Last weekend, the California Naturalist group I was a part of last November in Yosemite held a reunion at the Vernal Pool & Grassland Reserve at UC Merced. The idea behind the reunion was two-fold – 1) to allow us to catch up simply see one another again and 2) to further our outdoor education through a special tour of a rare ecosystem (*note: the Reserve is not open to the public, a tour has to be arranged through UC Merced).
For those of you who don’t know (I didn’t until recently) a vernal pool is an ephemeral (i.e. temporary, usually following a storm event) pool of water which becomes home to a set of special, often rare, species of plants and animals. The vernal pool forms when water collects over an impermeable layer of clay or soil.
While many places in the world have temporary puddles, vernal pools differ from these due to the special collection of wild flowers that can only bloom in a Mediterranean climate ( defined by mild wet winters + hot dry summers). The combination of a Mediterranean climate plus water-trapping soil is unique to only a few places in the world – California being one of them. This has resulted in many species of plants and animals being endemic to California vernal pools.
The issue is, the same land that houses these rare pools is typically excellent land for agricultural development as well. As a result, since 1890, 90-95% of the vernal pools of California have been destroyed.
Sauntering in any direction, my feet would brush about a
hundred flowers with every step… as if I were wading in liquid gold.
-John Muir, in regards to the Central Valley spring of 1898
Fortunately, years ago before it was a reserve, the land that is now the Vernal Pool & Grassland Reserve at UC Merced was made into ranch land instead of farmland. The grazing cattle actually saved the vernal pools from destruction by their constant munching on the non-native grasses covering the area – otherwise these said grasses would have out-competed the rare plant species found in the pools.
As the water evaporates (usually in May) the flowers come into bloom. Each pool has a unique combination of plants, but the species that was found the previous year might be absent the next. The vernal pools are never predictable, and hence an exciting ecosystem for study. Although they might look delicate, these plants are incredibly resilient – they have to be able to survive both saturated and arid conditions. I am not yet very good at identifying flowers, but I believe we saw meadowfoam, popcorn flower (my personal favorite because they are so tiny), goldfields (most abundant species seen on our tour), gold nuggets, a species of brodiaea, clover, and a species of downingia.
Besides walking among the pools, stopping to stoop and examine the flowers, and hearing brief talks from experts, there was also a film project happening. During which I was asked to stage some field journaling. Instead of “staging” journal writing, I actually wrote. I asked myself what metaphor the vernal pools were revealing to me, and this is what I came of that question:
If grasslands were an oyster, the vernal pool would be the pearl. It is the hidden nugget of beauty waiting for discovery. Most of the year this grassland is brown. If you didn’t know the grassland well, you might call it dead, void of any loveliness. This seems like a metaphor for how we, in dry seasons, see our own life – brown, dead, void of any loveliness.
Even in spring, however, the grassland would, at a first glance, appear a plain green. Lovely in a way, but uniform, predictable, and non-notable. But if you tarry there long enough, walk miles among the grasses, you not only begin to see the rainbow of greens, but you might just stumble upon a pearl – the vernal pool, a hidden nugget of beauty that was awaiting discovery.
So too with ourselves, we need to walk long enough into our own center, maybe even miles and miles and miles, to learn to see ourselves in the right light, learn to hear the rainbow of greens of our own voice. It is then we will stumble upon our inner pearl, our own hidden nugget of beauty to offer up to the world, to offer up to ourselves.
The flowers found in the pool are tiny and short. They seem delicate and frail. However, they are incredibly resilient – they can survive deluge and drought. That is pretty incredible. I look at them and think that this is what I want to be too – stronger than I look, able to persevere through any deluge or drought that come my way.
What a shame it would be to have given up on the grassland when it was brown, thinking it dead, when beauty was merely lying dormant. What a tragedy it would be to miss a ring of wildflowers in the center of a newly-greened grassland because we judged it at a glance and called it plain. What a sadness it would be to think of yourself as void of pearls when you have so many waiting for discovery. And YES – I mean you.
The vernal pool becomes a Wonderland when you crouch down to flower-level. It is a mini, golden floral forest. Oh to be Alice, with the ability to shrink to flower-size and walk beneath the pedal canopy – the aroma must be intoxicating.
This visit was not only a wonderful reunion (it was so refreshing to be amongst a tribe of Nature Nerds once more…and also just to see this group of people that I consider inspiring friends), it also revealed to me how important it is to be an informed citizen of nature. The vernal pools aren’t glamorous, and to the untrained eye they don’t look like much at all when seen at a distance, and when not understood, and most especially when not in bloom. But, when understood, they are a rare marvel, worthy of pause – not to mention a reminder of how to develop eyes to truly see the beauty of details around us: in the outdoors and in each other.
Jepson Prairie Preserve Handbook, 3rd Edition