Native plants and animals have a right to be left alone.

In Pursuit of Logic: Part IV of V

Native plants and animals have a right to be left alone.

Left alone, Nature is beautiful, as it has been for millions of years. Without us.

A fair number of people are threatened by that independence.

Long before hominids diverged from their ape brethren and began the evolutionary journey to consciousness, the ebb and flow of habitat decorated the mountains, the foothills, and the coastal plain of what would become California, with soft grass, aromatic sage, dense chaparral, and walls of wood. Grizzlies roamed, jaguars courted, Wrentits sang, horned lizards waited, and walking sticks walked on all six. Adapting to herbivory, drought, and fire, the greenery thrived. Dormant seeds waiting for the right signal to burst open with life. Thick bark to protect from frequent, little fires; thin bark where fires were too hot to put up a fight – why waste the energy? Sparse forests, dense forests, denser chaparral for mile upon mile upon mile.

Life, habitat, and countless creations of the evolutionary journey everywhere.

Then we arrived. Humans. Years of fascinating research, from genetics to footprints, has helped us approximate our arrival to North America around 23,000 years ago, give or take. For a while, our impact was minimal.

Fifteen thousand years ago the climate began to dry, deserts expanded, the chaparral began to retreat. A teenage girl found herself trapped (or perhaps laid to rest) in the tarry, sticky mess in what would become the La Brea tar pits about 10,000 years ago. Cultures grew, diversified by the same geographic features that isolated, then created, new populations, then new species, across the Californian landscape. The diversity of human language and culture in California was rivaled by only the island landmass that would eventually be known as New Guinea.

First Americans coming across the Artic land bridge
Coming to America. Mural at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City, Mexico.

As with all other places humans have discovered, Europe, New Zealand, Easter Island, our impact on the California environment grew until we pushed vulnerable species toward extinction. In our trash dumps (shell middens) along the coast and rivers, bones of large animals and easily captured prey, piled up at the lower, oldest levels. As the pile grew, remains of lower calorie catches replaced the richer ones, then at the top, lowly mollusk shells. We picked off the easy protein sources that had no fear of us at first, then moved on to the rest. It’s what humans do and have always done.

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When Factual Arguments Fail – Nearly Always

In Pursuit of Logic: Part III of V

There is truth in the world.

Contrary to popular belief, truth is not all socially constructed. Determining truth can be a relatively simple, straightforward process when the facts are assembled by conscious beings other than Homo sapiens.

Once humans get involved, the various lenses through which we view the world start distorting not only what we see, but prevent us from seeing some things all together. Humans can literally look at or hear a factual event and deny its very existence by employing a wild array of rationalizations, logical fallacies, and embellished memories – techniques used to self-justify any action or belief.

On a personal note, I was the victim of my own memory embellishment (or rather, creation) recently when I disagreed with my wife Vicki about how I came to possess a book I was reading, ironically titled Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me. I was convinced I had purchased it recently after my friend Tom recommended it. Not true. Vicki bought it for me in 2019. Of course, I argued this wasn’t true and didn’t relent until I was shown the record of purchase on Amazon. Even then, I rationalized my error as an anomaly – I’ve been so busy lately, I don’t have room in my brain to remember such unimportant details, etc., etc.

On a grander scale, for the Board of Supervisors and staff of San Diego County to admit type conversion could occur in chaparral, a proven phenomenon, would have required them to acknowledge that their plan to add more fire to the landscape through prescribed burning was flawed. The pain of cognitive dissonance was just too much. Consequently, county staff denied chaparral type conversion was occurring at a well known site off Interstate 8 near the town of Alpine that had burned twice in less than 3 years. County personnel repeatedly promoted the idea that the area was recovering just fine. This, despite the fact that the lack of shrub cover and the invasion of non-native weeds could be clearly seen from a nearby highway overlook. The process of self-justification allowed staff to ignore what was right in front of them. The denial was actually a good thing as it inspired us to conduct on-the-ground research that demonstrated the twice burned chaparral had indeed been compromised by weeds and reduced biodiversity. We’re excited about submitting our research for publication soon.

Interestingly, self-justification is not reserved for affirming an individual’s positive view of themselves or their ideas, but also to affirm low self-esteem.

In their definitive book on the subject (the book I thought I had bought), Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson write,

An appreciation of the power of self-justification helps us understand why people who have low self-esteem or who simply believe that they are incompetent in some domain are not totally overjoyed when they do something well; on the contrary, they often feel like frauds… Indeed, several experiments find that most people who have low self-esteem or low estimates of their abilities do feel uncomfortable with dissonant successes and dismiss them as accidents or anomalies. This is why they seem so stubborn to friends and family members who try to cheer them up. “Look, you just won the Pulitzer Prize in literature! Doesn’t that mean you’re good?”

From first hand experience, you can probably guess the answer you’ll get to that last question. “No, I’m not. It was a fluke.” Trying to convince them otherwise would typically result in further intransigence. The actual research that has demonstrated this is fascinating.

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Alien Shrubs From Mars?

In Pursuit of Logic: Part II of V

Continuing our description of conversations we’ve had recently concerning chaparral, fire, and illogical thinking, Part II of our series shares an often-encountered opinion that in someway, somehow, one of our favorite chaparral shrubs is an unnatural, alien invader. In this case, hoary leaved ceanothus (Ceanothus crassifolius).

With pretty white blossoms and gnarly leaves with fuzzy undersides, this chaparral shrub can be found in large stands decorating foothill areas from San Diego to Santa Barbara.

Hoary leaved ceanothus in bloom.

The Invasion of the Alien Brush!

During a discussion about a proposed 30-35 mile long, 200-300 foot wide “fuel” break near San Rafael in Marin County at the base of Mt. Tamalpais, a renowned fire scientist suggested that a stand of ceanothus could be unnatural. And is often the case lately, his characterization was tied to the latest trend in promoting habitat clearance that we discussed in Part I of this series, past Native American fire use.

“Given that the area was likely burned frequently by First People, and if that was the case, then the greatest human impact on the ecosystems has been the lack of ecologically appropriate fire to sustain the post-Pleistocene landscape. When I was at the Fire Lab in Riverside, I occasionally asked the question regarding the baseline of consideration for what was a “native” condition. For example, from my limited understanding, an early Forest Reserve survey of Mt. Wilson (San Gabriel Mtns.) indicated significant oak-grass cover that is now largely Ceanothus crassifolius. Just a thought and curiosity regarding the Audubon and Native Plant Society concerns.”

This statement reveals several common themes in anti-chaparral chatter, shrub phobia and the pastoral bias favoring open grasslands.

How Did the Ceanothus Seeds Get There – Aliens from Mars?

Suggesting that ceanothus in the San Gabriel Mountains somehow replaced an historical oak/grassland due to the “lack of ecologically appropriate fire” demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of chaparral ecology.

C. crassifolius could not exist on a site that was not naturally characterized by infrequent, high-intensity fire.
Why? It’s a fascinating ecological story.

C. crassifolius is an obligate seeding species, meaning the species’ response to fire is the death of adult shrubs and the germination of their seed in the soil seed bank, in this case facilitated by heat (a pore in the seed coat is modified by heat, allowing water to enter, and thus stimulating the seed embryo to grow). Additional explanations (with photos) of this and other types of fire response chaparral plants have evolved can be found on our website here.
Under extreme, long-term drought conditions over many decades, C. crassifolius shrubs can die and disappear from a site. This is starting to happen now in the Santa Monica Mountains, featuring the characteristic curvy bundle of stems and twigs that dead ceanothus form – closing in on themselves as they sadly bid farewell to the world. The empty space left behind is usually filled in by other shrubs. However, the species still exists! Hiding in the soil seed bank are thousands of tiny seeds just waiting for a fire to kick them into action.The next high-intensity fire will cause an amazing population explosion of feisty, little ceanothus seedlings.

There is no other natural way for obligate seeding ceanothus to be present.

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