First Visit After the Hennessey Fire (9/5/2020)

Anxious to see how the area looked after the fire, I drove up to Stebbins once the highway was open again. I was waiting to receive research access to the closed Reserve, but thought it would be good to see what things looked like from the road.

It is a stark landscape but a beautiful one. Without being able to explore very far in space, I focused on details: the color palette, the specifics of curled leaves, the patches of remaining green leaves or needles on trees with foliage mostly heat-killed.

I did notice that the large oak that anchored my view into the canyon on each visit since the Wragg Fire had succumbed to this fire. Drawing its stump was poignant. The place was incredibly still and quiet. I didn’t hear or see any birds save one turkey vulture high above the ridge.

A Conversation with Bethan Burton (Journaling with Nature Podcast)

Last month, I had the great pleasure of joining Bethan Burton on her podcast, Journaling with Nature. Bethan’s podcasts are so insightful and inspiring that I wholeheartedly recommend listening to all of them!

In our conversation, we talked about the work I have done documenting wildfire response at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve and the general concept of ecoreportage—documenting ecosystem change over time. We talked about the big picture of climate change and changing fire regimes in California and in Australia, and about cultural and prescribed burning practices. Bethan is a fantastic interviewer. Her questions are spot-on and she is an empathetic and engaging presence. I am proud to be part of her growing archive of conversations.

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My Virtual Field Trip About Stebbins and Fire (Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference 2020)

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.

Lightning and Flames: Stebbins Burns Again (8/17/2020)

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.

March Visit (3/5/2020)

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.)

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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.

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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.

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Two of my favorite tiny wildflowers—purple sanicle and miniature lupine—were growing in bright exposed areas along a steeper part of the trail.

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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.

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This is the first year I’ve seen fruits on the manzanitas that were burned!

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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.

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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.

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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.

February Visit (2/6/2020)

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.

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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.

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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.

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I believe the galls I spotted on the interior live oak are made by the gouty oak gall wasp (Callirhytis sp.).

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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.

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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.

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Cache Creek Conservancy Cultural Burn (1/20/2020)

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.

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December Visit (12/30/2019)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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November Visit (11/29/2019)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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I made a diagram of the spatial complexity of different species on a rock:

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I got lost in a world of lichens on some fallen blue oak branches:

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And then stopped for a last painting at a boulder in the creek at the crossing back to the trail to the parking lot.

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