Point Reyes Birthday Weekend - On the Edge Writers' Retreat

The geology of Point Reyes is amazing, revealed in the cliffs by coastal erosion and earthquakes. As it says in the linked site:

Why should the rocks of this craggy coast match those of the Tehachapi Mountains, more than 310 miles to the south? The answer lies in plate tectonics: the constant motion of the Earth's crust. The peninsula rides high on the eastern edge of the Pacific Plate, which creeps northwestward about two inches a year. The slower-moving North American plate travels westward. In Olema Valley, near park headquarters, the North American and Pacific plates grind together along the San Andreas Fault Zone. 

But I'm tempted to subtitle this post "Is this a California Native Landscape" - modeled after Ms Town Mouse's last post, Is This a California Native Garden? Because for so many years, this is what the amazing region of Point Reyes has been used for:

Many historic dairies are still in operation, and that may well be well and good. More and more, grazing is being used to promote the growth of grassland or prairie native plants. Turns out they need those herbivore teeth and hooves to disturb the soil - to say nothing of the indigenous people's digging tools as they harvested the good roots and bulbs. But I suspect these grazing lands are more than rife with exotic grasses imported for the purpose or accidentally introduced along with the cattle by the Spanish.

However, my weekend at Punto de Los Tres Reyes - so named by the Spanish Vizcaino expedition that passed by on that festive day - was spent in wilder areas that retain more of the amazing coastal prairie habitat. It's prettier in spring, but I enjoyed the play of light over cliffs and sculptural dun-colored hills.

Point Reyes, as it's known today, is just up the coast from San Francisco, and an amazing place to hike. Go to the park service web site for more on visiting Point Reyes National Seashore. When you go, be sure to take in the amazing lighthouse with its well-oiled clockwork mechanism and faceted Fresnel lens.

I was there for a birthday treat - a weekend writers' retreat called On the Edge, offered by Santa CRuz writer Sarah Rabkin, and hosted by Point Reyes Field Institute. We stayed at the 1927 lifeboat station - it was fantastic. I'll go farther - it was bloody fantastic.

The environment for me was very fruitful, given my maritime family background -  I spent a lot of time on ships and in the dock lands as a child. More than my teachers were happy about, in fact.

I loved the building, the old life boat, and the room we met in, creamy and comforting and old-fashioned.

Sarah would give us various writing prompts and we'd loose our pens on them for five to twenty minutes. She'd read us some juicy quotes and passages - then maybe we'd share what we wrote. Then we'd go outside for some nice long breaks to mingle or be single and experience the place.

(Above - me at dawn in my favorite sitting place, sipping my favorite caffeinated beverage.)

The hills were alive with the flashing wings and songs of the tiny white crowned sparrows, like this little fellow -

On a walk up the road, I had to fight my way past a bunch of birders, barnacled with cameras and weighted down with zoom lenses out of all proportion, like those crabs with one huge claw. Those enormous optics made them seem avaricious for sightings more than simply curious about the natural world. (Can you taste those sour grapes - pure and simple lens envy!)

Set into a garden wall bordering a set of steps that lead up to a park ranger residence, I found this plaque, tucked away. I will leave it to speak for itself, and merely share my sigh.


BTW e clampus vitus is meaningless dog Latin. It's the name of a group, a bunch of rowdy hard drinking 49ers. They set it up to take the piddle out of other groups forming around that time - gents who got together to do secret-secret stuff and put on a public face of good works and community spirit. But eventually the clampers, too, got worthy, it would seem.

Around the park residences and ancillary buildings, many Monterey cypresses were planted as windbreaks. Monterey cypresses don't exist here natively.

Though in a few hundred or thousand years, who's to say?

There is a possibility that the ponderosa pines that grow in the Scotts Valley sand hills (ten miles or so from my home) and nowhere else outside of the Sierras (I'm told) -- were introduced from the Sierras by native people. The Quiroste band of Ohlone Indians, living around Point Año Nuevo, traded local Monterey chert (used for tools and arrowheads) and olivella shells (used for currency) with tribes in the Sierras where the ponderosa pines are indigenous. Not sure what the Quiroste got in return - other than possibly seeds of ponderosa pines?

There is even a legend that the monterey cypress was brought to California by the Chinese who explored these shores  -- way, way long before Columbus and his ilk came to "take possession" of the land. I read about this legend recently in the very interesting book Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region  by local historian Sandy Lydon.

Another interesting sign I encountered - a Witness Post:

I had never heard of the US national geodetic survey before. Interesting - reference points in the earth. Like pins on a Google map. Witness Post - I like that term. Very poetic.

As far as flora, the Grindelia stricta, gumplant (shown above) were as vibrant as could be. Elsewhere, a lot of dun color and gray-green grasses predominated. With here and there a nice faunal surprise...

Not a tule elk, the above cutie is a black tailed deer, like the sort we see around my place. I did see some elk when driving in, and lots of deer after that. Some stags with impressive racks looked at us writers long and hard - curious and unafraid, wondering perhaps who these latest intruders might be.

The ever-popular elephant seals were slugging it out on the beach...

These two are juvenile males, testing their mettle. Females were taking a different approach to slugging.

But back to the flora. The coyote brush, Baccharis pilularis, grows in a prostrate form here - picture shows male plant on top, female below, if you'll pardon the unavoidable allusion. The plants are dioecious, so their flowers are different, as I've noted in the post, In Praise of Baccharis Pilularis.

The plants above and below? I have no idea what they are. your help welcome.

Below is cow parsnip I think, Heracleum lanatum - nice to know it's native, albeit here there and everywhere. A late grower it seems. I love umbellifers.

And bush lupine growing almost at the shoreline -  Note: Do not plant yellow bush lupine outside of its native central coast habitat! it's invasive.

And interesting ferns, this one looks like very tough sword fern - underside...

And top side...

And of course grasses... I think these are native but who knows? I know that European beach grass is rampant up the coast and I don't know what it looks like.

Oh, I found a photo - it's not the nasty beach grass anyway. Maybe my photo is of Calamagrostis nutkaensis, pacific reed grass?

This link shows a picture of European beach grass at Point Reyes - it's an article talking about this very topic. It's a good article. Cost $400,000 to clear beach grass just from one location - nearby Abbott's lagoon, it says. Heck (or other expletive). Such tasks are monumental.

I was glad to see that ice plant was not prevalent there, and efforts are being made to remove it.

For one exercise Sarah had us head out doors and pick an object - the ocean, some plant, a bit of a building whatever - and focus on it, write about it, or just sit and think about it, for 20 mins. I picked a small grass I recognized from my childhood in Scotland.

The above photo is a snippet from a screenshot of a photo on Flickr, in a set of Point Reyes photos. Hope Mr Campbell will forgive this very minor theft of his IPR. The photo is labeled Point Reyes Grasses and - yes they are at Point Reyes yet they are not of  Point Reyes - I meditated on invasives, and childhood and prettiness. Later Sarah asked us to connect this topic with another she'd had us write about  - something we had found difficulty in resolving - for which I had picked my novel. Well grass and novel - it was a great match for fruitful lateral thinking, as my problematic plot spans the UK and Central California - and I have envisioned a nice scene now involving this seemingly-delicate and pretty little invader - just like one of the characters in the book...

Well, I could go on. I have only about 300 more photos. But - this short post has elongated like drool from a hound dog's jowl. Notice how that writing retreat has oiled my simile engine??

I hope you'll forgive the length of this post - totally failed to heed Elmore Leonard's advice to "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."

If you are local - do go and enjoy a visit to this special place. I'll visit again in spring - when the coastal prairie wildflowers will be coloring up the green hills like - um - like candies spread over a green bag that someone ripped open. No no. Like - uh... oh, I give up for now -- see if you can come up with something better!


Terra said…
This sounds like a useful and reinvigorating writers' retreat location. I like the name of New Albion in the plaque. So Monterey pines are not native to that area, I hadn't thought of that.
Diana Studer said…
green hills. The Mud Maiden at the Lost Gardens of Heligan ...
Judepm said…
I loved this post - thank you for sharing all the details. I agree with you on the id of the grass. From my photo database I think it could be Calamagrostis nutkaensis.
Country Mouse said…
Never heard of the lost gardens of heligan but did locate the mud maiden statue - wonderful! Thanks for that link, and thanks for the ID, and thanks for your interest, commenters!
martha said…
What a beautiful and vivid description of a very special place. Wonderfully done! Thanks for sharing all the parts and not following Elmore's advice (I didn't skip any). Looking forward to your novel!
Country Mouse said…
Thanks, Martha - that's encouraging :-)