Sunday, May 5, 2019

Tales from the Semi-Super-Bloom Tour, Part 4: Into the Realm of Demons, the Red Hills

Human mythology finds bigger meanings in everyday stories, i.e. vast battles fought in the heavens, on earth, and in the depths below pitting light against darkness, fire against ice, and good against evil. In many ways, the myths reflect the seasons, with the richness of spring and summer contrasted with the dying and death of fall and winter. That's what I was thinking about when we made a trip this week up to the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The trip was another stage in our Semi-Super-Bloom Tour, our effort to visit some of the less heralded places in California where the "Super-Bloom" was not quite as spectacular (and therefore less crowded).
We had been here some weeks back, but the spring wildflowers were only just beginning to show up. And when we arrived this week, most of the flowers were already dying back and going to seed. But there was still color hanging on here and there, especially where water was still providing the gift of continued life. It reminded me of mythical legends of latter ages when the glories of the past were still remembered, but the power and majesty of said civilizations was waning, and facing climactic battles against the forces of darkness that threatened to overwhelm all.

Really...wilting flowers make me think that way...
I imagine that it is really stretching metaphors and symbolism, but these fragile flowers are truly facing a horrific test of their ability to survive. The Red Hills take their name from the serpentine soils that weather reddish brown. The soils are poor in necessary nutrients, and rich in metals and other chemicals that are toxic to most plants. Even the name of the host rock, serpentinite, recalls ghastly mythical animals like giant snakes and dragons.
And there is an additional curse: the climate. Rain falls only in the winter and spring (most years anyway), and when the rainstorms stop, they stop entirely, for six months or more. The land bakes in 90-100 degree temperatures throughout the summer and into the fall. Life struggles to exist in this harsh environment.
And yet life does persist. The flowers rush to maturity, doing everything they can to reach maturity and produce seeds before the dryness takes life away once again. And during those short weeks, the slopes are wild with beautifully colored wildflowers. The darkness and fire for a brief moment are forgotten.
The rocks themselves that make up the bedrock of the Red Hills are truly from the realms of demons and devils. The serpentine and other ultramafic (extremely rich in iron and magnesium) rocks originated deep in the underworld that exists beneath the Earth's crust, at depths of 20 miles or more (a layer called the mantle). The rocks were carried towards the surface along huge fault systems and subjected to the reactions of extremely hot chemical-rich water and intense pressure. The rocks have been sheared and twisted to the point of being unrecognizable. Although the rocks rarely contained gold, they are closely associated with the gold-bearing ores found nearby.

The Red Hills were once reviled as was befitting of an infertile barren landscape, a landscape blasted by heat and drought. Off-road vehicle trails scarred the landscape, and some locals used the area as a dumping ground or as a shooting gallery. The land was owned, but ignored, by an agency of the federal government, the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM grew out of the efforts to give lands away under the auspices of the Homestead Act in the late 1800s. The problem was that no one wanted the lands held in many areas, so the BLM eventually became the custodian of something like 250 million acres, mostly across the western United States.

As attitudes evolved regarding land-use and ecosystems, many BLM-managed lands came to be appreciated for their biological and geological values. More and more of these "abandoned" lands were transformed into more than 200 wilderness areas and nearly 30 became national monuments. The Red Hills properties were not roadless enough to be considered as wilderness, and neither the president nor Congress ever considered it for national monument status (although I don't think it would be a bad idea). Instead, when local communities began to advocate for protection of the Red Hills for their scientific and recreational values, the BLM responded by designating 7,000 or so acres as the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Despite the clumsy title, the designation protects the hills from off-road vehicle use, dumping, and shooting. And during the late winter and spring, tens of thousands of people will visit the site. There are minimal developments, a pit toilet, a parking area, and a series of roads and trails that provide access to much of the "park".

The explosion of vegetation in the spring attracts insects and animals. During our trip, we saw a number of birds, including California Quail and Bullock's Orioles. They added an additional splash of color to this fascinating landscape. It was an interesting day in the realm of the devils and demons of the underworld.

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