Monthly Archives: June 2016

A land of stone tablets, once again

Newspaper Rock petroglyphs near Monticello, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Newspaper Rock, Monticello, Utah

[In Moses in Utah, I described driving into southeastern Utah for the first time with my then 10-year-old son, Luke. Nineteen years later we returned together, and spent a week with the mysterious energies that have such a strong pull for both of us. When I was there last year I celebrated the great beauty and deep wisdom of that unique landscape, and I’m reposting that celebration in honor of our recent visit.]

I’m still wandering the desert with Moses. He’d be very used to this, but, though I love it, I’m positive I’d find forty years a few decades too many. Well, of course, he would say, with the air of a man who has come to grips with doing what his god says, no matter how capricious, no matter what the cost. I thought I was going out there for a few months.

Presumably, when you’re leading your people out of slavery, decades of wandering in the desert isn’t as bad as it seems on paper. It’s not as if Moses were thinking, I could be a CEO earning $13,000 an hour if I didn’t have this stiff-necked tribe to deal with, and this ornery God handing me stone tablets. Options were few, and they were, after all, going to another dry and rocky place. The Aztecs wandered for 200 years before finding the sign to their promised land, which turned out to be a swamp. So there are a number of demanding gods out there.

Geological formations along the road in southern Utah by Betsey CrawfordWe’re walking on a day when the sky is a blue so deep and incandescent that it could easily burst into flames at any moment, and start raining stone tablets. As it apparently has been doing for eons. The tablets are everywhere. They have our history written on them. It’s even color coded, if a bit disorganized in every other way, after being pushed and shoved by millions of years of geologic upheaval.

The great tales of long tribal wanderings speak of our own slow evolution as a human race, and also as individuals. So many of us yearn for instructions to manage our lives in this often wild and inexplicable existence. We have the most basic questions: Why? What?  How? We long for clarity. We want stone tablets with the rules for living on them.

And here they are. They’re everywhere, not just in Utah, though they’re more spectacular here than many places. They have the simplest of commandments. Tread lightly, they say.

Biological crust in Butler Wash, outside of Blanding, Utah by Betsey CrawfordThe sandy soil to the side of the path is covered with a dark brown layer — made up of broken down moss, lichen, cyanobacteria, microfungi, and other microorganisms — called a biological crust. It prevents erosion, provides nutrients to sandy soil, holds water, enables rootlets to find secure footing. If I step on it in this dry environment, it won’t recover for 250 years.

Lichen covered stone path in Butler Wash, near Blanding, Utah by Betsey CrawfordDon’t waste. Here is a rock path where you can see no rock at all. It’s a beautiful lichen painting. The lichen are slowly detaching the bonds that hold the rock together, one facet of the complex, millions-of-years-long process that creates the living soil our planet depends on.  Dirt is not cheap.

Dry wash in Mount Zion National Park, Utah by Betsey CrawfordExcept for a few hours a year, washes and streams are dry expanses of tumbled rock. Respect limits, the tablets say. If you put golf courses, shopping centers, houses in the desert, one day you will run out of water.

Dinosaur footprints in Buterl Wash, near Blanding, Utah, by Betsey CrawfordBe humble. A three-toed dinosaur walked through this mud-turned-stone 150,000,000 years ago. They were the big shots of their day.

Petroglyphs at Sand Island State Park, Bluff, Utah by Betsey CrawfordMake art. Celebrate life.

Don’t use too much, take care of all breathing things, sustain all the non-breathing things we depend on. We think it’s complicated, but it’s not. We make it complicated by what, to me, are two of the most damaging legacies of the Old Testament: that certain people are chosen, and that humans have been given dominion over the earth. These ideas weren’t new with the Israelites, but the bible helped codify them.

The stones around me hold the history of the cosmos, as do I, as does my dog, Splash, patiently sitting in the shade while I take pictures of wildflowers. In the first moments of the big bang every particle that will ever exist in our universe was already created. They proceeded to meld and blend and be forged in the three-billion-degree heat of the earliest stars, eventually forming the elements that make up this rock, that course through my veins, that hold up the stem of the flower.

Orange globe mallow (Spheralcea munroana) in Mount Zion National Park, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Whatever we call the force that exploded every bit of us into being, we are ongoing manifestations of it. The same energy, expressed differently, now a rock face  200,000,000 years old, now a woman of sixty-four, a dog of fourteen, a days-old flower glowing orange against the rocks.

This means we are made of exactly the same particles as everything else. When I really think about this miraculous, inherent relatedness, it makes it harder to feel superior because we have iPhones, Starbucks, jets, guns. Our path of evolution has given us the opportunity to reflect on our connection to everything in the cosmos. Instead we use it to fight over literal surface differences. We have made our form of consciousness a god, and have created a covenant with that god, to choose us over all other forms on the earth.

It’s not sustainable, and we all know it. Perhaps not in our vaunted consciousness. But our earthy bodies know we are part of the dirt, the plants, the stars. each other. Bodies that long for reconnection, that know separation is death. We, too, are tablets with the instructions we long for.

Red rock formation in southern Utah by Betsey Crawford

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

What is so rare as a Tiburon mariposa lily?

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) growing on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis)

While looking for an answer to my own question, I discovered, to my surprise, that rarity in the animal and plant world is quite common. Conservation scientist Eric Dinerstein estimates that 75% of the species on earth are rare.  The US Forest Service guesses that a third of the native plants in the U.S. can be considered rare. And we have no idea how many species science hasn’t yet named; those remaining are most likely rare, since large populations would have been identified by now.  Some of these yet-to-be classified plants may be right at our feet: the tiny population of the Tiburon mariposa lily, in bustling suburban San Francisco, and a plant I consider to be pretty showy, was only ‘found’ and named in 1971.

Rare plants: Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) growing on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis)

There are reasons. The main one is that it only grows on one serpentine outcrop on Ring Mountain, in Tiburon, California, and nowhere else on earth. I’ve written about serpentine and celebrated Ring Mountain; its mariposa lily is another thing that makes it special. One of the first Spanish land grants in this area, Ring Mountain and its environs were grazing land from 1834 until the 1960’s, when the remaining ranch land began to be sold to developers. I’m sure that the Coast Miwok tribe members, who were displaced by these land grants, knew and had a name for the Tiburon mariposa lily, which was both food and medicine for them. And I can imagine that the few cowboys who came to the top of the ridge to find stray cows would notice the flower but feel no need to find a name for it.

Oakland star tulip (Calochortus umbellatus) growing on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Oakland star tulip (Calochortus umbellatus)

As showy as the flower is up close, its modest height, single leaves close to the stem, and mottled flowers do blend in with its grassy, rocky surroundings. It can take some focusing to find them, even when they’re right in front of you. So it wasn’t until the land was being explored for preservation that the flower was ‘found,’ classified as a calochortus, and given its official scientific name: Calochortus tiburonensis. The species name comes from the Greek words ‘kalos’ and ‘chortus’: beautiful grass. Mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly. There are lots of mariposa lilies in the west, over 70 species, 28 of them endemic to California. Two others grow on and around Ring Mountain: the also rare Oakland star tulip and the yellow mariposa lily.

Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus) growing in Old Saint HIlary's Preserve, in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus)

And there’s still more rarity: tiny, delicate Marin dwarf flax grows among the mariposa lilies on the serpentine, and Tiburon paintbrush grows on the next hill to the west. One subspecies of the otherwise not-rare jewel flower, the black Tiburon jewel flower, grows in a neighboring preserve, along with the rare Tiburon buckwheat. As long as a plant population can keep itself healthy and reproducing, rarity itself is not a threat. But, with the exception of the yellow mariposa lily, all the plants named here are considered endangered, defined as ‘a species in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.’  If your range is a few hundred square yards of rock, it’s easy to be threatened with extinction.

Marin dwarf flax (Hesperolinon congestum) growing on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Marin dwarf flax (Hesperolinon congestum)

Why all this endangered rarity in one small area? In this case, serpentine is the first limiting factor. Any plant growing on it has to be adapted to its toxic qualities, but those skills enable survival, not abundance. So you start with a small population. Then, in the case of wealthy Tiburon, you build roads, houses, driveways, stores, tennis courts. Gardens and lawns are planted in dirt carted in to circumvent the toxicity in the soil. Even in the preserved areas, fire roads have to be built and maintained to protect the nearby houses, which disturbs the soil and opens it to a flood of opportunistic invaders, usually annual seeds that sprout quickly on small root systems, taking water, nutrients, and light from the slower natives. According to the U.S. Forest Service, nearly 20% of the plants on the endangered list got there because of invasive non-natives, and half of at-risk plants have been affected by them.

Rare plants: black jewel flower (Streptanthus glandulosus, subspecies niger) growing in Old Saint HIlary's Preserve, in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Black jewel flower (Streptanthus glandulosus, subspecies niger)

The more an environment changes from its original ecology, the fewer plants native to that place will be able to grow. And it’s not just the actual ground the plant is growing on. Pollinators like bees, birds, bats, beetles and butterflies need space for their own environment, which isn’t necessarily the same as the plants they pollinate. They may have come from a neighboring field, or upland woods, now houses or a shopping center. Animals and birds leave areas that are too cut up, which don’t allow them the contiguous space they need to feel safe when building nests and foraging for food. So the ancient, intricate relationships of animal—plant—place are severed.

While human activity does the bulk of this severing, natural forces have a role. Floods, fires, droughts, landslides, and insects can all come in forms devastating to small plant populations, rendering them unable to reestablish. And intrinsic qualities make a difference. The Tiburon mariposa lily’s seeds are too heavy to be wind borne, so they fall at the feet of the existing plants, replenishing the colony, but not increasing its area.

Rare plants: Tiburon buckwheat (Eriogonum caninum) growing in Old Saint HIlary's Preserve, in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tiburon buckwheat (Eriogonum caninum)

Despite all the threats, rare plants continue to bloom in Marin, which is in one of the few ‘rarity hotspots’ in the U.S. Because each individual plant’s numbers are low, there’s room for a variety of species, and the tasks of that ecological niche can be shared among them, along with their interdependent creatures, like bees, butterflies and beetles. One of the great glories of our planet is the wild abandon with which it has come up with species of animals, insects and plants. And we only know of 1.7 million of them! Of those, only a tiny percentage has been studied; we have no way of knowing how many more there are.

Given that abundance, the fact that 20,000 species are on the verge of extinction may not seem disastrous. But, if that rate continues, we could lose 75% of the earth’s species in the next few hundred years, a mass extinction on par with the disappearance of the dinosaurs.  Many ecologists refer to our current rate of species loss as the sixth great extinction, and fear it will only accelerate as the climate continues to change.

Tiburon paintbrush (Castilleja affinis, subspecies negecta) growing on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tiburon paintbrush (Castilleja affinis, subspecies negecta)

Conservation scientists and organizations the world over are working on this challenge. There’s no one answer. All of the possible mitigators have a place: habitat preservation and restoration, nature-centered design, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, cradle-to-grave manufacturing practices, scientific literacy, etc. We need both a lot of grand schemes, and millions of small gestures that we can make in our own kitchens and gardens, in our neighborhood, in our local parks.

On my last visit to Ring Mountain I went early in the morning, to beat both the heat and the wind. As I was leaving, I met two of the county naturalists, setting up a table of snacks and literature. It was a volunteer day, and people were arriving to pull out one particular invasive thistle, which was new to the preserve, and very aggressive. When we look at the scale of the challenges we face, it’s hard to have faith that small actions will help. But, as I found out later, 7 people showed up and pulled 1500 invaders, a huge difference in a small preserve. Grand schemes are enacted exactly this way, stem by stem, person by person, each one of us carrying one of the delicate threads in the whole.

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) growing on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis)

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.