Saturday, November 24, 2018

Putting the "Cloud" back into our "Cloud Forest"

Redwoods only occur in natural foggy-summer areas. This last summer, like several before, has had virtually no fog. Part of our farm is natural second-growth redwood forest. Twenty or so years ago, when I moved here, it was a perpetual race: would the tomatoes ripen, or would the first Fall frost claim them?

Somehow I didn't notice when that period ended, but it was within the last ten years. This year I had a tomato ripen in July!

The beginning of the Fall rainy season brought rain, which I am certain every part of the farm greatly appreciates. More, it brought back the fog - just a layer a little thicker than the trees are tall, with the amazing visuals natural here:

Monday, November 19, 2018


This is one of my favorite almost-never-get-the-chance-to-use-words in English! It refers to otter poo.
Evidently there is an entire science built around the study of spraints as a sort of sideways approach to studying otters - as poo tends not to be motile, while otters are absurdly motile. Just compare the quality of the above photo to the one of the source of the spraint, below, which would make any photographer of Nessie proud for its clarity and definition...
These (or similar) River Otters (Lontra canadensis) leave spraints that we see on every visit to my family in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento - but this is only the third time I've seen otters in person on this property.

When asked to talk about spraints, my son said "No!, I'll tell you about cats, ONLY cats. I want to talk about cats right now."

Sunday, November 18, 2018

"Sweet" Acorns from Valley Oaks

These are the acorns of our favorite eating (after processing!) oak, the Valley Oak, Quercus lobata. This is often what you see when you look at the ground under a Valley Oak this time of year.

On rare occasions, you see something entirely different - not a total absence of acorns, which could simply indicate a poor crop yield, but a simultaneous abundance of acorn shells and absence or near-absence of intact acorns. If you find yourself walking under a Valley Oak on ground that doesn't look like shown above, rather resembling what is shown below, you may have found a Sweet Acorn Valley Oak. Thank the California Native Americans that were here before the Europeans. This is one of their domesticated crops.

What? Lots and lots of acorn shells, and not a single intact acorn. There must be a reason ... and there is. These are sweet acorns (see last paragraph below), or at least their remains.

"Fall" is the name of the season - sit under an Oak tree if you need a hint as to why it carries that name. In fact, more than a subtle clue to the origins of the name of the season, acorns are incredibly important food. They sustained First Nations populations across much of North America, as well as on many other continents. They still do in many places, and even reach mainstream culture in several modern countries, such as South Korea. We collect and eat acorns in our family, without any known Native American in our genetic heritage.

The importance of Acorns can first be gleaned by noticing that the nut and tree from which the nut arises have different names: the acorn and the oak are on parity with each other as important objects to be able to identify. This is actually quite rare: either the fruit, flower, or tree gets named first and then everything else is named in reference to that first name. A peach is important, it comes from a peach tree. A cashew is important, it comes from a cashew tree. Pine nuts come from Pine trees, and are of "lesser" importance than the wood of that tree. Exceptions are rare: there is the 'ōhi'a tree of Hawai'i, and its flower the Lehua; the Oak tree and the Acorn; I challenge anyone to find more than a handful more examples. When you do, you have found something very important to our history.

There are four types of Oak that are abundant in our general area: Tanbark Oak (actually in the genus Lithocarpus), Valley Oak, Blue Oak, and Canyon Oak. We only have the first and last in our yard, but the others are in the area and in the yards of family and friends.

Valley Oaks are special in several ways: first, their acorns are large and leach easily, so these are fast to collect and quick to prepare. Second, they were domesticated by several tribes of the California Native Americans. With the arrival of Europeans and the wholesale displacement of these folks, many of these plots and forests of domesticated Valley Oaks were lost or forgotten. Many were cut down to clear land for other agriculture, ranching, or just firewood. The displaced people could not simply pick up the trees and relocate - first crops might take twenty years or more from seed planting, supposing the folks displacing the California Native Americans had been nice enough to let them wait to harvest the Fall crop before displacing them.

Fortunately, these are long lived trees and many have survived, or given rise to additional generations of sweet acorns.

What is a sweet acorn? An acorn that does not have the massive amount of tannin that most acorns contain, one that can simply be dried and ground to meal before using. These are roughly comparable to chestnuts, some can even be eaten fresh (get local competent guidance). In our experience, we often give them a quick leaching treatment, as often these are not the original trees, rather their offspring that have been crossed with non-sweet trees, so they have greatly reduced tannin.

Friday, November 16, 2018

There is Ilmenite in them thar hills!

And magnetite! Actually, quite a few heavy minerals. None of which appear to be gold...
This afternoon I and my son tried our hands at panning for gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California just east of Sacramento. After a while, we began to understand that there might be some art to this whole "panning for gold" thing.

To start with, pick a stream that actually contains gold.

However, we really weren't looking for gold. We were looking for magnetic sands - my son is intensely interested in magnetism (and mushrooms, and lizards, and many more things). The dark, heavy sands that, in many nearby streams, often indicates you are in the right general area to find gold, in this case indicate that you are in the right general area to find dark, heavy sands.

To many folks, these sands are not interesting.

We are not those folks.

With a small Rare Earth magnet (any decent magnet will work), a plastic bag (magnets rust if they get wet), and a gold pan, we successfully collected many grams of real, genuine, magnetic sand.

First, it is fun to play with with a magnet and is a clean material for field visualization.
Second, it is a neat organic additive to soils low in iron to add that critical mineral as well as potentially other trace minerals to our soils.

Next up: what is the mineralogy of this sand? We'll explore that using some simple tools next.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Stubborn Honey Mushrooms

Our area (the Santa Cruz Mountains) often has rain before the end of October, though not this year. We haven't had real precipitation in six months or more now. What we have had is a tiny amount of fog drip. These are not good conditions for mushroom hunting.

Even so, Armillaria mellea is a determined species. The Honey Mushroom connects to oak trees (admittedly it seems to be a pathogen more often than a symbiont), and is ubiquitous in Western Oak forests this time of year. This connection seems to give it access to water that other local mushrooms cannot access. Here they are fruiting in our yard a few days ago!
Notice that the caps are drying out even as they begin spore production. The cap on the right has cracked from desiccation in the unusually dry Fall air, but these still successfully fruited, pushing through the bark of a fallen tanoak log.

The dry caps were bug-free, even though the stems had some insect damage. I rarely see mature Honey Mushrooms without damage to the caps from bugs.

We're looking forward to the start of the main season with the rains, which may not begin until the start of December!