Fields of Gasoline

I received an e-mail this week from Wendy All, a colleague at the Rock Art Institute at UCLA, who mentioned that she and her husband Jay had visited the Carrizo Plain over the Easter weekend to look at wild flowers.

Having recently blogged about the Carrizo Plain as the dead heart of contemporary California (Cave and Rock, 2010-03-30) it was encouraging that someone was at least visiting the shriveled organ, brought low, in my estimate, by its isolation from the state's contemporary arteries of communication and trade. Wendy reports that the wild flowers that decorate the grave site are particularly vibrant this year. She referred me to a wild flower website which is replete with startling photos of yellow, blue and purple fields, many taken in the northern end of the plain around Soda Lake.

We should, of course, be thankful that this forgotten prairie exists in something approaching its primordial condition, for here perhaps, is a reminder that much of California was once a flower pasture. But as I indicated in Weed World 2010-03-08, to suggest as much is to enter into a debate about California's ecological heritage. Richard Minnich, in his recent book California’s Fading Wildflowers, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 2009, argues that California's wildflowers are a lost legacy and that,

"The long-believed bunchgrass theory, and its conversion to exotic grassland through overgrazing, encouraged people to take for granted the rapidly fading wildflower heritage......We need to recognize that California was not all grasslands in the past...”

It seems to me that Minnich is setting up something of a grass man here: can't we all agree that California was a botanical mosaic with chaparral, forests, grasslands, desert and forblands? Furthermore, grasslands and forblands co-exist now and, it is reasonable to presume, then.

Minnich also weighs in on the wildfire issue,

“We need to reintroduce fire into ecosystems.. we should work toward a Mexican model, which will become a low-maintenance management system...Land-use policies that permit building in indefensible spaces exacerbate the problem"

and then, echoing bullet point number 4 (chaparral is inimical to human habitation - see Cave and Rock 2010-03-30)

“You can’t live in nature in Southern California...You can save structures in an urban setting because they’re surrounded by pavement and watered lawns. In wildlands, you have solitary structures in the middle of a field that behaves like gasoline. It is indefensible and should not get public support. We’re burning billions of dollars (on fire suppression) in the western United States."

As an ecologist, Minnich indicates a rare show of support for irrigated lawns but seems to believe that solitary wildland/urban interface structures are doomed, awaiting their fate in fields of gasoline. One wonders how the pre-contact population of Native Californians, which by some estimates approached half a million, managed, living in their incendiary homelands with nothing resembling 'pavement and watered lawn' to save them.

We are indeed trying to 'live in nature', and as a part of that intent are developing needlegrass meadows close to the house which then shade to chaparral about 200' out. Immediately adjacent to the front of the house is an eight foot swathe of crushed rock with twenty or more feet of 3/8" gravel at the back - our pool terrace. At the west end is an abbreviated chip seal gravel 'auto court' and to the east is a natural gravel terrace. The house itself is built according to dba's fire-safe protocol .

Fescue is sprinkled within the needlegrasses and between them all is an opportunity for native perennials and annuals such as tarweed (hemizonia fasciculata); common fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii); blue eyed grass (Sysrinchium bellum); Lupin (Lupinus bicolor); Coulter's lupin (Lupinus sparsiflorus); purple nightshade (solanum xanti); owl's head clover (Castilleja exserta); wild sweet pea ( Lathyrus vestitus); peonies (Paeonia californica); perezia (Arcourtia microcephala) and the bushy deer weed (Lotus scoparius). All the above have made an appearance with the exception of the blue eyed grass, which although seeded was out-competed, I suspect, by the rampant erodium.

A good year for rain has meant that clover (Trifolium species) has colonized large tracts of our meadow lands and has now superseded erodium as the weed of the moment. I have succeeded in clearing most of it from the so-called tilted plain or 'front lawn' but have yet to tackle the bowl which rises up beyond the pool.

Somehow, a balance needs to be achieved between grasses and (mostly) perennial wildflowers. With our 'fields of gasoline' it's too soon to tell, but I am encouraged that there is developing something approaching a simulacrum of native prairie - at once grassland and forbland.