for baking. The Karok used the plant’s twigs as skewers for smoking salmon. The Chumash used poison oak medicinally to heal wounds and to stop bleeding. Jan Timbrook in Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California (Heyday, 3rd printing edition 2007) claims the Chumash were largely immune to poison oak’s rash causing poison but visiting Indians from other regions were often highly allergic.

There are 153 species of fleas in this state. The native people burned their homes when the fleas became troublesome. They used the sweathouse to remove them. The Mojave Indians plastered themselves with mud to get rid of them. When Spanish expeditions arrived in San Diego in 1769, most of the sailors were afflicted with typhus, a disease transmitted by lice and fleas. Within the next few weeks, more than half of the men died on shore in a tent camp set up for them. Crowded conditions in the missions led to flea infestations. The Americans complained frequently about fleas after they arrived in the state.

Introduction to California Chaparral lists wide-ranging animals. Among these animals are Mule Deer, California Towhees (a bird), Coyotes and Western Rattlesnakes. Wood rats, Wren tits, Pacific Kangaroo Rats, California Whip snakes and harvester ants are particular to the chaparral. Insects include Trap Door Spiders, Ticks and Scorpions. The California Carpenter bee is dark blue and can be as much as an inch long.

On television now, you can see “Gibbs” in the NCIS show walking through a forest in Virginia, wearing a heavy coat. Gibbs must sweat in that coat. The forest is comprised of eucalyptus trees, which do not grow in Virginia. Eucalypts do grow in California and grow so profusely that may appear to be part of the natural landscape but the trees tilt a biological scale that had balanced itself exquisitely over millennia. Beginning in the 1850s, Euro-Americans brought seeds from Australia to California. It is a large genus containing over 600 species and some varieties rise to 300 feet tall. The odor is pungent, sharp, and somewhat like Vick’s VapoRub, which is not surprising because the ointment contains 1.2% eucalyptus oil.   When the bark peels, it reveals a smooth interior bark the color of the Crayola color “flesh.” Juvenile leaves are often blue.

Jared Farmer, in Trees in Paradise: A California History (W.W. Norton andCompany 2013) begins the eucalyptus history in this state in the 1870s: “Planters believed variously that the exotic trees would provide fuel, improve the weather, boost farm productivity, defeat malaria, preserve watersheds, and thwart a looming timber famine. First and foremost, settlers propagated them to domesticate and beautify the land, to give it more greenery.” Farmer reports studies find equal diversity and abundance of wildlife in eucalyptus forest and native woodlands but many botanists disagree.

Only one palm tree in the Los Angeles area – Washingtonia filifera, the California fan palm – is native. Southern California’s pre-1492 landscape was semi-arid: grassland, chaparral, sage scrub, and oak woodland. Palms need a lot of water to grow successfully.

Rundel and Gustafson list a number of invasive species in Southern California, the great majority of which have their origins in one of the four other regions with a climate like our own. “(T)he understories of oak savannas and grasslands in California are dominated by a matrix of alien annual grasses and broad-leaved herbs native to the Mediterranean Basin. Although their introduction was unintentional, these annuals rapidly spread to replace the native perennials in our grasslands and fundamentally transform their environment.”

The hills bordering Kirker Pass between Concord and Pittsburg are narrowly terraced – as are many of the undeveloped grass-covered hills throughout California. Two hundred years of cattle grazing on California’s hills terraced the hills, as the cattle walk horizontally around them.

With the arrival of the first Spanish colonists in California in 1769, new grazers entered California’s grasslands: domestic cattle, oxen, mules, horses and sheep. Sheep eat grass down to the earth.

Llewellyn Bixby and other members of his family drove sheep from the eastern states in 1852. During the Civil War, rancheros, including Yankee ranchero Abel Stearns, replaced the half-wild cattle with sheep – a rising market after the war cut off cotton production in the southern states.

Early European settlers brought with them the giant reed. Rundel and Gustafson: “In the basin of the Santa Ana River in Southern California, for example, more than 10,000 acres are dominated by giant reed. These massive stands exacerbate flood problems by choking stream channels, create fire hazards in stream habitats otherwise relatively free of flammable tissues, and destroy native riparian habitat for rare and endangered species of birds and other wildlife.”

The soft-bottomed portion of the concrete-clad Los Angeles River is choked with giant reed and other invasive species, including corn. Friends of Los Angeles River organize “La Gran Limpieza” once a year so that volunteers may clear the plastic bags that hang from these plants like grotesque ornaments, as well as bottles, shopping carts, mattresses, an occasional gun, and collections of stuffed animals and plastic lawn ornaments the homeless that live on the river add to the debris.

Spanish broom, so successful it seems to be a native, invaded chaparral. Pampas grass, fennel and ice plant have aggressively expanded and choked out species.

Invasive species, pollution from the Central Valley and fire suppression put Sierra’s redwoods at risk.

Pretending an arid landscape is actually a verdant one for a movie requires art. Transforming entire ecologies in order to produce backyard rose bushes, grass lawns, cotton, rice, almonds, and to create private and public fountains — like the Kool-Aid Fountain (William Mulholland Memorial Fountain) in purple, lilac, blue, green, yellow, orange and red — required governmental finagling, considerable private larceny, and imported water.

California and all of the western states head for ecological disaster because water is not the unlimited resource it was once thought to be. This is the message of, for instance, Philip Fradkin’s A River No More: The Colorado River and the West (1981), Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West (1985) and Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West (1992), Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (1986), and Wallace Stegner’s Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (1992).

Reisner wrote in Cadillac Desert:

“Thanks to irrigation, thanks to the Bureau (of Reclamation) states such as California, Arizona, and Idaho became populous and wealthy; millions settled in regions where nature, left alone, would have countenanced thousands at best; great valleys and hemispherical basins metamorphosed from desert blond to semi-tropic green.”

That concrete channel – containing sometimes a trickle where the bottom hardened or migrating around exotic brush in the Glendale Narrows where the bottom did not harden, or reaching flood heights that mean rescue helicopters lower firemen to rescue dogs and people from the churning water — is what is left of the Los Angeles River.   Blake Grumprecht’s The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death and Possible Rebirth (John Hopkins University Press 2001), captures a different aspect of the ideology that sucks all the fresh water out of the earth and contaminates the ocean: the use of the river as sewer, the theft from the river of its gravel bed, the urban development up to its edges that meant that its natural changes in contour had to be contained in a concrete sepulcher.

Lester Rowntree’s (1879-1979) writing shared John Muir’s almost mystical love of California’s nature. She was a field botanist and writer and, when she was 52, chose a hardscrabble life as, in her words, a “lady-gypsy” to pursue her love. She advocated restoration of California native plants and collection and preservation of native seeds. From her Hardy Californians (First edition Macmillan Press 1936, fourth expanded edition University of California Press 2006):

“It is the regional variations of California’s climate which have given rise to such conflicting reports about it. A visitor returns East carrying tales of fierce sunrays and perpetual heat; another goes home wailing that he couldn’t get warm and didn’t see the sun all summer. Both are right.”

From her chapter called “The Contemned Buckwheats”:

“Their leaves are invariably lovely, delicately colored and beautifully arranged, and if the flowers are not cream or white they are in fine shades of yellow and bronze or the best, magenta-less pinks. People who travel the California roads fall, sooner or later, under the spell of the Eriogonums and become champions of their beauty…”

California buckwheat’s look rather like the flower called babies breath in a flower arrangement. Buckwheat flowers turn brown but in the fall, and they are popular nectar sources for butterflies and nectaries for many insect predators. California’s micro-fauna has not yet evolved to pollinate plants from South Africa or Australia, so these plants are critical to sustaining the insect population.

From Rowntree’s chapter “On Top of the World”:

“One of the grand flowers of the High Sierra is the Sky-pilot. Polemonium conferum var. eximum never grows below timber line and keeps to granite rocks, domes and ledges…Its narrow leaves, four inches long, musk-scented and sticky and growing in a tuft, are packed all round with tiny leaflets and are curiously worm-like in appearance. The fragrant flowers, in large round clusters, are a forget-me-not blue with a little lavender in it and have brown centers. A well-grown plant of this Sky-pilot fairly takes your breath away…”

Fish and other sea creatures of the California coast may be seen in three places: The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and in one part of the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Children road scholars will enjoy all three places, and a day should be reserved for each one.

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945) describes a street near the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a street once lined with sardine canneries. One of the main characters is “Doc,” based on Steinbeck’s friend marine biologist and ecologist “Doc” Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts. He is best known for Between Pacific Tides (1939), a pioneering study of intertidal ecology.

The fictional and the real Doc’s home and office is the Western Biological Laboratories. In the lab, Doc preserves living beings – e.g., octopuses, rattlesnakes, and starfish.   Doc takes trips up and down the California coast to collect specimens from the ocean and sells them for dissection or observation at labs, universities and museums across the country. The City of Monterey schedules free public tours of Pacific Biological Laboratories.

Ricketts and Steinbeck collaborated on the Sea of Cortez (the Gulf of California) later republished as The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). The book is a travelogue and biological research. It also reflects the authors’ shared philosophy: it dwells on the place of humans in the environment and raises their concern about over-fishing, and were ahead of their time in shaping a holistic theory that contributed to emerging theories of ecology.   On their journey, they collected over 500 species of fauna of the shores of the Gulf.

“Doc” Ricketts — a self-taught marine biologist and John Steinbeck’s closest friend – is best known for his book Between Pacific Tides (1939), a pioneering study of intertidal ecology, which influenced Steinbeck’s view of the world; Ricketts helped develop that view as more one with more explicit understanding our interdependence with each other and with the natural world.

From Between Pacific Tides:

“Haliotis rufescens, the red abalone, may grow to be 10 or 11 inches long, but 6=1/2 inches is the minimum size that may legally be taken, and larger specimens are rare near shore.  Abalone shells have been valued since their discovery by human beings with an eye for iridescent colors; and abalone pearls, formed when the animal secretes a covering of concentric layers of pearly shell over parasites or irritating particles of gravel, have in times past made fashionable jewelry….”

This passage from Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) reveals not only Ricketts’ philosophical influence over Steinbeck’s thinking, but also is in itself an explanation of some of the more mystical passages in Steinbeck’s writing:

“[…] it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical out crying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

Arnold Small’s The Birds of California (Winchester Press 1974) lists and describes over 500 species of birds in this state. Small wrote:

“Only in California (near the summit of Mt. Pinos in southern Kern County) can one view the largest flying land bird in North America – the California Condor with a wingspread of 10 feet, and the smallest bird in the United States – the diminutive Calliope Hummingbird, on the same afternoon. Only in California can an energetic birdwatcher execute a trip from the ocean, through the river valleys, across the foothills, and into the desert, and find more than 100 kinds of birds in a single day, any day of the year.”


“The birds of California are not a unique assemblage peculiar to this particular political unit. Rather, knowing no state or international borders, they freely move to and fro as part of a larger pulsating river of bird life that comprises the birds of North America – a more realistic zoographic unit… Birds, being among the most mobile of all animals, constitute an extremely fluid population that changes from place to place, season to season, and year to year.”

As of 2009, there are 641 bird species, including 15 introduced species, in the state. Among the introduced species are the parrots in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, some of which arrived through the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in Van Nuys.

California’s vanishing natural landscape has been the backdrop of its peoples’ literature.

Selected sources:


Fredrik Cr. Brogger, “Wallace Stegner and the Western Environment: Hydraulics, Placelessness, and (Lack of) Identity.”   European Journal of American Studies, Vol. 6., no. 3, 2011, Document 5.

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/mesozoic/cretaceous/ptloma.html. (Retrieved December 9, 2015).

http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/486/files/plantreferenceguide2014_03_03_14.pdf. State Indian Museum Plant Reference Guide (December 2013) (Retrieved December 9, 2015).

arboretum.ucsc.edu/pdfs/ethnobotany-webversion.pdf. Plant Uses: California. Native American Uses of California Plants – Ethnobotany. (Retrieved December 9, 2015)

http://www.friendsofbidwellpark.org/ethnobotany.html. Wes Dempsey, author, “Plants in the Lives of Northern California Native Americans.” (Retrieved December 9, 2015).

http://www.dohenymansion.org/. (Retrieved December 9, 2015).

Nathan Masters, “A Brief History of Palm Trees in Southern California,” http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/history/la-as-subject/a-brief-history-of-palm-trees-in-southern-california.html. (Retrieved December 11, 2015)


Suggested visits:

Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach

International Garden Markham Nature Park and Arboretum, 1202 La Vista Avenue, Concord

Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, 301 North Baldwin Avenue, Arcadia

Los Angeles River Center and Gardens, near the confluence of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco. 570 West Avenue 26.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley, 200 Centennial Drive, Berkeley.








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