:: 2018 “THIS LAND IS…” WRITING CONTEST WINNER ::
Chardonnay, silvery silences, grebes, double-digit death, Lake Berryessa, wild chaparral, impressive fires, overnights, hints of grass, unnaturally drowned landscapes, lingering sunniness, binoculars, ensnared kites, melted tires, the Inner Coast Range, chocolate & cloves.
My first visit to Berryessa Snow National Monument is in the northern section, where my sister Veronica and I spend two days hiking up Snow Mountain in July. We wake up in San Francisco, annoyed honks and the clanging of garbage trucks drifting into the apartment window. We walk down a street crowded with cars to get breakfast. Then we drive a few hours through dead-grass hillsides and a paste of heat to the Deafy Glade Trailhead, where it feels eerily deserted after the congestion of the city. We park and see no other cars, no other people. Sweating, we load our backpacks for an overnight, packing extra water since we are unsure where we will refill. The oppressive heat and silvery silence unsettle us, but neither of us mentions it.
“It is important to be aware of noise (defined as unwanted sound, and in this case usually generated by humans or machinery), which can degrade the acoustical environment, or soundscape, of parks. Just as smog smudges the visual horizon, noise obscures the listening horizon for both visitors and wildlife. This is especially true in places, such as remote wilderness areas, where extremely low sound levels are common.”
—Proctor Reid and Steve Olson, Protecting National Park Soundscapes
“The Berryessa Snow Mountain area is the heart of northern California’s wild Inner Coast Range. Once covered by ocean waters, it is a landscape shaped by geologic forces of staggering power overlain with bountiful but fragile biodiversity. Anchored in the north by Snow Mountain’s remote forests and in the south by scenic Berryessa Mountain, this area stretches through unbroken wildlands and important wildlife corridors, a mosaic of native grasslands, picturesque oak woodlands, rare wetlands, and wild chaparral.”
—Proclamation 9298 of July 10, 2015, Establishment of the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument
My second trip to Berryessa Snow National Monument is in the southern section, with my entire family during Christmas. We spend a week camping in yurts outside Calistoga and divide our days between wine tasting and hiking in the surrounding area. We purchase “Winter in the Wineries” passports that give us access to seventeen different wineries in Calistoga. The first pages of the passport offer instructions for tasting wine:
1. Tilt and Look
2. Swirl and Smell
3. Sip and Taste
4. Repeat and Conclude
Throughout our visit, we taste a lot of Chardonnay, a Napa Valley specialty. I learn that the typical California-style Chardonnay has a rich, buttery flavor, which comes from being aged in oak barrels. A French-style Chardonnay is cleaner, clearer, crisper. This slim flavor is achieved from aging in stainless steel barrels. As one of the winery employees explains, this style allows for more of the flavor of the actual fruit to come through since it is not obscured by the complex, woody essence of oak. As a current trend, many wineries in the region are steering away from oak and switching to this more natural, French-style Chardonnay.
Step 3: Sip and Taste. I decide that I like the creamy, deep flavor that comes with the oak. It is less sanitized than the stainless Chardonnays and leaves a sunniness lingering on my tongue.
The night sky has inspired us for generations. With the night comes dazzling pinpoints of light, and the Milky Way unfurled in luminous mystery. Nighttime views and environments are among the critical park features the National Park Service protects. Night sky protection enhances qualities of solitude and undeveloped wilderness character that animals depend on for survival, park visitors seek for connections, and many cultural-historical parks require for preservation. In this regard, the NPS recognizes a naturally dark night sky as more than a scenic canvas; it is part of a complex ecosystem that supports both natural and cultural resources.”
Chaparral is a shrubland or heathland plant community found primarily in the US state of California and in the northern portion of the Baja California Peninsula, Mexico. It is shaped by a Mediterranean climate (mild, wet winters and hot dry summers) and wildfire, featuring summer-drought-tolerant plants with hard sclerophyllous evergreen leaves.…The chaparral ecosystem as a whole is adapted to be able to recover from infrequent wildfires (fires occurring a minimum of 15 years apart); indeed, chaparral regions are known culturally and historically for their impressive fires. (This does create a conflict with human development adjacent to and expanding into chaparral systems.)”
Wildfires haunt the region. We drive past the blackened husks of trees and a patchwork of scoured landscape. Car frames rest on the ground, the tires melted away, next to the charred foundations of houses that are white skeleton squares on blank earth. Between October 8 and 9, 2017, no fewer than twelve wildfires burned across California. The Atlas and Tubbs fires raged through Sonoma and Napa counties, destroying more than five thousand structures and killing around thirty people. Earlier in the summer, Veronica and I spent the night of July 22 on a rocky outcrop in Berryessa Snow National Monument, and just the day before that night both the Garza fire in Fresno County and the Long Valley fire in Lassen County had been announced as contained. The Detwiler fire in Mariposa County had still burned.
We hike along the bathtub-ring shore of Lake Berryessa as a group of eight, four pairs of binoculars around necks. I had purchased a bird book in anticipation of this family holiday trip, thinking that bird-watching would give us something fun to do together as we hiked and camped for the week. However, it is December, and birds have been conspicuously absent. Now the open shoreline and large body of water gives us our first chance to really try our hand at bird-watching. New to this activity, the whole group of us pauses and takes turns sighting a black-and-white bird out on the water. We list the characteristics we observe out loud to one another: black body, black head, a white face and a long white neck with a narrow black stripe down the back. Eventually my sister Alex’s boyfriend, Byron, pulls out his phone and types in our observations. A grebe, he decides. We take turns looking at the photo on the screen and then back at the bird on the water. Yes, a grebe, we all agree.
We reach the end of our hike along Lake Berryessa’s shoreline and sit at a picnic table on an exposed hill to eat lunch. The surface of the water is far below us, the dead shadow of the lake’s level indicating that the water is low. My boyfriend, Jack, and I decide to jog back to the cars and drive them closer so that we can do something else with our day instead of walking back the way we came. We return and join everyone else at the picnic table. “Oh!” My mom is excited, fidgeting and looking over her shoulder. “There was a hummingbird flying around us. His head is this intense ruby red. I want you to see it! He keeps coming back; I hope you get a chance to look at him.”
This sounds like quite the evolution of our day of bird-watching practice. I take a seat and begin to eat my sandwich when everyone gets excited again. My sister thrusts the binoculars in my hand and points straight ahead, where a hummingbird hovers near a tree branch. I focus the binoculars on his silhouette. I see the furious motion of his wings as he seemingly hangs in the air. His body is a silvery gray-green, like lichen or Spanish moss. His head looks dark, but I don’t see any red. The bird pivots and now he is facing me. The feathers around his head catch the light and flash a glowing garnet red. Fascinated, I continue to watch. From the side the bird looks dark and drab; only when the bird is at a certain angle, facing me head-on, can I see the brilliant red around his face.
We flip through the bird book and identify it as a male Anna’s hummingbird, common in the oak-chaparral habitat of the Pacific coast. Even the illustration depicts the head as dark from the side and a bright red from the front, though it doesn’t quite do the illuminating feathers justice.
“Nearly half of California’s 108 species of dragonfly and damselfly are found here, as well as 16 reptiles and amphibians, 6 rare insects, and 80 species of butterflies.”
—Proclamation 9298 of July 10, 2015, Establishment of the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument
On that first summer hike, Veronica brought the wrong shoes, so she struggled behind me in the heat as we climbed a steep hill. The trail curved around a treed meadow where the evening light caught my eye, so I paused for a moment of solitude. Low, golden sunlight filtered through the tree branches, shimmering off the leaves. I had a sensation like peering into clear water on a sunny day, when bright spots and speckles flicker and dance around your field of vision. Then I realized that the meadow was filled with dragonflies, hundreds of dragonflies, darting in and out of the light, flashes of brightness bouncing off of their wings.
The inspiration for our family trip to Napa Valley was my sister Alex. She is enthusiastic about wine tasting and wanted to share that experience with all of us. When she goes tasting, she brings a wine journal with her and records notes about everything that she tries. The journal has preprinted sections for each wine: color depth, hue and clarity; aroma intensity and notes; body, balance, acidity; flavor intensity and notes; and a final conclusion prompting a star rating. Alex is an engineer and likes to keep details tight and orderly. I am slightly embarrassed at the prospect of taking notes in front of the winery employees who serve us two-ounce pours with a practiced hand and talk about wine fluently, but I secretly love that Alex records everything. Her determination to work her way through the journal’s questions involves the whole group. “What color would you say this is, brick or ruby?” she asks everyone, holding up her glass of Cabernet. “What do you smell? I detect some citrus, maybe a hint of grass,” she says with her nose in a glass of Chardonnay. “What do you taste? I think a faint flavor of key lime and white flowers.” “What do think about this one, three stars?” Her insistence on asking these questions for every taste makes all of us think more closely about what we are drinking. If I were on my own I might get swept up in the experience, talking and laughing as I drink. This way I pay attention.
As we all take turns peering at the hummingbird through the binoculars, Jack spies something else of interest. “Look, a kite! A kite is stuck in that tree!” We all leave the picnic table to meander back to the car, but Jack runs over to the base of the tree with its captive. A triangular primary-colored kite is ensnared in the bare branches, just high enough to be difficult to retrieve. Jack begins by tossing rocks and sticks toward the kite to see if he can dislodge it. When that accomplishes nothing, he climbs the tree. At first it is easy, with thick, sturdy branches for hands and feet, but the branches thin as he gets higher and the tree starts to sway. He stops a little more than an arm’s distance below the kite and fishes a dead stick from among the branches. He reaches up with it, poking and prodding the kite until finally it escapes its confines. Snatching the kite, Jack carefully climbs down the tree and then runs toward us with a giant grin flapping on his face, red, yellow and blue flying behind him.
Lake Berryessa is technically not a part of Berryessa Snow National Monument. Cleverly, this body of water was left out of the monument boundary so as not to incite protests from boaters and fishermen who value access to the lake and would oppose a national monument’s restrictions. Instead, the border of the monument snakes along the edge of the lake, leaving an appropriate open border, but it includes mountains that offer spectacular views of the lake.
There was not always a lake here. It used to be a farmland valley housing the town of Monticello, and before that it was a Spanish settlement, and before that it was a native Wintun village. In the 1950s, the Bureau of Reclamation formed a plan to dam Putah Creek and feed the water to Solano County to quench the need for water from growing populations and the agricultural industry. Now this valley is occupied with a lake 15.5 miles long and 3 miles wide with 165 miles of shoreline.
After a night spent in the silent wilderness, Veronica and I amble up the slope to the summit of Snow Mountain: wide, flat, brown, dirt. I usually imagine mountain summits as sharp and rocky, but this one is a smooth, gentle walkway. There is one boulder on the summit, so we gravitate to it, lounging on its folds and edges as we take a break, enjoying our accomplishment and destination. It is still morning, but I eat my lunch anyways. Tame green mountains unfold in the view before me. There is not a single speck or flash of white on Snow Mountain this July.
What is natural? Wildfires are natural, and in fact some ecosystems in California depend on wildfire to remain healthy. But are the 2017 fires a natural disaster? Or an unnatural one, since they were likely caused by a warmer and drier climate that is the result of human action? Change is natural. But is the scale of change we are witnessing in the natural world moving at a natural pace?
It is easy to equate natural with good and unnatural with bad, but is it really so simple? Grapes didn’t naturally grow in California, but people recognized that the climate and landscape were ideal for growing them and imported them for cultivation. Now California is recognized worldwide for the high-quality wines produced here. It is a thriving and much-loved industry.
What is more natural: a buttery, oaky Chardonnay aged in real wood or a stainless steel–aged, unobstructed-fruit-flavor Chardonnay?
Wine tasting step two: Swirl and Smell. Taking the time to smell wine is an essential part of the process. Sometimes the scent enhances and reinforces the flavor. Sometimes, remarkably, the aroma is completely different than the taste. Chardonnay can smell of honeysuckle, grass and pear, but then taste of vanilla and apricot. Cabernet Sauvignon, one of California’s specialty varietals, smells to me of fields of earth warming in the sunshine; fruit ripening on a vine; and, sometimes, as we record in our journal, chocolate and cloves, raspberry jam, plum, clay and blackberry.
As Veronica and I hike up Snow Mountain in the heat, we just smell smoke as the California landscape burns.
A report by the Public Lands Project of the Center for American Progress found Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument scored highly in the following areas:
- Bird, mammal, and reptile species diversity.
- Climate resilience.
- Uninterrupted landscapes (or ecological connectivity)
- Wild and remote (or ecological intactness) — meaning landscapes with minimal to no influence from human activities that are thereby able to support natural evolutionary and ecological processes.
- Biodiversity (or ecological system (vegetation) diversity).
- Rare ecosystems (or ecological system type rarity) — those that support rare, unique, or irreplaceable natural systems which are likely to consist of species that are rare, unique, or irreplaceable.
- Unique terrain (or geophysical type rarity) — geophysical types that are likely to offer unique habitat conditions.
- Night sky darkness — have low levels of light pollution, conferring high scenic value.
- Rare species (or rarity-weighted species richness).
—“Study finds good reason to keep Berryessa Snow Mountain a National Monument,” Daily Democrat, June 27, 2017
We walk back to the cars, Jack with kite in hand. Our voices disturb some birds in the bushes along the road, and a family of brown and gray California quail shoots across the pavement and down the hill on the other side, tall topknots bouncing as they run.
When the Solano Project planned to dam Putah Creek, the residents of Monticello mounted fierce opposition. However, a small town with a population of around 250 people did not stand a chance against the thirsty thousands in Solano County. Eventually all Monticello businesses closed, houses were physically removed and the cemetery was relocated. Every last remnant of civilization was cleared away. The dam was finished in 1957 and the valley was filled up like an empty trough.
My friend Sarah used to work as an ecologist for Sequoia National Park. Once, while driving past Crowley Lake near our home in Mammoth Lakes, California, she announced her belief that all reservoirs should be called reservoirs and not lakes, so that no one was confused as to how those bodies of water came to be there. Calling reservoirs lakes is a way of using language to pretty up what is there. Lake Berryessa is not a real lake; it is an unnaturally drowned landscape. But one that helps feed us by irrigating farmland.
Smoke hazes the horizon. It blows north from the fire in Mariposa and ignites the sunset. Smooth hills undulate in front of the rosy sky and mist into the distance. There are fires raging all over California. Veronica and I set up our tent on a flat, sandy spot between some boulders, take photos of the filmy sunset and heat up an easy dinner. We sit together as the light fades, listening to the rattle of evening insects. We see no stars through the murkiness.
Higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snow-melt typically cause soils to be drier for longer, increasing the likelihood of drought and a longer wildfire season, particularly in the western United States. These hot, dry conditions also increase the likelihood that, once wildfires are started by lightning strikes or human error, they will be more intense and long-burning.
—“Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Wildfire Risks?”, Union of Concerned Scientists
What is unnatural? We are enjoying the view of nature here at Lake Berryessa, but the lake itself is not natural; it would not exist without human machinations. It is natural for humans to need access to water, and natural to plan how to secure that access. But in following that natural desire, we have created an unnatural lake, a large body of water where there used to be a valley.
National parks and national monuments attempt to protect and preserve many natural things: viewsheds, soundscapes, the darkness of the night sky, the biodiversity of a region. But what happens to the mission of saving the scenery and the stars when smoke obscures both? How can we say that we established this place to protect biodiversity when human-influenced climate change is killing off the creatures and habitats that we want to preserve? How can we drown an entire valley under a man-made lake and in the next breath claim that this place is off-limits from mining or building?
It is unnatural to think that we can protect any corner of the world from the constant roll of change, and yet if we didn’t leave some places untouched by development, what would be left?
“The Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations…which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
—National Park Service Organic Act of 1916
On our first hike as a family in Berryessa Snow, we head up Blue Ridge, which offers incredible views of a southern arm of Lake Berryessa. I note its remnant ring and the lowered surface of the water. After years of drought, the lake is almost thirty feet below its normal level.
As we leave the parking lot, I glance at a sign warning visitors that since this area burned in 2015, there is no shade on the hike. This shouldn’t be a problem in the weak sun and cool air of December. We walk past the naked skeletons of trees protruding from green manzanita, the chaparral shrubbery flourishing even as the charred trunks remind us how different this landscape was just a couple of years ago.
A small bird dances from bare branch to bare branch and we are able to get a close look. This is the first bird we have seen other than a raven near our campsite and turkey vultures circling over power lines, so we closely examine this one. Small, like a sparrow, and a mottled brown. The back is a smoother dark brown and the belly is sand colored. The wings and tail have subtle stripes. We pause on a rock for a break from the steep trail and I consult the bird book. A wren. Pacific wren, most likely, though very similar to a winter wren.
Noun: A plant adapted for growth under dry conditions, such as a cactus or succulent.
Berryessa Snow National Monument contains a wide range of elevations and therefore a variety of habitats, such as riparian ecosystems, grassland prairies and chaparral ecoregions. Manzanita is characteristic of chaparral regions. It has smooth, red, twisting branches and waxy leaves that lie vertical to the sun. A xerophyte, manzanita is extremely drought resistant as well as fire resistant.
A succulent known as Lake County stonecrop that grows in the monument is found only in Lake County, California. This tiny red plant grows a couple of inches high and has bell-shaped yellow flowers. It is registered on the federal endangered-species list and is found in only three locations.
The yellow-legged frog, included on the endangered-species list, is endemic to the Berryessa Snow region. Speckled olive and brown, the frog typically has yellow or pale-orange-colored thighs. It was once extremely common, but ninety percent of the frogs’ population has disappeared over the last hundred years. There are now only two hundred frogs left.
When driving and hiking through the monument in December, the grasses are dry and yellow, fuel awaiting a spark. From the top of Blue Ridge we notice that all the east-facing aspects of the hillsides are green, covered in trees and shrubs, while all the west-facing aspects are dry ochre grassland.
Wine tasting step one: Tilt and Look. Some Chardonnays have a rich golden hue, while others are so pale that they are almost clear. The wine journal lists these color options for a white wine: greenish, yellow, straw yellow, gold, amber.
Zin (or Zen)
By the end of the Christmas week, we’ve chosen our favorite from the numerous wines we have tasted, and surprise ourselves by selecting an unexpected varietal: a 2014 Napa Valley Zinfandel from Chateau Montelena. It is smoother and more delicate, less overtly alcoholic than other Zinfandels. It smells of fig and tastes of raspberries and tart pear. Byron purchases a bottle and we share it during our last dinner together.
Afterwards, we sit by the campfire in a contemplative mood and reminisce about our week. Veronica’s husband, Austin, is blowing on the fire to keep it going; tendrils of fragrant smoke hang in the air. Veronica and my dad are stuffing bananas with marshmallows and chocolate chips and rolling them in foil to heat over the flames. “I think we should always live life as if we are wine tasting,” Jack says, leaning back in his camp chair. “It makes you pay closer attention and appreciate the details around you.”
Wine tasting step four: Repeat and Conclude.
McKenzie Long lives in Mammoth Lakes, California, where she climbs rocks, designs guidebooks and writes about sense of place. She is working on a book about controversial national monuments that explores the tensions, passions and history behind the disputes. You can find her at mckenzielong.com.
Lead image: Simon Matzinger