Saturday, February 10, 2018

Historical Geology Laboratory in 1930, with a Few Personal Twists

I admit it. I miss a lot. I've noticed that a lot of colleges and universities are very proud of their history and traditions, but in my experience at three community colleges, the memory of a department is rather short. When I started at Modesto Junior College, I was told stories of my predecessor, who was a legendary character, and not in a good way. Although he served for many years, his retirement was welcomed by many. It took a number of years before I found that some rather significant people taught in the position I occupy now, including Richard Hilton, who wrote Dinosaurs and Other Mesozoic Reptiles of California. Another was Charles Love, the son of Wyoming geologist David Love, whose career was central part of John McPhee's excellent book Rising From the Plains. But those individuals only reach back into the 1970s. I've got no idea who was here in the first fifty years of the existence of our institution.
Likewise, I know very little about the first college I attended, Chaffey College in southern California. It's true that I was just a gawky teenager who had no sense of institutional history when I was there between 1975 and 1977. I got to know my two professors, but they were relatively young at the time, and I had no sense at all of who taught there in earlier years.
So I had a series of interesting revelations tonight. I had known that my step-grandfather had taken a geology class way back in 1930, and it turned out that he held on to some of his notes (present-day students of mine: do YOU do that??). They were passed on to me, and I set them aside and they were "lost" for a time when we had to pack up the entire house for a re-carpeting job (yes, this is obviously a convoluted story). In any case I ran across the notebook again and finally decided to sit down and have a closer look.
The first surprise had nothing to do with the geology. I'm sure I was told this but it just didn't register: my grandfather went to the same community college I did! At the time it was called Chaffey Junior College (today it is simply Chaffey College). That "junior" conferred a sort of inferiority upon the students who needed to attend a cheaper local alternative to expensive universities and private institutions. But if there is anything that I've found to be true, it is that we community colleges produce a great many talented graduates who have competed very well when they've transferred to four-year institutions. Still, over the years, California's community colleges have dropped the "junior" from their name...all but two: Santa Rosa Junior College, and my very own Modesto Junior College. We decided a long time ago that we liked our name. Our students provide us all the reputation for excellence that we need.
As I opened the lab book (which hasn't changed form in nearly 90 years), a slip of paper fell out. It was his report card. What was great interest to me was that the geology instructor had signed his name, R.D. Dysart. I had found the name of a geology instructor from those early years of Chaffey's history. So I got curious and started searching on the internet for any information about the man (and how unfortunate it is that I immediately and correctly assumed that it was a man?). And with that came the second big surprise.
I got my bachelor degree in geology from Pomona College, an achievement for which I am very proud (I'm not saying I excelled; I made it through the program...barely). Pomona has one of the finest geology programs in the state, and I readily recommend it to my transferring students. The department has a rich history that extends back into the early 1920s, when it was (I believe) only the second such program to be established in the state. For the first thirty years, the department was headed by A.O. Woodford, a legendary geologist in California circles. He continued as an emeritus professor for decades, and I actually was privileged to attend a field trip that he conducted when he was in his early nineties. He lived to be over 100 years old.
The name Russell D. Dysart popped up in my search...he was one of the earliest graduates of the geology department at Pomona College, in 1925, only three years after the program began! He apparently taught at Chaffey Junior College for many years, where (it is noted on the Pomona website) that he was famous for the red tie that he wore on all his field trips.
So there you go. My grandfather was a student of one of the first graduates of my alma mater, who taught at the community college that I attended. You never know the connections that will happen in life.
It's a lot of fun to thumb through the history of geology as seen by the student. One can find old textbooks in used book stores (and I have some that date back to the late 1800s), but it is a little different to see how that knowledge filters down to a student who may or may not ever think about geology again (for the record, my grandfather retained a lot of his geologic knowledge and enjoyed picking my brain for years).
There isn't a lot of personal perspective in these notes, and I wouldn't expect all that much, but I was struck by my grandfather's penmanship. It's a good thing my students have computers these days to write with, just sayin'.

Some things are very different as one scrolls through hypotheses about the origin and history of the Earth, but other things remain the same. We may have an incredible theory, plate tectonics, through which we can understand much of the history of the planet, a theory that had not been accepted, nor even conceived in the 1930s (look up what happened to Alfred Wegener for instance). And yet the rocks and fossils are the same. We've discovered many more species, but the drawings my grandfather made look very much like those that my own students will be drawing in just a few weeks. Complex over-arching theories are great, but they have to explain the rocks and fossils or they will come crashing down. Students will always need to know the basic information in order to understand the theories that account for them.
I learned something else about professor Russell D. Dysart, something that isn't true of me...he was a man of few words when it came to assigning grades...

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Homing in on the Grand Places, or the Grandness of the Home Places? The Tuolumne River

It was just one of those moments...

I was taking my near daily walk along the river trail that lies a mile from my house. It winds for two miles along the Tuolumne River where it emerges from the Sierra Nevada foothills and flows into the Great Valley. I'll grant that for a river like the Tuolumne, it's not the grandest bit of scenery. This is a river that begins in the spectacular high country of Yosemite National Park, flows through a little known canyon that is as deep as Arizona's Grand Canyon (actually called the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne), and then through a network of gorges famous for white-water rafting. Downstream, the river feeds into a floodplain that is part of America's greatest savanna environments, the winter home of hundreds of thousands of migratory birds like Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, Cackling Geese, and many, many others.

My stretch of river? It's historically been kind of a dumping ground. It was first turned upside down in the search for gold in the 1800s an early 1900s. Much of the riparian habitat was torn out while miners processed millions of cubic yards of sediment. An old dredge still sits abandoned a few miles upstream. In the aftermath, quarry operations removed gravel, altering the streambed and leaving a series of ponds. Invasive plants like hyacinth invaded the river, and noxious invasive weeds invaded the hillsides above. Reservoirs were constructed upstream, siphoning off water and sending it to hundreds of thousands of acres of irrigated farmland downstream. In some ways, the river is a shadow of its former self.

And yet...

The trail follows a bench above the main riverbed, and there are a number of spots where one can clamber down and sit by the river. I have my favorite spot about a mile up the trail, and I was sitting there enjoying the sunset and watching a Kingfisher diving into the water for a meal. It occurred to me, sitting there for maybe the 100th time or so (the trail was opened about two years ago), that this was home. I mean, sure, home is usually a place with walls and a roof and all that, but our homes are also a place beyond the backyard. We may have co-opted almost all the natural places, but there are bits and pieces still present, a place where we can comprehend the nature of the land that we live on. The Tuolumne Parkway Trail is that place for me, a spot that I can explore again and again, always with the possibility of seeing something surprising, something new and unexpected.
The other day it was the surprise of discovering that beavers have been living and working not thirty yards from where I sit and watch the river. How in the world could I miss that for two years? It's possible that they recently arrived, given that the entire floodplain was actually flooded for more than six months last year during the record precipitation year. They may be just now reestablishing themselves in the newly changed environment. A bit of research later on resulted in the discovery that this very stretch of river was one of the last stands of the native California Golden Beaver. Some were captured here to establish populations elsewhere in the state (this was in the 1940s).
My explorations of the river coincided with the discovery that our county has one of the most diverse bird populations anywhere. More than three hundred species have been recorded here. Many, of course, were rare sightings of vagrants from elsewhere, but birders in the area regularly record more than two hundred species in a year's time. So...I always have my camera with me when I wander the trail. I'm new at this sort of thing, but still I have seen more than eighty species on the river and the adjacent bluffs and pastures.
Pied-billed Grebes on the Tuolumne River
I'm still seeing new ones. Since January 1st, I've seen Pied-billed Grebes (above), a Merlin (below), and a flock of Common Goldeneyes (below the Merlin) for the first time on this stretch of river. I only saw the Merlin once, but the Grebes and the Goldeneyes turn out to have favorite spots to hang out on the river. Now that I know where to look, I can almost always see them, and note whether the flocks have grown larger or not.
Merlin on the Tuolumne River

It's that way with the more common birds too. Many of the birds spend their time near the same trees or shrubs. The Scrub Jays and Yellow-billed Magpies prefer particular trees on the bluffs or near the river. When the swallows arrive in spring, they have their preferred cliffs (and bridges) for their nests. There are several oak trees where I can expect to find colorful songbirds like Hooded Orioles, Bullock's Orioles, Western Tanagers, and Audubon's Warblers in the right season. The Phainopeplas have their favorite trees, as do the egrets, cranes and herons.
Common Goldeneyes on the river

There have been two American Kestrels that have about four perches that they will abandon, one after another, as I walk forward on the trail (I can't walk the trail without irritating them; I keep hoping they'll finally just recognize me and stop fleeing). It's that way with dozens of individual birds that I see over and over.
American Kestrel above the river, giving me that irritated look...
They're rarer, but I have seen more and more of the larger mammals as well. Early on I photographed a Gray Fox where the stairway sits today, and the picture was eventually added to the interpretive signs for the trail. I've seen River Otters three or four times, and Raccoons (one was sleeping in a tree next to the trail just this week).

As I sat there this evening I thought of how lucky I've been in my life, the privileges I've been granted in exploring some of the most spectacular places on planet Earth. I treasure my handful of overseas adventures in Australia, Italy, Scotland, England, France and Switzerland, my journeys to the Hawaiian Islands, and especially the adventures I've had with my students across the western states of the U.S. (and Canada, too). I was lucky to see so many spectacular sights, but I also know that I will see many of those places only once, and for only a brief time (the schedules must be adhered to).

On the other hand, I have been granted a continuing privilege of getting to know a single place well, learning the rhythms and seasonal changes, being there long enough to take advantage of capturing a fox or otters on video (like the one below). It may not be the most spectacular of scenic places, but it is a small piece of the natural world that still exists just beyond my front door. It's the kind of precious gift that just about anyone can experience. Practically everyone lives relatively close to a river or stream, lake or forest, even in places where such things are not expected. There are some great places to see the natural world in the Los Angeles Basin, for instance. They're worth seeking out. It is a great adventure to learn something new, and to have the potential for making discoveries every time one ventures out beyond their doorstep. It's a cheap thrill, so to speak, since one really doesn't need money to visit many of these places.

I encourage you to seek out those small wild places close to home. They have their very own kind of grandeur, even if the tour guides and brochures would never send you to there. It's the grandness of the home places. What is your place?

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The California That Once Was: The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

Great Blue Heron at the entrance to the San Luis NWR
I live in an extraordinary place, a place that does not always receive the respect that it deserves. In much the same way that travelers refer to the Midwest as "fly-over states", my home is the "drive-through valley".  The Great Valley (called by some the Central Valley) is a 400 mile long and 50 mile wide province that must be traversed by Southern Californians who want to reach the Pacific Northwest, or coastal Californians who want to reach Yosemite National Park or the Sierra Nevada ski resorts.
San Luis National Wildlife Refuge from above. It lies on the floodplain of the San Joaquin River.

Many people find the journey an arduous exercise in white-line fever, an endless flat region covered by millions of acres of orchards and fields of crops, or cattle stockyards, or used car lots on the edges of poor-looking towns. I'm willing to grant that it is often not a pretty sight. There is a reason that our cities often wind up last on the lists of "best places to live". Our skies are often the most polluted in the United States.

In the thirty years that I've lived here, I've come to discover a different Great Valley. It's the five percent of the valley that still retains the character of the land that existed before it was co-opted by agricultural development. It's a recurrent theme of my blogging adventures because each of these adventures expands my world just a little bit.
Today's journey was the auto-tour through the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. The refuges range the length of the valley, providing winter sanctuary for migrating birds, but also providing a last stand for many native species of the valley from the smallest of bugs to the rodents and larger grazing animals to the largest remaining predators, the eagles, the hawks, the coyotes and foxes, and sometimes even mountain lions. The gigantic herds of Tule Elk and Bison have been gone for more than a century, although the elk are protected as a species in some of the refuges, including 60 of them at San Luis. Without the millions of grazing animals, the refuge managers allow limited grazing of the prairie by sheep and cattle to maintain the integrity of the grasslands. I imagined the scene above as a wolf patrolling the margins of a giant herd grazing elk, looking for a weak or sick individual to take down. The reality was the opposite, of course. The dog was watching over the sheep.

I don't see them often, but Mule Deer do inhabit the grasslands. We saw nearly a dozen of them today. I've mostly given up on trying to take decent pictures, but I really liked this one.
Red-tailed Hawk at the San Luis NWR

The stars of the refuge are the myriads of bird species that call them home. Some of them only stay for a few days or a few months as part of a long migration, while others stay year-round. Each refuge includes a wide range of habitats, including freshwater marshes, riparian areas (river channels), prairie grasslands, and alkali salt flats. The auto-tours at the refuge sample most of these environments, and several hiking trails are available as well.
In the first five miles of the tour we didn't see a great many migrant species, so I thought the Cinnamon Teal (above) and the Great Blue Heron (opening photo) that greeted us at the entrance to the refuge were going to be the avian stars of the day. But then we made the turn towards the Souza Marsh at the southeastern edge of the refuge. And everything changed in a moment. We had found the migrants.
There were hundreds of Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, Northern Shovelers, Cinnamon Teals, Northern Pintails, Mallards, American Coots, Pied-billed Grebes, and to our great delight, several dozen Tundra Swans (I count five of the species in this picture alone). The swans aren't rare, but Mrs. Geotripper and I have only found them once before on our travels. They dwarf the other birds in the marsh.
Last year was a good year for rain, and water was plentiful after five years of drought. Most of the marshlands were flooded, providing better than normal habitat for the birds. Unfortunately, the new year is proving much drier, with a near record low snowpack in the mountains upstream, and dry conditions in the long-range forecasts. Uncertainty lies ahead.
The prairies and river environments have always existed in a cycle of drought and flood. The biggest variable in the present day and in the future is the effect of global warming on the environment here. The predictions are for more drought, although some climate models suggest more rain in some years. Unfortunately that means less snow, and more variable river flows, heavier in the spring, and far less in the summer and fall. It's hard to predict the coming changes in the ecosystem that will follow. That ecosystem of course includes the species Homo sapiens, who despite their arrogance about "ruling over nature" and all that, are just as vulnerable to climate change as the rest of the species who live here. Their one advantage is the ability to recognize the situation they are in, to provide reasonably accurate predictions about the future, and the ability to affect the outcome.