Love on the Overlook

As Valentine’s Day approaches, you can just feel all the love in the air, but did you know that at least one person has proposed to their sweetheart at the top of the Overlook Trail?

One of the founders of the Sonoma Overlook Trail, and incoming Sonoma Alcadessa Karen Collins, was hiking on the trail not long ago and came across a couple sitting on the bench at the top. As told in her own words, “I’m walking up the trail and this very cute couple are sitting on the bench at the top. She is teary. I asked if she was ok. She said they just got engaged!” She is from Egypt and he is from a community near Sacramento.

We knew that the Overlook Trail was a special place, but it’s nice to know that others think it’s special too — so special, in fact, that they chose to propose to their loved one there. Although another way of looking at it is that you may want to be careful who you choose to hike with, as who knows what might happen at this magical place.

‘Don’t Look Up’ and Other Lessons From Invasive Species Removal

Pulling an Italian Thistle in its early stage.

At the risk of completely turning off our loyal readers (Hi Mom!), I once again sally forth into the area of invasive species removal, but this time it’s to describe some “lessons learned,” after years of doing this work. But if you read beyond this point you may want to see your psychiatrist. Just a friendly warning. Jump to the end of this post if you don’t believe me.

They’re called “invasive species” for good reason. Native plant species have existed in a particular ecosystem for many years, decades, even millennia. So when a new plant species is introduced into an area, the local ecosystem often has no defenses against it. This can (and often does) allow the invasive species the opportunity to completely take over the local ecosystem, thereby crowding out native species until there is essentially a monoculture. I’ve seen this happen. One of the first things to understand, then, is that this is a very real threat, and one that we have not always been good at fighting against.

It’s not a battle, it’s a war of attrition. Don’t think that this is a battle that can be fully won. All we can hope to accomplish is to reduce the level of invasion to a manageable level and keep it there, or reduce it over time. We may be successful in keeping a particular species off the properties completely, with due diligence over years and constant vigilance, but we will likely never completely rid these properties of invasive species altogether. It’s just what it is. Know this going in.

Don’t look up. Invasive species removal is what’s called a long game — something that takes concerted effort over many years to reach your goals. Think of marriage, or saving for retirement — things that take work over long periods of time to achieve lasting goals. I’ve also called this being gently powerful, as a river is when it erodes very hard rock. The point about not looking up is that if you see the entire job before you, you may despair. But if you keep your head down, and only look at what is in front of you, then you have a chance at going on, and really making a difference in the long term. This is a real issue when it comes to achieving a difficult task like fighting back invasive species.

Manage your discouragement. I don’t know of anyone who does this work who hasn’t had moments of feeling discouraged. Anything that is this daunting is likely to make anyone have feelings of discouragement now and then. How I handle it myself is I ask myself the question that is the verbal equivalent of “don’t look up” — “Are you making a difference?” Invariably, the answer is “Yes, I am.” And that’s how I turn discouragement into determination — by focusing on the small goal of simply making a difference. Just make next year better than this year or the year before.

Know that here’s never just one. This is a rookie mistake – thinking that when you spot one invasive weed that’s all there is. As I’ve blogged about before, that is never the case. Just stop thinking that. As soon as you zoom in on that one weed, you will see others — perhaps many others. But there’s never just one.

Understand that not only is it not sexy, it’s not even remotely attractive. Much of this work happens off the trail, where no one sees you doing it. And even when you’re doing it on the trail, you’re sweaty, smelly, and sticking your big butt toward the trail. Believe me on this. It’s not a pretty encounter. Some of you reading this may have even been there, and can back me up on this. I’m sorry.

If you think you’ve won, you haven’t been doing it long enough. When I first started doing this work, I naively thought we could knock it out in a year or two. That was almost a decade ago and there are invasive species we haven’t yet addressed. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t had a serious impact — we totally have. For example, I am proud to report that we’ve essentially eradicated the Yellow Star Thistle (YST) from both the Sonoma Overlook and Montini Preserve properties, after years of work. Also, we have made a serious impact on Italian Thistle on the Overlook Trail property. So there has been progress. But there is also much further to go. Just don’t think we’ve won, because we never really do. But we make a difference, and that is important.

Don’t let one patch get you down. This is a lesson it took me a while to learn. When I found a patch of invasive weeds I thought I needed to pull it all before moving away. But I quickly realized that for my own sanity I would need to take a break, if it only meant attacking a different edge of the patch. Sometimes you just need to walk a bit and restart anew, and that is totally OK. These days, I only work on a patch until I feel like moving on, as I know I will be back tomorrow or the next day to fight it back farther, and eventually, over time, eliminate it. And that’s perfectly OK. Bottom line: only do what you want to do.

Use the seasons to your advantage. Invasive species have their own timetable, and some, like Italian Thistle, come in early, while others, like Yellow Star Thistle come in later in the season. Meanwhile, you can get Scotch Broom pretty much any time. I’ve been pulling Italian Thistle starting in January, as it becomes to come in, which is a great time to get it, as it can be easy to pull from the wet soil and you can simply toss it aside, rather than hauling it out in a sack as you need to do later in the season. Later in the year I add YST to my itinerary, although as I’ve mentioned it is thankfully becoming more rare.

Set achievable goals. When I I first started pulling invasive weeds, I had no goals. I just went out and did it. But when I really took it on as a project, I discovered the need to set goals. Initially, in my ignorance, I set the goal of complete eradication. On the Overlook property, that ended up being achievable for the Yellow Star Thistle, since after 5-6 years of concerted effort, we seem to be getting there. But I’m not so sanguine about the Italian Thistle, so I’ve set the much more modest goal of eradicating it from the trail edge for now. Once that is achieved, another goal can be set. But don’t rush it, or you may fall into the trap of frustration.

Beware of obsession.  I don’t know what to tell you about this. I just know that it’s possible to descend into obsession. Here is even a blog post about it. Just don’t let it happen to you. If you do, I’ll see you out there, and you’ll be welcome.

Lord help you. If you’ve made it this far then I feel for you. You may be in danger of catching the bug, which I’m not sure I would wish on anyone. Pretty much every day during Spring and Summer I ask myself whether I will hike or pull invasive species, and most of the time I choose the latter, as it needs to be done and I’m not sure who else will do it. Perhaps talk to me before choosing to do this. At least I will be able to give you the straight dope, and you can decide for yourself whether you are up to it.

No, I’m serious. Perhaps you thought I was kidding. I’m not. I really wish that I had not caught this bug. I see the people every day doing their hike or run and there I am, pulling stupid invasive weeds. Don’t be me. Take your hike or run and throw me a thank you every now and then. But I know it is actually pity, and I get that. It’s what I would do if I could. But I can’t. It’s too late for me. Save yourself.

It Takes a Team

One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about becoming a Sonoma Overlook Trail Steward is being part of a motivated, energetic, and inspiring group of individuals who all love the land and hiking out in it. But now and then I’m reminded that the official stewards group is only the tip of the spear, as it were, in keeping the trail safe and well-maintained. This week was one of those times.

Usually I’m out on the trail every day when I’m not away, but this week found me in bed on Monday with a cold I caught in the wake of two weeks in Thailand. Literally on my sick bed I received a text message from Melissa Beasley, a friend who is a yoga teacher for The Lodge and also leads hikes on the Overlook Trail several days a week. She had in turn received a text message from her colleague Lisa Turchet, who also is a yoga teacher for The Lodge and also leads those hikes. Lisa was warning Melissa about a tree down on the trail (see photo), and suggesting she might want to consider alternate routes for the hikes she might lead later in the week. Before I had even gotten out of bed, I fired off an email to a couple colleagues who assist with trail maintenance, Lynn Clary and Bill Wilson, hoping that one or more of them could get by there and help mitigate the hazard. Bill also serves as our liaison with the City, so I knew he would report it to the City so they could come out with a chainsaw and do a full removal.

Sure enough, within hours Lynn, Bill, and Richard Gibson, another steward, were on it and had at least made it possible to more easily pass with care. Since Monday was a City holiday, it took another day or two to get it fully removed, but now it no longer presents a hazard. All told, at least six different individuals or groups were involved, working in concert, to get this resolved, and only half were actual trail stewards.

This experience is not rare, but it served to remind me how we stewards serve within a much larger community of those who care about the trails and the land that they pass through. It takes a team, and that team is much larger than I think any of us can fully grasp. Thank you all, for your love and support. It’s appreciated.

Being Gently Powerful

You could say that I’m a treehouse nut, as I’ve never understood why most people think that treehouses are for kids. The fourth one I’ve built, is in my backyard — a three story monstrosity that tops out at 32 feet above the ground. In the “crows nest” at the top, you can see over our house and down across Sonoma Valley to Sonoma Mountain, and south down the valley toward Marin. The lower parts of the treehouse were built 13 years ago and the upper parts 10 years ago. Both are slowly being absorbed and warped in odd ways by the tree.

In one spot (pictured), the ladder leading to the crows nest has been slowly bent way out of its straight up and down position. Clearly if it had been warped that badly all at once, it would have shattered. But rather, the tree gently but persistently pushed against it, and it has slowly but surely stretched it into its present position. It is this aspect of “being gently powerful” that one sees a lot in nature. Trees can also break stone using the same technique of very slow but persistent pressure.

In a related example, on a river trip through the Grand Canyon you eventually come to a section deep in the canyon where the oldest rock is exposed. It is a very hard, metamorphosed volcanic granite and schist. And yet the Colorado River has not only carved it’s path through the very heart of it, it has actually sculpted it, with intricate and fascinating incisions (see photograph). These were formed not by one cataclysmic event, but by the very slow and constant caressing of suspended silt and sand by the river over eons. The river is being gently powerful over a very long period of time.

I’ve come to believe that is exactly what our efforts to clear the Overlook and Montini Preserve of invasive species needs to be like. We need to be gently powerful for many years. As I said to someone on the trail recently, “this is a program, not a project.” You could also call it a war, not a battle. But that’s a more violent image that I prefer to avoid. I prefer the idea of being gently powerful, as that is more like what it feels like.

Each day that I can get out on the trail during thistle pulling season I am blessed to experience the outdoors, feel the sunshine, sweat like crazy, and do something that I feel is meaningful. That feels like being gently powerful. And something that feels worthy in and of itself.

So the next time you see one of us out there pulling invasive species, think of us as a tree or a river — gently, but powerfully and persistently, pressing against what we oppose. It, too, will give over time, as all things that are gently, powerfully, and persistently opposed eventually do.

 

Vishnu schist photo by Al_HikesAZ, Creative Commons License CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Park Blessings of This Valley

If you are putting up with my ramblings on this blog, you clearly love the Sonoma Overlook Trail and Montini Preserve enough that you are a true nature lover. Like me.

So like me, you are probably amazed at the embarrassment of open space riches that are ours here in the Sonoma Valley. Starting from the Bay and going north, here are a number of our choices (and amazingly, not all of them by any means):

From top to bottom the southernmost park is only 45 minutes away from the northernmost. This means that most people who live in Sonoma Valley (some 11,000+ people) are only about 20 minutes away, or much less, from all of these open spaces. Truly an amazing array of opportunities for exploring the outdoors, from baylands, to mountains well over 2,000 feet.

Not long ago my wife and I visited the Willamette Valley in Oregon, to taste their storied Pinot Noir wines. One morning we wanted to find a place to hike, and barely found even one place to do it. We are truly blessed here in Sonoma Valley, with so many options for outdoor recreation. I call the outdoors my “spin class,” as you will never find me in a gym. Give me the outdoors. Ever the outdoors. I will see you there.