The Art and Science of Stewardship

Being a volunteer Sonoma Overlook Trail steward is potentially a very diverse job. It may include arranging and managing fundraising events, organizing weekly hikes, developing, producing, and installing signs and interpretational materials, cutting water bars (ruts to direct water off the trail), writing grants to get funds to re-route and rebuild the trail, pulling invasive species, cutting branches intruding on the trail, or who knows what else. Let’s just say it’s a diverse set of potential responsibilities, and no single steward does them all. We tend to specialize.

Secret Ranger cutting branches with our newly-acquired pole saw.

Thankfully, we have quite a large group of stewards of the Sonoma Overlook Trail, so we have people who bring all of these skills and more to our local trail system. We don’t all swing into action at the same moment; it may be quiet for a while and then a steward or three might step up when their particular skills and talents are needed. We all have something to give.

On this particular day, a steward who calls herself “Secret Ranger,” and who is our current Chair, brought out our recently purchased pole saw to cut some limbs off a low-hanging tree branch to make sure people can safely pass underneath it. On this same trip, we also visited the Montini Preserve to perform the same kind of operation—cutting branches to lessen the weight on an overhanging branch. In the case of the branch on Montini, we saw an immediate result of the branch lifting 4-6 inches right away, and likely more to come as the branch continues to adjust. This is enough to allow those who are 6 feet or under to pass without trouble, and likely some even taller folk. It made a clear difference, without removing the rather large branch entirely (it is easily 14-15 inches in diameter).

These are just some of the jobs volunteer trail stewards do, almost every day.

The Beginning of the End

We’ve been working well over a decade to get to this very day.

We’ve worked that long to control, and eventually eradicate, Yellow Starthistle. This year, for the first time ever, we’ve pulled every single plant we could find, no matter how small (see picture).

It’s frankly hard for me to describe what this means to me. It has been a long fight, and one, in recent years, that I’ve spent a great deal of time on during thistle season (January to August). The only thing thing in the last few years that has kept me from doing this activity, frankly, is hiking with friends and travel. If I don’t have a hike scheduled with my wife or a friend, or travel, I’m out there pulling either Italian thistle (the season which has ended), or Yellow Starthistle.

This year is no different in that regard, but it is very different in terms of what is left. We are, finally, reaching the end of life for Yellow Starthistle on the Sonoma Overlook Trail and Montini Preserve.

After going out to all the areas that used to have Yellow Starthistle, and repeatedly checking them, I can finally say, for the very first time, that it is completely gone this year — at least as completely gone as is humanly possible.

Let’s just say that when it comes to Yellow Starthistle this year, it’s the beginning of the end. Finally.

Coming in Hot

You guessed it, yet another invasive species post. You can check out right now if this doesn’t appeal. I would be the last person to fault you for it. For those of us who do it, we recognize it as the obsession that it is. We don’t expect anyone else to be so afflicted Like, EVER.

If you’re still here, this is what’s happening. I’m laser-focused on pulling all of the Yellow Starthistle I can possibly find, as it is blooming now, and racing into seed. And yet we have a window of opportunity to make a serious dent in it this season. We are down to just some areas along Norrbom Road, and after hitting it hard last year, the impact is very evident. I’m finding much less than last year in these areas. 

This affords us the opportunity, for the first time ever, of potentially pulling every single plant we see

That’s why I’m fired up, and going out there every day I can, and pulling every single plant that I can, no matter how small. Because that’s how you reach your goal. Because that’s what it takes to completely eradicate an invasive species from 200 acres of public lands.

If you can’t do what’s required to come in hot, then you have no business taking this on in the first place. Just trust me on that.

Sending in the Child Soldiers

Child soldiers, sent into the breach.

The season for eradicating Italian thistle can begin as early as December, or as late as early or even mid-January. For at least four months after that, we essentially pull and drop it, as it isn’t yet going to flower, let alone seed. But now it is flowering, and some is even going to seed, so we must bag it up and carry it out. We use contractor debris bags from Friedman’s, which last for multiple years.

The contents of the bag are emptied into a pile beside a dumpster in Mountain Cemetery, and eventually the City of Sonoma hauls it all away.

In this period of the thistle pulling season we pull out other tools, such as weed whackers, in our desperate attempt to keep the thistle from fully going to seed. Let’s just say it’s an act of total desperation, as the thistle can still put on blooms, which means we need to weed-whack it again later.

It’s also the season when Italian thistle ups its game, and sends its child soldiers into the battle, just like Nazi Germany went both up and down the age range of males to send into battle toward the end, to try to win the war, in a total act of desperation.

These are truly tiny plants (see picture), which barely clear the soil and go directly to bloom, which of course makes them hard to see, challenging to pull, and frustratingly difficult to eradicate. This is part of what makes Italian thistle the hardest invasive species I’ve yet battled — far harder than Yellow Star thistle, which is all but eradicated except along Norrbom Road.

The only good angle on this is that since they are so low to the ground, it’s not all that likely that they will spread their seeds a long way. At least unless there is a strong wind. Oh, right, we’ve never had a strong wind in Sonoma Valley. 😦

It Seems Impossible, Until Suddenly It Isn’t

New findings could improve diagnosis, treatment of depression | Berkeley NewsToday, as most days, I was out pulling Italian thistle on the Montini Preserve. This is what I call a “long game,” and if anyone knows how such games are played, it’s me. I’ve even written my own (as yet unpublished) essay about it. Long games are played by long, concerted effort over years and decades, one day at a time. I’ve also called it being gently powerful. I know this. But I still have my good days and my bad. Today was the latter.

I decided to tackle a patch that I figured I could knock out in an hour of concerted effort (think simultaneous two-handed pulling). I was wrong. When I realized how wrong I was, I had to walk away. As I left the trailside to go down the hill, I noticed a rock above Red Quarry that was perfect for sitting — flat and at the right height. I was right, the rock was perfect. I sat down and looked around. I inevitably looked down and that’s when I saw yet even more Italian thistle. The area also looked a bit trampled, as if this was a familiar rock to one or more people who visited it to smoke dope or just hang out.

Since invasive species work can be an obsession, I pulled what I saw and then moved back toward the trail, where I found yet another patch that I mostly pulled. But that’s when the depression really set in. In this one small area, I had a big patch and two smaller patches. I then mentally multiplied it by the size of the two properties (the Sonoma Overlook Trail and the Montini Preserve) where I have committed to do this work. Let’s just say I’ve had better days.

Later, at home, I decided to rewatch the trail movie that I made last year. Not only do I enjoy seeing the trail scenes and all of the flowers, insects, mammals, and birds of the trail I also feel like it naturally lowers my blood pressure (let’s just say it’s a theory). But I made an astonishing (to me) discovery. One of the photos in the movie is from several years ago, and as soon as I saw it, I recognized a spot on the trail that was covered in Italian thistle. THEN. Not NOW. This clear evidence of progress literally brought tears to my eyes. I AM making a difference.

I was then reminded of something Nelson Mandela once said, that I will take the liberty of rephrasing, without changing the meaning: “Something can seem impossible until suddenly it isn’t.” I just had to have my down day, and then move on. As one does, when playing the long game.