Thursday, April 11, 2013

Beginning to Feel Wonder Again

photo: Mine
When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s, I was always wondering about things in nature. Of course it help living up against a mountain with low growing easy to maneuver coastal sage scrub was a big help. Mostly my wondering about things had a lot to do with what appeared to be odd, strange or just out of place anomalies, especially where plants were concerned. For whatever reason I've always had an eye for these things that defy their surroundings. As time has gone on, it's only gotten worse, so much so that often even driving in the back country can be a hazard. I was reminded of things that caught my attention up on Rattlesnake Mountain when I discovered the dismembered Torrey Pines. The link I gave to the collection of photos I quickly took last Friday before being told I had to leave reminded me of another chain saw destruction which took place in the 1960s. Take a look at this photo above of a large clump of dark green foliage in a rock outcropping at the top of the ridge with houses in the background. These dark green shrubs you see up there are of  Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia). The light green shrub in the center and foreground is actually a Mexican Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana). They too have been there since the 1960s as far back as I can remember.

This location and the plant itself are truly a marvel and a mystery. On that entire Rattlesnake Mountain is actually chain of ridges, and on all the acreage, this is is the ONLY location of a Lemonade Berry plant colony. I know because for well over two decades 60s & 70s, I made it a point to explore almost every square foot of those ridges, especially on the mountain's back side northern slopes which border Santee and Lakeside looking for other Lemonade Berry specimens. None have ever been found. What's more, this group of Lemonade Berry used to actually tower over those rocks. If still as tall and wide as it originally was in the early 1960s to the present, nothing about that center house or it's outbuildings would be visible. As a kid I first saw it from down below as a massive oak tree. It was so big it actually stood out like a sore thumb even from viewing it at Pepper Drive School athletic field (which is no more). I always thought it was in fact an Oak Tree. It's the first time that I really started wondering about things and the clues they could tell me about the past. Even now I wonder, where did it's parents come from which produced the seed from which it came ? How different was the climate back then, especially considering this is on a southern slope exposure ? This is certainly the most easterly example I have seen of them because they don't like frost and prefer the coast for this reason. 

Well, at least the Saguaros 
were still intact.
One day a childhood next door neighbour friend of mine and I decided to hike up there. We were between six & seven years old. We wanted to explore that giant oak tree up there. We basically followed the same route I take to the location where the Torrey Pines once existed. In fact the photo is looking up from that very location. Even the Saguaro Cactus is still there which I feared may have suffered the same ignorant fate as those Torrey Pines. But that Lemonade Berry was incredible to behold. Indeed the old growth gnarled bark looked identical to any Oak Tree I had seen over at El Monte county Park beyond Lakeside. Even the leaves had an uncanny similarity to Coast Live Oak leaves, well at least to a young botanically challenged kid. The seeds however, were a dead give away though that this was not your typical oak tree. Red, flat and loaded with some sticky substance, I'd never seen acorns like that. We climbed up into the multiple large tree trunks to get an even better view of the valley below. It truly was an incredible old growth anomaly and definitely qualified to me then and even now, more of a tree than a chaparral shrub. But like the shock of seeing the Chain Saw massacre of last week, in the late 1960s, some idiots drove a truck up there and chain sawed the massive old growth of the Lemonade Berry trees for firewood I presume. But it sprung back, but the huge old trunks and branches were gone forever. Even several fires which passed through that ridge didn't eradicate this tough chaparral tree. One protection they had was the granite rock outcroppings from which they grew acted as a fire suppressing barrier.

Source of continual Artesian Spring flow
But wondering about it's origins and what the mountain must have looked like way back when was only a beginning. Now take a look at this next photo to the left here. It's of a riparian woodland for which a permanent spring has always existed and supported an obvious Native American village site. The village site remnants are still there. Mostly the flat granite bedrock where the Metate grinding holes can still be seen. There was a lame attempt at an archaeological study before the Sky Ranch development was allowed to break ground. They were forced to by the rules and I saw the actual team down there with their screen sifters everywhere. I never went down to speak with them, but I could have informed them that most of the artifacts were taken back in early 1960. I know because I & a neighbour friend helped the collectors find arrowheads, pottery and three medium size free standing round granite boulders with deep grinding holes loaded onto their trucks. 

photo: Mine
The Artesian Spring is up and to the left of this photo. In fact it's out of the picture, but this is the beginning of the old Alluvial Fan or Bajada which at one time spread out south of the mountain here. There are some Coast Live Oaks and several Sycamores planted, but these were never there when I was a kid growing up. Orange Groves were present and there is evidence that most of the oak Savanna was probably replaced by these growers on the south side of these mountain ridge chains. Such ground is generally a very deep sandy loam in Southern California on the west side of mountains and perfect for orange groves as old photos bare out. 

photo: Mine

Coastal Live Oak ( Quercus agrifolia )
On Rattlesnake Mountain I discovered only two major Native American village sites. The one I mentioned above and another behind my mother's place on a very large granite boulder outcroppings with some of the usual flat to sloping granite bedrock which suited the Indians best for their Metate establishing needs. This is where my WONDERING comes back into play. While most Kumeyaay & other Tribal nations So-Cal village sites will almost always have Prickly Pear Cactus and Mexican Elderberry present (no doubt human planted), other more important vegetation like Oaks would have been more important, especially for processing the acorns. And yet they were absent, with the exception of a few old timers. One such tree is behind my mother's property where our neighbour Mr Dreybus lived. His property home and barn were the original orange grove caretaker's dwellings as the early Craftsman Style architecture will attest. There were also oak's further up that ridge where another family, the Steinmetz, lived. Mr Steinmetz actually found some Indian remains up there, but I couldn't even now tell you where. Most people, including the experts don't even know of this location even today. But it's the plant anomalies which intrigue me and have left clues behind to an amazing ecological past that was never respected by those early pioneers who viewed everything for the taking. Take a look below at the giant Coast Live Oak tree behind my parent's place.

This Coast Live Oak s at the cross corner of Pepper Drive and Wenatchee in El Cajon, CA. This tree is the same exact size as when I first viewed it in 1962.  Back in the late 1980s, it's foliage was attacked by something, but it recovered. Still there are other examples of ancient Coast Live Oaks in the neighbourhood here that have not fared so well as the next photo reveals. This house always belong to the John Geba family and there are several others in the neighbourhood backyards behind this location on Pepper Drive.

photo: Mine
This Coast Live Oak is a few streets over on Lindenwood Drive just four blocks over. It is on a property which was once the Mansion house of one of those Orange Grove Barons from a time when agriculture was in it's heyday. I remember when this place was the second to the last hold out with regards land holdings. Most of these Mansions still exist around here and Coast Live Oaks were a huge part of the original landscape. On this Tree on Lindenwood, notice the struggle to keep what foliage is left. I remember when they trimmed out the old dead massive branches, but clearly it's started to come back. The family with the Orange Barron Mansion on this particular property had numerous Oaks behind the main house, but most of these were destroyed when they found a need to sell land to developers for more housing tract construction ventures.

photo: Mine
This is simply a photo of my mother's neighbour to the north towards the mountain. It illustrates how readily these Coastal Live Oaks propagate with the help of Scrub Jays. Sadly, this location is destroying the concrete block wall and the tree will have to come out before the wall is destroyed completely.

photo: Mine
This is the area of my mother's backyard where I created a sort of native California plant ecosystem. Specifically this is Tecate Cypress, three  Canary Island Pines which volunteered from the mulch that brought home from work and simply let them grow after a wind storm blew most of the Tecate Cypress down. To the right is a massive California Spice Bush (Calycanthus occidentalis) , White Alder and low growing and spreading Catalina Currant (Ribes viburnifolium) and none of which ever gets watered. The original installation was heavily inoculated with various mycorrhizae and beneficial bacteria which interconnects everything. Also the deep rooting of the largest trees and the biological and physics phenomena of Hydraulic Lift & Redistribution are what now maintain this urban landscape ecosystem. So successful is it that water loving California Sycamore Seedlings need to be weeded out.

Once again, it's the clues of odd little plant anomalies which stick out like a sore thumb if you know what to look for, that give clues to the past and teach you how to replicate if you have the intuitive ability and motivation to do so. Driving around this morning I found most people's yards to be almost a total wreck. Most of the old lawns are dry, dead or thrashed totally. Many of those old horrible Brazilian Pepper trees which were planted in the 1950s and are a maintenance nightmare are now being taken out by most folks. If only people would get a clue as to what once was and utilize these native plants, or at least incorporate more of them with other exotics with similar habitat needs. At the very least, start challenging yourself when out on your next hike. Look for clues from the past. In my next few articles, I'll deal with one more plant anomaly here in El Cajon and several up around Anza CA which deal with specific very old plant specimens which shouldn't be growing there, but actually reveal something about the region's past wetter climate. Also I will talk more about Alluvial Fans or Bajadas and what they teach us about plant establishment in the Southwestern landscape. I've seriously seen no one else make any of these connections before. But they are useful and informative.

photo: Akseabird
This Kumeyaay Metate above is a prime example of what was taken back in the 1960s from Rattlesnake Mountain. These were actually once common in and around many areas of two locations on Rattlesnake Mountain. One very large one was taken back in the middle 1960s by a Archaeology hobbyist who wanted it for his front yard as a decoration. Of course the laws and rules were not as strict back then, but sadly so much was taken prior to the Village Site Archaeological Study that was mandated be done before approval of the Sky Ranch development. I even found an almost most identical Matate to that in the picture above one in Anza California. But of course the Native Americans there were of the Cahuilla band. I gave it to my sister. The main difference would be that the grinding hand stone itself that I found along with the Metate was pure white quartz and perfectly shaped  like a very large bar of Ivory Soap. I always wondered how long it would take to shape such an object by hand like that. I won't say exactly where I found it, but at least I can say it wasn't on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation, but rather private property where a very large sizable village had once been up there in Anza Valley. So it appears that different tribes created similar designs in regards kitchen equipment.

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