“Fortunately, the task of preparing this volume has been carried on by those who have had the feeling that a piece of work must be done, but who also have had a purpose to make it reveal beauty and exude the historical atmosphere of the region with which it is concerned.”

—Santa Barbara: A Guide to the Channel City and Its Environs (1941)

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Fossil Redwood Stump, Florissant Colorado

A 34 million-year-old fossil redwood stump at Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument in Colorado.

In Colorado for a spell I found myself finding my way through forested lands I had never seen to see stone redwood trees.

What little remnants remained of the long-ago plundered fossil beds had been protected in perpetuity thanks in no small part to the actions of a few leading women and there was something of a little story behind their efforts.

Estella E. Leopold, daughter of Aldo, helped to save the Florissant fossil bed from housing development in 1969.

Leopold was backed by a number of women activists including children who were determined to physically stand in the way of the builders.

“I went right out and had my hair fixed, put on my pearls and high heels,” Vim Wright said. “I thought no self-respecting bulldozer driver would run over a woman in pearls and high heels.”

“For 34 million years, nature had preserved pollen, trees, birds, insects, fish, and other creatures there in some of the most beautiful fossils and famous fossil beds in America. Yet developers were preparing to destroy it in a single season for summer homes. The injustice and potential loss impassioned Estella, and she was determined to get the area legally protected as a national monument. To this end, she helped found the Defenders of Florissant group with botanist Beatrice Willard.

The Defender’s awakened enough moral and public pressure to force the hand of the Nixon administration. Estella Leopold gave her impassioned plea to the Senate in 1969:

‘Today when the new society is tossing out remnants of past cultural patterns, it may seem unpopular to bother saving a priceless scientific field library like the Florissant paper shales with all of their fine print. But I ask you, how can a man keep a perspective on his direction and life’s path if he loses track of the routes that life has followed before him? How can man evaluate his planetary environment and finalize his historic place in it if he does not keep and cherish a few touchstones with the past? When we have studied the moon, will we throw it away?’

Following this, President Nixon signed the fossil beds into the 6,000 acre Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument.”

–Marybeth Lorbiecki A Fierce Green Fire: Aldo Leopold’s Life and Legacy (2016)

Estella E. Leopold: Paleoecologist and Conservationist by Susan Flader

Violet “Vim” Crane Wright by Elise Fogel

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Ancient Artifact: Eccentric Chipped Stone Crescent

Orr recalls only surface finds of crescents in the Santa Barbara area of California. He states that crescents have been found in late sites but feels they are early intrusive crescents brought in by the late inhabitants of the sites. In referring to the Santa Barbara area, Orr suggests a late date for crescents of 5,000 B.C. and an early period of perhaps 7,000 B.C.”

–W. Lewis Tadlock, “Certain Crescentic Stone Objects as a Time Marker in the Western United States,” American Antiquity (1966)

“Over the years, there has been considerable interest among archaeologists in the distribution, function, and chronology of chipped stone crescents in California and the western United States.

Questions about their chronology and function have yet to be fully resolved, but such crescents are widely considered to be Early Holocene or terminal Pleistocene time markers.

More than a thousand crescents have been identified from California archaeological sites, but a relatively small percentage have zoomorphic attributes, including a rare ‘bear-shaped’ specimen now listed as California’s official prehistoric artifact.”

“Crescents have been found on the surface in or near several low-density shell middens on eastern San Miguel Island dated to the terminal Pleistocene, between about 12,000 and 11,400 cal B.P.”

–Jon Erlandson, “In Search of White Bear: An Eccentric Crescent from Sudden Ranch” (2011)

I stumbled across this chipped stone artifact while hiking the mountains. A surface find in Los Padres National Forest. It might be exceptionally old. Like 10,000 years old. It might be rare or uncommon. It’s something other than the common arrowhead.

The tiny piece of stonecraft appears nearly complete, but not fully intact.

My eleven-year old daughter said it looked like a bear as soon as she saw it. The way in which it broke may perhaps accentuate its bearlike form when viewed from certain angles.

Yet I imagine when complete, as suggested by photos of similar artifacts, its eccentric bearish appearance was no less remarkable, if it wasn’t even more pronounced.

That it may sort of look like a bear could be meaningless to the artifact’s original purpose.

Chipped stone crescents vary in form from lunate to winged to erratic. Zoomorphic or bear-shaped specimens are among the least common.

Ideas about what purpose the various crescents may have served range from ritual practices to utilitarian use; from effigies and amulets to scrapers, blades and transverse arrowheads used for hunting birds.

Crescents tend to be associated with coastal environments and lakes and wetlands. Many have been found on San Miguel Island in Channel Islands National Park in Santa Barbara County.

In comparing this broken specimen with those detailed by Erlandson it appears more similar than different. He describes and shows a photo of a white bear crescent found in northern Santa Barbara County in the 1930s, once kept at the Lompoc Museum.

“This specimen is of considerable historical interest as the first ‘bear-shaped’ crescent described from California,” Erlandson writes, “and one of the few bear-like crescents documented in the Far West.”

A different white bear crescent found at a Santa Barbara County site on Vandenberg Air Force base in 1997 was dated to well over 8,000 years ago.

The general timeframe crescents are associated with ranges from about 12,000 to 7,000 years ago. These artifacts are prehistoric, from the Stone Age.

I have no way to date the artifact I found.

But if for fun we go with the oldest known dates in the terminal Pleistocene, then just maybe the human who crafted this artifact had also seen mastodons and saber-toothed cats.

Maybe they had seen giant short-faced bears that stood six feet tall at the shoulder, could reach 15 feet in the air and weighed fifteen-hundred pounds or more.

Maybe that’s the bear this artifact was meant to immortalize.

In the land known today as Los Padres National Forest.

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Mastodon & Mammoth Sign: Reading Trees In the Santa Ynez Mountains

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Condor Man

Sespe Wilderness

The condor soared for hours on its nine-and-a-half-foot wing. The great vulture had drifted one hundred miles without a single flap floating on plumes of heat blowing skyward, the radiant land shimmering under the sun far below like a skillet in a broiler.

The condor spotted a body near a creek. A prostrate figure in the mottled shade of sycamore and cottonwood trees.

The giant bird banked a fluid turn grabbing the sky with wingtip flight feathers eighteen inches long and trailing them through the hot air for stability like a surfer dragging fingers across a wave. 

The man sprawled on the ground to cool beside the creek. Water-worn gravel in the shade of trees held the chill of night into late morning and the cold stones pressed like ice cubes against his hot cheek skin and the tender undersides of his soft forearms.

An intermittent breeze ebbed and flowed through the canyon and whooshed through the trees rattling the leaves in sudden eruptive bursts of applause from those thousands of tiny paper palms.

Then stillness and the bloom of quiet again but for the susurrant riffle of water through creek stones.

The man opened his eyes, resting on belly and face, bare palms pressed against the cold gravel. The world lay sideways. A riparian tangle of branches and leaves and vines and bushes and towering columns of wood jutting from the sandstone riprap of the creek bed.

The air smelled alive, muddy and green. A thick and heavy organic fragrance, rich and full-bodied, like the black mud of a lake bottom or a rocky beach at low tide.

The man bathed in the fertile backcountry air as if soaking in a hot spring.

He sucked in mouthfuls, chomping his jaws and smacking his tongue against the roof of his mouth, tasting of the forest, the air laden and thick through his nose and mouth.

If only he could jar the air, take it home, and once in awhile crack the lid for a whiff to remind him of what that other world out there smelled like, beyond the end of the road and free of the fences, outside the urban cage, in the way out.

Vapid city air was dead by comparison. When the city didn’t reek of exhaust or some varietal of industrial effluent the air smelled of nothing at all.

On occasion Santa Ana winds swept the interior scrublands and blew the herbal aroma of chaparral into town. Sometimes the sweet gassy fragrance of natural seep bitumen from Coal Oil Point wafted in on the Pacific sea breeze and could be smelled all the way across the littoral plain to the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Three or four rainstorms a year moistened things enough in town to tease out some trace of natural fragrance on occasion, from the creek corridors and other green cracks where that bit of wild remained between the city hardscape and the buildings and homes and roads and parking lots and sidewalks.

But otherwise the city air smelled of nothing, nothing at all.

The man rolled onto his back to see the sky and wallowed himself into the cold stones, laying spread-eagle with lips cracked and eyes locked in a distant gaze.

A tiny dark smudge materialized out of nowhere appearing on the otherwise spotless blue dome overhead. The man blinked his eyes thinking the fuzzy spot was an eye floater.

The smudge solidified into a definite black dot. The man watched the dot slide through the depthless blue sea and grow into the form of a bird that settled into a circular orbit directly above him. The man laid still as a plank watching the condor watch him.

The anthropoid sprawled on the canyon floor near tall trees. The still body was obscured in broken and shifting indigo shadows that fluttered with tremulous splotches of honey-hued sunlight shot through the breeze-blown leaves.

The great vulture circled steady and stable with wings locked, riding a thermal, a solar glider, always falling toward earth but descending at a slower rate than the hot air was rising, and so held aloft indefinitely with minimal effort.

The condor cast its inspective gaze upon the man far below and the forested earth and cloudless sky reflected as an entire world in miniature in the glassy sphere of the great vulture’s beady eye, as if all that ever was in the world and all that ever might be were found therein, the story of all life itself held in that glistening crystal ball.

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Lion’s Mane, the Smart Mushroom

“H. erinaceus can be considered as useful therapeutic agents in the management and/or treatment of neurodegeneration diseases.”

A comprehensive review of the therapeutic effects of Hericium erinaceus in neurodegenerative disease (2014)

“Hericium erinaceus, an edible and medicinal mushroom, displays various pharmacological activities in the prevention of dementia in conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.”

The Neuroprotective Properties of Hericium erinaceus (2016)

“Moreover, results have indicated that administration of H. erinaceus mycelia enriched with its active compounds can promote functional recovery and enhance nerve regeneration in rats with neuropathic pain or presbycusis.”

Neurohealth Properties of Hericium erinaceus Mycelia Enriched with Erinacines (2018)

Adventures in wonderland. It sounds like the stuff of storybooks. A mushroom growing in the forest that when eaten makes you smarter. A wild nootropic sprouting from the nooks of trees, elusive in its singularity and fleeting appearance. In the magical land of the Los Padres.

The lion’s mane mushroom may preserve and expand cognitive function and enhance memory, and not just slow the onset of mild brain damage caused by certain diseases, but reverse and repair the damage.

In this particular mushroom may grow the phenomenal potential to combat cognitive decline as we age.

A pinch out of a lion’s mane mushroom found by my eight-year-old daughter on December 19 revealed pristine white flesh and a fruitful fragrance, despite the outer browning from no rain and low humidity. This mushroom was found on a tree standing all alone in a dry, sunblasted field of brown grass.

The first flush of hericiums I saw this season came in October following a number of days of high humidity and occult precipitation, which swept in with the morning marine layer. The trees dripped rainwater.

These conditions happen to immediately follow the Forest Service’s emergency decree closing the entirety of the Los Padres National Forest due to dry conditions and extreme fire danger.

Again a month or so later similar conditions triggered another minor flush. The precipitation was meager or unmeasurable on most rain gauges, as the County’s webpages reflect. Several mushrooms I saw did hardly more than sprout before browning and withering in this dry La Niña winter.

The precipitation was spotty throughout the land leaving only swaths and select pockets of the forest moistened while most other areas remained dry. ‘Twas just a sneeze.

Yet where it fell the heavy misting was enough and in a few select places choice mushrooms could be harvested and brought to table. In the magical land of the Los Padres.

Renowned mycologist Paul Stamets offers a novel idea to be explored. What has been dubbed the Stamet’s Stack.

He suggests microdosing psilocybin with lion’s mane and adding niacin to drive the medicinal benefits of both mushrooms to the farthest recess of the body, where neurodegeneration often first manifests, such as the finger tips.

Stamets, wearing a hat made from a mushroom, as quoted from the video below:

“I, personally, would love to see it legal to stack them both together. Stacking psilocybin with lion’s mane and combining it with vitamin B3, niacin. . .The advantage is, and this is hypothetical, but is something I think is well worth testing, is that niacin can help drive the neurogenic benefits of psilocybin and erinacines [lion’s mane] to the end of the peripheral nervous system.”

Research of the medicinal benefits of pysilocybin or “magic mushrooms” has recently taken on new found legitimacy with the opening of the Psychedelic Research Center at Johns Hopkins.

 First-of-Its Kind Psychedelic Research Center Debuts at Johns Hopkins.

On another front, David Bronner, of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap fame and fortune, has been bankrolling efforts to legalize pysilocybin mushrooms in several states such as Oregon.

“Dr. Bronner’s soap company was a major financial supporter of the measure, donating more than $1 million directly and providing most of the money behind a political committee that gave another $1.5 million.”

Oregon becomes first state to legalize psychedelic mushrooms

Bronner says he hopes to have an initiative on the ballot in California in coming years.

“Next up for psilocybin legalization, Bronner says, is Washington state in 2022. Then, in 2024, maybe California and Colorado, cash willing.”

How COVID-19 Is Helping Bankroll Magic Mushroom Legalization

The future of fungus for medicinal purposes looks promising.

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Lion’s Mane Mushroom, Pom Pom Blanc

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A summer morning in the Santa Barbara backcountry.

Weigh your counsel, Priest, he said. We are all here together. Yonder sun is like the eye of God and we will cook impartially upon this great siliceous griddle I do assure you.

–The judge in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

I stagger deeper into the chaparral wilderness listening to the rhythm of the fuzzy systolic blood-gushing beat pounding in my skull like a kick drum and I gauge by the pace of the muscled pump how far to push into the sere wastes any longer before pulling up short for critical rest.

I find little shade when I need it. I claw into the shadows of greasewood and mountain mahogany and ceanothus, scrunching up in the fetal position trying to dodge the summer sun and the heat, cowering under a bush like a beaten dog hiding from a vicious aggressor.  

The spangled shadows offer little relief. A hot slash of unfiltered sunlight falls across the lower half of one leg and even this much is intolerable. This is no way to rest. This isn’t rest. I must move on. After a brief pause to calm just a bit my throbbing heart and head. 

Deeper into the lurching olive drab slopes, seared and withered by the white hot hole in the sky. Parry. Riposte. Thrust. A step at a time I fight my way over the land and through the forest, struggling to merely walk.

The local weed patch within the Los Padres National Forest.

Shrubs leer in mocking silence. Giant weeds quivering in hot puffs of breeze as if laughing. They bob and weave along the edge of the trail, rocking back and forth like the creepy distortions of clowns in a horror funhouse.

I struggle through the gauntlet under a pack, heavy footed with my jaw clenched and nostrils whooshing, surly and sinewy, dragging my body with trekking poles like a sack of wet canvas.

The shrubs watch the spectacle with amusement, I’m sure. They dance in the hot mountain air rooted in soil so dry I wonder if it hasn’t turned hydrophobic. And they love it.

It’s late June as I hike and no rain has fallen for months and although I don’t know it at the time no rain will fall for another six months, not until the very end of December. The weeds don’t care. I could die here. They thrive.

I lumber on, glistening and beaded in sweat with sticky lips and fingers puffy and swollen from the heat. A freak out of place. “Where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Who cannot remain. Who can barely get by. No better than a weed. The shrubs leer and chuckle.

Trail through weeds and rocks.

I pass between needled clumps of yucca and cross over blistering bare slopes of dry ravel. Hillside fields rattle and ripple in waves of sunroasted wild oats and dried grasses all gleaming in golden buttery hues so brilliant in the fierce sunlight it nearly pains the eye.

The blasted land radiates heat like a wall furnace, trembling and wavering in my vision through squinted lids. The sun sears from above like a broiler and the heated earth bakes from below like a pizza stone. I walk through a cookery of short and long wave radiation.

The ground works as a force multiplier absorbing and radiating the sun’s energy, baking and blow-drying my body at once.

The radiant heat flows in sustained updrafts from the sunhardened ground underfoot like a breeze from a street vent and across the bare trail swiftly rising plumes cast thin fluttering shadows.

Through convection the hot dry airflow heats my body while also drawing water out of it and exacerbating dehydration. I cross the hard packed trail like a strip of beef laid out to jerk.

A lot is said about the wind chill factor. I don’t hear much mentioned about the ground heat factor.

A crab spider on a yellow mariposa lily.

Prickly poppy

I walk through a creekside camp without breaking stride, chin to chest, trekking poles poking earth with gloved hands and shaded eyes on the relentless trail.

Hiking a mountain trail is like playing tennis against a wall. No matter how long you hike, the trail still goes on. “I played a wall once,” Mitch Hedberg said. “They’re ******* relentless!”  

The cool shade of the treed creek pools in the cleft of the canyon, but I resist the lure of its shelter and comfort. I do not stop. And the glare and heat of the dryland furnace comes soon again like a punch in the face as I step from the shelter of the riparian canopy.

I claw my way up the mountainside, a lumbering quadrapod. Some odd sort of bionic beetle with metal poles raking back and forth like spindly insect legs. I feel like a bug scurrying about in search of a rock to hide under. It’s too bright and too hot. 

I hide under a wide brimmed hat chosen half a size too large for that added bit of shelter from the ball of fire in the sky.

A thin stalk of grass between crimped lips teases saliva glands just enough to keep the mouth from going dry.

A kerchief drenched in water and tied around the neck, about the pulsing hot blood pipes of the carotid arteries, for the evaporative cooling effect.

Pant legs rolled up to mid shin for breezy ventilation with each stride and the fly open. Even an open zipper makes a noticeable difference, each stroke of a step working to pump fresh air in and out of the pants and vent heat.

Tactics of mitigation in a battle of thermoregulation, the guerilla marches on through the empire of sun.

From the exposed hot south slope I plunge with great relief into the deep shadows of the mixed forest around the old oak and the massive stone.

The gnarled and knobbed oak has pressed through decades against an enormous sandstone boulder and the tree now grips the monolith with a smooth and rounded woody lip like the foot of a gargantuan garden snail.

I move beyond the boulder and the oak locked in their monumental grappling match, a violent clash held in repose silent and still. The short meander of a seasonal creek has gone dry. Everything looks very dry. The stones in the creek bed appear crusty and without the slightest trace of moisture.

I had seen a half-inch deep pancake of bubbly moss-fringed water holding in a low spot, a moment’s walk back from where I now stand gazing into the dry creek bed. But that’s it at first glance. Foul muck and it’s not enough anyway.

A few bay laurel and oak and sycamore line the creek bed and the deep shadows and cooler temperatures provide relief from the sun and heat, but I need water. Lots of it. Several gallons at least. Clear and clean water. And I find it.

Ded Ted cooling down in a cave.

A weak trickle emerges from a slope of bedrock. The water pools under the trees in a small tank formed by a jumble of rocks and roots and hardpacked mossy soil.

The tank is not readily apparent as I walk up the draw, but sits above eye level, up out of the dry creek bed, at the foot of an otherwise dry cascade. The pool of water is small and relatively hidden.

Hot and sweaty and dehydrated, I’m in need of lots of water presently, more than what little I have on my back, and much more over the next several days. The tank is a marvelous and precious find.

Now I will not have to turn around and hike back so I don’t run out of water. Now I can camp for two nights and take my fill as needed. Here in the comfort of the spaceship oasis in a sea of sun and scrub.

I’ll sleep on a large bench of windblown sand beside a heaving wall of gnarled sandstone, the clean golden grains soft and the deep lithic dust beside the cliff creamy as baby powder under bare feet.

I’ll wander into the bristling wilds for one day choosing my own exploratory adventure off trail into land I’ve never seen, after first having spent several hours in a futile effort searching for a petroglyph.

I will not know where or if I will find water on the day hike away from camp so I will have to fill up at the tank and carry several liters.

I’ll ration water from the start and sip little from my backpack as I hike. The ferocity of the sun and the dryness of the land will dictate much of the day’s excursion.

My thoughts and decisions will largely revolve around not running out of water, avoiding overheating and not getting too dehydrated, with frequent calculations regarding how far and where I can go afoot, way out there, and get back.

Wild gooseberries

I kneel beside the tiny pool and stick the tip of a finger into the gorgeous crystalline wetness, parting the tension of its unctuous surface heavy and oily as a glassy sea and the still water envelopes my swollen finger in a titillating coolness.

I stand over the tank hot and sweaty, wanting to plunge my bald head to the shoulders and cool off and refresh after hours of strenuous hiking in the summer sun. I resist the urge. That the water remains undisturbed and clear, so still and clear, and sweet tasting.

I ladle water from the tank a billy can at a time and I stand in the fluttering shadows of the tremulous trees dousing my hot steamy head, the water splashing and washing over my bare body in cool waves and the breeze coming now and again as a sensuous evaporative blast horripilating my skin and triggering a shiver and suddenly I’m gloriously chilled.

Some shade, a bit of water and a breeze.

Nothing has never felt so enjoyable. 

Something happened along the trail, somewhere. Somehow I passed through the wardrobe and into a wondrous land where nothing is something and something is everything.

I revel in the enormity of the miniscule wallowing in a ridiculous pleasure wildly disproportionate to what measly comforts the wilderness allows and I wonder what little in the city ever offers a human so much.

The tank

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