Burning Sun

The sun the last few days has been a wee bit… odd. Fires in eastern Washington, Oregon, and Montana have been sending smoke our way, which combined with the cloud cover has created a very surreal sky-scape.


McLaughlin Natural Reserve, part 2

I couldn’t resist sharing more of the stunningly bizarre flowers I encountered while working at McLaughlin Reserve this spring, as well as some insects who make use of this space.

McLaughlin Natural Reserve

The last two years I have been working on a project at McLaughlin Natural Reserve studying the response of flowering plants and grasses to fire in shrub chaparral. The fire opens up the canopy, allowing for a large bloom of wildflowers. The reserve includes many areas with serpentine soils, soil from ultramafic rock with high magnesium, low calcium, low nutrient levels and often high levels of heavy metals, so only certain adapted species can grow on it. These serpentine regions tend to have many native California plants which have adapted over time to the harsh soils, often in very strange ways.

This year, the particularly wet conditions led to a bloom of many stunningly strange flowers in these burned patches. It’s been incredible to wander through these fields of bright colors, and to look up close at some of these strange flower forms.

McKerricher State Park and Coastal Dunes

Every spring, I teach a class on plant communities of California, that travels on four field trips to different parts of the state to see some of the incredible range of terrestrial ecosystems in our neighborhood. Last weekend we took three days to go towards the coast, in the Mendocino area. The trip takes students from coastal dunes to coastal prairie to riparian system to pygmy forests to mixed evergreen forests and ends with old-growth redwood. Along the way they learn to identify the different plant species, understand the different drivers that cause the plant communities to be what they are, and hear stories of the history and social factors that shape how we think about these communities today.

These are a few of my students from McKerricher state park, where the students conducted a sampling exercise to look at how the assembly of plants changed as they moved from the high tide line towards the inland dunes. The plants we saw include beach evening primrose, purple owl’s clover, Indian paintbrush, beach bur, coastal sagewort, knotweed, American dune grass, and sand verbena. These plants all have amazing adaptations to the shifting sands, harsh winds, bright light, salty air, and low water supply they have to deal with in this environment. One of these adaptations is a spreading below-ground root structures that anchor the plants in the dunes, store water and nutrients for drought, and allow the plant to resprout if it is buried. Check out the photo of the sand verba roots–you’d never know from their cute little leaves that such a monster lay underneath! We also enjoyed a stunning display from Menzies’ wallflower, an endangered species with a limited range along the California coast.

Yosemite in snow

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Yosemite many times, and especially often since I moved back to California a couple years ago. Despite two previous January trips; however, I had yet to see the valley in the snow. A recent visit during this winter’s storms finally solved that, and it was incredible to see the Merced River in full flow, and the ice and snow on the valley floor and mountain tops.

The snow had spent a couple days melting and re-freezing, creating stunning ice crystals on branches, rocks, and blades of grass. We were treated to two colorful sunsets and a gorgeous early morning rainbow in Upper Yosemite Fall. It was amazing to see mist forming and disappearing throughout the day as the snow warmed and cooled with the passage of the sun.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Our final stop was the city of Copenhagen, Denmark. The city was vibrant life intertwined with layers of history–it seemed that everywhere we turned there was another oxidized copper spire reaching into the sky, and a stone church or museum around every corner. I loved all the bikes and brightly-colored buildings, and of course the canals and houseboats.


The Rundetaarn (round tower) in Copenhagen, Denmark was originally built as an astronomical observatory in the 1600’s. Because of its purpose, it was designed with a eight-plus story spiral ramp, rather than a staircase, to allow for horses and carriages to pull heavy equipment to the top of the tower. The top features a museum of some of the old pieces as well as stunning views of the old city.

Bergen, Norway

Time has gotten away with me on these summer photos, especially as my fall months were packed busy with re-establishing my experiment in the Sierras, helping host a research and management conference at my university, and passing my qualifying examination (the last big hurdle on the way to my PhD before the dissertation itself). I’ve finally finished going through the last two stops on our beautiful whirlwind travels through Europe, the first of which is Bergen, Norway.


Bergen is a city established by German merchants in a country ruled by Scandinavian kings, a cultural and economic division that led to centuries of trade and occasional conflict. The old town of Bergen is a labyrinth of multi-story wooden buildings, all in shades of red, yellow, and orange, and the waterfront hosts restaurants with cuisines from all over the world–including Louisiana cajun-style seafood. The backdrop to all of this bustle is the dark green forests and fjords of the Norway coastline.