|A rainstorm at the Mindego Gateway parking lot|
While building the parking lot, we discovered hidden plants and animals, and clues that many others have touched this land before us.
On a clear day, the view from the Mindego Gateway deck features Mindego Hill in the foreground with stacked ridges and a slice of the Pacific Ocean in the background. It's fun to look to the south (although it feels like the west) and notice where the forested mountains give way to the grassy coastal hills and guess which part of the jagged San Mateo shoreline is shining at the edge of the continent. On a foggy day, you can watch the ocean's moisture billowing towards you like a band of giant fluffy caterpillars isolating high points into green mountaintop islands. If you come with a group that has diverse interests, some can settle onto the deck to read, paint or practice yoga while the rest head out on the trails by foot or bike.
But the hiking part is not what I want to talk about. You can check hike details from Mindego Gateway at the links below. I want to talk about how my neighbor Mindego keeps whispering new tales about nature and history.
For almost ten years, I have driven past this location many times a week as it is just up Alpine Road from the Dipper Ranch. Not too long ago, the site was a messy corporation yard operated by a local rancher. Piles of concrete, debris, rusty trucks and weeds were all I could see from the road. Sometimes when I drove by on winter evenings, the setting sun silhouetted deer browsing amongst the garbage.
I was surprised when the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) first proposed partnering with the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District to build an elaborate facility at this junky location. To honor Audrey C. Rust, their former President, POST wanted the new parking lot to include special amenities over and above our usual approach of a simple dirt lot surrounded by a split-rail fence with one trail sign. Their design for Mindego Gateway included a pebble-paved walkway named Audrey's Way to provide access for people with disabilities to the viewing deck. The end of the walkway would include several types of decorative seating and metal informational signs. One part of the deck was specifically designed for plein air painting since painting outside in natural light is a favorite hobby of Audrey's. Colorful native plants in a manicured landscape would surround the paved parking lot and wheel-chair accessible restroom.
I appreciated the inclusive and aesthetic elements to be funded by POST, but a weedy dump seemed a strange place to commemorate Audrey who helped preserve over 50,000 acres of natural lands in her 24 years at this regional land trust. I've occasionally run into Audrey on the trail and as the enthusiastic spokesperson at POST's annual Wallace Stegner lecture series, and I'm sure she usually gets her way, but I couldn't imagine that posh design at the former junkyard.
|An alligator lizard enjoys the warmth and views at Audrey's Way|
I didn't expect any wildlife at the former rusty truck yard, but I showed up early on the first morning of construction just in case. I walked around the dusty construction barriers and for the first time stepped on the property beyond the edge of Alpine Road. Weaving between survey stakes and bright orange tape, I scanned and listened for any small signs of life, even peeking underneath the sleeping tractors. The rancher had cleared out the loose garbage, barrels, stacks of debris and busted farm equipment before he sold the property, but there were still edges of broken concrete and metal pieces sticking out of weedy mounds of dirt. A spotted towhee was singing on top of a clump of poison oak, but otherwise the site seemed abandoned.
|View of Mindego Hill from Mindego Gateway with the Pacific Ocean shrouded in fog|
Soon the equipment operators arrived and after the usual safety training, the engines started up. I was delighted to realize that an archaeological monitor was also on the site. Mark Hylkema, California State Park Archaeologist, and his students at Foothill College had been studying the historic and archaeological resources on another part of Mindego Ranch. His trusty sidekick Bill was there too and we had some catching up to do. Construction monitoring includes a lot of leaning on your shovel with occasional quick sprints. As long as you keep your eyes focused on the equipment, it's a good time to talk.
|Calisoga spiders are usually hidden under rocks or logs|
From his raised seat, the operator was sharp-eyed and conscientious about signaling me and pointing whenever he saw something move. He would swing the bucket out of the way and I would dash over the jumbled surface to snag a snake with tongs before it disappeared. On that first day of construction when most of the major cleanup occurred, I pulled out three gopher snakes from the debris. Unfortunately, as the excavator was tipping up a slab of old asphalt, one gopher snake slid underneath the edge and was crushed before we spotted it. I tossed the long body into the brush where undoubtably a coyote would eat it for dinner.
|A woodrat stick nest was one of several natural habitats at the edge of the former corporation yard|
By my next trip to the grassy field to relocate the second gopher snake, I started recognizing more native plants: mariposa lilies, brodiaeas, and soap plants. Although none were blooming at the moment, I could identify them by their leaves or seedpods and it was interesting to see so many geophytes together - plants with swollen underground parts like bulbs, taproots, tubers, corms and rhizomes that store food to wait out the dry season and can survive more serious forms of stress like droughts, fires and heavy browsing.
By the third gopher snake release, I noticed that the field had one of the healthiest stands of yampah that I had ever seen. Yampah is a California native plant in the carrot family that has small white flowers clustered in an umbel, dissected leaves and small finger-like roots. Suddenly, I realized that most of the native plants in the field were those collected by Native Peoples of California for food: bulbs and roots from the flowering perennials, and seed from the native grasses. I ran over and grabbed Mark and Bill and dragged them to the grassy field.
"Look," I said as I plucked narrow seeds from waving clumps and shook them in my hands like dice, "blue wildrye, California brome and purple needlegrass." They looked bemused at this crazy botanist fondling the native grasses.
"That brown three-sided thing is the seedpod of a mariposa lily. Do you see more over there? These narrow leaves draped on the ground are either blue dicks or ookow. And there's lots of soap plant everywhere." I could see the plant names starting to sink into their archeo brains.
|The finely divided leaves of yampah|
Putting together our collective expertise, we were able to confirm that the grassy field at the edge of the future Mindego Gateway contained an unusually dense concentration of grass grains and bulb-type plants that were traditionally collected for food by the Ohlone, indigenous people of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
|Foothill College students helping with archaeological studies on Mindego Ranch|
Traveling from one traditional collection area to the next, native peoples of California used stout wooden sticks to dig up bulbs and other edible underground plant parts. These were not simple acts of gathering but included elements of cultivation. Some plants in a stand were collected and others were left to expand into the newly loosened soil so there would be a continuous supply of food for future trips. The bulblets or cormlets ("babies") that clung to the large roots were knocked off and, along with any seed, replanted into the grubbed bed. The digging stick was likewise used to weed competing plants.
Because they were so frequently visited and tended, these traditional collection areas were colorful beds of flowers during the spring and early summer. Yet the native peoples would often wait to dig them until the beds were less obvious - dried and shriveled above ground - because they wanted the seed of the bulb plants to ripen before they collected any underground parts. In this way, their traditions further facilitated the productivity of these beds and along with burning, may have even influenced selection and genetic changes in populations of California geophytes (Andersen).
Peeling back the years, present day Alpine Road is at the former location of a route called the Old Spanish Trail which followed an Ohlone trail through the Santa Cruz Mountains from San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. So it is likely that the Mindego Gateway area was visited by the ancient Ohlone.
|The hills are covered with more grasses and less forests in the vicinity of the coast|
So, we don't really know if this small grassy field to the side of Mindego Gateway is a tribal bulb garden. But its collection of native plants, particularly those that were traditionally important to the local tribes, is notable and worth protecting. Now we annually sweep through to pull the yellow starthistle that occurs sporadically in the stand, and a neighbor drops by several times during the summer to pull any remaining nonnative thistles on that side of the deck. She's making progress and reports that on bright mornings, a rattlesnake often slips out from under a clump of poison oak to warm itself in the sun. She's learned to move slowly and conscientiously as she works in this remarkable place.
Due to the ongoing drought, I haven't seen a big bloom of the native bulbs at the site but rain will return and it will be exciting to see the native color express itself on its own time.
|Moisture sweeps in from the ocean at Mindego Hill at sunset|
One day, people will know nothing about the rescued Calisoga spiders and gopher snakes, the visions of Audrey Rust, and our efforts to control the yellow starthistle at Mindego Gateway. But I hope that in good years, the mariposa lilies, yampah and ookow will put on a spectacular bloom and visitors will stop and wonder about what else lives and has lived on this land before they head out for a lovely hike.
On October 17, 2015, I will be leading a hike for the magazine Bay Nature to the Ancient Oaks in Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve including a visit to the Mindego Gateway. Reservations for the hike have already filled, however, you can read the article "A Midpeninsula Open Space for the Ages: Among the Ancient Oaks on Russian Ridge" by Kathleen Wong in the October-December 2015 issue of Bay Nature including a longer description about hiking to the Ancient Oaks and Mindego Gateway and an interview with me.
"The New World is in fact a very old world. . . Every day of every year for millennia, the indigenous people of California interacted with the native plants and animals that surrounded them. They transformed roots, berries, shoots, bones, shells and feathers into medicines, meals, bows, and baskets and achieved an intimacy with nature unmatched by the modern-day wilderness guide, trained field botanist, or applied ecologist."
- M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild
*Ohlone is a term that has been used to refer to the many autonomous indigenous tribal groups that lived in the Monterey Bay and San Francisco Bay area at the time of first European contact. The traditional territory of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, centered in the Pajaro River Valley of Monterey Bay, "encompasses all or portions of the modern Counties of San Benito, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo" (source: http://amahmutsun.org/land-trust). The Amah Mutsun Land Trust is working with the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District to identify and inform management of culturally significant species on preserve lands, especially at Mt. Umunhum.
Ballard, Hannah, MA and Elena Reese, MA, Pacific Legacy, Inc., Berkely, CA, and Mark Hylkema, MA, RPA, Past Lifeways Archaeological Studies, Sunnyvale, CA, Cultural Resources Existing Conditions Report Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District Vision Plan, September 2014.
Hylkema, Mark G., MA, RPA Archaeologist, Positive Archaeological Survey Report (PASR) and a Finding of No Adverse Effect to Archeological Resources: Mindego Ranch Pond Rehabilitation Project, San Mateo County, California, Past Lifeways Archaeological Studies, Sunnyvale, CA, February 2013.
Anderson, M. Kat, Tending the Wild, University of California Press, 2015.
Hikes at Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve are described here:
- Midpeninsula Regional Open Space - Find A Preserve
- Peninsula Open Space Trust - Outings
- Bay Area Hiker
- Climbing Mindego Hill, OpenRoad with Doug McConnell on NBC TV
Black-tailed deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus
Calisoga spider, Calisoga genus
Southern alligator lizard, Elgaria multicarinata
Pacific gopher snake, Pituophis catenifer
Northern Pacific rattlesnake - Crotalus oreganus
Mariposa lily, Calochortus sp.
Soap plant, Chlorogalum pomeridianum
Yampah, Perideridia sp.
Blue wildrye, Elymus glaucus
California brome, Bromus carinatus
Purple needle grass, Stipa pulchra
Blue dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum
Ookow, Dichelostemma congestum
Yellow starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis