As I biked down the coast of California, I noticed the beautiful coast to my right with the rocky cliffs or
white sand beaches. However, I wasn't impressed with what I was seeing to my left. No trees, only what
looked like dried up, crispy, tall grass with a few bushes here and there. After hearing how great
California was, I thought "This is what people are raving about???"
I later found out this dry hay was "chaparral". I wasn't impressed. Maybe this high expectation stemmed
from my early childhood. I had heard about that far away place of beautiful, sunny California where stars,
surfers, and big, fake boobs resided. The air and water were clean and clear and the mind sets and actions
were progressive and new. Even as my trip drew close, many said "You'll love California; I can totally see
you living there..." All of this formed images and ideas of CA in my head. It was the place to be and where
giving a hoot was integral to people's lives (at least in northern CA).
I wasn't sure about the natural history of this area, but I started to worry that this used to be full of
trees and something terrible happened. I had lots of questions about this. As I continued biking I also
noticed a lot of eucalyptus trees. This surprised me since I learned in the Peace Corps that eucs were
planted in flood areas because they were so good at sucking up the water. Here in California, there's not
too much water to go around, so I added this conundrum to my list of Qs.
All of the sudden, I biked into some great redwoods of Big Sur. After miles and miles and days and days of
bright sun and dried hay-like brush, I found myself shadowed by these beauties just like up in the redwoods
of northern CA. As I moved up and over the Santa
Lucia Range, the trees left me and I was back in the
chaparral. What was that all about?
I stopped at the fire station just south of Big Sur at the Monterey Ranger District to get some of these
questions answered. There I met Chip, from Los Osos, a fire prevention captain who was hurt to find that I
didn't like chaparral. He explained to me that it was a very hearty ecosystem that withstood the harsh, dry
environment of the region. He agreed that global warming was making the dry season longer and maybe more
severe, but the dry season had always been tough and not much was able to survive in such an environment.
The plants and animals of chaparral were slowly making their way into my heart.
Chip also informed me about the eucalyptus trees. They're not native to California, but were introduced back
when the homesteaders settled in the west. The eucs were fast growing trees used as
fence posts, land borders, and privacy barriers. They hadn't thought about other characteristics of the
trees such as just how much groundwater they suck up.
I thought I'd throw chip a hard ball and ask him why, all of the sudden, we had crazy huge redwoods in Big
Sur yet still had this harsh environment. Couldn't we just plant trees and start making some shade around
here???? Chip laughed at my naivety and my lust for vegetation and went on to explain that the Santa
runs kind of west-east and therefore the slopes facing the north and the west to a degree, get much
less sun and are able to retain more moisture and therefore allow other life to grow that would never
survive the south-facing slopes.
Interesting, no? I thought so. I was glad to get all of my questions answered and I even bought a book about
Big Sur to find out more about its history - it is very light and thin - no worries.
As I moved on down the coast, the dirty faces I had made at the chaparral faded with each mile. I started
to wonder if I was going to find this natural history knowledge in LA County. On second thought, I wondered
if I was going to find anything natural in LA County.