In October, I joined John Muir Laws on his Nature Journal Workshop to discuss nature journaling during and after fire. We had a really lovely conversation and the video is now posted on his website.
UPDATE: I had a truly awesome time teaching at Wild Wonder 2020! The teachers and workshops were all incredibly inspiring. You can still register for a video pass to view all of the amazing content before April 10, 2021. Start here to register: https://johnmuirlaws.com/wildwonder/
I’m excited to announce that I have been invited to teach a workshop at the virtual Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference, October 7-11, 2020! I will be presenting “Ecoreportage—Fire Ecology and How to Draw a Changing Landscape.” We will take a field trip through time and explore an ecosystem after a wildfire. We will start with the fire, wander through the burned canyon, and then observe and draw as plants, animals, and fungi regrow and return to the area over the next five years, with many examples and strategies from my sketchbooks.
Here are the details, schedule, and link to register:
John Muir Laws and the Nature Journal Club are thrilled to partner with The Foster to host Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference, October 7-11, 2020, an annual event that gathers people who are passionate about nature, art, science, curiosity, and wonder to share ideas, learn from each other, support each other, inspire each other, and have fun together in a nature’s beauty. This year’s virtual event is 5 full days, with a rich schedule of classes, panels, lectures, nature journaling challenges, social time. Please visit this page for more details on the event including a detailed schedule and a link to register: https://johnmuirlaws.com/wildwonder/
You can also go directly here to register and view the schedule.
I have been studying fire recovery at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve for five years now, since the Wragg Fire in 2015. It has been an amazing journey watching the ecosystem grow and thrive after the fire.
It is almost certain that Stebbins burned again this week in the early days of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire. When Stebbins burned in 2015, it had been about thirty years since the last fire. Thirty years between fires is a relatively healthy interval for the chaparral and woodland ecosystems at the Reserve. Five years between fires is not.
These habitats are resilient and plants will regrow and animals return immediately, but we are inexorably changing them as we edge the climate further past the point of no return. California has always burned, and needs to burn, but in small, patchy fires, not like this.
At the beginning of March I set off to hike the full loop up to Blue Ridge, down the spine of the ridge, past the homestead and back along the creek trail. It is only a five mile hike, but one that I generally do not have time to do given that I stop to draw to frequently. Blissfully ignorant of the new reality that was about to descend on all of us, I marveled at the opportunity to get the full perspective of high and low habitats at the Reserve.
I started by trying something new: marking the spots where I stopped to draw and noting the thing that had caught my attention there. (I drew the map in advance and added the cartoons of the flowers after the fact.)
I was extremely pleased to find California pipevine in bloom! Last year, I caught the flowers once they had dried out, so was determined to find them fresh this year. They look so stunning when backlit with the light glowing through their hollow, yellowy-green bodies veined in red.
Variable checkerspot caterpillars were plentiful on the ridge. I originally misidentified the first one I saw, but realized my mistake when I came on a crowd of them feeding on woolly paintbrush, one of their main host plants.
Two of my favorite tiny wildflowers—purple sanicle and miniature lupine—were growing in bright exposed areas along a steeper part of the trail.
An anise swallowtail (originally misidentified in the drawing) held still long enough for me to do a careful drawing. The grey hairstreak was not so patient, so I drew it based on memory as it flitted from twig to twig.
This is the first year I’ve seen fruits on the manzanitas that were burned!
So many beautiful colors on the hike: so hard to remember to keep moving and not try to draw every single new flower I see.
The effects of our extremely dry February were abundantly evident in the creek, which was incredibly low and filled with algae. It was completely dry near the entrance to the Reserve.
Now that I know that this was my last visit for a long time, with Stebbins closed to support the shelter-in-place rules, I am so grateful for this wonderful gift of a hike.
In February, I felt particularly lucky to be escorted the entirety of my hike by robins. They were busy stripping the stands of toyon of their berries, swooping here and there, calling to each other and scolding me. They would let me get close to them and stand under the bushes for a while, but then they would move away one by one down the trail to the next cluster of toyons.
I was struck on this hike by how much white pitcher sage I saw in clearings, soaking up the sun. The abundance of white pitcher sage and also chaparral currant seem to me to be a sign of the growing dominance of sub-shrubs in the Stebbins habitats, as the annuals start to be shaded out and we follow the ecological stages of plant succession after the fire.
I stopped for a captivating view with swaths of toyon, hairy-leaved ceanothus, and white pitcher sage. Below are some of the deposits left by mammals and a bird along that same stretch of trail.
I believe the galls I spotted on the interior live oak are made by the gouty oak gall wasp (Callirhytis sp.).
A clump of feathers in the grass at the side of the trail told the story of some kind of struggle, probably with a robin since they were so active and plentiful then. No sign of a body (or parts thereof), so either the bird escaped or the evidence was swallowed.
As I neared the end of my hike, I noticed the unmistakable red of a robin’s chest in the brush down the hill along the side of the trail. The still form looked so peaceful – no sign of predation or struggle. It was a moving end to the drama that the robins had provided all along my journey.
In January, I had the opportunity to participate in another cultural burning event: the Cache Creek Conservancy‘s second annual Indigenous Fire Workshop, held in their Tending and Gathering Garden. Drawn below was the gathering prior to walking down to the garden. The event was attended by an inspiring variety of community members, students and researchers, and members of a number of nearby tribes. The Conservancy is within the homeland of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, with whom they collaboratively manage the Tending and Gathering Garden and other riparian projects along Cache Creek.
The burning was focused on four plants: deergrass, western redbud, tule, and cattail. These are important plants for basketry and other cultural necessities, and fire ensures that they grow in the manner best suited for these uses. I mapped the locations of the plants burned, in the context of the entire Conservancy.
The first fires were started in the deergrass:
Patches of flames in deergrass:
This was so impressively a full community event! People of all ages were helping tend the fires, wandering between the burning patches and poking at fire with sticks.
Redbuds were cut to near their bases, the branches piled in cones above the stumps. This ensured that the bases and brush all burned well.
Tule and cattails were set alight, and their thick stands burned fiercely, sending flames high into the air. The long strips of leaves turned to ash and floating away on the smoke were quite dramatic. I was also struck by the individual plumes of smoke rising from each still-smoldering cattail head after the flames had passed. The twisting strips of char on the burned cattail stalks show the pattern of air movement as the flames rose around them.
A redbud that was burned nearly a year ago showed the straight branches and deep red color that are desirable for basketry. I also investigated a fungus happily growing on the burned stumps.
In a perfect demonstration of survival strategies during fire, one of the members of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians Tribal Fire Department found a juvenile alligator lizard that had been curled up in the base of a bunch of deergrass that had just been burned. The moisture content at the base kept that spot cool enough that the lizard was unharmed by the fire.
A boulder with moss forming rivers of green in its fissures looked just like an Andy Goldsworthy creation, so I had to capture that vivid image when I saw it at the start of my hike. The day was cool and sunny and the boulder cast interesting shadows on the rocks below it in the creekbed. There was running water in the creek although it was not all that high.
There are a few mysteries on this page. First, the lichen I drew in November and haven’t yet sorted out. Maybe it isn’t a lichen after all. And then a “weed” perhaps, but something with pretty mint-green leaves that turn red as it ages. When it flowers in a few months I’ll figure out what it is, but have been frustratingly unable to yet.
The hare’s foot inkcap (Coprinus lagopus) was a treasure; it caught the morning light and glowed. The fungus (Phycomyces blakesleeanus) on the dog feces was perhaps less a treasure, certainly a shame since it is growing on evidence of the abundant presence of dogs in the Reserve, where they are officially not allowed.
It had rained recently enough that the purple shelf fungus Trichaptum albietinum was moist and colorful. It grows on conifers and I found this one on the grey pine that has fallen across the creek. There is a sister species that grows on hardwoods and is similar in appearance.
The toyons’ red/gold/green were captivating against the blue of the sky and enlivened my drawing along with the textures of the burnt oak limbs and the waves of dried grass. I drew even more gold below following the patterns of spores on the undersides of goldenback fern (Pentagramma triangularis) leaves.
First pages in a new sketchbook are always exciting. This is my third sketchbook for Stebbins drawings; so far that’s a rate of 2 years per sketchbook. I was looking forward to some cooler fall weather on this visit and wanted to get to the Reserve before the onslaught of rain we were expecting. Thanks to a little rain a few days earlier, the mosses and lichens were activated and colorful.
I hiked up the trail toward Blue Ridge and stopped to draw a diagram (across a full spread, here in the pages above ∧ and below ∨) showing the zones of grassland (south-facing slopes) and chaparral (north-facing slopes) on Pleasants Ridge. I also noted seed pods of bush monkeyflower, reminding me a bit of corn still wrapped in dried husks. Hummingbirds caught my attention repeatedly, several times perching in trees near enough that I could watch their movements.
Chaparral currant was blooming in its beautiful bright pinks, always a nice contrast to the rest of the fall/winter vegetation. Chamise was luxurious on the hillside, with sandstone boulders scattered in between.
The vivid colors of the scene below with burnt blue oak, striking blue sky, and red and green toyon were crying out to be painted.
I stopped to try to capture the warm light on the Blue Ridge crest and was then drawn in completely by the lichens. The first were on boulders about half way down from the ridge:
I made a diagram of the spatial complexity of different species on a rock:
I got lost in a world of lichens on some fallen blue oak branches:
And then stopped for a last painting at a boulder in the creek at the crossing back to the trail to the parking lot.
Saturday 10/12 started with a relaxed morning in a meadow below the second burn site, West Sims. John Muir Laws and Laurie Wigham engaged three local children in some nature journaling exercises and Miriam Morrill showed us some examples of how she captures her fire observations visually.
Frank Lake, Research Ecologist with the US Forest Service and member of the Karuk Tribe, is a multi-talented scientist and artist. He generously showed us a variety of cultural objects using plants managed with fire, including some of the tribal regalia and other artwork he has himself made.
Frank then accompanied us to the West Sims site so that we could observe some of the day’s burning up close. The terrain at this site was steeper than the day before, and overgrown with blackberry, so we observed some different techniques for starting and managing the fire.
We watched a few large trees go up in showers of spark and flame.
We watched the progress of the burn from above using a drone, and learned a little about fire investigation techniques.
Toward the end of the afternoon, we moved to a site below the area being burned for a different perspective. Frank talked more about how fire keeps the forest healthy, and demonstrated healthy vs. infested acorns. Fire helps control oak moth infestations in tanoak.
Our last evening in Orleans was a community event where we were fortunate to hear talks by Elizabeth Azus and Margo Robbins about basketry plants and fire; Frank Lake about fire and forest health; and Lenya Quinn-Davidson about the movement for community involvement in fire. We nature journalers also presented our work from the weekend and had an opportunity to share our sketches with the community and with the all of the participants in the TREX.
I found this entire experience deeply moving and enlightening; it gave me so much better an understanding of the work of fire in the landscape and what that looks like up close. I can’t wait to see how we develop this project further!
In October, I participated in a landmark experience in the Klamath Mountains, sketching prescribed/cultural burning as part of the Klamath TREX training event. I met so many amazing people and watched such dedicated and skilled fire practitioners; I am filled with gratitude. I was there with a group of talented and highly experienced nature journalers: John Muir Laws, Laura Cunningham, Laurie Wigham, Marley Peifer, Miriam Morrill, and Fiona Gillogly. The training was hosted by the Karuk Tribe and the Mid Klamath Watershed Council and our participation was thanks to support by The Nature Conservancy and Bureau of Land Management.
Miriam was the guiding force that made all of this happen, and I accompanied her to the site a day early to scout locations and prepare for the workshop. Everything was made more dramatic by the PG&E power shutdowns that week in response to high winds. We drove up on Wednesday 10/9 and spent the first night in our hotel with no power. Flashlights and battery packs to the rescue!
The next morning, we set out to visit some of the planned burn sites and other good spots to journal from. The Karuk Tribe and TNC obtained an unprecendented exemption from the statewide ban on burning, since the conditions in this area were entirely within acceptable burning parameters.
Learning about measuring moisture content in the forest and about what to expect when observing fire the next day:
A map of the burn sites we will visit over the next two days and some more details about Bull Pine, tomorrow’s site:
The next day, 10/10, we started out early at the daily briefing for the TREX participants and then went out to the Bull Pine site to watch final preparations for the burn that day. We got to see the checks of moisture conditions using the tools we had observed the day before.
Finally, at about 11:00 am, the conditions were right and the This was our first experience with live fire, watching the cultural/prescribed burn. It was such a thrill to see the drip torches prepared and follow the flames and smoke as they moved away from us into the forest. An inspiration to see #goodfire given back to the community.
Watching the eerie tree shadows cast by the flames and following air movement in the patterns of the smoke:
In the afternoon, we were given an inspiring talk by Margo Robbins, the President of the Cultural Fire Council of the Yurok Tribe, about how fire maintains all of the plants that are important for basketry and other cultural practices. She showed us the progression of a couple of nearby sites that are burned twice a year and how the basketry plants look as they regrow.
Bill Tripp, the Deputy Director of Eco-Cultural Revitalization for the Karuk Tribe, met with us at an overlook in the late afternoon to talk about the history and significance of cultural burning. He also gave us an overview of Karuk cultural geography and the importance of the landforms around us.
From where we stood with Bill, we could see the smoke rising from Bull Pine, the site we observed at the beginning of the day. It was a great way to learn more about smoke and its behavior in the atmosphere as it encounters warmer and cooler air layers. It was the perfect way to make the day come full circle.