Investigating the Fragility of the Chaparral

The magic of youth is not in the superficial, but in the unfettered expression of the authentic self. The beauty of age is the wisdom to rediscover the same, if the courage can be found to recognize and accept fallibility.

The difficulty many adults have with rediscovering their authentic selves partially explains why some cling to old, outdated paradigms. It also helps explain why change usually comes through the actions of the young.

So it should be no mystery why we gathered a handful of youthful explorers to help us collect the information we needed to put to rest, once and for all, the incorrect notion that chaparral can “burn several times in a dozen years” and recover just fine. Younger explorers are more willing to question, everything, including the investigator-in-chief. They also see things that older investigators have been staring at for years, but never noticed.

Holden Caulfield was on to something when he said (in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye), “People never notice anything.”

Our first field crew in April: Tyler, Adrian, and Lindsey.

Background: The Sweetwater River Canyon below the Alpine Overlook on Interstate Highway 8 in San Diego County provides a unique opportunity to measure how chaparral recovers from frequent fire. The area had been burned three times, the first in 1970, with one fire overlapping another. Some have claimed the chaparral burned in 2001 and 2003 is recovering without a problem. We descended into the canyon twice to collect biodiversity data to quantify what has actually been happening. For details about our first trip on April 29, please see our earlier post. For a full explanation about why this research project began, please see our original story, Denying the Threat of High Fire Frequency in the Chaparral.

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The Towhee of Notre-Dame

Her thin, elongated feet and delicate toes are mechanisms of terror for the unsuspecting. Her bright, umber brown eyes are still, alert for an identifiable shape, any movement on the nearby ground.

She steps forward. Cocks her head. Watching. A constant day-long dance with only a few pauses to preen, to take care of herself. Throughout it all, except when preening of course, a high-pitched call, coming in single bursts, one at a time, spaced evenly, bill filled with prey or not, fills the air throughout the day Nature’s metronome.

Her presence stilled my own. She reminded me of what matters. Every morning. Every afternoon. Whenever I stepped outside onto the patio, the side walk, the driveway, she and her mate busied themselves with their most important task collecting food for the children.

Walking b

One morning, her search brought her into our home. Through the door, onto the old parquet floor she hopped, walked, hopped. She found remnants of dead creatures, but nothing fresh from what I could see.

Then the search was interrupted.

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Where is the Outrage? Thousands of Families are Devastated by Fire, Authorities Ignore Their Cries

The drum beat about dead trees in forests many miles away from communities most at risk from wildfire in California has become so loud that it has drowned out the screams of the families who have lost so much.

Why?

The short answer is most likely related to money. Who benefits?

The impact of the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, far from any forest. The canyon to the right provided a fire corridor that helped funnel the flames into the community overlooking the canyon. Who is responsible for approving this development?

But first, some history.

We have been involved in fire policy since the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County, the 273,000 acre wildfire that marked the beginning of the California’s new era of catastrophic mega fires. The creation of the California Chaparral Institute was sparked by the irrational response to the fire by local politicians and radio talk show hosts, falsely blaming both firefighters and Nature for the devastation.

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