What might be California’s worst natural disaster in the future?

Earthquake, drought, or wildfire come to mind first. Every year, fire threatens to burn up acres of California. Right now, a scorching drought is drying up rivers and lakes across the West. The possibility of an earthquake remains in Californians’ thoughts especially since a “major” one hasn’t happened in some time. Not many people know that in the past, California suffered severe floods from prolonged rains during wet seasons. When I lived in California, the Sacramento Delta, formed by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, and the Russian River north of San Francisco frequently flooded during winter storms. I distinctly recall one January when it rained every day. And California rains pour like a full-force bathroom shower almost all day.

The worst natural disaster for California that climate researchers are predicting is a megaflood, sometime this century, caused by a month-long series of rainstorms. One happened in 1862 and before that, in 1841. San Joaquin Valley became an inland sea and the upper Sacramento River flooded the land for miles, forcing Native Americans to abandon their villages and cutting off Captain John Sutter at Sutter’s Fort for months. Cattle, horses, elk, and deer were stranded on islands surrounded by the rushing water. So many sought refuge on tiny mounds of dry land that some animals were washed away and drowned. In 1815 a flood changed the Los Angeles River’s course. Again in 1825, the seasonal rains flooded the river through marshland and forests and cut a new channel, draining the land all the way to the ocean. A month of storms today might bring feet of rain, enough to flood hundreds of miles of California. A megaflood would displace millions of people, destroy cities and towns, and cost billions to repair. Experts say such a dramatic event is becoming more likely because of global warming.

Why are wild horses dying in the West?

I read in Outdoor Life that in Western states, wild horses and burros are dying due to lack of water and grass for grazing. The same happened often in the nineteenth century in Alta California during droughts. Some of the horses Spanish conquistadors brought to North America escaped into the wild, and with no natural predators and a fast reproduction rate, they multiplied. During dry years the free-roaming horses competed with the ranchos’ cattle that grazed in the hills. Sometimes rancheros organized round-ups to chase the horses farther into the mountains or even to kill them by forcing them to stampede over cliffs. It seems like a drastic, cruel way to control the number of such beautiful animals, especially when you remember how many horses were trained to work for people. They carried riders in saddles around ranches and bareback in circuses. They hauled wagons over prairies and carriages in cities. Knights and soldiers rode war horses into battle. 

A zookeeper/writer friend, PJ Beavan, reminded me in her recent ZooFit blog about how instinctive horses are with people. They can tell a rider’s mood and even reflect it in their own actions. Through my research I learned how well rancho vaqueros and their horses were in tune with one another. They had to be when working with cattle and when so many threats surrounded them in the nineteenth century wilderness of Alta California. The horse was a valuable work animal that learned to hold a rope taut when a steer or a grizzly was lassoed. Their quick reflexes and natural instincts protected many riders from disastrous injuries or death. 

What is the connection between California’s US Route 101 and El Camino Real?

US Route 101 trails along the California coastline from San Diego and beyond the northern California border. As far as San Francisco, it follows much of the same route that the Spanish explorer (conquistador) General Gaspar de Portolá traveled from 1769-1770, when he led an expedition for the Spanish king. The path was labeled El Camino Real, the Royal Road. Franciscan friars trudged along hundreds of miles with the Spanish expedition and started to build a chain of missions in Alta California along El Camino Real, which stretched from Mexico City to the San Francisco Bay. The Royal Road sprouted branches leading east over mountains and desert to Santa Fe, which was also Spanish territory. Spanish and Mexican soldiers, settlers, fur trappers and traders, messengers, Native Americans, and the Richardson family rode along El Camino Real.

Today, Californians and tourists drive US Route 101, never realizing that a good portion lies on the route along which General Portolá guided his expedition. During his explorations, Portolá established the California cities of San Diego and Monterey. He also served as the first governor of Alta California. Of the twenty-one Spanish missions constructed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some have disintegrated, but many people visit those that have been preserved and are still places of worship today.

Where did all the sea otters go?

I read recently that sea otters are being reintroduced into places where they once thrived. Thousands had swarmed around the coves and shoreline of San Francisco Bay where they were hunted for their thick luxurious fur. The indigenous people first took the furs for their winter clothing. When Spain ruled Alta California, the Spanish agreed to allow the Russian navy to anchor in the Bay in winter and bring Aleut hunters from Sitka to trap the animals. The pelts brought high prices and were sought by wealthy Russians for fur coats. Spain and later the Mexican government collected a hefty tax for each pelt. Tax collection for these furs evolved into one of Captain William A. Richardson’s duties.

Sea otters are now protected wildlife. Because their numbers were so reduced, their favorite food, sea urchins, overpopulated the kelp forests along the western North American coast. Without their otter predators, sea urchins devastate their environment and create what biologists label an urchin barren. In Canada, along the coast of British Columbia, sea otters are increasing and so the coastal ecosystem has improved significantly. The kelp forests are rebounding. Otters are now re-entering the Oregon and California coast, not in numbers as they were in the 1800s, but enough to help the ecosystem recuperate.

Emotional Memories of 2021

Over the holidays I recalled many Christmases past celebrated with family, some present, some, sadly, gone. The phrase “Christmas past” moved me to watch the movie “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” It weaves the story about how Charles Dickens suffered through a grueling writing process to pen and publish his now famous novella “A Christmas Carol.” The movie re-enacts Christmases Past, Present, and Future delivering their messages to Scrooge. 

What fascinated me was Dickens’s tortured efforts to write truths and still appeal to his readers. 

In Victorian times workhouses and debtors’ prisons threatened many people, young children were sold on the street as drudges, and most of the public turned a blind eye to the misery. Dickens saw or heard about such things every day as he wandered about London. He collected comments he heard, horrors he observed, even recorded unusual surnames and peoples’ quirks in a notebook he carried. He used what he saw and heard about him in his stories. All this fodder swirled around in his head. In writing his Christmas story, Dickens pointed out all the cruelty and sordidness of London life, poured his anger and sadness into his words, to force his readers to recognize and empathize with the miserable. In the end, he provided hope by showing skinflint Scrooge could change and help his fellowman.

Many writers gather words, phrases, and names to use in their writing. A writer friend once said he goes out to talk with friends, to stimulate his writing juices, but then returns to his desk to be a man alone with his thoughts and a blank screen to fill. Most writers do. And like Dickens, writers hope to blend their emotional memories into their art.

Besides everyday interactions, writers read to gather facts as well as emotional memories. Here are a few books I’ve read that stimulated my writing with new ideas and facts.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer – fed my interest in the natural world and ways people once used what they found in nature

The Way of the Ship: A Square-Rigger Voyage in the Last Days of Sail by Derek Lundy –  the subtitle tells it all

The Overstory by Richard Powell – an imaginative, emotional connection to the natural world

Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City by Gary Kamiya – a step back into various time periods of San Francisco’s past by the well-known chronicler of its history

What uniforms did Mexican Presidio soldiers wear in the 1800s?

Presidio soldier uniform, shield, and weapon

Mexican soldiers wore uniforms of dark blue wool jackets with scarlet collars and cuffs and brass buttons, matching wool trousers, and wide-brimmed black hats. But for protection from indigenous peoples’ arrows, the soldiers wore leather coats that hung to their knees. They carried long lances and leather shields as shown in this photograph. This display is in the San Francisco Presidio museum on the site of the original Spanish Presidio. Because the soldiers often herded cattle and horses, rode as escorts for the friars, and carried mail between presidios, the cumbersome leather coats were shortened to jacket length. The jackets were made of antelope hide with red felt collars and cuffs. Antelope-hide leggings or breeches covered the soldiers’ legs.

How close should you get to a grizzly bear?

Stuffed grizzly bear as store display

News articles recently reported that a person is serving time in prison and paying fines for approaching too close to a grizzly bear and her cubs in Yellowstone National Park. All park visitors are warned about the dangers of approaching any of the wild animals and given specific distances to stay away from them. For grizzlies, you are told to keep 100 yards (that’s 300 feet! 91 meters!) between you and them. If you are closer and a bear decides to chase or attack you, you will not get away. These bears can run up to 40 mph, a lot faster than any human. They can run up and downhill, swim, and also climb trees although because of their long, curved claws, not as good as black bears. Males can weigh up to 700 pounds and females up to 400 pounds. A large male standing on his hind feet might be seven to nine feet tall. Not something you’d want to wrestle. I read that even though millions of people visit Yellowstone each year, records kept since 1892 show only 16 people were ever killed by bears.

When I visited Yellowstone National Park, I was thrilled to observe so much wild life up close. Some of these animals can still be seen in California but not in such numbers as in the past. Huge populations of elk, deer, black bears, wolves, and grizzlies once roamed the hills and valleys of California. Some such as wolves and grizzlies are gone forever. 

In 1846 American settlers in Alta California rebelled against the Mexican government. They chose the grizzly as a symbol for their flag because the bear never backed away from a fight. These rebels became known as the Bear Flaggers. When California joined the United States, the rebel flag with the grizzly was adopted as the state’s official flag. The grizzly still flies on the state flag even though the last California grizzly bear was shot in 1924.

What clothing and decorations did Miwoks and Ohlones wear in the 1800s?

Two feathers, black-tipped is flicker feather with red-orange shaft

The clothing and decorations the indigenous people wore were all from nature— furs, grasses, shells, feathers, and even bear claws. Some California Native American customs and apparel have been preserved . A few years ago I watched Miwok and Pomo men, women, and children dance to drum music wearing beaded necklaces, feathers, and headdresses made of black-tipped feather shafts similar to those shown in a painting by Louis Choris, a French painter. I read the woven headbands were made with flicker feather shafts stripped of the wispy, feathery sides. Flickers are large, brown woodpeckers with a black feather bib. In the West, their feathers have reddish shafts ending in black tips. The photograph shows two feathers I found in my garden. The bottom feather is from a flicker’s tail.

Could sailing ships replace fuel-powered container ships?

Sailing ships are back! Sure, many people have boats with sail, but now larger sailing ships are carrying cargo. Small cargo sailing ships can carry only about nine shipping containers whereas the largest container ships carry up to 20,000. A sailing ship is also slower than a fossil-fuel powered ship. However, the advantage of sail is it’s environmentally friendly. Modern shipping produces almost 3% of the world’s carbon-dioxide pollution. 

Besides the wind power, sailing ships use the natural ocean currents to propel them across the oceans. The Tres Freres is one small cargo ship with canvas sails already moving goods around the world by wind and sea power. Sailcargo is a Costa Rican company now building a fossil fuel-free sailing ship which will carry coffee, cacao, organic cotton, and turmeric to Canada, and will transport electric bicycles, barley, and hops on its return journey. Larger ships are in the planning stages with unusual sails. Columns of rotor sails pivot to catch the wind and propel the ship forward. Because wind and sea currents can be fickle, these ships might also have engines. Some sailing ships will use solar power too. About 40 companies in countries around the world are developing wind-powered or wind-assisted ships. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see more sustainable sailing ships on the ocean someday soon?

What is a cascarón?

A cascarón is an emptied chicken egg that has been filled with confetti. The Spanish word cascarón means “eggshell.” Similar to Easter eggs, popular in many cultures, these hollow eggs are a tradition that started in Spain and spread to Mexico when Spain colonized Central America. It is still a widespread tradition in the southwestern United States and Mexico. María Antonia Richardson and her daughter Mariana would have made many cascarones for fiestas during their lifetimes. To make these eggs, early California women poked small holes in one end of the eggs, blew out the raw contents, and rinsed the empty shells. After the shells dried, the women filled them with cologne or tiny pieces of brightly colored cut paper and sealed the holes with melted candle wax. The cascarones were saved to use at an Easter fiesta or a party. As guests arrived or during the dancing, a woman or man would secret an egg in one hand, hide it behind his or her back, and crack the cascarón on the head of the surprised partner or friend. A shower of fragrant cologne or bits of colored paper would cover the unsuspecting victim’s hair. Today, decorated cascarones are popular for birthdays and holidays such as New Year’s, Carnival, Cinco de Mayo, the Day of the Dead, and of course, Easter.