Bob Isaacson's Blog

Welcome to this blog. It is basically a collection of stories, letters, essays, reviews, and poems that I have written over the past years, some of which were published in the Santa Barbara Independent and other local publications.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Book for All Seasons: A Flora of Santa Barbara County, by Cliff Smith

Spring Wildflower display, Carrizo Plains, 2010

I was twelve when I first met Clif Smith in 1962. Hearing a rumor about  a small patch of Western Service Berry on our ranch, Clif stopped by numerous times, usually unannounced, and on Sundays, hoping that my mother, who had discovered the tiny, isolated stand of plants, would be able to take him to the precipitous cliffs where she had seen the unusual shrubs flowering. Western Service Berry usually only grows in the upper reaches of the mountainous chaparral country on the north slopes of the coast mountains or far into the back country, in places like the Don Victor Valley. Our ranch, lying in the lowlands of the San Julian Valley between Gaviota and Lompoc, seemed an uncharacteristic site for the plants, and this fact made Clif definitely want to get to the bottom of the rumor. So, one day, he and my mother finally hiked up above the creek into the steep uplands covered with the virtually impenetrable, dense fog belt vegetation of poison oak and other wild vines.  Clif told my mother that he got poison oak, but he climbed up the steep escarpment anyway, determined to get to the plant colony and see it for himself.

Thirty eight years later, I look up "Western Service Berry" in the "Index to Genera" (the place for those of us only familiar with the common names of plants) in the back of Clif's newly published Second Edition of his A Flora of the Santa Barbara Region, California.  I wonder if my mother's discovery of the Western Service Berry's eccentric decision to grow where it wasn't supposed to grow is mentioned, and there it is on page 336: Amelanchier utahensis  Koehne  Western Service Berry.  Along with the various locations in which one would expect to find this plant, Clif also briefly mentions the following detail: "colony on steep rock bank of Hwy 1 near Salsipuedes Creek."  

I am impressed. Those eleven words constitute remarkable  attention to detail. The numerous ninety mile round trips Clif had to make up to our ranch to arrange for  the precipitous expedition, the plowing through the poison oak and brush, the making of the actual observations and finally the recording of the data all culminated in a succinct  phrase about one plant in a volume that covers  some 2000 species of native and introduced plants with equal breadth, exactitude, precision, and loving detail.

A Flora of the Santa Barbara Region, California  is one of the sacred texts. Anyone who lives in Santa Barbara County who lives a life that is grounded in the reality of the natural world that surrounds us must have this book nearby. My wife and I have a tattered first edition. Its cover and pages are worn and faded, stained with the many plants we have pressed between its pages on expeditions to Cottonwood Canyon in the Cuyama, the Carrizo Plains, Rose Valley in the Upper Sespe, Figueroa Mountain, Nyra, the Honda Coast and Point Arguello, the Guadalupe Dunes, or the hills of our own ranch, all places that Clif has visited long before us.  My wife, who came from County Wicklow, Ireland,  loves to discover green ferns in the shaded canyons of this otherwise sun-baked landscape. Some of these ferns are relics of the understory of the redwood forests that once covered this area. To find one of the ferns is to be in a small spot where the passage of time has strangely ceased to matter.  Clif describes another fern, the Giant Chain Fern, with the following entry: "Colonies frequent in boggy places, usually about permanent springs along streams in shaded canyons on south and north slopes of Santa Ynez Mtns. to lower San Antonio Creek, Mission La Purisima ... Beautiful evergreen fern, to about six feet. " A Giant Chain Fern, growing six feet tall, -- discovering one of those unexpectedly on a hike can make an ordinary  day utterly unique,  worthwhile,  forever memorable.  

Another of our favorites is "Chlorogalum pomeridianum ... Soap Plant, Amole." It is a very common plant. When I was a very little boy, a Rancho San Julian vaquero told me one of the plants was the very end of a cow's tail sticking out of the ground after the cow had been buried by a landslide. The brown, furry hair-like fibers covering the bulb of the Amole plant fooled me, and for years afterwards I told people of the bizarre event.  

Of the Amole, Clif writes, "To six feet, with small whitish flowers that open in late afternoon, wavy edged leaves and bulbs with a coarse coat of fibers, scattered about open woodland, sandy fields, and openings in chaparral, especially after burns along coast ... Bulbs used by Chumash as a source of soap, hair dressing, fish poison and fiber."
Wherever appropriate, Clif is certain to mention the uses of the plant in the Chumash culture-- Brodiaea: "Bulbs eaten raw or roasted  by Chumash"; Western Bracken: "Chumash used fronds for house thatching and to cover food being roasted in ovens"; or Indian Rush: " The Chumash used this plant and other Juncus species for sewing strands and foundations in their beautiful coiled baskets, mats, brooms, headdresses, etc." In fact, Clif has dedicated the book not only to the memory of three of the major botanists who had worked before him in the cataloging of the area's plants but also, of course, to "the Chumash people."  

A Flora of the Santa Barbara Region, California,  also includes all of the numerous alien invaders, the exotic weeds and plants escaped into the wild, such as Pampas Grass, most of the annual grasses, and the mustard that turns our vacant lots yellow in the spring. Few of these invasive weeds are admired by botanists: Clif says of Pampas Grass, for example, "The species is out of control on Vandenberg AFB (Burton Mesa, in canyons, etc.) and is a threat to native flora..." Of the Black Mustard, Brassica nigra, Clif writes a very disapproving entry: " European Annual, sometimes to 10 and 12 ft., early introduced, probably in the Mission Period, 1769-1824; ... Many native plants are conspicuously absent about mustard fields, due to the toxic effect of the plant's chemicals that leach into the soil."  

Clif's entries often link botanical history with human history. One of my wife's favorite plants to harvest for salads, Water Cress, proves to be yet another invader from Western Civilization: "Aquatic European perennial, now considered native, commonly scattered about slow moving creeks and marshes." Yet Clif adds a note of historical ambiguity to the entry, wondering if this could be the plant described by Padre Juan Crespi, who was on the first land expedition with Portola in 1769,  as growing in San Luis Obispo Country.

Throughout his descriptions of plants and their habitats, Clif's precise prose abounds in "found poetry", small moments of elegant, illuminating phrasing. For example, I love his entry of one of our favorite shrubs, the Pink-Flowering Currant, with its elegant mixture of Spanish and ancient Chumash place names: "Shrub 3-9 ft. in canyons of Canada del Corral near Refugio Pass and Arroyo El Bulito to the west; scattered from north slopes of Santa Ynez Mtns, above Canada del Cojo to about creeks in cool canyons of San Julian area, Santa Rosa Hills?, Jualachichi Summit, Tranqullion Mtn., Canada Honda Creek, and in moist hollows of dunes on Nipomo Mesa."  

These days, it seems that very few people know where any of these places are. Whenever I mention an amazing place like Tranquillon Mountain or the Jualachichi to people, even people that live in Lompoc,  their faces usually go blank. But that is just as well. These are the sacred places, places where Tanbark Oaks, Sword Fern, Wild Strawberry, Huckleberry, and Salal grow safe and undisturbed, and those places mentioned in the above entry are well hidden, protected by "No Trespassing" signs on private ranches or Federal land. I know that we are vigilant in keeping a close eye on the small group of Pink-Flowering Currants we have found growing on my family's ranch in the San Julian area.

While about one-half of Santa Barbara County is public land, the Los Padres National Forest, an area that Clif could explore thoroughly without restrictions, Clif also knows nearly all there is to know about most of the privately owned regions as well. The reason for this is because Clif and his work were so highly respected by area ranchers like Al and Russ Vail, Nan Russell, Jeanette Sainz, Jake Kittle, Hubbard Russell, Jr., Thomas Dibblee, Jr. (who has also written a valuable section of the book's introduction on the influence of geology on vegetation), Dibblee Poett,  Gertrude Reyes, Cary Stanton, Ernest C. Twisselman, and my own parents, Baine and Esther Isaacson, when he first began A Flora of the Santa Barbara Region, California, and by still more in the second edition, such as Eric Hvolboll, Paul Huebner, Michael Benedict, and Jane Hollister Wheelright. Clif's book stands as important testimony to the high value numerous local ranchers and other private property owners place on the unique botanical resources of their land.

Clif Smith's remarkable book is subtitled "An annotated catalog of the native, naturalized, and adventive vascular plants of mainland Santa Barbara County, adjacent related areas, and four nearby Channel Islands." A Flora of the Santa Barbara Region, California  is literally the work of a lifetime, for Clif has spent the last fifty years gathering and detailing the information. In fact, during some thirty years of his life, he actually worked seven days a week at the Museum of Natural History and out in the field on jeep, horse, and hiking trips, gathering the knowledge that is now contained in this book.

Would we all be so fortunate to have led a life so focused on doing what we love each day, doing it so very well,  and then having all of the extraordinary knowledge we have gained published in a single, brilliant book. I envy Clif and his carer. He is a fortunate man. Few individuals will ever have the opportunity to lead such a fulfilled life.  

A Flora of the Santa Barbara Region, California  offers a concentrated treasure house of valuable knowledge, the sort of knowledge that goes far beyond the specialized interests of a few academic botanists. The poet Gary Snyder tells us "to learn the plants." He hopes that in so doing we can reconnect in an ancient and simple way to the amazing and miraculous natural world that most of us scarcely know that we inhabit. Clif's book offers us much of what is required to begin living such a meaningful life in this rare corner of California, this unique region of harsh natural contrasts and extraordinarily subtle and fragile beauty.

The vast, detailed knowledge about our green and golden world that Clif has gathered in his book can help us to broaden and deepen our sensibilities and perhaps help us to achieve a certain coherence, the coherence of living with and ultimately deeply valuing a sense of place. We need to reassociate our sensibilities with where we live. That is a first step. Like our County's rare Sword Fern, a botanical relic that has managed here to outlive the vast redwood trees that once shaded it, maybe we too can find a way to survive the catastrophic changes much of the rest of our state is undergoing. Taking Clif's book along with you in your own search for the sacred places is a damn good place to start.