Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Are We Parched Yet?

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We've had less rain this year than in any other year since we started keeping records back during the Gold Rush. I'm bothered by this for selfish reasons. Without rain to refresh all that expectant mycelia out there, the mushroom season is off to a poor start. Without a good crop of fungi (or "winter wildflowers"), I can't imagine where the Circumannuation of Mt. Tam will go from here. Walking around the mountain as the winter solstice approaches looks much the same as when I walked around the mountain back at the fall equinox.

Maybe worse. Back in the fall, the hillsides of recently dried grass still had a kind of life to them. Now, the same hillsides look increasingly hammered, and without the hopeful intimations of green beginning to tint the hills with signs of renewal. If the mushroom season passes without a flush of fungi, I worry that spring will arrive without bouquets of wildflowers.

It seemed like we didn't have much rain last year either, but the green hills still bloomed with beautiful patches of sky lupine in late March. That gave me some hope until I saw that we had more rain last December than we've had so far in all of 2013.

As we continue to pump heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere in ever-increasing amounts, I can't help wondering if this year is the "tipping point" that some scientists talk about -- the point where climate changes accelerate beyond of any hope of control. I'm hopeful, however, that it isn't! I'm hopeful that we're just having a dry year not terribly unlike other dry years to which Natural California in general, and Mt. Tam in particular, are well-adapted.

One of the things that keeps me hopeful about adaptation is the comeback of the Pacific chorus frogs at the Lily Pond. Back around 2006 or so we had three relatively dry years in a row, and the Lily Pond dried up. I remember being surprised to walk down there expecting to hear the alarm squeaks of bullfrogs before they dove for cover in the pond, only to find the pond dry and hearing no squeaks at all. 

It wasn't until I returned the following year, and still heard no bullfrog squeaks, that I learned an interesting thing about drought. Although the non-native bullfrogs had been wiped out, the native chorus frogs were out in greater numbers than I'd seen them before. Bullfrogs eat chorus frogs. The native frogs' best defense was the home-field advantage of being adapted to an environment that experiences occasional drought.

So as I contemplate the hammered hillsides of non-native grasses on Bolinas Ridge, I wonder if there's going to be any home-field advantage for native bunchgrasses like purple needlegrass (the official state grass). Maybe even the non-native brooms will also be swept away by a native climate, and the original California gold -- Eschscholzia californica -- will dazzle us with the fabulous abundance that greeted Sir Francis Drake more than 400 years ago.

Hey, I can dream, can't I? I just hope that if a time like that does appear again, it doesn't happen on the way to a future that's too dry even for the natives. 

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