Nature Connection | Deborah McArthur

Writing – Consulting – Education

Garden veggies and their cousins

Tending a summer vegetable garden is a great way to observe and understand plant diversity. Note the growth form, color and texture of leaves, the flower color and how the fruits and vegetables develop on each plant. Connecting with garden veggies provides an opportunity to learn about similar, related wild plants.

poison_hemlockCarrots are in the same family (Apiaceae) as parsley, fennel and celery. Outside the garden, a dangerous relative grows as a common weed. The feathery leaves of poison hemlock look like carrot tops. Identify the hazardous species by the red at the base of the stem – a reminder of “Socrates’s blood” (as the philosopher chose to die by drinking hemlock tea!)

wildcuke-viningCucumbers are in the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae) with other summer garden favorites: melon, squash, pumpkin and zucchini. The vines and curling tendrils of garden cucumbers weave up and over bamboo trellises. A wild cucumber plant – commonly called “manroot” – thrives outside the veggie garden gate, climbing into willow and oak branches, creating a dense tangle. The wild cucumber fruit is a ping-pong sized green ball with long spines. It is not edible.

deadly-nightshadeTomatoes share a plant family (Solanaceae) with potatoes, eggplant, chili and sweet peppers. Outside the garden, get to know its wild, weedy cousin the “deadly nightshade”. Both plants grow 3-5 feet tall with alternate leaves and tiny pinwheel flowers. While tomatoes have yellow and white flowers, these nightshades have blue or deep purple flowers. Instead of plump, juicy tomato fruit, the flowers develop into small, dark poisonous balls.

raphanus-raphanistrum-wild-radish-english-schoolKales, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, radish and turnips are all members of the mustard family, Brassicaceae. Outside the garden, wild mustard and radish grow across fields. Another wild cousin, watercress, is common in our local creeks.

A few more garden to wild plant links: Snap peas and green beans (Fabaceae) are closely related to wild lupine, vetch and broom. Cultivated spearmint and sage (Lamiaceae) are cousins to wild yerba buena and hedgenettle. Artichokes are in a family with summery sunflowers (Asteraceae). Artichokes relatives are those thorny and omnipresent thistles making crossing a field a scratchy challenge.

Strawberries and raspberries are veggie garden perennials in the rose family (Rosaceae). Delicious, wild cousins include thimbleberry, California blackberry, and wood strawberry. California and wood rose grow along the trail. Many fruit trees are also in this family – note the similarity of flowers on apple, pear, cherry, plum, peach, apricot and almond trees.schematic_rose22

In the garden and in the wild, get to know your plants and enjoy the long, sweet days of summer.


Road trips Rock

A recent geology immersion road-trip included exploring an ancient cavern, descending the great Colorado Plateau staircase, and touring landscapes of sand dunes and cinder cones. We hiked, biked, river slogged, and drove through millions and billions of years of Earth’s history.

hwy50From the high Sierra Nevada granite expanses off I-80, our route branched onto Highway 50 in Nevada. Heading due east, one can’t help but feel the rhythmic pattern of the landscape. The needle-straight road traverses sagebrush desert, then winds up and over a snowy mountain pass. And repeats. Linear across the desert, winding up, twisting down again over a dozen sets of basins and ranges. Dubbed “the loneliest road in America,” for over 300-miles across the state, we greeted rare on-coming cars with an empathic and enthusiastic wave.

cavesJust before the Utah border, the remote Great Basin National Park surprised us with a spectacular cavern displaying limestone and marble stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, shields and “cave popcorn.” A park ranger led the tour through the Gothic Palace, Music and Lodge rooms of this spectacle that dates to the early Cambrian, 600 million years ago.

Finally in Utah, we camped above the pink cliffs in Bryce Canyon National Park at an impressive (and chilly) 8000-foot elevation. Here at the top of the Colorado Plateau, the Claron Formation is 40 million years young. We explored the magical Bryce Amphitheater of towering rock walls, fins, windows and hoodoo spires on the Peak-a-boo trail, weaving through ponderosa, limber and bristlecone pines.

zion.jpgTraveling south, we descended elevation and like traveling back in time, the sandstone rock got older and older. Entering Zion National Park from the east entrance, the crisscross patterns of Checkerboard Mesa welcomed us. These were ancient sand dunes in the Jurassic era when dinosaurs roamed – 180 million years ago. Sneakers stick satisfyingly on the steep slope sandstone.

narrows.jpgA bike ride up Zion’s Virgin River valley to the slot canyon of the Narrows was the most dramatic immersion of our trip – deep red Navajo sandstone embraced us as we cruised among the cottonwood trees.

A final camping night before returning home brought us through the Mojave National Preserve with its diversity of attractions including Hole-in-the-Wall labyrinth, Kelso sand dunes, black rock cinder cones and lava tubes. Some rock in the Preserve is 2.5 billion years old – that’s over half the age of planet Earth!

As the foggy redwood coast welcomed us home, we’ve refuse to wash the back window of the van. It’s a reminder of the radical rocks, vast views, washboard dirt roads and juniper campfires of our recent adventure through geological time.

Special thanks to Scout for hosting us on our trip. We loved Hurricane Mesa and we love you!

A model coastal town

A 3×3-foot environmental landscape model draws immediate attention. It includes a shallow basin on one side, representing the ocean and our Monterey Bay Sanctuary. Toy sea creatures – a dolphin, gray whale, anemone, octopus – create the scene.

Block buildings define different parts of a community across the contoured model. A red barn sits near a field. A resort hotel rests on an ocean bluff. A factory with an outflow pipe is on the opposite side of a harbor with toy boats. A car, a tractor, and a giant dog can be moved around from a gas station to a house to the

The model is the perfect Earth Week educational tool. It provides a platform to simulate human actions, observe cause and effect, discuss environmental issues and problem-solve.

A student shakes out a layer of red cake sprinkles onto the agricultural field in one corner. This is pesticide applied to a crop of vegetables. Next, a sprinkle of green sugar crystals representing chemical fertilizer. Cinnamon dusts the field as loose top soil.

Leify_sprayingThen the rain begins –  a spray bottle showers the field. Green chemicals, red “bug spray” and brown dirt course down the contours, tainting the water in the estuary inlet and flowing into the ocean. As the contaminated water runs toward the ocean animals, students instinctively reach out to move the animals away.

Students have fun playing with the colored and textured ingredients. A pinch of rainbow sprinkles scattered along the beaches and streets simulates wrappers and debris. Chocolate sprinkles look surprisingly like dog poop. Soy sauce dripped under the toy car is an oil leak. A few squirts of foam soap covers the little car getting washed. Cinnamon dusts the construction site.

watershed dogThen it rains again. Soap, oil, garbage and pet waste wash into the storm drains and funnel into the Sanctuary. Erosion of the loose soil turns the water brown as it all flows downhill and mixes together.

The discussion turns to solutions: creating vegetation and buffer zones around fields and construction sites. Organic farming. Preserving wetlands to filter run-off water. Keeping cars tuned so they don’t leak oil. Consumer choices and being very responsible with waste or refusing and reusing to reduce.

Playing with a landscape model brings awareness and connection. It suggests stewardship projects for Earth Day (and everyday): a beach clean-up, plant restoration, gardening, tree planting. It stimulates discussion of environmental careers which require communication and problem-solving: engineering, wildlife biology, farming, city planning, politics, teaching.boys&watershedmodel

May we all work toward being model environmental citizens in a model community. “Make every day Earth Day” by recognizing our impacts and working toward positive solutions.

The taste of spring

Nature exploration in spring is a sensory explosion.  Listen to the birds warbling and trilling their complex mating songs. See the bright buds of new growth on bare branches. Smell the rain on the trail and feel the mud and spongy ground underfoot. And what about the fifth sense? How might you enjoy the diversity of nature’s tastes to celebrate the arrival of spring?

During a hike along a ridgeline, we delight in the first blossoms of orange sticky monkey flower. A pinch at the base of the tubular flower reveals the glistening syrup that attracts hummingbird and butterfly pollinators – and the taste of sweet nectar.nectar sticky monkey flower

Kayaking through the slough, the lime-green, segmented, succulent pickleweed plant lines the channels. A nibble on a round stem is a taste of the sea –  satisfyingly salty.

Under the shaded redwoods, the ground is covered with clover-like sorrel. The leaves are purple underneath, green on top. A white line down the center of each heart-shaped leaf looks like a folded valentine. A sample of one leaf causes puckering lips – a sour flavor.

Across a meadow, green leafy plants abound with the spring rains. While tall grasses reach to the sun, the toothed leaves of dandelion greens grow flat on the ground at the base of the stem. A pinched leaf delivers a stimulating, bitter bite.

oyster mushroomsSweet, salty, sour and bitter are tastes recognized throughout history. A fifth taste – only characterized in the last 100 years – should not be forgotten. This one, we satisfy with a fungus foray. A harvest of oyster mushrooms sauteed to perfection sates the desire for savory – also known as umami.

The five tastes have their corresponding receptor cells in the mouth – primarily on the tongue but also along the throat and roof of the mouth – bundled in clusters: the taste buds. When the receptors sample small molecules such as sugars, electrolytes, toxins, and amino acids, they report to the brain through nerve fibers. Combined with signals of texture and smell, the brain assigns a food’s flavor.

Taste perception evolved to protect animals from ingesting toxic foods. Imagine how each animal lives in its own “taste world” with unique flavor perceptions and preferences.

Herbivores have the greatest number of taste buds (10-25,000) to allow them to distinguish among the huge diversity of plant species – many of which produce poisonous compounds. Carnivores, such as cats, have 500 or fewer taste buds and omnivores range in the middle. Humans mouths contain up to 10,000 taste buds.

Enjoy tastes this spring and throughout the year. Safe foraging!

The love of a dog

She would tilt her head when we said “beach” or “ball.” Her obsession with stick-fetching was as adorable as it was intense. Her big, dark eyes, wet tongue and howls of happiness greeted each return home.

Our family dog was a constant loving presence. She brought joy and laughter, calm and balance. Her actions gave us insight into canine instinct and how wild dogs behave and perceive the world.

Most memorable are the moments of play.  A curtsy or “downward dog” bow initiated the activity.  She enjoyed tug-of-war with an old sock as if it were a piece of wild-caught meat. Her eyes would follow a ball or stick as if it were prey running its course.

She enjoyed caching her bones and rawhide – common behavior of many wild animals. Not so pleasant was finding a half-chewed sinew under the couch pillows, in a slipper, or weeks later as a rotting glob in the garden.

dogWe gained insight into dogs’ masterful sense of smell as our girl found the smallest of crumbs on the kitchen floor. Snout to the grass, she traced the path of visiting wildlife in our yard with zig-zagging patterns. At the beach or along a forest trail, her nose would find any dead animal (so she could roll in the stench.)

Canine communication was fun to discern. Growls of unease. Yips of discomfort. Barks of warning. And the favorite, the welcoming howl of happiness when we returned home, conveying joy that the pack is all together again.

Perhaps what we will miss most is watching her nap. Muzzle sneering and relaxing, paws bending and twitching in her dreamy runs, we would tell stories of what in her doggie subconscious stimulates these movements; were they triggered by survival instincts from her wild canine genes?

Our dog modeled strength, hardiness and resilience – characteristics wild dogs must possess to survive. When sick or working a bone through her system, she would pace, eat grass, pace more. She seemed to know what she needed.IMG_1994

After so many years of love from our family dog, she inevitably stopped hearing her name, seeing thrown sticks, even feeding herself. In nature, this wild dog would not have a chance.

The last words we say to her are “thank you.” We feel gratitude for her sweet nature, for modeling the simple life, for encouraging us to go to wild places: the beach, the forest, across an open meadow, and for the love she gave to the pack.

cassie picasso'ed

In Memory of our dear Cascade who blessed our lives June 10, 2004 – February 22, 2018.

Slow down and watch the ducks

A perpetual New Year’s resolution: slow down, find more moments to breathe deeply, be more aware and find the balance between an inevitable busy lifestyle and calming moments in nature. Bird watching helps to achieve this goal and some of the easiest birds to watch are our local, native ducks.

mallardsMallards are omnipresent at park ponds and along the river. “Look! A headless bird!” we joke, as they dabble feed, their comb-like mouths sifting out a meal of aquatic plants and insects.

Molted out of the brown eclipse plumage of the fall, male mallards are ready to impress with green heads brilliantly flashing in the winter sun. Even this early in the year, mallards perform courtship displays. Watch closely for subtle movements that ducks perform – a shaking head, a waddling tail.

nod swimmingA female swimming with her neck outstretched, skimming the water with her lower beak is inviting males to show off. Males and females do a rhythmic head pumping motion like a dance move as they swim around each other. One may slyly lift a wing to expose the bright blue feathers on its trailing edge.

A favorite location for urban duck watching is Neary Lagoon Wildlife Refuge near downtown Santa Cruz. Look for the wood ducks. Males have green helmet-shaped heads with brilliant white lines etched around their neck and up the cheek – accents that look like an artist’s paintbrush. Females are helmeted with gray plumage – a white eye ring and tear drop pattern distinguishing her species. Wood ducks are smaller than mallards and may perch on low branches in the willows along the bank. Their clawed webbed feet help them hold on when they nest in tree cavities.

merganserAlong the San Lorenzo river levee or crossing the bridges downtown look for sleek ducks playing in the riffles, diving for small fish – the mergansers. Males sport green head feathers – spiked out the back in a crest – and a thin, pointed red beak. Females have ruddy red-orange heads – also slicked back with a spiked crest. Watch for the small jump they make when diving underwater.

Ducks are endearing perhaps because they bring back childhood memories of time spent observing wildlife. When the year gets crazy, take a walk, hang with the ducks and add a bit of balance to a full day.

Encountering condors

The silhouette of the distant fire lookout tower lured us up the trail. After winding switchbacks, climbing over stiles and ascending a steep fire road, we reached North Chalone Peak – the highest point in Pinnacles National Park. Every direction offered a dramatic view: the Ventana range to the west, the Pinnacles high peaks to the north, rolling hills to the east.

We huddled against the south side of the two-story fire lookout for shelter from the chill northerly wind; the low arc of the noon December sun warming. As we finished lunch, my daughter shouted, “Look, there!” pointing at a large, dark figure flying toward us on strong, broad wings, fingered feathers splayed. It circled around the fire tower once, twice, then landed on a lichen-covered rock in front of us.

website_589_GavinEmmons_2_1We observed the bird’s features – the orange-pink featherless head and neck, thick hooked beak, storky light-gray legs, the white patch on its folded black wings. Frilly neck plumage blew in the wind like a fancy feather boa. Through binoculars we observed its red eye and when it stretched its wings out, we read the black tag identifying condor #69.

A second condor caught us by surprise as it swooped in, folding its 9-foot wings to settle beside #69. We were – of course – awestruck. Of the 276 wild California condors and the immense potential of their range, here were two sharing this peak with us.condors and scouts on chalone peak

The birds stood close and shared an intimacy, touching beaks and caressing necks. They moved onto the roof of the primitive outhouse built into the rocky slope and took turns sticking their heads down the holes of the metal vents – a behavior we found hilarious.

CondorsThe website provided information about these specific birds. #569 is the female, called “Phoebe the Forager.” She was born in 2010 at the Los Angeles Zoo. Her companion, #589 hatched in Boise, Idaho at the World Center for Birds of Prey, also in 2010. Just this year the two hooked up, nested and are raising a chick – condor #878.

The intimate encounter with these birds connects us deeply to the recovery effort of this endangered species. In the 80s there were only 22 individual California condors in the world; they were practically extinct.

The survival of newly hatched chicks depends on a healthy diet. Their biggest threat is malnutrition from “microtrash” – a zip tie, can tab, broken glass. Condors consume bone to provide needed calcium and our garbage can easily be confused for food.

‘Tis the time of the year for good tidings, resolutions and hopes for the future. In 2018, let’s consume less, be responsible for our waste, hike more peaks and keep hoping for the condors.


Eco-travel Activism

The first morning of vacation, we were looking forward to a nice cup of coffee, enjoying a tropical breeze on a palm-lined beach. We find a café advertising “organic” food and sit down at a table under an umbrella. The coffee arrives in a paper cup alongside a bowl of single portion cream containers. I hesitate to open 4 packages just to lighten my coffee. Just then, a plastic butter package with a foil tab blows off the neighboring table into my lap and a half-used jam pack blows down the beach. We jump up to retrieve the debris and start the conversation about low impact choices.

Traveling outside of our eco-aware lifestyle on the central California coast is an exercise in how to flow, blend and bend with a different place. As travelers, we can spread the ideals of an eco-friendly lifestyle by modeling practices, gently nudging toward a stronger connection with nature and stewardship.

ecotravel1.jpgREUSE – Equipped with a travel kit of a stainless steel water bottle, reusable shopping bag, and food container, we seek out drinking fountains and ask for refills along the way. At stores, it’s worth seeing a surprised expression when you say, “Thank you but I have my own bag!” Instead of the Styrofoam and plastic to-go boxes, left-overs get packed in the reusable container.

REFUSE – An eco-travel activist must practice declining. At restaurants, specify “no straw, please”. If you see disposable cups ecotravel2.jpgon other tables, let the server know you have your own water bottle. Ask for options to those small packages of soy sauce, honey, jam, cream, salad dressing.

SERVICE – Action is a part of the eco-travel experience. Pick up garbage on the beach and trash blowing down the street (someone will be watching!) Ask where the recycling containers are and have conversations with locals about what kind of recycling program they might have.

CHOICES – Go to small, local cafes instead of convenience chains. Seek out farmers markets instead of supermarkets. Make natural areas – wildlife refuges, parks, preserves – the destinations. Discover wild animals for yourself in their habitats. Camping is a wonderful alternative to hotels; use your own bedding and towels, avoid tiny shampoo bottles and individually-wrapped soap.

Strive for leave-no-trace exploration. Talk with locals about the changes a community can make to live with the land. What is now awkward and inconvenient can make a difference in changing the dominant paradigm. Leave an impression, plant a seed of option and opportunity for others to follow.

Living in the quake zone

It was my birthday Oct 1, 1987. The marching band was on the football field practicing a half-time show. At 7:42am, a 5.9 magnitude quake lasting 4-5 seconds rippled under us. The Earth, rather than the spectators in the stands, was doing the wave, from the flute section through the drum line. It was fascinating to see the peaks and troughs of wave movement along the yard lines and it was cool to get a “birthday quake” that morning.

Earthquakes appear in mythology of ancient cultures. In China, the Giant Dragon shook the Earth when annoyed. The Greeks told of the Great Bull bellowing in the tunnels below the palace in Crete. The Romans believed Atlas was shifting the Earth from shoulder to shoulder and in Japan, it was the giant catfish who carried the world on its back. The Russians attributed the movement to the God’s dog scratching fleas.

Modern science offers us more insight. Our 4.5 billion-year-old planet has been shaped by continual natural forces. Valleys, mountains, lakes, and shorelines formed from slipping, sliding, shifting, sinking, floating, compressing, tilting, and deforming as the Earth’s rocky crust moves over the magma mantle.

Coastal California is a dynamic place at the boundary where the dense Pacific oceanic plate meets the North American continental plate. The 800-mile-long San Andreas fault line has been active for 28 million years, shifting the western side north at an average of 2 inches per year.

Reminders are in the landscape and treasured places. The towering boulder outcrops at Pinnacles and Joshua Tree National Parks are matching rocks that have traveled half the length of the state. Bodega Head and Montara Mountain were once the southern Sierra Nevada. This year on a spring wildflower visit to the Carrizo Plain National Monument we observed a creek bed channel which had shifted 30-feet along the fault line.

While we can hope the movement continues slowly and gradually, rock does get locked together and when it slips, the release of energy results in the big quakes. History tells us this is the norm. Change in nature is inevitable.

Floods. Mudslides. Fires. Earthquakes. Tsunamis. Earth’s constantly changing nature is important to understand and respect so we may prepare, react and problem-solve when necessary. Update emergency kits and procedures to keep families and friends safe. And keep up the conversation about the natural phenomena of our dramatic, dynamic and ever-changing planet.

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