Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Great Valley Museum Outdoor Nature Lab Stands De-fence-less!

Something special happened yesterday at Modesto Junior College and the Great Valley Museum. The Outdoor Nature Lab, which has been completely fenced off for most of the last year became "de-fenced". The construction process has not been finished, but the basic structures, the rocks, the plants, pathways, greenhouse, and irrigation/lighting are in place, and visitors are now able to wander through the newest addition to the Great Valley Museum.
The picture above is how the site looked in January shortly after the fencing went up. The field had been barren for three or four years after the construction of the Science Community Center. Some in the administration had wanted to plant the field with grass while we waited for the funding of the Outdoor Nature Lab to be approved, but the faculty and staff of the Center resisted. We were aware that it would make it easier for the funding to "disappear" if there was a nice grassy area. We chose to have a barren lot. The funding was precarious, as the lab was one of the final projects to be funded by our Measure E bond from a decade ago, and a cost over-run in other areas could have eliminated the project entirely.
The parade of constantly changing administration officials who had occupied their offices for only a few years sometimes had trouble understanding how important the Outdoor Nature Lab was to the museum and faculty at Modesto Junior College. It has been a dream for more than three decades that we would have a microcosm of the Great Valley natural environment adjacent to our facilities, with the native plants and characteristic rock types (as well as a greenhouse and demonstration gardens). Many of our students and visitors have barely ever traveled outside the city limits and are unaware of the incredible world that still exists in the corners and edges of our valley.
We were thrilled yesterday to find that along with the disappearance of the fencing that some of the natural environment was already arriving to occupy our small natural landscape. Killdeers were wandering over the site, and we suspect there might even be a nest nearby. The Killdeer is the mascot of the museum and center, appearing on our logos. It seemed a good omen, like a blessing.
Spring is still going on at the outdoor lab as well. There were delays with the planting so the worksite missed any kind of natural wildflower blooms back in March and April, but we have a great many newly-planted trees, and they will have to be irrigated until they can mature and put down an adequate root system. Natural wildflowers were also planted, and they are blooming right now.

Pathways wander throughout the lab, providing a serene place to walk or wait between classes, especially as the trees grow and mature. Interpretive signs will be installed soon that explain the identity of the plants and rocks, and the relationships that make up the Great Valley biome.

Part of my role in the design of the lab was the selection of rocks that we chose to represent the lower foothills of the Sierra Nevada. I was able to select somewhere around 30 tons of boulders that now crop out in the eastern part of the lab.
At the north end where visiting students will disembark from their school buses, we've placed boulders of the Table Mountain lava flow. It is a relatively rare rock called latite, but being black, and originally highly fluid, it can be thought of as a form of basalt. The lavas emerged from vents located today high in the Sierra Nevada near Sonora Pass (the Dardanelles) and flowed west for nearly 60 miles to the Knight's Ferry area. As the mountains later rose and tilted west, erosion removed the rocks from around the lava flow, but the lava flow resisted the forces of erosion and ended up as a ridge that retained the sinuous path of the ancestral Stanislaus River.

The boulders are covered by a veritable ecosystem of lichens and mosses. When I picked them out last October, they were drab and dried out. When the rains came the surface of the rock came alive with color. It's a marvelous place to see the weathering of rock and formation of soil happening right in front of your eyes. The lichens produce acids that slowly break down the rock into clay and nutrients.
At the south end where students will be walking into the museum, we've placed "tombstone rocks". These are some of the oldest rocks found in our region, metamorphic slate and phyllite that started out as mud and silt on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Plate motions carried these sediments into the subduction zone that once extended from Canada to Mexico. The sediments were scraped off the ocean crust and added to the edge of the continent. In the process, the mud and silt were subjected to intense heat and pressure, and they were tilted to a vertical position. Differential erosion removed the softer layers, leaving the harder slabs to stand out like a ill-kempt cemetery plot.

Other rocks on the "upper" trail include marble boulders, the host rocks for the Mother Lode's spectacular caverns. We also have a huge chunk of quartz, the host ore for the gold that was responsible for the most transformative events in the human history of California, the Gold Rush of 1848.
In a few months we expect to see a scaled-down model of a Saurolophus, the first dinosaur ever to be found in California, erected in the barren area on the lower left corner in the picture below. It was discovered by a teenager named Al Bennison in the 1930s right here in Stanislaus County, up in Del Puerto Canyon. Few of our children are ever taught about the rich paleontology of our valley and the many kinds of fascinating creatures that used to live here in the valley, including Mosasaurs, Plesiosaurs, Hadrosaurs, and in much younger rocks, Sabertooth Cats, Mammoths, Short-faced Bears, Giant Sloths, and Dire Wolves. To help their imaginations, we are installing a mock paleontology dig at the western end of the nature lab.
It's an exciting time for our faculty, staff, and volunteers. It's not complete, but for the first time we are able to wander about this wonderful little microcosm of the Great Valley. For some of us it has been a three-decade wait, but it's been worth the effort. A lot of people have worked very hard to make this unique educational experience a reality.


SciGuy315 said...


Unknown said...

Gorgeous, have to come for a sit ri enjoy this wondrous new learning area!

Hollis said...

Wonderful! and once again ... congratulations :)