And So it Begins…

IMG-1011Today I realized that the invasive species removal season had started — earlier than it ever has during my tenure. The earliest I had started removing Italian thistle from the Sonoma Overlook and Montini Preserve properties had been in December. But now, with our early rains this season, the thistle has already started coming in (see pic).  This essentially cuts my “down time” from four months to three, meaning the thistle removal season is going to be nine months long this year. Ouch!

One nice thing, though, is that I will have a three-week “vacation” in May, when I put in on the Colorado River rowing an 18-foot raft for 17 days. Since I just recently got off a 19-day trip doing the same thing, call me one lucky guy!

But mostly I’ll be out there, day in and day out, pulling these plants so that we can eventually eradicate them, as we almost have with the Yellow starthistle.

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.

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.

All Clear, For Now

Poison oak.

Today I finished inspecting all of the maintained trails of the Sonoma Overlook Trail and Montini Preserve properties. As of today, the trails are clear of Italian thistle and poison oak to about three feet away from the trail. We achieved this milestone more than two months earlier than last season, which now means we can move on to other tasks and goals in our Vegetation Management Program. Trailside can now be moved to “maintenance” status from “attack,” which means we will need to continually check and monitor the trails, as new thistle comes in all the time, and poison oak keeps growing, of course, but we will now begin attacking other areas.

This essentially means a couple tasks: 1) continuing to push Italian thistle away from the trail, and perhaps eradicating it completely in some areas, and 2) being opportunistic in attacking patches that are in danger of furthering the spread of thistle on both properties. In general, the Overlook is in better shape than the Montini, so typically I spend more time on the Montini, although my goal this year is to eradicate thistle from some specific areas on the Overlook where it appears we have a chance to completely eradicate it.

Be sure to let me know if you want to help with this exciting (haha) work!