A walk in any one of our county’s 32 parks can provide you with a saturated experience of sensations. Depending on the season, you may enjoy the depthless silhouettes of trees against the Technicolor smear of cloud cover, fog blurs of ducks as they decoy amongst the tule reeds along the lake, whole worlds encapsulated in water drops upon tender tips of pine needles, or you may enjoy birds and bugs singing about their homes. Famed photographer Ansel Adams said, “I believe the world is incomprehensibly beautiful – an endless prospect of magic and wonder.” Now, to some, the lowly banana slug may be a repulsive little critter, but as I took a brisk walk along the creek and nearly squashed one, I decided to take an up-close- and-personal look at the lowly little slug.
As I was juicing some fragrant apples left for us by the visiting black bears, I held some of the shiny mahogany-colored apple seeds in my hands. I recalled the kids’ entertaining themselves by stringing seeds for necklaces after using my super heavy, old Champion juicer back in the day. Simple pleasures. The apple seeds also brought to mind the diverse ways nature has of distributing seeds. Seed dispersal is unique to each species.
January’s rains brought out a bevy of newts. Rather, I should say an ‘armada’ of newts, as the collective noun is called! According to the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website, up until now, the newts have been undercover, hiding beneath stones, leaf matter, in crevices, and under stumps where they hibernate during the cold weather.
Recent cloud cover over Lake County sets a hopeful scene for much-needed rain. Normally, our county is the recipient of around 37 inches of the elixir of life. It does a heart good to witness the greening of our hills and valleys. Then, deer, elk, and large avian species such as ravens and turkeys stand out like silhouettes amongst the greensward. With almost any amount of precipitation, the liquid that makes life on our planet possible prompts our creeks and lakes to gleam and flicker as flashes of water flow into the various coffers.
A morning walk has me thinking about patterns in nature. The pinecone I happen upon has arranged itself into a swirl of notches and seeds. Logic and order lays itself out as though it is nothing out of the ordinary. Patterns in nature inspire both admiration and curiosity. Of course, human curiosity is nothing new, since philosophers and mathematicians have been pondering petals of a flower or observing the pattern of a tree’s rings for centuries.
South Lake County boasts a landscape of contrast with its bucolic Callayomi Valley set like a Grandma Moses painting when seen from Middletown’s Rabbit Hill. Placed along the Mayacamas Mountain Range to the east of the valley is beautiful Cobb Mountain, almost 5,000 feet in elevation and encompassing about 74 square miles of mixed pine forests, chaparral, and oak woodlands.
With the first of the season’s snow appearing on Lake County’s mountains in November, I had the pleasure of running errands that took me across the county. South Lake County’s peaks, including Mt. Saint Helena, Schoolhouse Peak, and Cobb Mountain, were aglow with white good cheer. Through my camera’s viewfinder, I zoomed in on the velvety white cloak to spy on some superb beauty. Then, the coniferous forest’s intricacies appeared in my viewfinder, revealing fluffy white branches galore. From Lakeport, Cow Mountain and the ridge of Snow Mountain were also splendorous in their glowing white beauty.
What do you call it when western gray squirrels attempt to cool off? Splooting! During the summer heat wave, you may have witnessed western gray squirrels as they flattened themselves out on the ground with their hind legs outstretched. They were ‘splooting’.
As I viewed a tom turkey while he fanned out his prodigious feathers and strutted about three females, who appeared to ignore his extravagant gestures, I recalled that wild turkeys are not native to Lake County. These great gobblers, Meleagris gallopavo are, however, native to North America. According to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, turkeys were brought into California in the 1870s, the 1920s, 1950s, and again in the 1970s. The turkeys which were imported in the 1970s came from Texas. Since then, the big birds have taken a shining to their adopted homes in Lake County, with estimates of wild turkeys exceeding 240,000 throughout California.
Have you noticed the fragrance of fall in the air? The lovely rains we enjoyed activated sure-fire scents of earth and rain. Then, cool evenings, coupled with toasty-warm afternoons, commenced to create a sensory canvas of aroma emanating from gold-ripened grass mingled with decomposing leaves. With all of these scent-sations to enjoy, I wondered just how many smells the human nose can detect. Somehow, the number 10,000 has made its way around the internet. However, according to Dr. Avery Gilbert whose career involves nosing around in odor and who has a book out called “What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life,” he advises us that the number is incorrect. Gilbert states that the figure bears no scientific proof and was invented by a chemist back in 1927. It is unclear just how many smells a human can detect.
Who doesn’t go batty from time to time? It’s fun to observe the various bats as they emerge from their hidey-holes at dusk. They seem to materialize out of nowhere as they flit to and fro, consuming mosquitoes, moths, and more. Bats are important indicators of the environment, so if you’ve got ’em, consider yourselves lucky. Bats wing their way around, noiselessly sending out sound waves to echolocate their prey.
Today Lake County is enjoying the praises of many as a premier grape-growing region. There are dozens of award-winning wineries scattered around the hills and valleys, with eight American Viticultural Areas (AVA), or appellations located here, according to The Wine Institute. An AVA denotes landscapes with either geographic or climatic characteristics that differentiate from surrounding grape-growing regions. Some of Lake County’s appellations include Red Hills, Kelsey Bench, High Valley, Big Valley District, Guenoc Valley, and more.
How seriously should we take play? Recent studies show that play, brain breaks, and creating by using one’s imagination are vital for children’s mental and physical health. The American Academy of Pediatrics discusses what may occur in children if they are not encouraged to actively play outdoors in nature or to engage their playful imaginations. Without plenty of playtime, children may experience attention problems and have difficulty developing emotionally or socially. But wait a minute, it turns out that play is beneficial for adults as well. A New York Times article lists the benefits of play in adults as comparable to that of meditation since it aids in allowing our minds to focus and delivers a mood lift.
It is heartening on many levels to watch the world tentatively open with the pandemic slowing its fated frenzy just a bit. One such tentative opening is our very own Taylor Observatory. It pays huge dividends to keep an eye on their facebook and website pages, Friends of Taylor Observatory (foto), because they hosted a Welcome Back Star Party in late June after two years of being closed to the public. The foto sites are a treasure trove of space information in which both space nerds and neophytes can learn something new and exciting.
One of the many benefits of getting out and about in our wild county is, you can take a walk in the same locality but have a different experience each time. Each season in any of our parks and wild lands paints a new color palette, from the new green growth after the rains to the Technicolor birds and blooms that are set upon Lake County’s stage in spring and summer months. I can’t count how many inspiring hikes I’ve taken at Anderson Marsh State Historic Park, but I’ve only been privy to sighting the majestic golden eagle a couple of times so far.
As I toiled under the shade of the obliging oak and manzanita trees weeding invasive broom, I inadvertently disturbed a thriving, boiling ant colony. The earth beneath the leaf litter appeared to ramp up into hyper-mode with seemingly thousands of critters swarming, scurrying, and crawling on my boots, pants, and shirt! Needless to say, this, in turn caused me to go into my own hyper-mode as I unlaced my boots, flung my shirt aside and swatted the swarm making its way up and into my pants! I was grateful the alarmed ants didn’t bite, and that there are plenty of creatures for birds and other so-inclined wildlife to consume. As the frenzied ants were swarming, it seemed as though all 12,000 species in the world were intent on inhabiting my clothing.
Who would have guessed that the feeling of awe is now analyzed by scientists and can stem from such disparate events or activities such as a mind-blowing experience to a fine work of art, an idea raised in a great speech or nature’s grandeur? It really isn’t too difficult to find something to become awe-struck by in Lake County, whether it is the striking glitter of a hummingbird’s feathers or the gleam of a gopher snake as it slithers into the sunlight for warmth.
Dispersed across many of our fields and along roadsides are sparkling Lake County diamonds. They glitter and gleam after a nice rain shower, just begging to be picked up, collected, displayed or even faceted into jewelry. In fact, some local jewelers will facet the diamonds for you to wear. Usually clear, Lake County diamond specimens are sometimes lavender or reddish in color. These beauties, not true diamonds, are considered semi-precious stones, having a rating of 7.8 to 8 on the Moh’s Scale of Hardness. Real diamonds rate a 10.
As I take a late spring, early morning walk at the edge of the woods not far from the creek in southern Middletown, it feels like a luxury to drink in the sounds of these surroundings. I note the scolding squawks of several blue jays in the oaks. They appear to be distressed at the sight of a pair of crows as they near the jay’s nests. In contrast to the cacophony above, the mellifluous sounds of the creek invite me to come closer. As I arrive at a clearing, a Forest Alligator Lizard is sitting as still as a stone in the sunlight. This is the second one I have seen this month! Wanting to watch this elusive and long-bodied creature I step ever closer.
You have, no doubt seen some of the many tremendous osprey nests throughout the county. There are fine examples of osprey architecture near the roundabout at Hartman Road in Middletown, both Rodman Park and Rodman Slough, Clear Lake State Park, and more. These impressive birds build magnificent structures in which to lay eggs and raise their young. With an unmistakable cry the osprey calls out, then the 26 inches-in-length bird can be viewed at its nest as high as 60 feet above the Earth, where it constructed its nest near a fishing hole.
Since our state enjoys a temperate climate we play host to a variety of plant species, both invasive and native, who also thrive here. Paul Aigner explained, “Most of the state’s grasslands are dominated by non-natives.” He went on with some questions for us that also interest farmers, State Park’s Departments and many others, “How realistic is it to get rid of a particular invasive? How does it reduce biodiversity here?” What helps ranchers may hinder places like parks and preserves. The study of invasives brings up the question of just what defines a weed or a problem plant?
What’s not to love about these charming little beetles? Birds love them, gardeners are devoted to the creatures; and children love to get up close and personal with the crimson cuties. While walking with friends at Anderson Marsh on the McVicar trail we began to note a small swarm of what we called ‘ladybugs’ flitting and flying along the trail with us. Later, we learned that insect geeks or entomologists are using the name ‘ladybird beetle’ or ‘lady beetle’ since they are not true bugs. A bug, which is a type of insect, has a three-part body and belongs to the order of insect called Hemiptera. It’s amazing to know that these creatures belong to the almost 6,000-species ladybird beetle family, or Coccinellidae. I neglected to bring my hand-lens on the hike, but these may have been convergent ladybugs, the most common species in North America. In 2019 a cluster of ladybugs, known as a bloom or a loveliness, was so large it was spotted on the National Weather Service radar in southern California. This bloom was noted at 5,000 to 9,000 feet in the air.
The western, or California redbud, or Cercis orbiculata, is in the legume family and reaches a height of about 20 feet where it grows in pine forests, riparian and oak woodlands, and in poor soils. Since it is a drought-tolerant plant, it is well adapted for California. The redbud has been, and still is, a key plant for Indigenous culture for centuries. It has been utilized by dozens of Native groups, or tribes as a plant of significance in basket weaving. Tribal elders speak of redbud’s use over its lifespan when the trees are maintained, cared for, and pruned regularly in order that they produce long, fresh sprouts for switches in basket making. This practice also assures that the plants grow and thrive with fewer scars.
A late winter walk along some of Lake County’s creeks, ponds wetlands, and lakes may reward you with sightings of the only native freshwater turtle along the west coast region of the United States on down to Baja California. This once-prolific reptile is a slow-mo treat to watch as it s-l-o-w-l-y emerges from Cache Creek to sun itself upon a long, warm log. There it will sit, striking a pose until- kerplunk! It takes a turtle leap into the water until the perceived threat has passed.
The formation of Lake County’s obsidian gave the Indigenous people here material for innumerable tools and trade items. Anthropologists called the villages which once lined lakes, streams, and valleys here for thousands of years in what is now Lake County ‘city states’. Then, the Pomo, Wappo, Miwok, Yuki, and Patwin peoples thrived here. Famed anthropologist A. L. Kroeber described this area as one of the most diverse cultural areas in all of the United States.