Lynx Rufus!

When engaged in a multiyear, ecosystem restoration project, starting with helping to restore the living soil, then moving on to replanting mixed evergreen forest and coastal sage scrub plants, one 1-gallon seedling at a time, then waiting, and waiting , and waiting as the years tick by… it is easy to become discouraged, to wonder if you will ever really get the whole thing right, with all the plants and animals, mycorrhizae, and forest-floor clippings in balance. It is therefore heartening when the first native birds and reptiles move in and begin to fight for ownership of the property. It is even more heartening when you start to know (and name) the individual animals, the breeding pairs and their offspring — brush rabbits, quail, and red-tail hawks.

But nothing shouts success more loudly than the long-awaited arrival of your first top predator. In our case, it was the arrival at dusk, yesterday evening, of this beautiful Lynx Rufus, who came to hunt rabbits and rodents on our property, last night:

A healthy top predator is the best indicator that the ecosystem is finally robustly in balance, with all pieces of the food web healthy and thriving. The celebration begins tonight. Drinks are on me!

First Indigenous Food Harvest

Our ongoing effort to deeply connect with the land upon which we live began with our ecosystem restoration project, some years back — in which we planted several hundred tiny, one-gallon seedlings of native plants. Over the years, the plants of our Native Garden have established and grown more and more fruitful, feeding native fauna, birds, and insect life. Until now, we reserved the restored area of our property for the service of the wild animals, but finally, the bounty has become so robust, that we felt comfortable harvesting a bit of that bounty for human consumption.

Harvest Season Jamming Ritual (with Recipe):

Step into the Native Garden, saying:

“I enter the sacred grove with reverence;
I enter the sacred grove in peace.”

Walk the land, in a state of receptive meditation, greeting each of the Backyard Kindred, thus:

Hael to you, beloved Oaks,
In greying green, from summer smoke.
Hael to Sagebrush, Lilac, Sage,
All dusty, leafless, wanting rain.
Hael Toyon berries, biding time,
And Coyote Brush’s shining eyes (Aaachoo!).
Hael, blessed Manzanita grove,
Of peeling bark and rusty fruit,
I ask of you a gift of Life,
From which to craft a sweet delight.

Shapeshift into a Bewick’s wren. Using Bewick’s wren’s-eye-view, find the hidden, rust-red berries, camouflaged by rust-red bark, peeling from behind and beneath the leaves. Circle the Manzanitas thrice, picking a few berries from each bush and tree, until you have gathered one heaping cup of manzanita berries.

Return to human form.

Thank the Manzanitas for the blessing of their bounty.
Reciprocate the blessing with a prayer for early rain.

Wash the berries in water, thrice, to get out all the dust and debris.

While the water flows through the berries, meditate upon the seasonal threshold currently upon us — dry, dusty seeds in a dead, drought-deciduous world, awaiting the First Rain to wash away the grime and return the world to vibrant life.

Boil the berries in 1.5 C water, until the dry berries plump themselves up and brew a deep reddish tea. Mash up the water-plumped berries, and boil a few minutes more. Let cool. Strain through a jelly bag, to remove all solids.

Add a splash of clear apple juice, to bring the liquid up to a total of 1-1/6 C. Add 1 Tbsp. no/lo-sugar pectin, 1/8 tsp. salt, and 1/8 tsp. ascorbic acid crystals. Bring to a boil, mixing constantly, to remove all lumps.

Add 1 C sugar, and stir it in well. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the mixture returns to a boil. Boil and stir for three additional minutes. Remove from heat.

Pour into two clean, 1/2-pint jelly jars, cap them, and boil in a water-bath canner for 10 minutes.

Thank the Gods for the blessing of manzanita jelly.


The Result:

Two cups of Manzanita Jelly, from berries harvested off of our Arctostaphylos bushes (pictured above), a mixture of three varietals: Howard McMinn, Franciscana, and Densiflora “Sentinel”.

Taste Test:

The jelly is a delicate sweet-orange and pumpkin flavor, with hints of apple blossom.  Delightful!

Lessons from an Ecosystem Restoration Project

Over the past 13 years, my husband and I have been engaged in an ecosystem restoration project, on the 1/3-acre parcel of land we live on, in the foothills of the coastal mountains of California, just a wee bit south of San Francisco.

The project began as my husband and I considered our distressed 1/3-acre of land, overgrown with rat-infested juniper bushes, 32 drought-stressed and dangerously beetle-infested Monterey pines in decline (which routinely dropped dangerous, heavy limbs into the yard), and invasive weeds and non-native grasses that were doing a fair job of smothering the few remaining native seedlings — which had primarily been planted, haphazardly, by squirrels. Mother Earth was crying out for help.

I decided to return Her to Her former glory — as soon as I could figure out what that glory might have been. Once upon a time, before the coming of humans, Mother Earth had planted this place with flora of Her choosing. Plants that did not require irrigation, fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides. Plants that were well suited to the local climate, and weather patterns, which thrived in the local soils, which created habitat for native wildlife, and thus created and supported their own, interdependent ecosystem. I was determined to find out what they were.

As the land was cleared of dying trees, we bribed friends with pizza and beer, and started the grueling work of clearing the 1/3-acre of weeds, and laying down a 6” layer of (native hardwood) mulch. The only plants that were allowed to stay were a sickly, 60-year-old pink pepper tree, which we felt we could rescue, and fifteen native, coast live oak tree seedlings, which had been planted by squirrels, and had so far (barely) survived burial by weeds.

While this was going on, I began a process of extensive ecological research, comprised of both field observations and library study, to determine exactly what plants and animals were likely to have comprised the original, thriving local ecosystem. This knowledge had been occluded by a long history of extensive, damaging industrialization, suburban McMansion construction, and the ensuing replanting of postage-stamp gardens with foreign plants in constant need of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers, as well as far too much supplemental irrigation. A walk around the local neighborhood tells you nothing about the native ecosystem — except that there were once some tenacious young coast live oak trees, which somehow survived the human modernization of the area, and lived to become grand old “heritage” oaks, full of spirit, life, and loneliness.

Hikes in regional protected wild areas taught me much about the understory shrubs and small trees that once would have kept those grand old oaks company. Some of them are stunningly beautiful, the year around: arctastophylus, ceanothus, and heteromeles, among others. Others, such as the salvias, artemesias, rhamnus, and ribes, have only brief moments of glory, but provide food, shelter, and ample leaf-litter, in which local lizards and birds hunt bugs. On my hikes, I generated lists of ideas of flora and fauna that might be encouraged to live on our property. However, variations in microclimate are extreme in our area, and so, I hit the books.

I studied the geology, soil science, weather and climate patterns of our area, as well as the ecological relationships that might be expected to exist between them and our area’s native flora and fauna. I studied the microclimate of our particular property — light and shadow patterns, fog-drip patterns, the locations of wind tunnels and wind shadows, and the like. I then identified an array of plants, shrubs, and trees, native to our particular microclimate and soils, which when established should work together to provide canopy cover, food and shelter for wildlife, soil retention on slopes, wind breaks for delicate plants and animals, and to help to restore the proper soil ecology, so that bioactivity in the nearly-dead soil would increase, and enable the land to become self-sustaining. But of course, this was all theory. Experimentation was soon to follow.

Once the land was cleared of weeds, and the thick layer of native mulch was laid down, our oaks exploded into new and vigorous growth. As they grew, we gradually planted well over one hundred, one-gallon seedlings of native plants, trees, and shrubs. Research had shown that starting small takes longer, but that the survival rates of restoration plantings were much higher when the baby root structures were allowed time to build the symbiotic relationship with the mycorrhizae in the soil, slowly, so as to survive the annual summer dry spell that lasts from May through October.

We massed plants so that they could be seen and identified by native birds on the wing, enticing them to investigate. We built tumble-down rock piles to encourage lizards to take up residence. We set up miniature watering holes for the wildlife. And we hand-weeded and nurtured our initial plantings for just over five years, until the plants were solidly established, and we attained both 80% canopy cover of integrated native plant species, and the corresponding revival of the hidden, mycorrhizal structures that should continue to support our native plants over time.

While the native plants were establishing, we began to notice the return of native fauna. Over the course of ten years, we observed a dramatic increase in both the number and variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and mammals resident on the property. The number of bird species observed in our yard grew from about five species of migrants (some robins, a few crows, etc.), to several dozen native species, including nesting, mated-pairs of: Bewick wrens, California towhees, spotted towhees, California quail, mourning doves, oak titmice, juncos, Anna hummingbirds, scrub jays, mockingbirds, house finches, gold finches, and others. We now have: rabbits breeding in a salvia patch; great horned owls hunting; red-tailed hawks hunting; a mama raccoon with babies; skunk families (on occasion); and the occasional rat, gopher, or mole. We are also blessed with thriving honey bees, bumble bees, and diverse native pollinators, by the thousand. We have also noted an increase in the number and variety of migrating birds that stop predictably on our property during their annual migrations. The annual glut of bird wars, nesting battles, lizard push-up competitions and wrestling matches, as well as the regular appearance of young birds, bunnies, lizards, skunks, and raccoons trailing their parents (and teething on the fence posts and backyard swing), is a clear indicator that the restored ecosystem is thriving.

I now spend the majority of my time watching for signs of the Numenons within the ecosystem we so lovingly restored. Rather than simply gathering measurable scientific data about each player — trace-mineral levels in the soil, moisture levels, presence or absence of known plant pests or pathogens, and the like — I watch and listen for the music of the ecosystem. If a voice drops out of the symphony, I know whose it is, and I know to ask why. I look, and listen, and change perspectives, attempting to see things from the point of view of that being. If I notice a bug, or strange growth on a plant, I know not to worry; a generally healthy plant is able to outrun most plant pests and pathogens. If a plant or animal seems distressed, however, I fall back on scientific observations to diagnose and address the problem. I also allow the ecosystem breathing room to reinvent itself, at will. I still come down hard on invasive weed species that threaten the local mycorrhizae, but when a native plant decides to move itself to another part of the property, through runners to a happier location, or through the random fortune of a bird’s back end, I allow it free reign to establish itself where it will. And so, my role as steward of this patch of land has become a delicate partner-dance of ecological tweaking, and reverent observation of flora, fauna, and patterns of existence that were once very much in the realm of the occult.

And so, my relationship with the indigenous flora and fauna of my landscape grows ever stronger, and I feel myself becoming more and more rooted in this time and place.