Saturday, May 18, 2019

Tales from the Semi-Super Bloom Tour, Part 5: Coming Home

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning..."
T.S. Eliot
I'm a bit behind, what with the end of the semester and all that, but there was a bit of unfinished business from a few weeks ago...the end of our Semi-Super-Bloom tour. Yes, most of the flowers throughout the west have faded and shriveled as April turned out to be very dry. In this wet year many parts of California were covered by flowers in a way not seen in a decade or more. It was a spectacle and hundreds of thousands of people converged on places like Anza-Borrego, or Elsinore, or the Grapevine in Southern California. Among the crowds there were the stupid and ignorant who trampled the flowers and in one instance landed a helicopter in a field of flowers.
Around six weeks ago, Mrs. Geotripper and I set out to find some of the less crowded places, the spots where the flowers were blooming, but they weren't quite at the level of the Super-Bloom. Our journeys carried us through the Mojave Desert, Death Valley National Park, the Merced River Canyon downstream of Yosemite, and the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern. But it was our final journey of the tour that was so illuminating: we were home. And it was a beautiful place.
We live at a nexus point, the boundary between the Sierra Nevada and the Great Valley of California. Our town is surrounded by agricultural fields, but as we drive east, the fields and orchards give way to one of the few remaining prairies in the state of California. Although large portions are being plowed over for almond orchards, the grasslands still exist in the low foothills of the Mother Lode.
The soils are old and deeply weathered, and are generally nutrient poor. It's only a few feet to bedrock as a rule, so water is not often available for plant growth, and so for most of the year the hills are covered with a brown (some say "golden") veneer of dead grasses.  But in the spring of wet years, the prairie comes alive with color. One of the unique habitats of our grasslands are the vernal pools, the hollows where water stands for a few short weeks or months in the spring. Because they are flooded part of the year and dry for the rest, they are a crucible for the evolution of unique plants and animals adapted to the harsh environment. Many of California's endemic plants are found there. There are hundreds of these vernal pools scattered across the prairie. And that's where we saw much of the color as we drove through a few weeks ago.
We were traveling on Willms Road south of Knight's Ferry on the Stanislaus River when we spotted one of California's near-endemic bird species. Red-winged Blackbirds are a familiar sight across much of North America, but there is a closely related species called the Tricolored Blackbird that is mostly found in the Great Valley and in the prairies of the foothills (they have a white stripe below their red wing spots). The birds are endangered because of an unfortunate habit they have of nesting in large colonies in the middle of grassy prairies. The problem is that they don't make a distinction between a tall-grass prairie and an alfalfa field, and thus thousands of nests and their occupants have been destroyed in an afternoon as farmers cutting and harvesting the alfalfa. Efforts are being made to reimburse farmers who wait a few weeks to harvest, giving the young birds a chance to mature and fly away.

We were home, and we found exploring the back roads just beyond our backyard to be just as colorful and wondrous as our thousand mile journeys into the deserts and beyond. Never stop exploring, and never be trapped into thinking that you have to go vast distances to see wondrous things.

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