Category Archives: The Neighborhood

Out front

2014-05-14 19.53.15

Rabbit and agave with low-light smartphone camera visual artifacts

It’s only half a mile from my new doorstep to Route 62, but it seems longer: the desert eats sound, the noise of traffic muffled through a half mile of creosote. I sit out there despite the cat’s complaints through the window, watch the moon rise over Queen Mountain.

Night traffic noise on a high-speed desert road should annoy me, but I find it a comfort. Truck tires on pavement slabs have sung me to sleep often enough. In July 1982 I spent a night in a cold sleeping bag at the interchange of Interstates 80 and 25 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I was on my way here, though I wouldn’t arrive for another 32 years. Tonight sounded like that, a little.

At the grocery store, on an impulse, I grabbed a live rosemary plant and a mint to keep it company. When was the last time I bought terra cotta pots? It’s been years, I think. Two bog-standard eight-inch ones at the hardware store, plus enough potting soil to fill them eleven times over. I will clearly need to get more pots and more herbs, and this is how treadmills are built. repotted and watered on the front step, the new plants scent the night air.

Sidewinded

Sidewinder track crosses ORV tracks

Sidewinder track crosses ORV tracks

My 78-year-old father told me the last time we talked that he walks around the block each day. This is his block. That’s 3.5 miles a day for Dad, and his son a quarter-century younger doesn’t always make it all the way outside some days lately, chained as I am to my own personal bit face deep in the Internet mines.

Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, there’s a square mile of desert behind my house. So I’ve started making sure to walk a couple miles through it at least every other day. It’s been a few weeks now.

The land is private property expressly open to foot traffic, but protected from incursions by off-roaders. The off-roaders come anyway. I remember when reactionaries decrying environmental laws used to say things like “you want the land protected? Buy it.” The Mojave Desert Land Trust did that, and the yahoos don’t care anyway. They lift the chains, go around the fences, drive back and forth on their stupid machines.

Sometimes they keep to the dirt paths. I find myself counting the layers of track. I recognize my own bootprints from a day before, a week before. Sometimes they’re covered by a tire tread. Sometimes they get pockmarked by the prints of cottontails, of woodrats and k-rats and antelope squirrels.

It’s been a hard week. A few days back I walked a mile and a half, completely distracted by my own inner turmoil, and saw that a new set of tire gouges marred what had been a more or less intact patch of desert soil and rodent burrows. I welled up in anger and despair. It was a little thing: just the last straw. I buried my face in a nearby Joshua tree’s trunk, wrapped my arms around it as though to keep from being flung off the spinning world, howled and salted the furrows in its bark as I howled in grief.

Anniversaries, blogging and otherwise

Ten years ago this week I started this blog, or the previous version of it called “Creek Running North,” with a story about an impromptu hug from a passing snake on the shore of San Pablo Bay.

Five years ago this week I closed that previous version down. That same week I moved out of the Bay Area, my home for 26 years, and landed in the desert. It took me a few weeks to start blogging again.

I thought of both anniversaries tonight, coming home from a longish walk, having little brown bats greet me on my return as they swooped around our front yard palo verde tree, now in full bloom. I imagined telling those two earlier versions of me about my front yard palo verde swooping bats in 2013, and wondered how they’d take it. I think the 2003 Chris might have been a little ambivalent, desert rat that he was. The garden was just getting going, and he’d planted trees he hoped to sit beneath in 2023, and 2033.

The 2008 Chris would have been completely on board with the idea. It wouldn’t have been that far removed from the bats and nighthawks swooping through his yard in Nipton, with the trains running past. (I wouldn’t have told him about the gigantic solar power facility that would have utterly changed the view from that backyard by 2013.)

Anyway, even though it’s been quiet here of late — overwork, mostly, and mood, and hardware problems — I thought the occasion worth noting. I’ve met hundreds of people through this blog I never would have known otherwise, including the person now reading quietly in the next room. My main current paid gigs at KCET and Pharyngula happened because of this blog. The Zeke book wouldn’t have been written unless I did it a couple paragraphs at a time, right here.

Blogging for ten years. So many wonderful readers and correspondents in that time, from Pica and Numenius and Beth and Dave and Rana who I met in the earliest months of CRN, to the wonderful bloggers who invited me to guest on their blogs after 2005 (Thanks Tedra, Michael, Amanda, and PZ) to the people who helped lift me up during some of the darkest weeks in 2007 and 2008, Zeke’s end and the divorce, and again last year when Thistle died.

I can’t name everyone who’s made a difference to me whom I’ve met through this blog, or gotten closer to through this blog: there are too damn many of you. You know who you are, especially those of you who supported my writing by giving me Jeeps.

That’s ten years of being warmly rewarded in ways tangible and in- for the flights of fancy that flowed from fingertips to keyboard. Ten years of validation and friendship. What can I say in return?

Just this: thank you.

And this: It’s spring in the desert. A young ladder-backed woodpecker, his head and unruly red topknot absurdly large relative to the rest of him, hopped over to the water dish I keep on the ground beneath the Chinese elm. He ducked beneath the surface over and over, each time raising his head with the water glistening on the point of his beak before he’d open his jaw and swallow. A drop swallowed at a time, each one held aloft for a moment as though he was admiring the glitter, backlit by the sun and the world beyond lensed in it glittering wet and upside-down.

Audio: bobcats, beauty, and the desert

I recorded a few minutes of myself talking about bobcats for Teddy Quinn’s project Radio Free Joshua Tree. He edited the piece to include some really rather lovely flute music in the background, and you should definitely listen to it there: it’s 17 minutes into hour two of his Variety Show for the weekend of February 3. But if you can’t do that, or you dislike good music, or if there’s some other reason keeping you from clicking over to the RFJT site, you can listen to my few minutes here.

Transcript below the fold for my hard of listening friends.

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Mountains of the southern Mojave

Coxcomb Mts.

The Coxcomb Mountains, east of here

I spend far too much time fretting over money. I spend far too much time glued to the keyboard and monitor. We are at 3,300 feet or so, a view northward across the Morongo Basin, and when I remind myself that I have to stop working and leave the house, a forty-mile view awaits.

We’re perhaps a mile from the northern slopes of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, almost too close to get a good view. Northward across the Basin, and the Pinto Mountain Fault that made it, lie three little mountain ranges, the Bartletts, Copper Mountain, and Bunker Mountain. Bunker Mountain, the smallest, is only a mile and a half long. The smaller ranges are little bits of the same Tertiary plutonic bedrock that make up the Little San Bernardinos and their Larger Namesake to the west, the San Bernardinos, with San Gorgonio Mountain presiding over the west end of the Basin. It’s wearing a mantle of snow this week.

From where we live a few hundred feet above the valley floor, you can see eastward over the smaller ranges to the larger  ones beyond: the Bullions on the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base, and the Sheepholes to their east. When the sun starts lowering in the early afternoon, the Sheepholes light up prettily in a view perfectly framed by our living room window.

Beyond the Sheepholes lie the Cadiz Valley, the Coxcombs and Marbles and Granites, The Old Woman Mountains and the Providence Mountains, the Ivanpah and New Yorks and Cima Dome, and from here we can’t see any of those. Our little car is in need of repairs we can’t afford right now, and trips of longer than five miles require we take gallons of water, fully charged phones and a change of clothes in case the car finally dies completely. I may not make it back to Cima Dome for some time.

It’s a good place to be stranded, I remind myself.

Surfeit of sore feet

Platystemon californicus, a.k.a. “cream cups,” El Sobrante Ridge 3/6/2005. Matthew and I hiked 14 miles today if you believe one map, 13 if you believe another. I believe 14: I am sore.

It was a slog. The rain stopped a few days back, but the mud remained on the trails. In places we were glad we’d laced our boots tightly: it was a good six inches thick where declivities had funneled extra rain onto sections of the trail.

But what good are weekends if you can’t spend them slogging through 14 miles of boot-sucking mud with an old friend?

We followed the trail around the north shore of the Briones Reservoir, with its lake-like fringe of tules and cattails. Coots and grebes sang from the astonishing blue-green water. A mile or so in Matthew gasped and pointed: a giant appparition floated in the air, crossing the reservoir without flickering a muscle. “So Matthew,” I asked, “what do you suppose that great, bluish, heronlike bird was?”

A small frog huddled in mid-trail in an inch of water, waiting for us to pass. Matthew scooped it up. We examined it, gave up deciding whether it was a bullfrog or something else, let it go. Later on we’d see two Pacific chorus frogs likewise in mid-trail, these obviously identifiable by their bands of Cleopatra mascara. One’s khaki skin was suffused with gold flecks. Matthew stroked its spine softly with a fingertip for a moment, then it left. We tried to catch the second for a minute, not particularly effectively.

Also seen: several lizards and change. Most were fence lizards, or (as we renamed them for the hike) Fent’s lizards, so called for their discoverer the famous if imaginary naturalist Dr. Fent. Matthew saw a skink. I did too, if noticing a flash of bright blue tail constututes “seeing.” “And change”? Toward hike’s end, I found a two-inch section of blue skink tail, likely shed to distract a predator. The tail now sits in the zinc pot on my front porch where the cardon cactus lives: that’s where I put all my lizard tails.

Oh, and an eagle, and a rodent tooth like a scimitar among the trail pebbles, fields of miners lettuce and cream cups and bright soapy orange poppies and blue brodiaea, feral cranesbills and filaree, sunburn on the back of my neck and on the teenaged girls smiling as they passed on horseback, sandwiches on the north shore as we headed up Oursan Ridge and trail mix and chocolate at Disorientation Point — where I signed the geocache register “Ed Abbey.” We crossed the Bear Creek inflow into the reservoir just before we got back to the truck, a couple inches deep to wash the mud from our boots. Call it 72 miles hiking for me since January 1.

P.S. Oh, yeah: A snake too. I only saw the tail, but I suppose it might well have been an Alameda striped racer — if said snakes have a dark variant with inconspicuous red-orange longitudinal stripes. Anyway, it was coal black.

Bad news comes in large doses

… but there is good news that comes in dribs and drabs , and this drib takes place a hundred feet from Pinole Creek.

I love the way this project sounds. I hope it happens.

Pinole park land slated to be community garden
By Tom Lochner
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
PINOLE — A wedge-shaped piece of land in Fernandez Park once seen as a skate park will become an intergenerational community garden, the Pinole City Council has decided.

Recreation Manager Amy Wooldridge said the garden will teach young people to grow food. Volunteers from the nearby Pinole Senior Center will help out to share their botanical savvy with the young people.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but very much fun,” said Senior Center board member Sam Shannon.

Coprinus

As obsessive readers of this blog may recall, I pollarded my neighbors’ mulberry tree in November. This involved pruning off several dozen long, less than two-inch thick vertical shoots. I had probably a hundred such branches when I was finished, some of them about ten feet long. Becky, being the best wife a guy like me could possibly hope for, bought me a big honking electric chipper shredder a year ago, and so I spent a couple hours that day turning those branches and most of their attendant leaves into about a cubic yard of chips. “That’s enough for the day,” I said to myself as the shredder jammed on the last bit of green wood. “I’ll wheelbarrow the chips out to the compost pile tomorrow.”

The chips, of course, are still in the driveway. First the wheelbarrow turned out to have a flat tire, and then there was something good on television, and then it rained for a week and then I was out of town and anyway they’re still in the driveway.

What with our living with a rabbit and a guinea pig, we have an abundance of shit around the place. Browsing through a mail-order catalog of mushroom spawn last year, I decided to buy some inky cap mycelia to toss into the compost pile. Inky caps do well in substrates of manure, and they like wood chips as well, and I planned to put the pollard chips atop the small animal poops to provide an ideal growing medium for the mushrooms.

Inky caps, often called shaggy manes and known to taxonomy nerds as various species of Coprinus, are interesting critters. They’re one of the more common and easily recognizable mushrooms around, what with their characteristic behavior of magically turning into black slime. The spawn I bought was of the species Coprinus comatus, but there are a bunch of them, at least until the taxonomists decide to split the genus up into a bunch of new ones.

A mushroom is just a reproductive organ, only a small part of the typical fungal organism, and many fungi don’t even use them. Many fungi are unicellular, like yeasts, and reproduce by division or budding. Multicellular fungi such as my inky caps are called filamentous fungi. The bulk of an individual fungus is in its mycelium, a massive network of filaments — hyphae — that penetrates and consumes the substrate on which the fungus grows.

The hyphae in some more primitive fungi are just plain hollow tubes, through which cytoplasm moves back and forth, carrying nutrients and water and hormones and the like throughout the mycelium at a dizzying four or five inches per hour, pushed by little “muscles” made of a contracting protein called actomyosin.

Here’s a little fact that blew my mind when I first thought about it for a while: the actomyosin transport system can push fluid through a hyphal tube in both directions at the same time, by setting up discrete streams in different sections of the tube. Imagine being able to ship your drinking water into the house in the same pipe that drained your wastewater!

The hyphae of “higher” fungi have little walls like checkpoints along their length (roughly similar to the phloem sieve elements in many vascular plants, for those of you who remember your high school biology.) These restrict the flow of cytoplasm only slightly, but keep nematodes and the like from biting off an end of a hypha and sucking the mycelium dry. The walls, or septa (higher fungi are also called septate fungi) are made out of chitin and a few other tough substances. Chitin is what insect exoskeletons are made of.

That’s another mindblowing fact in the “kinship of all life” category, by the way: plant cell walls are made of cellulose, and fungal cell walls are made of chitin, which indicates that fungi are related to both plants and insects, which means my pollarding that mulberry was basically performing cosmetic surgery on a distant cousin. Woodsman, spare that tree!

Anyway.

Mushrooms are what mycelia use to make baby mycelia. A mushroom is basically a spore factory, and most mushrooms, like the portobellos you ate last night, produce those spores from their gills, those little grooves on the underside of the cap. Inky caps’ caps are very narrow and long when they first emerge, which would tend to impede spore dispersal. Coprinuses get around this by liquefying their caps from the bottom up, thus dripping sticky black juice all over everything and more importantly getting the cap margins out of the way of the later-maturing spores closer to the apex of the cap. The spores blow around, land on another suitable surface, and grow new mycelia while we are distracted getting black ink stains out of our clothing.

This habit is probably the main reason people don’t eat more inky caps: they’re supposed to taste pretty good, but you kind of have to catch them just at the right moment before they decompose. That’s probably a good thing in the main, as the shrooms contain coprine, a substance very much like the old drug Antabuse. If you don’t consume any alcohol for about a week after eating inky caps, you should be fine. But crack a beer the next day by mistake, and bam: an emergency-room caliber hangover. Unfortunately, some people claim that smelling vanilla extract or using mouthwash are likely to provide enough blood alcohol to make the coprine do its stuff.

I might try to eat them someday, and I’ll let you know if I do so that you can avoid smelling my breath for the next week. Which is probably a good idea in any case. But I was mostly interested in the Coprinus as a garden tool: a way to turn lots of compostables into rich garden soil without doing any actual, you know, work. If I cultivated a nice big bunch of Coprinus hyphae in the compost pile, I’d actually have a reason not to go out and turn the compost every week: why chop up a critter that’s doing all that hard work for me?

Despite my leaving the mulberry chips out of the compost pile the inky caps prospered and eventually colonized the entire pile. Flushes of mushrooms have emerged, grown, deliquesced, and faded. The pile occupies one corner of the bin: I’ve started building a new pile and the Coprinus has already started to take hold there. In about a year, with any luck, I will have distributed the finished compost around the garden and thus sowed Coprinus in the vegetable beds, the orchard strip, and the herb garden near the shed. A garden is incomplete, I think, without mushrooms in it, and the presence of mycelia is often a boon to green plants: fungi can make nutrients available that the plants would otherwise have missed.

And I may not even have to move the compost to get there. A hundred feet away, on the other side of the house in the middle of the driveway, the mulberry chip pile has started growing its own crop of inky caps.  The mycelium started in mid-pile, and there’s now a patch of partially digested wood there, surrounded by a ring of icky drippy mushrooms slowly working its way to the edges of the pile.

I don’t know whether spores drifted from the compost on the wind, or hitchhiked from out back on a garden tool, or whether this might be a strain that was already in the neighborhood before I had some shipped from Oregon.

All I know is that I now have another reason not to move those chips for a while longer.