Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cattle ID

Cowboy V often manages his cattle by walking and watching.
The cattle operator, Cowboy V, brought another load of cattle to the Dipper Ranch on Wednesday.  For once, I was around.  The sky was overcast and sometimes sprinkling, but unloading the cattle was easier than I expected, and certainly easier than rounding them up.  I didn't help much, but I did ask lots of questions and took photos.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Wet, cold and dark induce dreamy illusions as a storm envelopes Long Ridge.
Denning - a personal definition - reluctance to leave the lair; the time of year when wet, dark and cold conditions cause a shift towards low metabolic activities:  reading, writing, searching for thermal underwear and down comforter, mending, walnut-cracking while watching movies, sleeping, thinking about but not actually waterproofing boots, dreaming of a functional woodstove, baking, and more reading this time with a cat sitting in lap.

The season of glorious clouds has been superseded by the wet season with increasing periods of cold and darkness.  Morningside, I argue with myself in the hot shower, "See you are waterproof.  Get going!"  Instead, I find lion faces in the fake marble patterns of the cheap shower walls and the daylight just gets shorter.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Get Ready

Rain and snow greeted newly arrived cattle in December 2009
Cowboy V called today and he'll start trucking in cattle soon.  This weekend, rain or shine, we'll be closing gates.  I tend to leave the interior gates open after all the cattle are gone by midsummer, so the deer and I can frolic from one pasture to the next without pause.  Actually, the deer just stot over or flex under the wire fences, but they'll detour through an open gate if handy, and by staggering which gates are open, I guide the deer's sharp hooves along gentle slopes rather than carving up the steep ravines.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Seasonal Attention Disorder

Sunset 11-05-10
One day too early for the walnut harvest party

The clouds are back.  I say that every year, don't I?  After the summer dry season, the tinted, shape-shifting clouds highlight the huge space looming above us, and then by association, the curved earth we scratch upon.

Pretty sunrises start the day and spectacular sunsets inspire evening thoughts.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Vote for 2010 Estate Walnut Label

Every year, we harvest English walnuts from the two grand trees behind the barn.  I give many of the walnuts away under the label of Happy Snake Ranch Walnuts.  Last year, we made a party out of it with guests, sunsetting, an appearance by the Deer Whisperer, and I boldly claimed that these are Estate Walnuts.

With the arrival of the 2010 storms, the walnuts are dropping and it is time to decide on the snake to be featured on this year's label.

The 2010 candidates are:

Monday, October 25, 2010

Warrior Celebrates End of Thistle Season

Impalement - another hazard of thistles.
I found this honey bee speared on a yellow starthistle spine while weeding in August 2009.
Hooray, it's the end of the thistle season.  I welcome the brief respite from digging, pulling and scowling at thistles.  Usually the first few rains of the wet season are modest, but today's storm was big enough to pound into the ground any seedheads still clinging to the brown thistle stems.  That's when I concede the battle for another year.  At least until the thistle seedlings start germinating in about six weeks.

It was a long and unusually cool summer and those thistles just kept blooming.  Long after the cattle left the Dipper Ranch and travelled on to the brussel sprout fields, the stockyard, or wherever their bovine destiny took them, the yellow starthistle plants kept putting out more dang-blasted, spiny blooms.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Travels with Nightsnake

California nightsnake.  Ranger E has a calm way with snakes.  She's observed that individual snakes often have uniquely shaped spots.  With careful photodocumentation of their spots, I may be able to tell the difference between future nightsnakes.
This is the third fall season I have found a nightsnake on the Dipper Ranch.  In October 2007, I had just moved onto the ranch and didn't know what a nightsnake was. Fortunately, something seemed odd about the small, brown-spotted snake in the springbox in those first few weeks, so we walked the dripping net back to the house to take photos.  With frequent reference to our burgeoning natural history library, I eventually learned to tell the difference between the 4 local brown-spotted snakes:  gopher snake, rattlesnake, nightsnake and juvenile yellow-bellied racer.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Vultures & Death

Vulture sculpture by Santa Cruz Mountains metalsmith, Bill Sorich

This post is about vultures and death as part of my continuing exploration of why the turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are suddenly hanging out on the Dipper Ranch barn.  In Vultures and Migration, I pretty much concluded that the local vultures of the central California coast do not migrate in the winter, so that leads me back to death.

In the last few weeks, I found part of a carcass on the road near the corral watering trough that the vultures visit every day.
That is, the vultures visit the trough every day.  I never saw them on the carcass although the eyeballs were gone and the skin partially flaked off as if stripped by beaks.  

[Please note:  this posting includes photos of dead animals.  No animals were harmed in creating of this post.  Proceed at your own educational risk by pressing Read More.]

Saturday, September 18, 2010

International Rock Flippin' Day

International Rock Flipping Day is today (September 12).  Go ahead,  flip a rock, record what you observe, and send info including photos, sketches, notes, sound effects to link at end of this post.  Make sure you are careful with the critters that live under rocks and put the rock back gently where you find it.  Good tips at link above.  I'll post whatever I find under rocks at the Dipper Ranch.
And here is what I found.  Mid-September in summer-dry California requires strategic thinking for rock flipping day.

Black Florida Vulture Adventure

Black vultures fluffing their neck ruffs against Florida's amazing and constant clouds.
On Wednesday, I was driving up Page Mill Road and saw a group of turkey vultures flying high in the late summer sky.  I wanted to stop and watch them but I had 40 people waiting for me to make a presentation.  Durn!  Don't these people have better things to do, like watch vultures fly?  Obviously, I am still obsessed with TVs.  Last summer, I was obsessed with deer.  The natural world keeps giving me new things to discover, kinda like those constantly changing Happy Meal toys.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Vultures and Migration

The horaltic pose - sitting with wings widespread - perhaps to gather the sun's warmth.
In August, the turkey vultures (Cathartes auracontinued to land on the barn every few days for short periods of time.  Often I noticed them at midday, and several times it was exactly 11:00 when they circled the farmyard.  One day as I leaned back to watch the vultures chase their loops directly overhead, I heard loud whooshing sounds.  Whenever the vultures approached the side of the spiral closest to the barn, they tucked in their wings and suddenly raced through that part of the turn with loud wing turbulence.  Coming out of the bank, they pointed skywards and slowed down to their typical dihedral and wobbly flight above the orchard.  The red-tailed hawks were also circling, and the vultures would dive bomb any hawk below them on the fast side of the thermal.  Eventually, the red-tails pulled out and flew to Mindego Hill to claim their own breeze.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Vultures on the Barn

Turkey vultures can have a wingspan up to six feet.
Their wings usually appear two-toned from below.
One of the cats made a staccato sound on a hot day when I had all the window blinds closed.  Not understanding the predator's code, I looked around.  With their butts in the air, both Cole and Mango were straining to look under the living room blind.

I peered between their alert ears expecting to see a brown towhee on the windowsill or one of the spotted fawns draining the birdbath again.  Nothing moving in the backyard.  When I flipped open a blind slat, I startled a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) on the garage roof directly outside the window.  As it dropped behind the roof line, I caught a brief glimpse of something hanging from its beak, round with a stem hanging down.  A leaf?  Or perhaps a mouse.  That explained the cats' complaint at seeing a scavenger steal their snack.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Irony of Nature Writing

We experience nature outside.

We write inside.

In the presence of nature, we dwell in our senses.

Writing is about thinking.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Cows on Vacation

Summertime. Vacation. 4th of July.  This 4th of July, we decided to try a new tradition - watching the fireworks from elevation 2572 feet.  We hiked into Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve where we could see firework displays from 6 different locations along south San Francisco Bay: San Jose, Santa Clara, Cupertino, Mountain View, Milpitas and Foster City (I think).

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bowling for Salamanders

 A small creature uncovered

In celebration of yet another week of raining, I would like to share how I discovered rock bowling.  In the beginning, I wanted to start a vegetable garden but in the country you have to put up a deer fence to garden, and a deer fence requires somewhat level ground which only exists in my backyard under the buildings where plants won't grow, so I need to install a low rock wall to hold the leveled soil, and I don't want to go all suburban by buying fancy manufactured retaining wall blocks, so I have been combing the hills and dales of the Dipper Ranch for suitable garden wall rocks. I am sure others have discovered rock bowling although maybe not by such a circuitous route.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Three Fawn Sunset

Field of wildflowers at Russian Ridge

Fascinating end-of-May weather.  Still raining and cool on some days, bright sun with a bit of warmness on other days, and just plain cold (for us Californios) at night.  I'm racing between end-of-rainy-season and beginning-of-summer projects and am about to finish a run of 14 straight work days.  I squeeze in morning or afternoons off to enjoy the succulent air.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Still Raining

 Rain beetle with interesting orange-red combs on its antennae.

It's still raining gobs in May which is unusual for California.  I feel like I'm still in Florida with the gators and moss.  I'm not complaining.  To show my appreciation for this unusual supply of precipitation, I'll share some info on one of the less common rain critters before moving onto spring wildflowers.

Monday, May 17, 2010

First Fawn

I saw the first fawn this morning while washing dishes.  I noticed a group of six deer browsing in dense fog above the orchard.  One pair of ears barely cleared the tall grass.  When those ears passed into a clear spot, a small, white-spotted body revealed itself as connected.  One by one, 3 does and a yearling buck walked up to sniff the fawn and gently nudge it.  If they spent more than a few seconds near the small one, another doe would charge and chase them back a short distance.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Colors Brown

The answers to last week's quiz on whether the photo was a Northern Pacific rattlesnake or a Pacific gopher snake are below :

(click on photos for larger version or go to original Brown vs. Brown post)

Snake #1: gopher snake - sharp tail tip, glossy coloration.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Brown vs. Brown

As promised in last week's adventure with brown snakes, here is your snake quiz.  See if you can tell which of the following snakes are rattlesnakes and which are gopher snakes.  The photographs below are all from the Dipper Ranch of the central California coast and are therefore either Northern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus oreganus) or Pacific gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer).  You can click on each photo to see an enlarged version.

Snake #1

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Half a Century Outside

Today I was visited by the stag twice.  Once in the morning at my bedroom window with a wave of his velvety 2-prong antlers.  Once in the evening with a flash of his white butt nobly pooping below the springbox.  A coyote, the pale-faced one with paler eyes that I think of as a middle-aged dam, searched the pasture for breakfast as I drove up the drive.  A pair of bluebirds landed on the barbwire fence for a morning breather while I reluctantly opened the front gate.

I don't remember the daytime business hours.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Buzzer Gets Its Color

Sunday's rattlesnake got iced.  On Monday, I carried it in an ice chest with a padded ice pack for the one-half mile trek to the relocation spot.  Cooling the snake lowers its metabolism and makes it less active during the release process.  However, as soon as I shook this snake out of the pillowcase and immobilized it with snake tongs, it started rattling.  With its head pinned to the ground, I quickly dipped its tail in green then purple ink and tossed it down the hill to its new habitat.  The ink job was messy since the rattler kept shaking its tail, but the marking was done.

 The purpose of marking the rattles is to determine if any of the relocated rattlesnakes are returning to the Dipper Ranch barn.  The good news is that so far, none of the seven rattlesnakes I have cautiously marked and relocated from 1 to 2 miles away from the barn have returned.  The bad news is that new rattlesnakes show up at the barn every year. 
Later in the day while I was mowing, I saw a brown-blotched snake moving in the grass.  I immediately turned off the brushcutter and stood back to observe.  After confirming with absolute certainty that the snake was a harmless gopher snake, I picked it up and carried it well out of my mowing area.  It had a big bulge midway down its body.  I hoped it was eating the pesky gophers whose mounds make it impossible to mow with a regular lawnmower.

Seeing both snakes on the same day reminded me of the key traits I use to distinguish the potentially dangerous rattlesnake from the non-venomous gopher snake.

A rattlesnake usually has rattles at the end of its tail, but the tail is not always visible.  A recently born rattlesnake will only have a button on its tail tip which does not rattle until the snake gets a second segment upon its first shedding.

A gopher snakes has a thin, pointed tail tip.  When alarmed, a gopher snake may rapidly shake its tail tip that gives the impression of a rattlesnake, especially if the tail is vibrating against leaves or the ground in a way that makes a buzzing sound.  A gopher snake may hiss when disturbed which also may sound like rattling.

A rattlesnake has a triangular-shaped head with the base of the head much wider than the neck.

A gopher snake has a narrower head which blends in more gradually with its neck.  When alarmed, a gopher snake may flatten its head which makes it look somewhat triangular.

Rattlesnake eyes have pupils which are vertical slits.  On the top of its head, a rattlesnake has many, small scales between its eyes.  As a pit viper, a rattlesnake has heat sensing pits between its eyes and nostrils which its uses to locate warm-blooded prey.

A gopher snake has pupils which are round or oval.  A gopher snake has a few, large scales between its eyes and does not have heat-sensing pits on its face.

Do not depend too much on body color.  The same species of snake can vary greatly in color depending on age and regional differences.  In general, I notice that a rattlesnake is often dusty looking whereas a gopher snake has a shiny coloration.

Are you ready to test yourself?  Soon I'll post more photos for you to guess whether each is a rattler or gopher snake. [Quiz now posted at Brown vs. Brown]

WARNING: Moving a rattlesnake is risky - do not attempt to relocate or otherwise handle a rattlesnake unless you know what you are doing.  I've discussed why I move rattlesnakes rather than killing or leaving them in the farmyard in The Rattlesnake Decision.  See the California Herps website for links on dealing safely with rattlesnakes and more tips on distinguishing rattlesnakes from gopher snakes.

See also:

Northern Pacific rattlesnake - Crotalus oreganus oreganus
Pacific gopher snake - Pituophis catenifer catenifer

Sunday, April 25, 2010

First Buzz

 Saw the first rattlesnake of the year on Sunday.  As the air temperature crept up to 80 degrees by early afternoon, I kept telling myself, on such a fine spring day surely the snakes will be coming out.  I was hoping to see the two shiny gopher snakes that usually show up first in the spring.  As I went about the usual weekend ranch chores, I made sure to perambulate around the barn (aka the snake pit) every now and then to look for sunning reptiles.  By the second round of barn inspections, there was a dusty head sticking out of a crack in the sliding backdoor.  I couldn't see much of the body so I couldn't tell how big it was, or check the dorsal pattern for diamonds or the tail for a rattle.  It had a somewhat triangular head and a dark line under the eye.

While peering at the snake from around the corner of the barn, I could see the numerous small scales between the eyes, but I couldn't remember whether it was gopher snakes or rattlesnakes that have that pattern.  I snuck in the front door of the barn and quietly, nervously crept to the back door to see: long fat body, diamond pattern on the back with dark rings near the tail, and a 7-segmented rattle held sideways.  Definitely a northern Pacific rattlesnake and one that had already had a few good meals after leaving its winter den.

I decided the snake's body wasn't sticking far enough out of the barn for me to easily snag it with my snake tongs, nor did I want to grab it from the inside and drag it backwards into the cluttered barn.  Instead, I set out my snake-capturing tools in the yard near the barn door and went back to the usual chores with a tingle in my shoulders.

Every 20 minutes or so, I returned to the barn to check on the rattler's location.  By the third time, the snake was slowly cruising along the outside edge of the barn door and every breeze was blowing the door back and forth over the long line of brown diamonds.  It wasn't the best angle for maneuvering, however, since I didn't want the snake to disappear, I leaned against the swinging barn door with my shoulder and snagged its tail end with the tongs.  It was a buzzer and struck at the tongs which are fortunately 3.5' long.  I dropped it into the pillowcase already pinned open in the garbage can.  A big shout and a little victory dance of relief.  Then I twisted and rubber-banded the pillow case closed, and dropped the package into the garbage can. Thunk and a buzzzzz.

I set the garbage can in the shade, and locked down the lid.  Later, when it is cool and the snake is less riled up, I will mark its rattle with calligraphy ink and relocate it far away from the farmhouse. I'll have to come up with a new color pattern to distinguish this one from the other rattlesnakes I have relocated and marked since I have already gone through my stock of 5 colors of ink.  Maybe green with a black tip for this buzzer.

When I walked past the barn corner again, the lizards had reclaimed this snake-free corner of sun.  I'm sure I will be a little jumpy for the next few days after this first buzz of the year.

See also:
 Northern Pacific rattlesnake - Crotalus oreganus oreganus

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Pink Button (the inside story)

 Sky cow

To get ready for the lead paint removal on the Dipper house, I decided to move furniture out of my bedroom which is closest to where the chips tested positive for lead and also has leaky windows.  Even though the contractor promised to seal the windows during sanding, I decided to move my bed and dresser into a room without windows subject to drifting lead dust, and drape the remaining furniture with washable sheets.

A bedroom slowly falling down the mountain and cracking on the way

Once the outside of the house looked freshly painted, I suddenly decided to paint my bedroom before moving the furniture back in.  Of course, it was a greater undertaking than I expected.  The house is slowly slipping downhill in this mountain landscape and every window and door in the bedroom had at least two cracks crossing the walls, while the window with the most fabulous view leaked during heavy storms.  I am an old hand at painting, but window repair was new to me.  I consulted fix-it guides and fix-it guys, went to the hardware store several times, and struggled with conflicting advice.

By my third trip to the hardware store, I was in desperate need of some courage.  Fortunately, it was Johnny Cash's birthday and I sat in the parking lot for awhile listening to the man in black sing about brawling and prison and love on the radio.  When I finally marched into the hardware store, I insisted the clerk lend me his utility knife so I could cut a sheet of moisture- and mildew- resistant sheetrock to fit into my car.  Afterall, I told him, the other hardware store let me cut my own sheetrock (a bit of an exaggeration) and it was raining outside.  Humming "I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole", I slipped a piece of purple sheetrock onto the warehouse floor and cut it in half.

In the first part of this pink button story, I talked about ranches and legends and the signs my predecessors left outside.  The inside of the ranch house has its embellishments too:  wagon wheel lamps, a copper tile backsplash in the kitchen, and a sliding glass door that was installed backwards and until I retrofitted it, couldn't be locked.

One item left behind inside the Dipper ranch house freaked me out.  A few days after first moving in, I poked my head into the attic through the overhead hatch door in the hallway between the bedrooms.  Looking around, I saw that insulation had been added to the unfinished floor, but otherwise the space was mostly empty.  Next to the hatch opening was a heavy but loose beam.  It had a rope tied around it.  I tugged on the rope and a hangman's knot flipped up.  I realized the beam was long enough to span the hatch opening.  I must have uttered a strange noise at this discovery because my son poked his head into the hall.  He too was freaked out when he saw what I was holding at the top of the ladder.  I shoved the rope and beam back into the attic, closed it up and tried to forget about it.  One can't hang oneself in a hallway I told myself; there were some strange tenants that lived here after Paul and Lola and it must have been a prank I told my son.

A few days later, a co-worker came by to check the wiring in the house for installation of a washing machine.  The house apparently never had a washing machine, although I found an old agitating wash tub with a wringer in the garage.  Since there isn't any plumbing in the garage, I assume Lola started wash day by wheeling the tub out to the hose, the one near the kitchen door pink amaryllis. I was hoping for a more modern setup, but every time the handyman opened a fuse box or electrical outlet, he groaned at the unorthodox wiring. Finally, I told him to zip it all back up and we would have to bring in an electrician.

To mollify his disappointment at not figuring out this old house, I asked if he could help me remove something from the attic.  He thought I was talking about a dead animal.  Nope just a rope, I told him.  He held the ladder while I went back into the attic and removed the loose beam and rope.  I mostly needed his moral support to face my imagined stories about this odd artifact.  While we both joked that a hangman's knot was not quite as bad as a dead raccoon, I untied the rope, commented that it looked brand new and never used, and stashed beam and rope in separate locations in the garage for future use on more practical projects.

I was surprised at how smoothly the replacement of the mushy window jamb in my bedroom went once I got the purple sheetrock.  To counteract the lingering effect of the attic rope and to thank a legend for his encouragement, I decided to glue a photo of Johnny Cash to the inside of the jamb before sealing it down.  Someday, some other resident may find that photo, and may wonder about their strange predecessor, however, this artifact should provide humorous rather than morose musings.

Thank ya' Johnny

In addition to the climbing rose on the garage wall, there are 8 other rose bushes around the house.  In April, when the does are bedded down with their new fawns, these poor bushes recover enough from the usual deer browsing that a few of the plants even get a chance to bloom.  They are all shades of pink.  One might guess that pink was Lola's favorite color.  Or, maybe Paul thought that pink was Lola's favorite color and so every birthday and anniversary, she would graciously accept another pink flowering plant.

The sky room

I painted the bedroom sky blue.  The view looks out the backyard, down a slope towards a pasture and across a heavily forested canyon.  You feel like you are in the sky when you walk into the room.  One day while I was painting, I realized there was a cow in the backyard.  They aren't supposed to be there but since it was only one cow, I let him mow my yard while I was stuck inside patching and sanding and painting.

 A white-washed ranch house

When the painters finished the outside, I walked around for a final inspection.  There were a few bugs stuck in the paint which is to be expected at this hilltop location in the country.  I was a bit annoyed that the painters had borrowed rocks from the garden pile, perhaps to anchor down the visqueen enclosure, and had neglected to put my rocks back.  But overall, the old ranch house looks quite good.  While walking around to pick up my rocks, I found a pink button on the ground by the kitchen door.  It wasn't my button, I don't wear pink.  I don't think the pink button belonged to the painters either, especially since they wore coveralls while they worked.  If you do laundry outside with an agitating tub and a wringer, you've got to expect to lose a few buttons.  Perhaps pink really was Lola's favorite color.
 Watching a storm arrive from the sky room

Legends, we like to listen to them, we like to create them.  Adaptation is an important survival skill for ranch living, not only to the challenging physical environment, but also to the changing cultural community.  We can borrow from the good parts of our history, and set aside the useless or harmful parts.  Perhaps listening to and making up legends helps us process our history and adapt to the change that is frequently occurring around us.  I think I will tack that pink button up on the freshly painted garage wall where the chicken door used to be.

 This legend hangs on a thread

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Pink Button

This old ranch house - not quite John-Deere green

This old ranch house got painted.  For a long time, the south and west exterior walls - the storm sides - had as much gray wood exposed as grimy white paint.  Some of the paint tested as lead, so the job got complicated.  We decided to move out of the house for a few days during the lead paint removal.  For 3 months, the family's bags and the pet crates were packed and unpacked as we waited for a few dry, windless days so the contractor could construct a temporary visqueen bubble, scrape off the remaining lead flakes, and cart them away.  Finally, in the middle of the rainy season, four projected dry days held and suddenly the job was done.

The contractor asked what color paint I preferred.  Well, the same colors, of course - white with dark green trim.  You can't change the colors of an old ranch house.

The squirrel thermometer smiles even when covered with grit on a 99-degree day.

To prepare for the painting, I took down decades of miscellaneous embellishments that had been tacked onto the walls and eaves.  The garage had a half-door contraption nailed to its exterior which at one time swung over the bottom half of the side entry.  Someone suggested it might have been used to keep chickens in the garage.  I pulled off its sagging green boards and corroded hinges, as well as two thermometers, an eagle-topped flagpole rusted and blown flat against the roof, and pulleys for some type of hanging screen long since rotted away from the porch.  Each week I worked out my annoyance over the rain delays by walking around the buildings with pry bar in hand and pulling off more random boards, nails and hooks all the while wondering who put them there and why.

Three rose bushes had tree-size trunks next to the garage.

A few years ago, a messy jungle and piles of debris surrounded the farm buildings from come-and-go tenant neglect.  We've been gradually cleaning it up.  To allow access for the painters, we needed to tackle more of the straggly plants.  I dug up and got rid of a rangy shrub next to the house to meet the defensible space requirements (clearing flammable vegetation near rural structures to reduce the potential for damage in the event of a wildfire), but I hesitated when taking my loppers after the pink rambling rose on the garage and decided to just trim it back instead.  As I pulled the tangled and decrepit vines from the wall, I discovered the live brambles were sprouting from woody stumps over a foot in diameter.  These modest-looking rose vines are actually very old plants.  I found myself trying to picture who planted them. Could I restore them to their former glory and still follow modern-day recommendations to reduce wildfire risk?

Gigantic mass of amaryllis bulbs and roots crowding the busy backdoor.

Next to the kitchen door was an amaryllis plant - the showy Hippeastrum type which are often sold as large bulbs in foil-covered pots.  Hybrids of South American origin, they are usually forced to provide colorful indoor blooms in the midst of dreary winter. At the Dipper door, this plant gets its pink trumpet blossoms in the summer, although its weather-beaten leaves never seemed to acclimate to this corner of the house.  When reaching for the hose or scrub brushes, I frequently worried I might rouse a snake hiding in its messy leaves.  I decided to transplant the amaryllis to get it out of the way of the painting and away from my backdoor cleaning center.  When I went to dig it out, I uncovered such a massive clump of roots and bulbs, I couldn't lift it out of the ground without first sawing it into smaller pieces.  Obviously, this plant had had a long residence next to the kitchen door and I wondered if I was crudely chopping into the legacy of a long ago birthday, anniversary or Easter present.  I found a sheltered spot for the amaryllis transplants in the front yard between two other old-time landscape plants, red-hot poker plants and a bed of narcissus.

The kitchen-door amaryllis bulbs sprouting at their new spot in the old yard.

Incidentally, there is another plant known as amaryllis and also pink-flowering that joins the old-fashioned landscaping at the Dipper Ranch.  A wide band of Amaryllis belladona covers the long bank between the front yard and the orchard. This African plant is commonly called Naked Ladies because months after its straplike leaves die back in the summer, bare stalks rise up like long lipstick tubes and explode with pink flowers.  I never liked the common name of this plant and used to consider it  gaudy.  I grudgingly appreciate that it is deer- and gopher-proof, and keeps out the thistles on the hardest part of the slope to mow.  One day while rereading the oral interviews with Paul and Lola Ortega, the original ranch caretakers that lived in this house, I noticed they mentioned pretty pink plants in their yard and bragged about collecting them from the former location of a hotel and stage coach stop on Page Mill Road, the stage coach road that used to cross the Dipper Ranch.  Now, I'm starting to like the Pink Ladies, as I prefer to call them, since they are the legendary booty of a stage coach heist, recycled and very practical in these rough surroundings.

Thick bed of Pink Ladies with their skirts protecting the edge of the orchard

I've heard talk about historical landscapes or historical landscaping.  Places that were planted around buildings long ago and became part of the historical culture. Some people think it is important to save and cultivate these historical landscapes along with the historical buildings to preserve the entire sense of place.  I don't pretend that the Dipper Ranch buildings have much historical significance, still I feel some responsibility to learn about and maintain the ranch's history where it is feasible and consistent with the new purpose of the ranch as an open space preserve. It is my version of thinking historically and acting locally.

The National Park Service defines historic vernacular landscape as " a landscape that evolved through use by the people whose activities or occupancy shaped it . . . the landscape reflects the physical, biological, and cultural character of everyday lives."  Estates of wealthy individuals and institutions may have fancy gardens and lawns, but the humble folk tend to create functional plantings to support their family such as orchards or vegetable gardens, or simple plantings that record a moment in their lives.

I recently found an interesting article by an architecture professor at the University of Colorado - Denver.  In Preserving Ranches: Not Only Possible, but Imperative, Ekaterini Vlahos ( I admit it, I found this an unusual name for someone researching history of the western US), talks about how "Traditional ranches are places where struggle and adaptation have etched themselves into the ground, weaving together culture, land, buildings, homes and lives."  She describes western ranches as places where people have needed to adapt to the oftentimes harsh environmental conditions, conserving their man-made and environmental resources, and often depending on the surrounding community and a local ranching economy to make it more than one generation.  In current times, as advocacy groups, recreation-based governmental agencies, and private buyers acquire traditional ranches, these new forms of ownerships often separate the ranch buildings from the land and the ranching culture.  Although I did not personally witness the transition, this discussion makes my head spin when I think about how much rural San Mateo County and its ranching history have changed over the past 60 years as the suburbs of San Francisco and Silicon Valley have expanded.

I spend most of my professional day as an ecologist trying to erase the destructive hand of man on the land - taking out erosion-prone logging roads, eliminating invasive species, and planting oaks and native grasses.  Living amongst the ghosts of the Dipper Ranch, I now sometimes get confused.  Furthermore, I think we have a tendency to wonder and make up tales about the people who lived on the land before us and we like to make legends out of them, sometimes quite exaggerated.  I am not sure why we do that.  And when and how do the new legends get started?  These are thoughts that followed me as I prepared for the ranch house painting, indeed, every time I repair, remove or alter the Dipper Ranch ground.

A Pink Button . . . to be continued

The Roessler-Rients farmstead.  In rural Minnesota, this farm has gradually changed in three generations.  I spent most summers of my childhood on this farm with my thrifty grandparents.