The Fungus Among Us

The rainy season is of course also the season of fungus, which thrives on damp conditions. The rains we have experienced the last few months has only spurred these interesting organisms to new bursts of growth. Just the other day, I was delighted to come upon a large patch of bright orange and yellow fungi (see picture of only two of dozens in one area) that had recently pushed up past the detritus of dead leaves and decomposed vegetation that comprise the forest duff.

The two kinds pictured above are of course just a couple of many, many different kinds of fungi found in Northern California. And since positive identification can be difficult if you aren’t an expert, you won’t find me climbing out on that particular limb. But that doesn’t meant that I can’t appreciate their diversity, color, and sheer exuberance in pushing up through a sometime thick layer of compost toward sunlight.

All of the pictures included in this post were taken on either the Overlook Trail or the Montini Preserve, so be on the lookout to see these and others now and in the coming days.

‘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.

There’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.

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.

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.

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. I think few are.

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.

Poison Oak is Back

Since western poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) typically loses its leaves in the Fall and doesn’t start leafing out again until after the first of the year, you might be surprised to know that it is coming out now, as I was (see photo taken today). Chalk it up to global warming, I suppose, but the result is that poison oak season is elongating — it’s starting earlier and likely ending later, although I don’t have evidence of it.

This is bad news for hikers, and the stewards who try to keep it cut back off the trail. But since I haven’t yet had a chance to get out there with clippers (perhaps tomorrow), be careful. I’ve seen a few sprouts right at the edge of the trail.

Part of what makes poison oak tough to spot is that it presents differently at different times of year and in different growing conditions. To see some of this variability, see this web site, which has a number of pictures of poison oak in various stages of its life and in different growing conditions. Also, poison oak will often vine up into bushes and small trees, blending in with the other vegetation, which makes it even harder to spot. I’ve often missed noticing poison oak in such situations, even when actively looking for it.

Our program of control is limited to keeping it about 3 feet off the trail, as since it is a native species we aren’t interested in eradicating it like we are invasive species such as Italian and Yellow Star thistle. So if you stay on the trail you should be safe, at least after I get out with the clippers, but it doesn’t hurt to be vigilant.

 

Thistle Pulling Season Has Begun

Lately I’ve noticed that Italian Thistle has been coming up, since recent rains have kept the soil moist and we haven’t had freezing temperatures at night. In the past, I haven’t started pulling it until February or March, but I see no reason to wait. When the soil is moist it’s easiest to get it out by the root, and since there is no danger of it going to seed it can be simply tossed aside. Later, we will need to bag it and carry it out, which is no fun.

Although we’ve been making very good progress with Yellow Star Thistle (YST) after half-a-dozen seasons of concentrated effort, and we may actually be close to declaring victory (fingers crossed!), Italian Thistle has, in a number of cases, apparently been moving into the new territory cleared of the YST. This is alarming, as Italian Thistle is even more dangerous than YST, as it will grow anywhere. At least YST is limited to sunlit meadows.

Italian Thistle has essentially overrun the Montini Preserve, so my only goal there this year is to keep it off the trails so it doesn’t bother hikers. On the Overlook Trail property, I will start the same way by first concentrating on the trail edges, but then I also hope to be able to work on the Upper Meadow, as there are clumps there that threaten to spread and coalesce across the entire meadow unless it’s controlled.

So if you’re out on the trail and see what appears to be a gardener pulling weeds, it’s just me, keeping up the ongoing war against invasive species. Maybe say Hi.

 

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.

There’s Never Just One

Tripping down the trail today I thought to myself, “Oh, hey, there’s one!” I had spotted an invasive purple thistle plant at the trail’s edge (see pic). I stooped to pull it out.

As volunteer trail stewards, our remit includes not only maintaining the trails, but also helping the City of Sonoma to maintain their property that the trails traverse. This includes removing invasive species such as broom, purple thistle, and yellow  star thistle.

Purple thistle season begins in early Spring, which means we are already working to remove it. Later in the season the yellow star thistle will start to come in. Since we’ve been attacking the yellow star thistle for several years with vigor, we are seeing some real progress on eradicating it from the Overlook and Montini Preserve properties.

However, purple thistle is quite another story. Mostly due to years of cattle grazing, purple thistle has essentially already overrun the Montini Preserve. So at this point we only focus on yellow star thistle there. But on the Overlook, we think we have a chance to knock back the purple thistle so we are working on it as well. Since we only began our work on it last year, there is still quite a bit of it on the trail.

Today, as I stooped to pull the plant I had spotted I thought to myself, “Oh, wait, there’s five — no ten, crap, there’s a lot!”

I had momentarily forgotten that until the day when we reach the point of eradication — years, perhaps even decades from now (if ever), there’s never just one.

Time for Vigilance

In Northern California, despite the current cold snap, we have essentially entered Spring. This means several things. Plants like poison oak are flourishing, sending tendrils out to conquer new areas. We are presently trying to cut this back from the trail.

Soon we will also need to watch out for ticks, which are particularly bad early in the season, from March to mid-May. Ticks can carry Lyme disease, so it’s important to prevent the little buggers from biting you. Wear long pants and inspect yourself after your hike. If you do get bitten, then watch the bite carefully for signs of Lyme disease, as early treatment by a medical professional is essential. Thankfully, we have the Western Fence Lizard to help us out, since when a tick bites that lizard an enzyme is transferred to the tick that cures the Lyme disease. This has led to a much  lower incidence of Lyme disease than in other areas without this helpful lizard. So be kind to the Western Fence Lizard! They are already scurrying across our trails.

Another hazard to watch out for is rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes emerge from hibernation in the Spring when the days become warm enough for cold-blooded reptiles. I’ve already seen the Western Fence Lizard scurrying across the trail, which means snakes will not be far behind. However, this recent cold snap has sent them to ground. But rattlesnakes are typically around from March to September, so we are entering the time when they will be coming out of hibernation in the lowlands and making their way to their higher hunting grounds. Since they will be on the move, most of my sightings of rattlesnakes tend to happen in the Spring.

So stay alert and safe out there!