Vibrant Jellies at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

My first visit to Monterey Bay Aquarium inspired me to become a biologist someday.  My mother and I ventured there on a road trip together when I was 16 years old; we camped in the area and visited the aquarium and the nearby university in Santa Cruz.  Soon I plan on moving there so that I may actualize that dream.

This visit to the aquarium was Phoebe’s first.  While she gasped at the organisms found in the kelp forest tank, a kind older man commented: “It’s so nice to experience the aquarium from a child’s perspective.”  Neither Matthew or I could manage to pause very long to take photos because she was on the run viewing the many exhibits, weaving through the crowd in the dark hallways.  Her enthusiasm was infectious, though , so we didn’t mind exploring the aquarium as if it were a labyrinth, visiting many exhibits more than once.

Ripening Avocados on Gridley Trail, Ojai

Gridley trail is close to home yet provides me with a perfect sense of seclusion and serenity.  It’s amazing how close the perfect getaway can be.  The desire to find a peaceful haven begins at such an early age; I can’t imagine a child anywhere in the world who hasn’t tried to construct a fort with whatever resources available to try to get away from it all.

I still try to escape the world of grownups.  My years of work as a preschool teacher allowed me to go back in time by listening carefully to the thought processes of developing minds, softening the mistaken constructs I have formed as an adult and helping me return to a more open, imaginative state.  I take this mindset with me into the mountains where I look, listen and feel with my heart.

Here’s what I found today:

 

Thank you, Uncle John, for the new camera.  Your gentle heart and generous spirit never cease to amaze me.

Picturesque Californian Culture at San Simeon Beach, Cambria

Today I saw Californian culture at its finest.  I can’t tell you what the “California Dream” is because I’ve always been a Californian and that’s like asking a fish to tell you about water, but I can describe the moments that make me the most proud and happy to be a native to this state.

When Phoebe and I arrived at San Simeon Beach in Cambria, we were dressed in our usual attire of sun dresses, flip-flops and sunglasses.  To beat the chill of the sea breeze, I donned a light sweater and helped Phoebe into a  wind-breaker jacket.  I noticed others dressed this way, too: sporting shorts and sandals with fleece jackets.  The odd mismatch that is sensible to Californians is what differentiates us from tourists sometimes.

As we climbed down the weathered wooden staircase, I saw an idyllic scene: small children, older children and teenagers playing together with driftwood, arranging it into benches, bridges and tee-pee’s…  There were kids and adults surfing, boogie-boarding and wake-boarding.  People wore rolled-up jeans and wet suits.  No one was there to work on their tan or flaunt their progress at the gym.  Older couples held hands and leaned on each other as they sat on the driftwood and watched the waves.  Kids ran together with their shaggy, feathered hair peeking out of their beanies.  Everyone appeared calm, happy and patient.  I heard moms calling across the sand to kids with names like “Zooey” and “Cyrus”…as in “Zooey!  ZOE-ZOE!  Do you have to go POTTY?  There’s a POTTY up THERE!”  Some of the children scaled the rock formations that lined the beach and the adults nearby looked out for them, letting them know when they might not be safe.  One lone adult pulled out a reading book that he’d wrapped in a bag to keep it safe from the sand.  A little girl ran to her mother who swung her around joyfully.

Phoebe and I marveled at the monstrously large seaweed and explored the rocks and giant driftwood logs.  Then we played hide and seek among the cypress trees.  One day, it won’t be as easy as squealing “Oh my gosh, I found you!” to fill Phoebe with glee, but for now she’s just three years old, and we’ll play hide-and-seek as much as she likes.

How would you describe an idyllic scene at the place you call home?

Oodles of Abalone at Gaviota State Beach, Gaviota

On Phoebe’s bookshelf rests a red box with a flower print lid; inside are her treasures from past outdoor adventures.  From time to time, she gently takes out each specimen, arranges them in a row and examines them with her magnifying glass.  Today, she asked me sweetly, “Mommy, can we gather more sea shells for my collection?”  After an hour of the usual hustle and bustle to get out the door, we were driving up Hwy  101 past Santa Barbara on our way to Gaviota State Beach.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by a gregarious park ranger who gladly showered me with pamphlets about the natural history of this beach and a few others nearby.   He suggested some hiking trails and told me about a 95-degree hot spring in the area.  I listened and visualized his directions for future reference, but today was a day for shells.   When I venture out with Phoebe, I strive for simplicity.

The ranger informed me that the beach was named “Gaviota” after a seagull killed by soldiers on an 18th century sailing voyage to find the port of Monterey.  I wondered what could be so spectacular about the death of a bird that it would inspire someone to name a place after it.  Looking through the pamphlet, I saw a surprising number of habitats listed: oak woodlands, grasslands, chaparral, riparian, freshwater aquatic, freshwater marshes, coastal strand, coastal salt marsh and marine. (1)  Sixteen of the wildlife species and six of the plant species that occur in the area are threatened or endangered. (2)

Incidentally, I came across the website of an organization called the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County which states, “Guarding against over-development of this last rural stretch of coastal Southern California is our biggest challenge.” (3)

After changing into our swim suits and slathering on sunscreen,  we walked under the railroad trestle and out on to the pier.  There, we were treated to a nice view of the beach on one side and rugged rock formations on the other.

The sediment is a part of the active Santa Ynez fault and was uplifted approximately 5 million years ago during the Miocene epoch. (4)

A friendly stranger offered to take our photo before we headed down to the sand.

I became a bit distracted with snapping photos of wildflowers before Phoebe tore me away to fulfill our intended purpose.

There was little variety of shells to be found in the area we settled in, but what we lacked in diversity we made up for in quantity, unearthing dozens of shiny blue abalone shells.   One piece featured a spectacular blend of colors and had a natural hole in it, perfect for use as a necklace pendant.   I fell in love with it and tucked it away in my beach bag.  That was the only shell that ended up coming home with us; Phoebe was happy to use the rest to decorate the sand castles she dreamed would be permanent.

Abalone

What was is your favorite “treasure” found in nature?

 

Sources:

(1)    http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/606/files/gaviota.pdf

(2)    http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/980/files/GCT-DMND-part1.pdf

(3)    http://www.sblandtrust.org/gaviotacoast.html

(4)    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Ynez_Mountains

Shadows of Sage Brush in Jacinto Reyes, Ojai

Highway 33 facing West, at Northern border of the Los Padres National Forest.

The mountains of the Los Padres National Forest have a gentle, sloping allure.  The dry, crumbling edges and petite chaparral growth reveal their curvature like a human body at rest.  When I was a child, I imagined they were the backs of benign, sleeping monsters that watched over the valley.  This transverse range is on an East/West axis; the peaks offer the promise of adventure to the north and the delights of the ocean to the south.

On days when the air feels hot and still, I like to travel up the Maricopa Highway (Hwy 33) to higher elevations where the breeze travels through the canyons.  The Ojai Valley lies at an elevation of 746 feet and the highway reaches a pinnacle summit of 5,160 ft at Pine Mountain.  This 38 miles stretch of highway is called the Jacinto Reyes Scenic Byway.  “The unique geology, geomorphology, plant and animal life of the area capture the interest of the casual recreationists and the scientist alike.” — the USDA Forest Service.

Phoebe and I paused at several vista points to take photos.  For the first time, she used my camera to practice her skills as well.  Where the cliffs were steep, Phoebe wore a harness backpack with a tether wrapped around my wrist.  If it helps keep the child safe, such as in crowded places or at the edge of a mountain, then I am entirely in support of the use of a “leash” by parents, as long as there is plenty of other opportunities for exploration.

This peaceful and secluded spot alongside the highway was great for exploration but we only stayed for about 15 minutes because there were no other people present except for the few drivers that whizzed by every 15 minutes or so.  For the sake of safety, I choose to hike in places where I will encounter another hiker every 5-10 minutes.  I told Phoebe, “Hold my hand so the mountain lion won’t get you,” since it is advised that small children stay within 5 feet of adults.

An Article from ABC News dated Jul 3, 2012 states that there have been only 15 mountain lion attacks in California since 1890, 6 of which were fatal.  The article quotes department of Fish and Game representative Patrick Foy as saying, “Clearly this is a very, very rare occurrence.  You’re more likely to be attacked by a domestic dog or to be struck by lightning than you are to be attacked by a mountain lion.”  You can read the article here.

Another great website regarding mountain lion safety from the Mountain Lion Foundation can be found here.

After administering this warning to Phoebe, I was surprised by how calmly she responded, reflexively holding my hand with no change in expression.  In her mind, perhaps the world is full of lions and other dangers to which holding mom’s hand is the natural, fail-safe solution.  Phoebe didn’t hold my hand the entire time, however, but stayed in my “bubble” of safety.

Another reason to keep young children near is the danger of rattle snakes.  Adults can help check the path and behind rocks for these residents of the mountains before children forge ahead.  Rattlesnakes usually give warning to back away before striking, so it’s important to have an adult close by to ensure that the child understands and responds to these cues.

We ventured a little farther to the northern border of the Los Padres Forest where we gazed at the bed of the seasonally dry Cuyama River.  The patterns etched by wind and water and undisturbed by months of dry weather are immeasurably soothing.

Beyond the river are a few farms, and a few more miles down the road is the tiny community of Ventucopa.  The residents of Ventucopa must travel a little more than an hour to the nearest city (and nearest hospital for that matter!), so the agricultural developments seem particularly secluded and peaceful, if not downright miraculous in a land where water for irrigation is not cheap or easy to come by.

Phoebe loved using the camera, but she was more interested in taking photos of mommy than the scenery!

Pelican Feathers at Schoolhouse Beach, Ventura

During a heat wave, the residents of Ojai have the fortunate option of winding down through the mountains to the shore, where the temperature drops by as much as twenty degrees.  The drive takes twenty minutes, which provides just enough time to relax and clear your mind without feeling cumbersome.

A few days ago, Phoebe came home from preschool touting a long, slender black feather that she had found in the play yard– probably from a turkey vulture.  This prompted me to ask her if she would like to search for feathers at the beach.  She was greatly enthused by the idea.

I decided upon schoolhouse beach, a nice neighborhood beach in the Pierpont neighborhood of Ventura.  Finding free parking anywhere near the beaches on the weekends is chancy, so I was lucky to find a spot along the road in short walking distance of the sand.  The informal name of the beach is due to the local elementary school that is right on the shore.

Choosing a neighborhood beach has the nice advantages of:

  • free parking
  • less crowding
  • more surprises to be found on the shore before someone else scoops them up

The disadvantages:

  • it takes a bit of effort to find a nearby restroom.  If Phoebe were to tell me she needs to go potty, I would either have to walk about 10 minutes across the wide, sandy beach with her or drive a few minutes to use the restroom of the nearby Vons grocery store.  With a bit of forethought, this isn’t much of a problem
  • no lifeguard on duty

Upon arrival, we left our sandals and Phoebe’s stuffed kitty by the stone wall separating the sand from the asphalt, since I didn’t intend on planting ourselves anywhere along the beach.  I became quickly distracted with a swath of sand covered in small stones.  The tide would have had to have reached unusually far to deposit those stones there.  I wanted to show Phoebe the myriad colors and striations of these, but she was more interested in the two little girls she spotted building a castle a few yards away.  I gave her permission to join them and collected bits of seaweed  myself in small containers, hoping she would examine them later with her magnifying glass and add them to her science collection.  Glancing at the parents of Phoebe’s new playmates, we exchanged polite smiles of social approval.

After a little while, Phoebe joined me among the clumps of seaweed and examined some unusually bright pink pieces with a magnifying glass and a smooth piece of driftwood.  The color for seaweed that commonly drifts on to the shore is bright green or brown… sometimes a deep red.  Every time I glanced up, I saw the few families around us watching.  Everyone has a natural curiosity to explore our environment.  How many of us feel free to do so?  A little boy ran up and asked what we were looking at.  I responded, “See how pink this is?  What do you think this is?”  He gave his opinion and ran off again.

I asked Phoebe if she would like to walk with me up the shore and she followed.  I began spotting large brown feathers among the sand which look to have come from pelicans.  We gathered several and placed them in the large plastic bag, one of which was so long that it stuck out the top of the backpack.  I pointed out some sand pipers on the other side of the jetty rocks and then suggested we head back.  From that point on, Phoebe was struck with awe by every stone she came across.  I was concerned that we had insufficient sunscreen coverage by that point, but appreciated that she was learning the lesson I wished to instill: to observe and marvel at her surroundings.  Eventually we returned to the road and found Phoebe’s stuffed kitty safely where we left her, guarding our sandals.

Pelican feathers arranged in terra cotta plants at home.