This shot was taken just before the Sky Ranch Housing Development shaved off the top portion of the mountain and ripped apart the back sides for those more affluent primo view pads where now only luxury homes exist. In the 1960s the Coastal Sage Chaparral Habitat was still pretty much intact in many more areas than now, but rapidly disappearing. Amazing too is the fact that this particular area having such habitat considering this is one of the furthest inland areas where many such a frost sensitive California Coastal Chaparral dares to venture any further east. My old elementary school is to the right of the photo. Pepper Drive Elementary School in El Cajon CA which for years was kept orderly by a strict Principal named Calvin Metz (Mr Metz).
This particular mountain habitat was sort of magical and adventurous place for me growing up as a kid. All sorts of rocks and boulders forming multiple caves and other hideaways. The dominant Chaparral plant up there was Laurel Sumac (Malosma laurina) as you can see in the above photo above and below.
My Dad was a sports freak and general nut about any sports. He pushed us boys into sports (baseball/football), which was something I hated. I never succeeded and usually dropped out which inccured his vicious wrath. I never gravitated towards playing sports even with the friends I had. Didn't much like P.E. at school either across the street. I was also constantly told by he and the elementary school coaches across the street that I'd turn out to be an utter failure in life later on if I didn't participate. In the 1950s/60s world back then if you weren't a part of that macho world you were considered some kind of a sissy. Trust me I never cared, comments were like water off a duck's back to me. That didn't mean I was afraid of life since many of the things I did up on that mountain were bold and daring such as scaling cliffs, exploring old mines, catching rattlesnakes and other creatures. Hardly the things Sissys are prone to do. Venturing up into that mountain was a way of escape for me from my Dad and what I considered the degenerating outside world I abhorred.
There were two entertainment films that stand out to this day that influenced my love for the natural world. The first film we actually saw in elementary school.
Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960)
This novel is based on the true story of Juana Maria, better known to history as "The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island", a Nicoleño Indian left alone for 18 years on San Nicolas Island, one of the Channel Islands off the California coast, before being discovered in 1853.
This film shook me as to the reality of man's inhumanity to other peoples considered inferior to themselves. It both upset and angered me even as a six year old kid. But I also admired and was fascinated by this young Indian girl's learning how to live off the land and use of natural materials around her to survive. Being a coastal island habitat the vegetation on San Nicolas Island was almost identical to that of the Rattlesnake Mountain El Cajon area I grew up around and so I could relate and identify very much to it. Hence, after that first film viewing, every trek up that hill thereafter was an adventure into how life was at one time, not only because of the film, but also because directly behind my house and also up a valley to the right of that top photo of the mountain were two major Native American village locations as evidenced from the numerous metate grinding holes to be found in the more flatter granite bed rock boulders. I later was able to identify other village locations not so much from finding granite Metates, but by the vegetation which gave away their location. In almost every case there were several large groupings of the native Prickly Pear Cactus, Mexican Elderberry and Coast Live Oak.
This film went even deeper into my heartfelt love for the natural world as I could relate to the kid in the story. When I saw this movie when I was a kid, I thought it was wonderful and I think I must have been about 12 or 14 years old at the time which was the same age as the character in the film. He had read some kind of survival nature manual he at the New York Library but I don't remember if he had a copy of the book with him on his adventure or just some notes from the book or the book itself. Anyway he learned how to live and eat off the land, although I never wanted to eat those Algae Pancakes he made in the movie. I think it had some good lessons for kids in building appreciation for nature, and remember it made me have a deeper appreciation for those mountains I lived at the foot of much more.
The story was about a boy named Sam who runs away from home when he finds out that his family's summer vaction trip has been cancelled. So he heads out for what I believe was near his Grandfather's old farm in the Catskill Mountains on his own. It's there that he learns how to survive with the help of several wild animals including a Ferret and a Peregrine Falcon. During his year stay in the wilderness, he learns about himself and that he can't run away from his problems and the only way to handle them is to go back and face them head on.
By today's standards I'm sure the acting isn't all that great, but it was still a decent kids movie. I don't remember why the title was "My Side of the Mountain" still sticks in my mind so, but it still has an sort of genomic imprinted effect on me and I am now 55, so I guess it must have had an impact on me to last this long. Today with all the bad movies they make for kids these days, it's understandable why our natural world and human society in general has degenerated into what it is presently. If a parent or group of parents lodge any type of protests these days about what is going on with today's so-called enlightened permissiveness of society, then they are labeled with all manner of insults to foul to repeat here.
Getting back to the Rattlesnake Mountain. There was(still is) an Artesian Spring at the mouth of that main canyon which has now been destroyed and filled in by the Sky Ranch Housing/Condo development, though admittedly the spring itself is still present and running again last time I visited. It is at this same Artesian Spring was where there was a permanent Native American settlement was. There was an old abandonded Orange Grove back then. Some trees alive others dead. The spring was a source of water which had an old pipe which kept a irrigation resevoir constantly filled to water all the acreage on that aluvial fan where the grove was located. Interestingly the devlopers were obligated to restore native habitat with native only vegetation. I have to tell you though I think they have done a good job of restoring the Oaks and California Sycamores back to this area (something that was absent as a result of Orange Grove creation long ago) though there are some plants that are not so native. Here are some pics we took walking up a private asphalt paved utility/emergency road to the Sky Ranch housing development.
Below you can see quite alot of Deerweed (lotus-scoparius)
This plant is a natural normal occurance on these surrounding hills after any type of disturbance, usually fire. It's the first plant to appear after the native annual wildflowers do their thing after a fire blows through. I doubt they planned this plant's occurance in abundance because on closer inspection you can see all of the evenly spaced shrub plantings of the more common natives they used.
I believe behind me there is a manzanita and although I love Manzanita, it was never an original plant or shrub to this particular mountain, or at least when I was growing up there. Also not native were the many Mediterrean Rock Rose. I don't know how that got past anyone, but it won't survive up there without irrigation.
Okay, now looking off to the left of the first photo is an area where the perminent Artesian Spring is located. When I was a kid none of those willows, Sycamores or Cottonwoods existed there. The water was continually being syphoned off by an old time cast iron pipe which was dismantled along with the old concrete hold resevoir during early development. It was at least refreshing to see these welcome old friends (the trees) back where they belonged all along. Though once during those early 1980s El Nino heavy rain years, all of the above canyons actually had some running streams or brooks that at least trickled water down to the neighbourhoods below and into the stormdrains all year long. Seeds carried in the winds from who knows where of both willow and cottonwood did take root during those years and I'm sure the trees below are their decendants as they were never cut down. These trees grew bigger once the resevoir was dismantled.
You can see the top of Rattlesnake Mountain above the trees which are in the foreground.
This next photo below is looking back down to the valley towards the city of El Cajon with Mount Helix way off in the distance. If however you look in the foreground of the photo, you'll see the Coast Live Oak (Quercus-agrifolia) which no doubt existed before prior to the Orange Grove creation by the farmer and once again I must say it is a welcome restoration sight to what was once no doubt a major player in the livelihood of the Native American Kumeyaay peoples, as evidenced by the large trees still existing behind my mum's house. For decades we found volunteer oak seedlings from the large immense old oak behind our property in the flower beds no doubt put there by Western Scrub Jays .
Here is a further photo below showing the view to the right of the previous one showing the road meeting an earlier constructed neighbourhood which was actually built many years earlier than the Sky Ranch Development above and also by another developer. This road does NOT go thru, there is a locked gate to prevent thru traffic. It is merely an emergency & utility road. To the furthest left at the bottom of the photo below is the top sports field of Pepper Drive ElementarySchool. You'll also notice the California Sycamores (platanus-racemosa) which once again are a great choice in the restoration plantings, but there are also about four Liquidambar_styraciflua which are not native but will never ever re-seed themselves or take over as an invasive species either. They seem to be maintaining themselves, but also seem to have some of them struggling further up the hill as evidenced by the tops dying back. They'll eventually be replaced with natives who will accomplish this on their own if some idiot doesn't start another fire.
Now the photos below along the road they have planted some more Mediterranean Rock Rose (Cistus ladanifer) but also some Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia-littoralis) , but they seemed somewhat different than the native one to the area, or maybe not, but here are some pics.
You'll also notice in the lower photo the warning sign for the poster namesake of this mountain, which by the way we actually did see in a small drainage concrete channel ditch. The really sad thing here is that at some future date someone will get bit and these little creatures will be Demonized and Vilified all over again and their populations will have to be cut down through some government mandated eradication project. Since we didn't actually see any rabbits, then you can bet they'll be heading for people's brand new yards looking for food.
Here's a photo of the plant that was most important to save and restore and the reason is because of the little bird who mostly only likes utilize this and one other coastal sage scrub. The Shrubs are called California Sagebrush (Artemisia-californica) and California Buckwheat (Eriogonum-fasciculatum-foliolosum) and the bird is called California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica)
Further up the paved road there was evidence of other misplaced non-native plants, fortunately most of which will not survive this area and re-seed themselves or take over the area. The other thing I noticed and certainly don't agree with is the extensive use of irrigation line everywhere after all these 6 years and still functioning in many places. First off, I have no problem with establishment, I get that, but after the first or second year you need to cut it off. While the plants will look good and healthy for several years they will deteriorate rapidly thereafter because they are adapted to a wet and dry season, not constant wet. They go dorant in summer and maintain health and vigor through the underground mycorrhizal network. The other problem is that the once sterile decomposed granite for which these plants were established in, most likely lacked any mycorrhizal inoculant program at time of the outplanting of the vegetation. I might of course be wrong on that, but you cannot count on these plants to maintain themselves in the wild without it if you've destroyed this part of the ecosystem. Constant water and chemcial fertilizers won't provide the longterm lifetime health benefits they need. We'll see of course as time goes on. I do hope they succeed.
Now notice in the photo below this plant in the foreground next to the road at the right bottom of the picture. It may even be some type of native Iris as we do have them throughout California, but not on dry south facing slopes of lower elevations where temps can often be over 100F or 40+ C and it was certainly was never historically native to this area. There actually were a number of these plant mistake choices all along the road, but I'm sure the government habitat restoration plant quota demanded a certain plant numbers count in the agreement. Where many specific plant species listed are scarce, many Habitat Restoration Landscapers will often sneak in some non-natives to use as filler. I'm sure the dilema was reasoned out as - "What do government inspectors know anyway ??????"
LOL - I'd probably think and do the same thing. Usually the Government Expert requirements are overkill anyway. I'll have to write a piece on what I think of the firms who are actually hired and paid for by the developers to carry out the studies demanded by the authorities.
Now further up and just behind me we actually saw a Bee Hive just inside one of those large irrigation black & green plastic valve control boxes, but I didn't photo it. However, I do want to mention that in this very area where I'm now standing it was once a valley with three branches of dry washes which are now nothing more than rammed earth fill. In these three branches and on some of the granite rock hill outcroppings above on the previous ridges which are also gone, there were at one time over 8 different Bee Hives which had existed in the same exact locations since I first found them in 1964. In 2004 when I went up there walking around as I had moved back to El Cajon after selling my property in Anza, those hives were all still there. I know because I made a point of looking for them. This was in the spring of 2003. But at the end of that year in December 2003 every one of them was abandoned and I never saw any dead bees. I have no idea what happened. Was it Colony Collaspe disorder ( CCD ) or did the developer hire someone to come and irradicate them with chemical pesticides ? To this day I have no idea, but the CCD was just making headlines then.
Now up further along this road above where the rattlesnake was seen is the development activity which is by now much further along.
Around the interior of the housing tracts and small slices of public park they apparently abandoned the native plants ONLY approach to landscaping. They should have stuck to the natives. One thing that chaparral native plants get a bad rap with is that they have these dangerous volatile oils in their woody tissues and they explode when fire comes through, so therefore non-natives are more fire resistant. This is a big fat lie. All organic material will burn. Any plants which are native to planet Earth will burn. Look at all those wet rainforests in the Amazon basin which Corporation Agriculture burns off so as to plant more and more GMO Soy & Corn. In these past extreme weather event years that have fueled fires with extreme intensity we have seen before, even the fireproof clay tile and concrete tile roofed houses go up in smoke by the hundreds. In these modern day years nothing will stop intense fires, but what the nature ecology of native plants will offer in the landscape is saving money on watering bills.
For further reading on my native plant experiments just behind the above photos and what I learned as a Guerrilla Habitat Restorationist, please read my piece here:
PART TWO - Why I started this Story!
While exploring those mountains as a kid and winding my way up those curving meandering dry washes and Arroyos, you can't help get a sense of wonderment , especially when your child's imagination is helped along by the many adventure films of that long past era. Finding new hideaways and creating or building imagined fortresses or clubhouses inside of a grouping of Laurel Sumacs or Lemonade Berry later on would inspire much of my laying out landscaped architectural plans.
Take a look at life on the interior of a Chaparral Elfin Forest.
This particular photo above is a protected Elfin Forest in Los Osos, California which is near San Luis Obispo California. There are a number of areas which are called Elfin Forest because of the character of the tiny miniature habitats which look like a forest from an Elf's perspective. (well you know, if there really were such things) As a kid climbing over boulders and exploring up through dry washes lined with Laurel Sumacs, Lemonade Berry, Manzanitas, California Holly and California Coffee Berry, all these things truly looked like a mysterious secret forest. It occurred to me later on in life that such small spaces replicated in a yard scenario would be ideal for such re-creations of Chaparral Elfin Forest themes for a natural private hideaway.
It's tough to find many pictures on the net where folks have actually gotten off trail and explored dry washes and Arroyos in the Chaparral country. Many of these places are hidden wonders in springtime with all manner of herbaceous plants and ferns growing under the canopy of the minature forest. Usually depending on the rainy season these normally dry gullies and washes will run or at least rickle through the beginning of summer. Most trails in these Chaparral protected Areas, Parks or Reserves are nothing more than the usual cleared out thorough-fares for foot-trafficers in a hurry to get somewhere else. But hardly anyone takes the time to venture off the pathways to explore the reality that exists all around them. After all in the mindset of most city hikers, it's only stickery dry jagged brush that doesn't allow anyone to pass and who really wants to anyway ? But as a kid, many of the hidden meandering pathways we explored in old growth chaparral looks exactly like Pigmy Oak forests in the above photo. When you walk thru such areas, try and imagine replicating some small type of hidden privacy area within your garden or yard, even your public lookie-loo front yard. Take photos if you have a bad memory and need to allow youself to look back and get that visual again.
And there are a couple of other profound moments or events of life changing things that happened to me back there in the 1960s that influenced my later imagination for all things landscaped and minature and have stuck with me ever since. I was in the Boys Scouts, Cub Scouts, and Indians Guides. These also spurred imagination and intrigue about the natural world. Then there were those private summer Kamps out in the Cuyamaca Mountains you work so hard to earn your way to by selling raffle tickets door to door for the local Boys Club. When I was in the Boy Scouts, the military bit never appealed to me. I could have cared less about Nationalism, the Flag, looking like a Hitler Youth at the Scout Jamborees (no offense meant here, but all of us kids actually joked about that back then) , but for me it was mostly fooling around and having fun while camping out on those wilderness treks. Then one day we hit Vacation Isle at Mission Bay Park in San Diego.
There is a specific place on this San Diego Mission Bay Park recreational area called Vaction Isle. This is the place that has that strange iconic 1960s Tower and that Model Boat Pond. Here's a map layout of what I'm talking about.
Now looking at that map towards the bottom is an area for camping or at least it use to be. It's just below and to the left & right of the Model Yacht Boat Pond called South cove. On either side of that cove are groupings of low growing trees and tall shrubs that are opened and kept clear for picnicers to under under the cool shade. Those minature stunted trees reminded me of camping out in the chaparral, yet I realized that such minature could be replicated into ones own small backyard environment where you had little space. Even if a person has a lot of space such as acreage, a small secretive cool shady hideaway is a great idea for relaxation and entertaining small groups of friends ona hot summer's day. You can also Google Earth map/satellite search this place and get an up front and personal close look at all the park vegetation and layout. It's actually pretty kool.
Another place when on a field trip that has stuck in my brain all these years is a place in Balboa Park at the very southern end of the park which is actually called the Balboa Park - Pepper Grove. This area has both California Pepper trees and Brazilian Pepper Trees which are meticulously trimmed and manicured to keep their small stunted shape and they had all manner of tunnels and pathways along with benches beneath them for picnicers to fire the imagination for one's own gardening ideas for small spaces. Once again I thought back to native chaparral scenery we camped out in. Something most folks always miss or pass up. But take a look at the features of the Pepper Grove in Balboa Park and see if you can't visualize a vegetated hideaway incorpoating native Chaparral Plants and shrubs.
It's a kool playground area for kids, but adults can go into it with a different point of view as far as ideas to inspire and fire the imagination for one's own private hideaway. Now take a good look at my mum's house back in El Cajon again and I want you to pay close attention to the Laurel Sumac (Malosma-laurina) which BTW was a volunteer which came up on it's own and my parents left it and later asked me to take it out as it was getting bushy and over grown (mind you without any irregation other than rainy season), but I convinced them I could do something with it. I shaped it into a small tree. In fact you'll swear it is a tree, but it technically is NOT!
My plans were to add a couple of Sugarbush (Rhus ovata) behind it. This is an earlier picture or photo as you will see later photos where the massive spread of those exactly 6 years old California Sycamores now exist with Canary Island Pines to the right of that. In this photo you are looking at a Texas Umbrella Tree and Fruitless Mulberry in their winter dormancy period. They are now long since gone and taken out. What actually happened later is that the neighbour to the left of the photo was upset that this tree would turn into a giant that would destroy his concrete block wall. It never would have done that but my mother panicked and hired someone or perhaps got my brother to later cut it down. I was furious, but what the heck, it wasn't ultimately my business anyway.But the tree was free and never needed any watering or fertilizing. Incredibly, I have never seen a landscaper ever use this small tree/shrub in this fashion or for this reason. I barely see it sold or bought at even the native plant nurseries, though I know they have them. Mostly they are used for restoration projects, but should be incorporated as a major player in the design.
Clearly above the roof line you can see the 5 year old California Sycamores (Planatnus racemosa) at the farthest left of the roof ridge and to the right the 7 year old Canary Island Pines (Pinus canarensis) trees. Notice that the Laurel Sumac is long gone. In it's place someone has put a African Sumac, which hasn't done very well as far as shape and effective growth. However, though you can't see it, there is a Sugarbush (Rhus ovata) in back of that area. Below is a backyard picture of the Sycamores and to the left the African Sumac which I had to cut way back. Unfortunately the tree has to be staked up. I'm guessing because it receives to much water and large amounts of growth are long, leggy and weak.
That should have been a Laurel sumac to the left. What I wanted to create along that cured meandering pathway was a tunnel-like path with native chaparral and smaller native in the understory which would actually look lush and be taken care of by the larger deeper rooted shrub/trees which themselves would be connected through the mycorrhizal grid or fungal network I inoculated them with at the outplanting originally. I've already written about some understory plants here in the blog and I'll introduce more as time goes on.
At the very least here you get some idea of what I'm trying to accomplish in my work and what influenced me along time ago and where my present vision of things comes from. Hope all readers here can walk away with something important and make their own educated practical applications to their own small space outdoor living environment called a privacy getaway for their back or front yards.