Monday, October 25, 2010

Warrior Celebrates End of Thistle Season

Impalement - another hazard of thistles.
I found this honey bee speared on a yellow starthistle spine while weeding in August 2009.
Hooray, it's the end of the thistle season.  I welcome the brief respite from digging, pulling and scowling at thistles.  Usually the first few rains of the wet season are modest, but today's storm was big enough to pound into the ground any seedheads still clinging to the brown thistle stems.  That's when I concede the battle for another year.  At least until the thistle seedlings start germinating in about six weeks.

It was a long and unusually cool summer and those thistles just kept blooming.  Long after the cattle left the Dipper Ranch and travelled on to the brussel sprout fields, the stockyard, or wherever their bovine destiny took them, the yellow starthistle plants kept putting out more dang-blasted, spiny blooms.

Training the cattle to eat thistles in March
Sticking to my Thistle Logic strategy, I successfully removed all thistles from the farmyard, the orchard, and the designated no-pappus flying zone on both sides of the driveway throughout the summer.  I kept the most-hated yellow starthistle and purple starthistle away from the section of Pasture 3 with the best native grass stands, and infiltrated bull thistle patches at the springbox.  In the absence of summer heat, thistle flowers develop slowly and take a long time to go to seed.  The tactical advantage of a long flowering season is there is more time to pull weed plants and disable their seedy future. In late summer, I pulled and stumbled downslope of the driveway and along Alpine Road to expand the safe zone protecting hillsides between the Ortega gate, the hidden springbox, and the power line road.

My son and I pulled up three tangled fences on the west side of the old pigpen which gave me access to yank out thistle and mustard plants growing to enormous heights in the former muck yard.  Thereafter, the big buck took to lounging in the pigpen's newly sticker-free shade on hot afternoons.

Annoyed at his benefactor, buck resting in thistle-free shed.
Yesterday, I panicked when I checked the weather forecast and saw the 90% probability of showers within 24 hours.  There was still a covered pile of pulled purple starthistle plants at the Monotti barn awaiting proper disposal.  After the first serious rain, the road to that old barn gets too slippery to drive.  I zoomed up to the field office and borrowed a 4WD open bed truck.  Actually, first I got distracted by collecting black oak acorns that were wastefully getting crushed by cars on Page Mill Road.  The wind and clouds were fussy but not blustery, so I thought I had plenty of time.

Small, twisted scat - weasel, fox, coyote?
It was early afternoon when I finally got down to the Monotti barn - after stopping again to examine a fresh scat on the barn's access road.  This dirt road shows up on a late 1800's USGS topographic map even though Alpine Road, an important tributary these days, apparently hadn't been built yet.  I was thinking about how long animals have been traveling and pooping on the barn road and decided it was worth a moment of contemplation.  And while I was walking around, I checked the Newt Pond and spotted the big 2.25 buck resting there.  He didn't even hear me at first and was looking the other way.  I started to walk closer when it occurred to me that this was probably the same buck that chased me during last year's rutting season, so I slipped back to stand in the shadow of a big fence post made from an old telephone pole.  He finally turned around and kept chewing his cud until I twitched a finger or eyelid or something, just enough for him to detect me, and then he unfolded his royal self and carried that grand rack off into the woods.  As I walked back to the still empty truck, I kept looking behind to make sure the buck was not coming for me.

Buck checking for sound at Newt Pond
A good weekend at the Dipper Ranch is when I get easily distracted.  On Monday when my compatriots ask what I did on the weekend, I say "Ahhhh, I can't remember" but I'm usually smiling nevertheless.

Finally at the barn, I cautiously uncovered the thistle pile, as we often find rattlesnakes bedded down under the black plastic, and pitchforked the dried plants into the truck bed.  Soon, raindrops started tapping on the tarp, and I rushed to get the truck loaded and covered.  As I drove up the steep sections of the road, old enough that it doesn't follow contemporary contour design, I could hear a co-worker on the radio calling for assistance as he got stuck in another preserve trying to finish up a last-of-season project in the rain.

More room in the truck, going for more summer weeds
With the truck safely on the flat and graveled section of the road and some room still available in the truck bed, I had to decide what to do in the waning hours of the thistle season.  Should I pull more yellow starthistle in Pasture 3 to expand my buffer zone or attack the stinkwort recently discovered on Alpine Road?  Ah, the battle decisions of a weed warrior.

I decided that getting the small, incipient population of stinkwort at the farthest Dipper Ranch gate might prevent this nasty weed (which gives some people a rash) from invading the preserve.  Road edges and gates are beachheads for many a weed.  I turned the truck down Alpine Road, parked at the westernmost gate and started digging up the few plants.  Which actually turned out to be more than a few, but there's something satisfying about attacking one last stand of summer weeds in the first sprinkles of the fall.  While I was weeding, I saw a doe leap across the road in front of a car.  The car stopped just in time as two fawns sprang out behind their mom.  The driver said, "Whew, lucky!" through her window as I looked on with open mouth and dangling shovel.  I wasn't sure if she was talking about herself, the deer, or me standing within the swerve zone.
Stinkwort, photo by Tom Cochrane, Calphotos
Shortly afterwards, a deputy sheriff stopped his patrol car in the road and unrolled his window.  I said hi, and he asked me what I was doing.  Nodding at the clearly labeled truck, I told him I worked for the open space district and was pulling out a small population of nasty weeds before they invaded the preserve.  He told me about a guard job he had at a former juvenile detention center, I told him why I didn't mind working in the light rain, and we shared war stories about deer leaping into roads.  As you can guess, we don't get much traffic in our neck of the woods.  That's the first time I have ever seen a sheriff on Alpine Road, so I figured I would be neighborly.

When I had wiped out all the stinkwort on our side of the road, I hauled the bad seeds to the dumpster and cleaned out the truck and the tarps in the pouring rain.  I still need to talk to the neighbors about the stinkwort stand in front of their gate on their side of the road, but for now, I consider the thistle and summer weed season officially over.

As my neighbor, Bruce-not Batman-Wayne, was talking today about climate change and polar bears drowning, I was thinking how puny my thistle wars sound in comparison.  I feel like the Church Lady raging against thistle demons, righteous and mostly humored by others.  Still, this is something I know I can do, and I see gradual changes as more spring wildflowers bloom in the weeded areas and the native grasses are getting more robust.  For that climate change thing, I will try harder to turn off lights and miscellaneous appliances and chargers. The weed warrior princess says,"Vote on November 2nd."  This is not an endorsement of any candidate, just vote your conscience and weed often.

Coming up next:  as practice for Election Day,  you get to vote on which snake will be featured on the 2011 Happy Snake Ranch Estate Walnuts label.

See also:
purple starthistle, Centaurea calcitrapa
yellow starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis
bull thistle, Cirsium vulgare
stinkwort, Dittrichia graveolens


  1. !!! That is a shocking photograph. It NEVER occurred to me that that could happen. yikes! Yet another reason to glare at thistles (the evil non-natives only, of course). =) Glad you're fighting the good fight.

  2. It's good to take a break from thistles. You can only fight them so much at a time. One of the many reasons I love fall and winter -- down time, regenerating time. Thanks for another lovely, evocative post.


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