Archive for July 2011 | Monthly archive page

Standing astride a massive boulder atop Bishop Peak, I watch the turkey vultures fly past at eye level.  As I watch them glide over the sage scrub carpeted slopes, I turn a slow pirouette to scan the horizon.  From up here, you can see all the way to foggy Los Osos to the North, the bulk of downtown San Luis to the South, and a number of agricultural fields, ranches, parks and residential developments in between.  It was worth fighting gravity for the 4-mile trek towards the summit of this rocky volcanic outcrop.

Timing my visit for late spring/early summer, I am lucky enough to be treated with moderately cool weather, a steady breeze, and a riot of wildflowers.  Regardless of which of the two trail heads you choose, you are assured a moderate to challenging hike through several plant ecosystems.  After traveling through this nature reserve’s oak forests, past giant rock faces, through sage brush and chaparral, and up a number of switchbacks, you will feel as though you have gotten your exercise and been rewarded with one of the best views in the county.

How to get there:  There are two trail heads that access the Bishop Peak Trail.  The first is off of Patricia Avenue and Highland amidst a residential neighborhood. This point also allows you to take the less strenuous Felsman Loop Trail, a fairly easy 1.7 mile loop at the North East base of this member of the “Seven Sisters”.  The second approach is located on East Foothill Blvd. between  Los Osos Valley Road and Patricia Ave., and has a small lot for parking near the beginning of the route.

What to bring:  A majority of the trail is exposed to the elements, so during the warmer months, make sure to bring your sunscreen, glasses, hat, a pair of well-soled shoes, and plenty of water.  For cooler weather, long pants and a fleece are most likely the heaviest protection you will need.  For the top of the trail, bring a camera to capture the landscape unfolding before you, and maybe a snack to regain some energy before you head back down.

Stay safe: There are some steep and rocky parts along the trail, so make sure to watch your footing.  There have been accidents at the top of the morro where the weather can become gusty.  Try and stick to times where daylight is adequate enough to navigate some of the most challenging terrain, and if you are heading out during the evening, pack a flashlight just in case the journey takes you longer than expected.  There is a fair amount of poison oak in some of the more wooded areas, and long slacks and healthy amount of attention and respect for the rash-inducing plant are recommended.  (Remember: leaves of three, let it be! …unless it’s hairy, in which case it’s berry …but don’t take a chance with poisonous plants!)  If you are unfamiliar with Bishop’s, take a buddy with you and always let others know where you are going to be and around what time they should expect you back.

This summer, go and take advantage of San Luis Obispo’s natural beauty and make a date for the top of Bishop Peak!

Caddisfly larvae

 

Humans are not the only species with a penchant for self-embellishment. In addition to animals such as the ever-fashionable decorator crab, caddisfly larvae fashion ornate cases for protection and camouflage.  In the wild, the larvae make due with the everyday construction materials of their environments.  However, a lucky few adopted by nature-loving jewelry makers get the opportunity to build their homes from emeralds, opals and gold.

Caddisflies are insects with small, tented wings, long hair-like antennae, and look similar to moths.  Juveniles are mostly aquatic, and resemble hairless caterpillars.  Larvae can be identified by claws on their thoracic legs and anal prolegs.   They occupy the  order Trichoptera, and there are hundreds of different species.  Most adults do not live long, and spend most of their time in the act of passing on their genes.  Females lay eggs near the water, and larvae develop over the course of several months to a year.  Young caddisflies use silk to spin nets to catch food, and even more interestingly, to form cases in which to hide.  Rocks and other small debris are attached to the silk to act as protection and as a disguise.  Eating litter and detritus, larvae are keys to clean stream ecosystems and provide meals for birds, fish, bats and other predatory animals as adults.

Observing the caddisfly larvae’s habit of using its surroundings as adornment, creative jewelry makers such as French artist/naturalist Hubert Duprat and American Kathy Kyle Scout, president of Wildscape Inc., have taken to use the bug’s natural behavior as way to create beautiful ornaments.   By catching larvae and adding them to an aquarium filled with precious gems, shells, and gold flakes, they allow the animal to generate gorgeous patterns that become fused as ready-made beads.  Once the larvae is finished, it is gently removed and allowed to develop as an adult.  From there, the glittering tubes are crafted into pendants, necklaces, earrings, bracelets and key chains.

Now, before you get too squeamish about wearing a necklace made by a bug, remember that pearls are basically oyster irritants, leather is animal hide, and sea-shells are just old mollusk homes.  Why not accessorize with a cruelty-free, unique piece made by the noble caddisfly? When friends ask you why you have an insect’s home around your neck, you can argue that caddisfly makes a “good case for it”.

 

Generally speaking, I am not subject to fits of anger.  I tend to keep a level head in most situations, practicing meditative compassion during rush hour traffic and while standing in long grocery store lines.  Walking along gently flowing creeks and a hike in the woods is my idea of a wild time out, and I’ll raise my voice only to get someone’s attention in a crowd or accentuate the punchline of a terrible pun.

However, while watching Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland, I nearly had to pause the film on several occasions in order to march out into the street in a frothing rage to go and hit someone in the face.  Why the almost Hulk-like transformation from pacifist to puncher?  Hydraulic fracturing.

On the surface, harvesting natural gas from deep underground seems like a a good idea.  The United States contains a great deal of fuel-producing shale formations that trap potential sources of energy.  Proponents of natural gas extraction argue that we could wean ourselves off foreign oil by taking advantages of this home-grown alternative fossil fuel.  New York alone has enough natural gas to rival two Saudi Arabias, and extraction sites occur across the most of the south, midwest and parts of the west.

The infrastructure needed to drill, remove and process the gas has the potential to create new jobs and revitalize the communities whose land is leased to drill the fracturing wells.  Industry advocates assure the pubic that the harvesting process is safe, unobtrusive, and an overall benefit to the landowners participating in extraction. As Fox discovers after being sent a request to drill on his creekside Pennyslvania property, “fracking” holds some very hazardous secrets that affect the well-being and health of human lives, watershed ecosystems, and political transparency.

During Fox’s investigation of fracking, there are almost too many violations of decent human conduct to name.  Despite claims of fracking’s minimal impact on the environment, the process of drilling requires over 500 chemicals and millions of gallons of water to break shale deposits, keep the drill well open, and extract the gas.  Many of the compounds are known neurotoxins and carcinogens, and along with the gas they help remove, highly flammable.  Most of these chemicals are not biodegradable and sit in slurry pits, affecting the health of nearby residents, livestock and habitats.

Reports of cancer, brain lesions, fatigue, hair loss, infertility, and a veritable medial text book of other maladies skyrocket next to fracking wells.  Once clean wells become unit for consumption and water must be replaced with expensive alternative sources trucked in from miles away.  Promises to compensate landowners are either met with legal teams and empty guarantees or outright denials of the well’s detrimental effects.  Animals lose their hair or die outright, human beings suffer from permanent and irreversible illnesses, and the value of once productive agricultural land plummets.

As if corporate greed were not enough to stoke the flames of fury, the backdoor deals and creation of big business loopholes will set you ablaze.  Sidestepping the Clean Water Act,  legislation in 2005 known as the “Halliburton Loophole”  allowed the Bush-Cheney White House to let fracking industry forgo environmental impact reports and keep the identity and composition of their “proprietary” chemicals from public review.  The Act was also instrumental in the largest transfer of public BLM land to private interests in the country’s history.

Pieces of national heritage were opened to exploitation and almost irreversible damage without the majority of Americans being aware of the laws affecting their health and the appropriation of their tax dollars.  It may have been at this point in the film that I nearly had an aneurism.  (On second thought , it might have actually happened while watching people lighting their drinking water on fire.  WATER. ON FIRE.)

Now, with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s consideration of lifting the fracking ban in New York state, it is time for the nation as a whole to take a closer look at the hydraulic fracturing industry.  How do we as a society want to power our infrastructure?  Where do we draw the line between consumption and safety, and what are we willing to sacrifice or change to be able to live in a healthy industrialized nation?

Fifteen minutes after sitting out on a friend’s porch during dusk and my legs look like I have contracted the plague.  Red, half dollar sized blotches cover my skin and begin to itch so badly I am tempted to bathe in a bucket of hydrocortisone cream.

What could have possibly caused this sudden case of Mad Polka-Dots?  An acute and freak recurrence of chicken pox?  An allergy to shellfish?  Witch’s hex?  Nope, just a reaction the common and ever-irritating mosquito.  This is the time of year that the female mosquitoes search out their blood meals that will allow them to lay their eggs and produce even more aggravating, disease-carrying spawn.

In a war where human is pitted against insect, it is good to know your enemy.  Mosquitoes, part of the family Culicidae have been around for nigh on 170 million years, and have during that time an arsenal of sensory weapons designed to find warm blooded creatures and feed on their blood.  Their tiny heads contain sensory organs that are able to detect the chemicals in sweat and the carbon dioxide and lactic acid expelled during respiration from up to 100 feet away.

Mosquitoes are also able to pick out victims that are warm-blooded by zeroing in on heat variations in their environments.  Studies have shown that certain people are at greater risk for mosquito attack, particularly those that produce and excess amount of uric  and lactic acids, high concentrations of cholesterol, steroids,  and women who are pregnant (as they exhale more CO2).

As if the maddening, red welts left by these insects were not bad enough, mosquitoes are vectors for a number of diseases, including malaria and West Nile virus.  Scratching bites can cause infections and tissue damage.  So, what can you do to avoid sickness and the infuriating buzz of these little pests on your next summer outing?  First, there is the chemical option.  DEET has been the go-to repellent since 1957, and works by jamming the bug’s aforementioned sensory apparatuses.

Most commercial formulas contain between 10-30% DEET.  Look for products with at least 23% of the chemical in the mixture.  If you would prefer a less odorous, lighter alternative, opt for picaridin as contained in Cutter Advanced.  Avon’s Skin So Soft uses IR3535 and is combined with sunscreen to keep your skin safe from UV rays and insect assault.  Newly approved by the EPA in 2006, metofluthrin can be worn or bought to hang in a paper strip.  If sprays are not your style, clothing impregnated with permethrin may offer relief from the summer swarms.

For those leery of chemicals, there are a few more natural alternatives to help drive away mosquitoes.  Wearing or treating clothing with essential oils such as citronella, peppermint, geranium, cedar, lemongrass and some soybean-based repellents can keep the biting at bay for up to 1.5 hours.  Lemon eucalyptus has been shown to work as effectively as similar concentrations of DEET.  Although studies are not conclusive, there is some evidence that B1 patches and supplements may produce an odor that female mosquitoes steer away from and can be found under the brand name Don’t Bite Me in most drugstores.

With mosquitoes, an effective offense is a good defense.  Make certain that your living space is free of standing water, clogged gutters, or open garbage cans.  Traps can be set to lure and kill the insects and reduce their numbers in your yard.  Planting citronella, catnip, lemongrass, lavendar, cloves, garlic or eucalyptus will discourage the bugs from infiltrating a garden.  Stocking a pond with mosquito fish that eat eggs and larvae can eliminate the pests at the beginning of their life cycle and before they become airborne.  Encouraging bats by building roosting boxes may encourage the insect-eaters to make a dent in your area’s mosquito population.

Now, armed with some knowledge and no small arsenal of chemicals (both natural and otherwise) we will hopefully be able to minimize our exposure to the exasperation of bug season.  You can bet I’ll be smelling of peppermint and citronella until winter.

 

Summer marks the height of BBQ and potluck season.  For a unique and delicious beer that is sure to impress fellow party-goers, bring a couple bottles of San Luis Obispo’s own Chai Cream Ale.  This light blonde beer has a clean, refreshing foundation with a hint of hops and a subtle, spicy chai kick.  Found in small groceries and liquor stores throughout California, Chai Cream Ale can also be purchased in 1pt 6oz bottles, perfect for special occasions or sharing with friends on the porch, at the beach or in the backyard.

Chai Cream Ale is the brainchild of SLO Chai founder, former high school teacher, and all-around nice guy,  Joel Pace.  Begun as a side project in 2004, Joel began adding his own blend of organic chai spices to locally-produced microbrews.  Now, 7 years and a lot of fine tuning later, the beer is brewed in Northern California and delighting drinkers across the state as well as the Hawaiian islands.

Treat yourself to a bottle (or several) of a truly fine brew!  Try a chai!

Situated on the edge of the San Luis Obispo creek, Bambu Batu has some very interesting neighbors.  We see ducks, hummingbirds, phoebes, butterflies, frogs and finches on a regular basis.  On a good year, we are fortunate enough to witness the return of a celebrity species around these parts, the steelhead trout.

These fish are an Endangered Species, and are protected by the Federal Government.  Through their complex life cycle, the Trout utilize several different types of creek habitat that are currently threatened by development, pollution, and barrier construction.  The fish that live in San Luis Obispo creek are reproductively isolated to their area, which makes them a unique population to their territory.

Steelhead trout are anadromous, meaning that they lay their eggs and begin their lives in freshwater streams and then migrate to the ocean where they live for 1-5 years before heading back to their place of birth to spawn and repeat the cycle.  Females can lay up to 2,000 orange pea-sized eggs that eventually hatch into small “alevins” 6-8 weeks after fertilization by a male.  The alevins feed off of their yolk sack until old enough to swim freely as “fry” and fend on their own for insects and plankton.  Once they reach at least 3 inches long, the small fry graduate and adopt a new name —  either “fingerlings” or “parr” — and display vertical camouflage markings along their sides.  By this point, the fish dine mostly in aquatic and flying insects.

Eventually, something in the trouts’ biology compels them to move out towards the open water.  As “smolts”, they undergo many transformations to make the journey from a freshwater to saltwater ecosystem.  Not much is known about where the fish live after they make their way to the ocean, but studies have noted that smolts tend to gather in shallow waters near the continental shelf during their first year of life.  If they survive predation by larger fish, birds and sea mammals, they migrate towards deeper water where they increase in size.

Once mature, the Steelhead venture back in the spring and summer to their home creeks and rivers, aided in their navigation by what scientists speculate as a combination of magnetic fields, a highly developed sense of smell, and celestial orientation.  On average, a steelhead will live to spawn 2-5 times before dying, unlike salmon who only spawn once.

For a chance to glimpse Steelhead fingerlings in the creek, travel to Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and make your way down to the creek.  About 3/4 of the way north of Broad street where Bambu Batu is located, you can spy on the juvenile fish as they grow and prepare to head out to the Pacific!  Let us know how many you have seen!

It is hard to imagine, but there are still areas of the United States that do not have access to the selection of groceries common in many supermarkets.  For those of us who have lived in dense, urban areas, we know that fruits and vegetables outside of a can may be hard to find inside of liquor and corner convenience stores.

If residents of inner-cities or food deserts cannot go to the market because of prohibitive travel costs or time constraints, what is a health-conscious shopper to do?  Luckily, there are some enterprising new businesses and non-profits that have decided that if the consumer cannot go to the produce section, then the produce section should come to them.  Like many new, innovative ideas, these mobile markets are catching on!  Some notable examples include:

MoGro: MoGro, or “Mobile Grocery Truck” is a pioneering food service program that provides fresh produce and other healthy and affordable foods to pueblo communities in New Mexico.  Many tribal areas are known as “food deserts”, or locations that due to socioeconomic factors, are unable to access cheap, wholesome groceries.  The truck arrives twice a month, and along with providing fruits and vegetables, holds nutrition workshops, cooking demonstrations and fitness initiatives.   Residents of the pueblos are able to save both time and money by purchasing from the truck as well as being assured competitive prices.  This may be a great development for neighborhoods across the country without a means of acquiring the products or information necessary to make informed decisions about their diets.

People’s Grocery:  West Oakland residents can take advantage of People’s Grocery, whose motto is “Healthy food for everyone”.  Along with offering food through a non-profit mobile operation, the Grocery has also been pursuing a for-profit community market in effort to promote food security in the East Bay.  In accordance with their mission to engender healthy eating and purchasing habits, People’s Grocery supports local urban agriculture programs, hosts lectures and food demonstrations, maintains partnerships with social justice advocates, co-hosts urban farming festivals, runs a CSA (community supported agriculture) box, and even makes it possible to buy groceries at wholesale prices through collective buying.  Their Growing Justice Institute hopes to work with national leaders to establish a network of food equity leaders.

Fresh Moves: In a partnership with Architecture for Humanity, Chicago food desert dwellers of the Lawndale and Austin areas have since March been visited by Fresh Moves.  Their vehicle of choice is a retrofitted bus, kindly donated by the Chicago Transit Authority that stops twice a week in several neighborhood locations.  They have established several sponsorships with Chicago businesses, non-profits, government agencies, and schools.  This “one aisle” grocery store hopes to find a quick, targeted solution to the health problems most commonly seen in urban areas, such as diabetes, obesity, malnutrition and heart disease.

Is there a mobile grocery unit in your neighborhood?  Have you ever been caught in a food desert?  Are grocery trucks viable long-term solutions for healthy food distribution challenges?

My tomatoes are travel weary.  By the time they reach the salad bowl, they are hundreds of miles away from their original homes.  Moved in trucks, jostled by countless hands, these little fellows have seen their fair share of highways and packaging plants.  Yet, what if there was a way to cut down on the amazing amount of fuel required to haul my salad fixings and the resources used to package them?  A  compromise between the farmers market and large grocery store?

Brightfarms is a company that designs, finances and builds hydroponic greenhouses on the roofs of supermarkets in the effort to reduce shipping and transportation costs and the pollution inherent to moving items along the supply chain.  With investments from such notable Silicon Valley tech moguls as Ali Partovi, Brightfarms has already signed up with eight chains across the country.  Soon, instead of eating lettuce from thousands of miles away, shoppers will be able to pick up veggies in the produce aisle that have traveled only a few hundred feet.

Not only do consumers and the environment benefit from Brightfarm’s greenhouse model, but retailers do as well. By cutting out the middleman, store owners can see higher profit margins by being able to keep fresh produce on the shelves longer.  Risk of damaged goods is reduced with shorter and more gentle deliveries and shorter warehouse storage time.  The owner is able to ensure a more stable price that free from volatile market fluctuations and can confidently advertise the freshness of fruits and vegetables grown on site.

For neighborhoods situated in the middle of “food deserts”, or areas unable to easily access healthy food, greenhouses atop or near markets might be a great way to help provide fresh produce at a low price and aid in the fight against obesity, heart disease and malnutrition.

Could your local supermarket be improved by adding a greenhouse?

 

I am sitting on the bus, quietly studying the magazine in front of me.  Many other of the passengers are doing the same with their smart phones, iPods, novels and newspapers, silently wrapped in their own worlds of text and typed conversation.  Glancing out the window, I watch the houses and small corner markets go by, each beginning to start the day’s activities as the sun breathes some energy into the still dozing city.

Suddenly, a harsh cry pierces the air inside the bus.  It shrieks and moans, ending with an almost laughing chitter.   Everyone inside snaps to attention and is dragged out of their placid cocoons, each searching anxiously for the source of the racket.  The haunting wail repeats, and I notice more and more pairs of eyes begin to focus on the space immediately next to where I am sitting.  Again, the wild screech sounds its alarm, and I realize the source of the distress is coming from inside of my purse.

“Shoot.  Sorry, I forgot to put this on silent.”  I reach into my bag and turn down the volume on my cell phone.  For several years, I have been using the call of the Common Loon as my ring tone, a sound file I downloaded from the Center for Biological Diversity’s Rare Earthtones website.  For some reason, I envisioned the haunting lament of the bird to be a unique and humorous way to signal a call.  Usually I get a few laughs and some bewildered glances, but on full volume the effect is admittedly a bit startling.  Luckily, the site has more mellow alternatives, such as the gentle song of the humpback whale or demure hooting of a burrowing owl.

To download your free ring tone, visit the Rare Earthtones site, click on the “Download” tab, and sign up for their email newsletter.  Then, preview the file of your favorite endangered animal, and once you find one that suits your fancy, submit to have the file texted to your phone.  After that, follow your phone’s instructions for saving and dropping the sound into your ringtone library.  Soon, you can answer to the howl of an endangered wolf, croaks of rare frogs, and growls of exotic tigers instead of the mundane buzzes, bleeps and boring jingles on every other phone in the urban jungle.

Turn your Call of the Mild into a Call of the Wild!

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it is the image that leaves us speechless that affects us in the most profound ways.  Powerful imagery has a history of influencing political change, capturing moments of beauty, and crystalizing the fleeting instants of everyday life.  It is with this understanding of the significance of striking photography and video that ARKive was formed.  In an effort to build awareness of the world’s endangered species at a time where rates of extinction are the highest in Earth’s known history, ARKive serves as an online repository for images and recordings of the world’s most vulnerable life forms.

With support from the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, BirdLife International, IUCN, UNEP-WCMC, Wildescreen USA Inc., the London Museum of Natural History, Kew Botanical Gardens and the Smithsonian, ARKive has brought together over 3,500 of the world’s foremost filmmakers and photographers to create an extraordinary collection of plants and animals.  The organization has also collaborated with Google to design layers for its Google Earth program and is a major contributor to the Institutional Council of the Encyclopedia of Life.  Eventually, the site hopes to reach its goal of completing full profiles for each of the 17,000 species on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.

It is remarkably easy to get lost exploring this website.  Between browsing the spectacular photos of flora and fauna, watching video of my favorite animals, sending e-cards to my friends, and listening to Sir David Atenborough’s introduction to the ARKive project, I easily spent a good hour tooling around and feeding my inner nature nerd.  Teachers will enjoy the education portion of the site that features downloadable resources for several different age groups.  Each section includes classroom presentations, scrapbooks, teacher and student packets, and extension materials in a variety of engaging games and interactive formats.

ARKive is an amazing synthesis of technology and nature and is an innovative way to connect with elements of nature that we would otherwise not be able to experience.  From tigers and aardvarks to fungus and flowers, you can explore the world from your desktop and perhaps capture the last glimpses of unique organisms on this planet .

Have a favorite endangered plant or animal?  Let us know!

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