An Alternative Natural History

San Geronimo Valley, where my family lived for more than three decades, is a vigorous, connected, loving, and sometimes contentious very human community in the midst of an extraordinary natural environment — its four villages dwell almost entirely encircled by Open Space, State Park and Marin Municipal Water District lands.

The Valley boasts the most active and functional community email list I know of in Marin; its postings span the spectrum from practical governance to New Age giddiness.

This morning turned up something brand-new on the list. Here, with the author’s permission, is its subject line and content. May you enjoy it as much as I did: 

Decomposing Entrails of Enormous Industrial Beast Discovered in West Marin Open Space

Caution!: Parental Discretion Advised

Here’s what I found inside the email:

The photo is the inspired work of Jacob Barnett, taken somewhere on the Valley’s surrounding hills. You can express appreciation and belly laughs to Jacob at

Green, Greener and Greener: March Week 3 – April Week 2

I’ve had three topical posts up during this three-week period, but here’s a belated catch-up overall for this transition between our early and late bloomers. These weeks have seen the first major flush of migrant songbirds arriving back from Mexico and the deep tropics.

It’s been unsettled weather — a few days of sun and warming, then bluster accented here and there by intense and in some cases record-setting rains. Just when we might be watching for the first tenative suggestions of browning on the distant hills, they seem, impossibly, to be getting greener and greener.

3-21-10 My first Thimbleberry blossom hangs above the Laguna Trail in PRNS.

Thimbleberries and Salmonberries are two of our summer treats, their mild delights often bypassed for the more sugary seductions of the Old-World blackberries that are rampant along every byway. They’re also quite beautiful plants, in contrast to the aggressive  thorny sprawl of balckberries.

3-26-10 Fiddlenecks unfurl their gold in Eliot Preserve, part of Cascade Canyon Open Space.

Fiddlenecks are part of the Borage family, which includes Hounds Tongue, Popcorn Flowers, and the garden escapees, Forget-Me-Nots.

A Western Fence Lizard, or Blue Belly, regards the camera (or the cameraman) with reptilian mistrust in Eliot Preserve.

3-27-10 Johnny-Jump-Up, China Camp

Some of our vioets aren’t violet, of course, just as some of our evening primroses have decided to bloom in the mornings. Johnny-Jump-Ups are one of Marin’s two large-flowered yellow kinds, the other having an equally engaging name, Western Heart’s Ease. (I just haven’t hiked to one of my good places for them yet. Be patient).

3-27-10 Here's Madrone with its countless thousands of nectared bells, most of the way through its spring bloom in China Camp

For the last three weeks I’ve been prowling for the perfect shot of one of my favorite spring delights: the snow of Madrone bells that will eventually be strewn under each tree. I’ve come close, but I haven’t found it yet.

Later in the year, each of these blossoms will yield a plump orange berry, and with a sound like distant summer thunder, clouds of Band-tailed Pigeons will wheel in for the harvest.

As nesting season begins, Scrub Jays spend longer and longer times sitting at the top of trees and tall shrubs, quietly observing. Are they betraying a meditational bent? Nope.

Crows, jays and magpies, as a family, rival the parrots in intelligence, and in fact evidence seems to be accumulating that the brightest of them rival all but the higher primates in thoughtful resourcefulness.

Scrub Jays are watching for nest building by other birds. From extensive studies, many of them conducted in Marin by Point Reyes Bird Observatory scientists, we know they’ll remember where the nest are, many nests — but they won’t necessarily slip in and steal eggs as soon as they’re laid (well, maybe a few). Instead, they’ll treat many of the nests as long-term resources and return to harvest nestlings after parents have established a sunstantial “value-added” by feeding their young up to good, plump size.

Think of it as a sort of proto-animal husbandry.

4-1-10 Finally, I found my first Larkspur, along the Fairfax end of the Yolanda Loop

4-1-10 One of our several species of Lotus, or Deerweed, a legune and a 'belly flower' just an inch or so high, at the edge of the Yolanda Loop

4-1-10 Another belly flower, a Locoweed

4-3-10 A jewel-like unidentified moth on Giant Chain Fern, in Blackstone Canyon above Marinwood.

4-6-10 A native poppy, Creamy Cups, on the Bay Ridge north of Whites Hill

4-6-10 Owls Clover on Whites Hill. See the tiny owl faces on this relative of Snapdragons and Paint Brush?

This orange-capped rock is at Camp Tamarancho, a extensive, ecologically rich  Boy Scout property above Fairfax. Why is it orange? Bird poop.

This Xanthoria lichen is a cosmopolitan species that is highly tolerant of the high salts and nitrogen residues of . . . bird poop, so it’s often found atop rocks like this where birds like kestrels (our smallest falcon) routinely perch. just between us, let’s call it Bird-Poop Lichen.

4-9-10 Goldfields, California Poppies on serpentine soil at Tamarancho

As we hiked Tamarancho, I spotted this striking but too common scene: two lovely Madrones flanking several of our magnificent Live Oaks, killed in the last two seasons by Sudden Oak Death Syndrome (SODS).

By now the story of SODS, at least as far as we understand it, is pretty well known: an exotic fungal disease, likely introduced on horticultural plants, began to infect native trees on the slopes of mount Tam. It is now spreading north and south in California, killing live oaks and tanoaks, sometimes destroying an individual tree in a matter of weeks.

Will our oaks go the way of the American chestnut? No one knows.

4-9-10 Our native chaparral Morning Glory at Tamarancho

4-9-10 The curious blossoms of the somewhat funky-smelling Pitcher Sage.

4-13-10 "Linear Montia" Pams Blue Ridge

Pacific States Wildflowers, in the Peterson Field Guide Series, is the best book for identifying Western plants, but between the inevitable shifts in the scientific naming of some of our common plants as our knowledge expands, and the egregious disrespect (or botanists’ lack of interest) in common names by this book’s authors, some of our loveliest plants have very odd and unbecoming names.

Take this pink beauty, for instance, that, especially after fires can paint acres of our thin serpentine soils in brilliant color. “Linear Montia.” Not very evocative, is it? Beyond that, other problems. It’s now been moved to the genus Claytonia from Montia (where it and Miner’s Lettuce used to live. And its “specific epithet” — the second part of its scientific name — has had to change, too.

Common names belong to us, not the scientists. They’ll always know what Claytonia gypsophiloides is. But what do we want to call it? Please suggest a name.    🙂

4-14-10 A male Lesser Goldfinch nibbles the (probably delicious) flower buds of Valley Oak on Mount Burdell.

4-14-10 Yellow (or Streamside) Monkey Flower & a visiting insect on the slopes of Mt Burdell

4-14-10 Another name-challenged flower, glorifying a wet meadowy spot below Mount Burdell. Let's call it Yellow Owls Clover.

4-13-10 on Pams Blue Ridge, a picture-perfect bouguet of Mules Ears & Red Delphinium.

4-14-10 Miners Lettuce flowering in the lap of a Live Oak on Mt Burdell