Nature Notes: At Home Far From Home

The habitat, except for the houses and yards, is occupied by a panoply of different plant associations dominated by two primary ones, chaparral and pine-oak woodlands.

    Last week I wrote from San Francisco, a metropolitan area with an influx of wild animals, including coyotes. Now I am at Nevada City in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas at about 2,500 feet. There is snow on the ground from the once-a-year snow and the temperature hovers at the freezing mark each evening.

    This area was the home of the Maidu Indians, who ended up living and working in Catholic missions typical of the acculturation of the Native Americans throughout California after the Spanish began to settle here. The habitat, except for the houses and yards, is occupied by a panoply of different plant associations dominated by two primary ones, chaparral and pine-oak woodlands. The chaparral — used by both wildlife and domestic farm animals — is a kind of savannah ecotype with grasses and shrubs, especially those belonging to the heath family such as manzanita and madrone, but there are also sumacs, roses, and lots of Asian blackberries. Funny, many of the small trees are easterners like liquid amber and ironwood.

    The chaparral is a fire climax community and runs all the way from northern to southern California in the foothills. It has a long history of burning over by fires started as much by lightning strikes as by human activities. After a fire, it eventually grows back up again, but in a fire’s recent aftermath, it is prone to mudslides and serious erosion during bouts of precipitation. At this moment the grasses are gray from a prolonged drought and there are few wildflowers blooming. California is experiencing a record drought and a drought emergency is about to be declared.

    Nevada City is small and hilly, as is its neighbor Grass Valley, but very lively. There is a trails society just as in East Hampton and Southampton, but here there are as many horses and riders on the trails as hikers and dirt bikers. The association maintains the trails and special pruning care is required so that riders are not hit by overhanging branches.

    I can hear coyotes calling at night, and mountain lion visitations are not uncommon. The black-tailed deer come into yards and cross roads to feed just as deer do on the South Fork. Yes, wild animals are common, as are turkeys and quail, but in the 75 or so miles between here and San Francisco, I spotted nary a road kill. Such a finding is especially odd as this is the rutting season for the deer. Either the drivers are extremely adept at missing wildlife, or wildlife are more savvy here than on Long Island.

    The wild animals here also carry deer ticks of a different species than the East Coast deer tick, but these ticks can carry the same spirochete that causes the same kind of Lyme disease as on eastern Long Island. There are white-footed mice here to serve as reservoirs for the spirochetes just as on Long Island. Oddly, however, there are no reported cases of babesiosis or erlichiosis in the area. Those parasites have yet to hit California in any significant numbers. Also there is not much in the way of chiggers here, but people with chigger bites show up at clinics now and then, so it won’t be long before they are here en masse. The vegetation is perfect for them.

    We have two common native conifers on Long Island, the pitch pine and eastern red cedar. There are at least 15 common conifers here. The most common are statuesque ponderosa pines with reddish scaly bark and digger pines, presumably named after the Digger Indians that occupied part of California, a name given to them by white explorers and settlers. The ponderosa was the name of the ranch in the long-running TV show, “Bonanza.” They are my favorite pines.

    There are also some coast redwoods, lots of western red cedar, Coulter pines with humongous pine cones, lodgepole pines, Douglass firs, two or three other varieties of firs, and the same number of different spruces. The shade produced by these evergreens precludes any groundcover to speak of. You won’t find much in the way of huckleberries or blueberries growing on the needle-covered ground. The soil is red because of the iron content and it is adobe in composition. It could be used to build adobe houses, huts, and the like, as in Mexico and parts of the Southwest — but not here, apparently because there is so much lumber available.

    This was gold country in the days of the forty-niners, and some people still pan for gold recreationally in the nearby Yuba River, a tributary of the American River, which begins on the California-Nevada border and runs all the way downhill and westerly to the coast.

    Lake Tahoe, situated partly in Nevada and partly in California, is an hour and a half away by automobile. The entire foothill area all the way to Lake Tahoe in the Sierras is the Hamptons of Northern California. It is heavily visited in season by San Franciscans, Oaklanders, and the nouveau riche from Silicon Valley. Somehow, even so, it is much more peaceful and tranquil than the South Fork during the summer season and the visitors are very polite on average. My son, Christopher, and his wife, Julie, moved here from Los Angeles with their autistic son and they are as much in love with the area as my wife, Julie, and I are.

    Someday we may retire here, notwithstanding that the Pacific Ocean is a good 70 miles away and my veins are filled with seawater, not blood.