By Arne Johanson, Chair Habitat Restoration Committee
We were to have an adventure – just two boys going out alone in uncharted territory. Andy is a 5-year old neighbor and this was our first time out with just the two of us. His mother packed water and a snack in his backpack. He added sunglasses and a notepad just like he has seen grownups do. Then we went exploring in some seldom visited parts of a 400-acre open space that our CNPS group has restored.
For Andy this is certainly an adventure where he could look for animal signs and hunt for a hidden waterfall. For me this is a chance to share some of the many natural wonders that have returned since we removed the weeds (of course, I will also note any remaining invasive weeds that will need future attention.)
What once was a ranch that turned into a degraded non-native grassland is now a vibrant, vital and verdant wildlife habitat. Andy has only known this place after restoration. Even when Andy and his brothers helped me plant acorns some three years ago this place was alive with wildlife. We begin making our way through coastal sage and the plants are as tall as he is. I can just imagine how it looks from Andy's perspective.
He first discovers gopher holes that require some attention. We dig out the center of one to let in some air, then sit back and wait to see how long it will take for the owner to reseal the breech. While we wait we have time for the other things nearby. We count birds and follow ants. We examine plants, noting different leaf shapes and sizes. We crush leaves and sniff the wonderful aromas. Of course, Andy finds insects hiding on almost every plant. The gopher doesn't come but even with our short attention span this has been time well spent.
We press on toward the elusive falls making our way into the riparian corridor. Andy finds tracks from deer, coyote and raccoon. I try to convince Andy that the little raccoon 'hand' and 'foot' prints where left by little people but he knows me too well. We have been doing this since he was two so he quickly challenged my assertion. So, instead we talk about the reason these animals are here. He begins to understand the relationships between water, plants and animals.
Before long the willows give way to reeds, indicating we are approaching a pond along the stream. We are excited because we can see open water and the falls must be near! The vegetation is much thicker now. Bull rush and cattails block one way, forcing us first around and then to clamber through a willow stand. There it is. From the pond water spills through a chasm some ten to fifteen feet deep. We stand on top and enjoy the view but this can't last long for these two short attention span boys. We have to find a way to the bottom to see things from that angle. So rock climbing is our next adventure.
We work out hand-hold and toe-holds. Our limbs are somewhat different length so Andy is just about on his own for this. Of course, like any 5-year old, he is still a functional simian so it’s hardly an issue for him. Midway down we discover a chalk Dudleya. No time to stop now but we will return to examine the discovery a little later.
Once we reach the bottom of the falls we look for a way across. But the pool is too big for that so we decide to sail boats instead. Andy makes his boats and shares his assessment of each. Grass doesn't make good boats. Willow twigs are pretty good. Willow bark can be really good. The willow bark boats float out to the main current and then get swept away down the stream. And each test leads to new questions.
Where do the boats go when they are swept away? We try to follow but that way is blocked. Where does the water go? We discuss the stream going to the river and the river going to the ocean. How deep is the pool where the failed boats sank? We break off a dead branch and probe the depth. We can't reach the bottom but Andy takes note of how the branch seems to bend when in the water. Oh, there is still that Dudleya to examine further.
We climb up and note its features. The succulent leaves store water which may allow it to grow on this bare rock. The rosette foliage may capture moisture from the mist. There is a dried flower stalk left over from last year, which allows us to talk about flowers, pollination and seed. Two budding botanists make observations and share ideas.
Once that is done, we turn our attention to the chasm. Can we possibly get across? Hum, there is a way down but can we find a way back out? The smaller ape has no doubts but we decide the bigger kid should lead. On the other side we find Dudleya edulis. How is it different and how is similar to the Dudleya pulverulenta on the other side?
Still succulent. The dried flower stalks seems alike. The leaves here are like crayons just sticking out of the box instead of flat. Andy is just beginning to read and doesn't yet write. However, he is carrying a notebook in his backpack so we decide these observations are worthy enough to note. The yellow marker swipes across a page as Andy puts down his thoughts in his own shorthand script.
The sun is beginning to get lower in the afternoon sky. We hold out our extended hands to see the distance from the horizon and sun in hand width units. This tells us we have about another hour before dusk so it is time to return home. Andy insists we go back the way we came while I think we can continue on and discover more. I can win this one since he won’t go alone. So we set out along a new hillside.
The drought has left this south facing slope more open than I remember it. It makes finding barrel cacti very easy. We note the shape and of course the thorns. Then we find Opuntia. Another opportunity to compare and contrast. The shape is very different but both are plump and both have thorns. The thorns are sort of the same but sort of different. The Opuntia has fruit which looks tasty. Andy asks if we can eat it. I say yes but worn him about the little thorns on the fruit. Perhaps better to leave this alone for now. Yet more good observations for the log.
We round the base of this hill. From here Andy can see houses in the distance. He recognizes them and can tell where we are so he takes the lead to get us home. We are torn between getting home and the chance for more discovery. There is time for a few new plants. Andy also picks up a deer skull he finds to take to his mom. Only the approaching dark can end our adventure.
What do we get when we do restoration? We get native plants, of course. The native plants attract wildlife. On top of that we get enthusiastic new naturalists; sometimes, like today, we get one, more often in groups we recruit many.
Why do we do restoration? Need you ask? Seeing a place return to life is reward enough. The added bonus is seeing others share in the wonder of nature and to be able to share with them how very special our part of the world really can be.