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Natural History

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Mtn Wall
SB Geology
Geologic Periods
Formations
Chumash
Chaparral
 

Mtn Wall

The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford


“Our favorite route to the main ridge was by a way called the Cold Springs Trail .... Beyond the apparent summit you found always other summits yet to be climbed.  And all at once, like thrusting your shoulders out of a hatchway, you looked over the top.

Then came the remarks. Some swore softly; some uttered appreciative ejaculation; some shouted aloud; some gasped; one man uttered three times the word ‘Oh,’—once breathlessly, Oh! once in awakening appreciation, Oh! once in wild enthusiasm, OH! Then invariably they fell silent and looked.

It left you breathless, wonder-stricken, awed. You could do nothing but look, and look, and look again, tongue-tied by the impossibility of doing justice to what you felt. And in the far distance, finally, your soul, grown big in a moment, came to rest on the great precipices and pines of the greatest mountains of all, close under the sky.

In a little....the change had come to you, a change definite and enduring, which left your inner processes forever different from what they had been....And often, perhaps a little wistfully....we spoke of how fine it would be to ride down into that land of mystery and enchantment, to penetrate one after the other the canons dimly outlined in the shadows cast by the westering sun....to see for ourselves what lay beyond.”

Stewart Edward White, The Mountains, 1904

The mountain wall rises steeply behind Santa Barbara, imparting more than anything an enduring quality that defines those of us who live here. There are five canyons carved in the mountain wall which lie almost directly behind Santa Barbara—Mission, Rattlesnake, Cold Springs, San Ysidro, and Romero—each with its own unique charm. There are also countless others hidden deep in the flank of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the upper reaches of the Santa Ynez Valley, and the San Rafael Mountains whose enchanting nature will lure you back time and again.  

The Chaparral
From the perspective of the city, however, the abruptness of the mountain wall as it rises nearly 4,000 feet to its crest at La Cumbre Peak, the spiny layerings of sandstone, the insipid coloring of the chaparral, combine to convey a sense of inhospitality and dullness.  These Santa Ynez Mountains do not appear inviting. 

For fifty miles they run unbroken and because of the peculiar way they have been juxtaposed on the countryside in an east-west direction, the sun pours down on their southerly slope at nearly right angles.  This scorches all but the hardiest of chaparral plants, and the vegetation that is visible from Santa Barbara survives mainly by adapting to the lack of summer rain and the searing Santa Ana winds with a uniform, colorless appearance. 

In addition, the dense chaparral cover gives sense of impenetrability.  The thick, interlocking branches and the needle-sharp points of the tough, leathery leaves seem more to say Keep Out, No Trespassing than to invite closer inspection. “Meshed and tangled like concertina wire, and mined with rattlesnakes,” one writer has said of the chaparral, “it is impossible to penetrate with anything less persuasive than a light tank.”

The chaparral is an elfin forest dominated by shrubs seldom more than fifteen feet in height. What it lacks in stature, though, it makes up for in orneriness.  It is primarily evergreen, which protects it from becoming desiccated during the long, rainless summer months, and the leaves are tough and leathery, with prickly edges. 

It is also dry and resinous, which makes it extremely fire-prone, but this imparts its characteristic fragrance as well.  This curious juxtaposition of opposites, of toughness and delicacy, marks chaparral country and makes it special to me.

Distinct Elements
Properly speaking, the chaparral has two distinct elements: the coastal sage (also called the mixed chaparral), and the hard chaparral. The coastal sage is the community of low herbaceous shrubs, rarely more than seven feet in height, that borders the canyons of the lower foothills. The small fuzzy leaves of the yerba santa and the purple, black and white sages are predominantly gray in color, but in the springtime the delicate purple buds of the sages and their overwhelming aromas make the soft chaparral community a treat to be sampled again and again.  

This softer chaparral is found along the lower elevations of the Santa Ynez Mountains and on the steep shale slopes, which have insufficient soil to support grasses or species of the oak woodland community.  Also found in the soft chaparral are California sagebrush, buckwheat, monkey flower, yarrow, and the wonderful bush that exudes a butterscotch aroma: pearly everlasting.

The hard chaparral is composed of the duller green plants, which dominate the higher elevations.  These are dense woody shrubs that grow so thickly as to render travel through them nearly impossible, except in the few years after a wildfire.  Despite the less-than-appealing aesthetics of this community, its species are well adapted to the poor soil profile, the short rainy season, and the intense summer heat.  These plants are like the tough kids on the block—on the surface neither delicate nor beautiful—but well structured for survival here, and in a Darwinian sort of way, there is a grace to these plant types.  

This chaparral can be subdivided into two groups. The lower half grows to elevations of about 1,500 feet and is sometimes called “chamise chaparral” or el camisal.  Though big pod and greenbark ceanothus, sugar bush, and black sage are also found here, the chamise dominates, often in pure stands such as those around Inspiration Point. The chamise is a member of the rose family and has tiny needle-like leaves that grow in bundles. Its reddish-brown seed pods, which open during the flowering season, remain on the shrubs for much of the following year’s season and give chamise chaparral its characteristic rusty color.  Known as “greasewood” because of its high oil content, the chamise is responsible for the intensity of many of the mountain wildfires. 

Manzanita and scrub oak are the predominant species of the upper half of the hard chaparral.  Others that are found near the crest are the holly-leaf cherry, chaparral pea, toyon, yucca, bush poppy, prickly phlox, and mountain mahogany.  The holly-leaf cherry was called islay by the Chumash, who harvested it in the fall and ground it into flour for use during winter months. Along with acorns, the holly-leaf cherry formed a substantial part of the Chumash diet.

The name “chaparral” dates to the time when gaunt Spanish cattle roamed the valleys and foothills of the County, their wanderings unimpeded by either barbed wire or concrete.  Rousting these half-wild steer from brush-choked canyons was the task of the rugged, hard-riding vaqueros, who protected their legs from the sharp branches and thorns by wearing tough leggings that extended from belt to boots.

The plant that caused the vaqueros the most annoyance was the interior live oak, known scientifically as Quercus wislizenii. A similar oak that grows in Spain was called el chaparro, and this was the name given to the scrub oak that the Spaniards found in California. The “al” suffix, added to the root word chaparro, which means “the place of”, has led to the dense southland brush being called the chaparral, even though today it includes far more than the pockets of scrub oak where the Spanish cattle used to hide out.

Mediterranean Climate
Santa Barbara, and the chaparral countryside which lies behind it, is a product of a Mediterranean climatic system,  characterized by moderate, moist winters and long, hot, dry summers. Rainfall is generally sparse, about 17 inches per year in Santa Barbara, and often occurs during a few high-intensity winter storms.  Summer temperatures often exceed 100o F. and relative humidities are low, often less than 5 per cent. 

Plant communities similar to the chaparral grow in several other parts of the world, including the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, central Chile, South Africa, and southwestern Australia. These regions compose about 3 percent of the earth’s land surface.  All are located on the western borders of continental land masses in a narrow strip between 30o and 45o latitude. 

The weather patterns in these areas are dominated by a pressure zone known as the Pacific High.  Locally, in the summer, as the Southwest begins to heat up, this mass of warm stable air moves slightly north and inland, deflecting storms originating in the northern latitudes eastward across Washington and Oregon. Only in the winter does the Pacific High retreat south and seaward and allow storm fronts access to the Southern California coastline.

Summit and Sea
Although the mountain wall does not have the immediate charm of the city’s Mission-style architecture nor the Mediterranean grace of palm-lined Cabrillo boulevard, it is the Santa Ynez Mountains, as much as the sea, that define the city’s character. Even though most think of Santa Barbara as a beach community, it is the mountain wall that sets it apart from other ocean ports on the California coast.  

This is a region that is still dominated by the great forces of nature: the jumble of tectonic plates periodically bursting forth with shivers of destruction, the wildfires that defy control, the floods that occasionally destroy homes and steadily usurp the holding capacity of vital County reservoirs.  It is these forces that have molded the land, given shape and texture to the Santa Ynez Mountains, and clothed them with a vegetative cover.  And despite man’s insistence otherwise, it is these that will continue to dominate the land and the city.  

There are nine ways over the mountain wall.  Three are at the passes: Gaviota, Refugio, and San Marcos, at 2,250 feet the lowest point along the crest. The other six are by trail: the Arroyo Burro, Tunnel, Rattlesnake, Cold Springs, San Ysidro, and Romero, reminders that for most of its history, Santa Barbara has been geographically isolated from the rest of Southern California. 

To the south is the ocean. Powerful northern swells funnel around Point Conception and between the Channel Islands, making this a treacherous body of water even today. It was no accident that the tomol, the Chumash planked canoe, was the finest seagoing vessel to be found on the California coast. To the north the Santa Ynez Mountains form the first line of defense against penetration. Beyond are the San Rafaels, the knifeblade-edged Hurricane Deck, and the indomitable Sierra Madres.  Like huge waves lashing across a chaparral-filled countryside, these mountains have provided an admirable barrier against the intrusions of modern civilization.  

When Gaspar de Portola led the first Spanish land expedition north from San Diego in 1769, no wonder he opted to follow the coastline around Point Conception rather than brave the hardship offered by travel through the Santa Barbara mountain ranges.  

Rugged but Beautiful
An occasional hike up Tunnel Trail will serve to remind you of the steepness and ruggedness of the mountain wall.  On a hot day the hike up out of Mission Canyon can be long and tiring. The sharp upthrust of a massive layer of sandstone, known locally as the Mission Crags, dominates the view and tends to eat away at one’s confidence. “By trail and by brush-bucking, “the late Ed Spaulding, Santa Barbara author and educator, used to say, “it is a very weary, weary way and one that tests not only the leg muscles and the lung capacity but the enthusiasm for the out-of-doors as well.” 

Easily crossed by automobile, these mountains cannot be taken so lightly when your legs must provide the locomotion. But at the crest the rewards are evident—a panoramic view of the coastline and islands as well as an appreciation of the timelessness of this place.

Below, the canyon winds its way toward you like a slender thread of green. Beyond are the foothills, golden yellows that seem to undulate their way to the valley floor. The wind gusts occasionally, but mostly it whispers across the chaparral like a soft moan. The minty scent of purple sage and the aroma of yerba santa cannot help but invade one’s consciousness. Overhead the red-tail hawks soar on an updraft in search of prey, their screeches letting you know they own this particular piece of sky country.  Though this isn’t an easy country to love, there are still those moments when a love for it comes without hesitation.

In the distance is the muffled sound of Mission Creek. Here life decelerates from the twentieth-century pace that has been forced on it, with time to absorb the small details and to sift through the bits and pieces of this part of the mountain wall. Though Mission Creek is bone dry in the summer, it is filled with the potential, in the winter months, to channel large volumes of water, and with it tons of cobblestones, sands and silt downstream. Precariously, the chaparral vegetation that covers the mountainside holds this material in place.

A Sense of Perspective
The rock which provides Tunnel Trail with its steep, rugged character is known as Coldwater Sandstone. It is Eocene rock, a remnant of a geologic era of some fifty million years ago—ancient when measured against the span of human lives but relatively young on a geologic scale. Shells of prehistoric oyster, which once thrived in the brackish water of the tidal flat, are imbedded in the sandstone. This rock was once part of a seashore environment, perhaps something like that which exists today at Morro Bay. 

Sitting on the top of a large knoll near the crest you can absorb the feeling of the Santa Ynez Mountains which provide a sense of perspective.  From here the land appears basically unaltered, despite man’s intensive efforts to the contrary over the past two centuries.  The valley floor is filled with people now, and the mountains are managed for water, for wildfire, and for wildlife by the Forest Service. But taken as a whole, the dominant feature of the land is still its mountainous, roadless, and essentially primitive character. 

The bedrock accentuates this primeval quality. Places like Lizard’s Mouth or The Playground, nestled high in the Santa Ynez Mountains west of San Marcos Pass, or Seven Falls in the upper end of Mission Creek are but a few of the places made possible by these giant slabs of rock. There are numerous places like them, filled with sandstone boulders, underground caves, and water-worn channels separating the bedrock like pieces of a gigantic puzzle. 

This is land that has yielded only stubbornly to the forces of nature, a place where one can appreciate and begin to understand the slow pulse of the earth’s evolution. It is a land that has undergone radical changes over the past several hundred million years, including some very dramatic ones in the last three or four million years. The bedrock has shifted, the climate changed many times, and every earthquake is a reminder that the entire process, even today, is in constant flux. The land may remain rigid for the balance of this day perhaps, for the month, the year, or, for that matter, the rest of my life. Nonetheless, it is part of a fluid, ongoing process.

When most people think of the mountain wall, they think chaparral because it dominates the eye. But pockets of prehistoric beauty still remain, albeit hidden—a surprising beauty that is all the more special because it is rare.  

In such a land—neither monumental nor imposing—a subtle challenge appears: to go beyond the surface, to experience this country in all its moods, and over time to discover a depth and complexity, a beauty, and a love that wasn’t apparent upon first glimpse.

SB Geology

The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford


Man has permanently altered the character of the valley floor along the coast, but the wilderness of the mountain wall, the dense chaparral, and the rugged terrain have defied his desire to exploit it. It is a land that appears out of place in the modern world, seemingly unchanged and unchanging, its geological structure moving at an infinitesimal pace, evident only in the cataclysmic moments when the earth shudders. 

The bedrock of these mountains is the sand of time itself, and is always changing, quite independently of man. The layers of sandstone and shale exposed along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains, now thousands of feet above sea level, once lay several thousands of feet below the sea, and may yet lie there again, as the forces of erosion wear away at the resistant rock. 

The Transverse Ranges, of which the Santa Ynez Mountains form the most westerly part, is one of the few ranges in the United States that runs in an east-west direction. Forming a continuous crest from Point Arguello to Ojai, a distance of 70 miles, the Santa Ynez Mountains are tilted steeply to the south at an angle of nearly 50 degrees.  

From Point Arguello to Gaviota Pass, the range is generally less than 2,000 feet high. East of Gaviota, however, the mountains gain height rapidly, reaching 4298 feet at Santa Ynez Peak, before dropping gradually to San Marcos Pass which has an elevation of 2250 feet.

San Marcos Pass occupies a low saddle formed by a synclinal (V-shaped) fold that crosses the main axis of the range diagonally. East of San Marcos Pass, the mountains  rise once again, averaging 3,500 feet behind Santa Barbara, with La Cumbre Peak measuring 3985 feet in height. The range reaches its apex at 4,690 foot Divide Peak, near the Santa Barbara-Ventura county line.

The geologic history of the Santa Ynez Mountains is related to the slow movements of pieces of the Earth’s crust called tectonic plates. At present, Southern California marks the boundary between two of these plates, the North American Plate, which supports most of the continental United States, and the Pacific Plate, which supports a part of the California coast and Baja California. The point at which these two plates come into contact is called the San Andreas Fault. 

The movement of the plates is called continental drift.  The action of this “drift” can cause several things to happen at the point of articulation between two plates. They might be pulled apart, which creates a trench between them. Or one plate can be pushed over the other, a process called subduction.  Also, two plates can slide against one another, as presently occurs along the San Andreas Fault. Santa Barbara’s geologic his-tory involves all three of these processes.

Deep Time
One morning, standing in  Mission Creek near Rocky Nook Park and the Museum of Natural History, I gained a fleeting understanding of the awesome amount of time involved in the unfolding of the geologic processes that created the Santa Barbara landscape. Deep time. 

The creek flowed gently through rounded sandstone boulders and rocks, some of which had shells imbedded in them. I meandered through the rocks, enjoying their different colors and textures, wondering how far up the mountain wall they must have come from.

As I picked up a hand-sized rock, etched with small pock marks and wavy white lines that must have been clam shells at one time, I could see Mission Crags through the crown of an ancient oak, lofty rocks thrust high into the sky. I thought, “This rock must have been up there once; but now it is almost back home, back in the sea. Like the water flowing down the creek, the rock must also be part of a cycle.”

The water molecules in Mission Creek will flow quickly to the ocean, evaporate into the atmosphere and be moved by currents of air back to the mountains to be deposited as a misty fog or huge drops of rain then carried back down once again, a cycle that can be measured in weeks or months. Not so for this small piece of rock.

Once part of a marine bay filled with ocean life, possibly fifty million years ago, it was lifted slowly into the sky by monumental, earth-shaking forces, then exposed, crumbled and worn away by the erosive forces of wind and water, and finally pushed back down the mountain to this spot near Rocky Nook Park by a combination of water and gravity.  On another day—perhaps five thousand to ten thousand years from now—it will find its way back into the ocean, part of another marine layer awaiting its time to be thrust back into the sky.

A few days after my trip to Mission Creek, when I got the slides back from my trip, I found one taken at 1/250th of a second which showed the water flowing over the rocks, but captured in frozen motion because of the speed at which it was taken. The sheets of water looked very much like the rock, frozen in motion, and frozen in time, for all intents and purposes no more living or flowing than the bedrock which made up the backbone of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

I thought again, “What of a creature whose lifespan was but a 1/250th of a second in length, a creature which was born, lived and then died within this short period of time? What would it think of the water in Mission Creek? Would it die thinking that water was something like we think of rock?

In comparison to the one hundred and thirty-five million years that Santa Barbara’s geologic history has encompassed, the length of our own lives will last just about a 1/250th of a second. Like the small creature which only saw frozen water, when in fact it was a living, moving, vibrant substance, our view of the geologic processes is very limited and incomplete.

 When we begin to sense life on this larger scale, one which encompasses a hundred and thirty-five million years and the evolution of our present geology and chaparral plant communities, Santa Barbara’s environment  is no longer a static thing, but a living, breathing system, and we begin to be in tune with a deeper time. 

The Subduction Begins
One hundred and thirty-five million years ago, the North American and Pacific Plates came into contact with one another for the first time, initiating a series of violent collisions that would shape the geology of all of Southern California. There was a much different topographic relief then, dissimilar vegetation (in the areas above water), and a climate much wetter than what we know at present. 

There were no high mountains in California, perhaps only rolling hills, and a tropical sea lapped against a shoreline much farther east, near the base of what was to become the Sierra Nevada. What we now know as Santa Barbara was underwater and farther south, possibly as far south as northern Baja. 

Much of  northern California, however, and most of the Pacific Northwest was above water. Dense rainforests predominated in the Northwest and the climate was warm, temperate, and humid. In the parts of Southern California that were above sea level the climate was more subtropical and savanna, rolling grass-covered hills set in a warm, wet climate.  

But gradually this began to change as two massive pieces of the earth’s crust smashed together. While both the North American and Pacific Plates drifted northward, the Pacific Plate moved north at a faster rate, causing it to collide with the North American land mass. Though the difference in rate of drift was miniscule, an average of only 2.25inches per year (some 300 miles over the entire 135 million year period!), this difference was enough to produce Southern California’s rugged topography. 

The Pacific Plate was composed, not of a single sheet of the earth’s crust, but a series of connected pieces. In its  middle portion was a break known as the Pacific Rise, out of which oozed molten materials from deep within the earth. Like escalators, the land on each side moved up and out and away  from the Rise. 

Thus, as the Pacific Plate drifted north, there was also a part of it that moved to the east, causing the plate  to be pushed, or subducted, under the North American Plate at some periods in its geologic history, and at others to slide north against it, as it does today along the San Andreas Fault.

As one of the pieces of the Pacific Plate subducted under the continental piece, the edge of the North American continent acted like a huge bulldozer blade, scraping portions of the crust off the ocean plate. This pile of rubble, called the Franciscan Formation by geologists, eventually would become the basement rock beneath the Santa Ynez Mountains. Today, it is exposed in Santa Barbara County mainly along the southern slopes of the San Rafael Mountains, especially near Figueroa Mountain.

Farther to the interior, the subduction caused widespread volcanic activity in the Sierras, with friction between the two plates causing rock beneath the surface to melt and  the land directly above the western edge of the North American Plate to sink. As the basin subsided, it formed a large depression something like the shape of a bathtub. 

This bathtub began to fill very slowly with the sediments that would one day make up the Santa Barbara front and back country. Most of the geologic formations exposed in the Santa Ynez Mountains, including the Juncal, Matilija, Cozy Dell, and Coldwater formations, were deposited in this basin during the Eocene Epoch, 40 to 50 million years ago. 

As the basin continued to sink, the shoreline crept inland to the base of an ancestral form of the Sierra Nevada, which were more rolling hills than mountains at that time. While the Sierra range was uplifted, torrential subtropical rains caused widespread erosion, covering the ocean floor with 20,000 to 30,000 feet of sediment that would eventually become the fertile Central Valley and the Santa Barbara coast. 

  The sinking of the basin and the consequent sedimentation were not processes that occurred evenly, though. At some points as the basin sank rapidly the ocean was several thousand feet deep; at others, it subsided slowly or not at all, and the basin filled to become a shallow seashore environment.

When more shallow, a predominance of sands built up, like  those in prominent peaks such as La Cumbre or Divide Peaks, or massive pieces of bedrock such as those at Lizard’s Mouth or the Playground. Where the basin was deeper, the shales prevailed, shales like the Cozy Dell, which lies in between the Matilija and Coldwater sandstones and forms the deep saddles that make Mission Crags so distinctive.

 Finally, at the beginning of the Oligocene Epoch, approximately 35 million years ago,when the section of the Pacific Plate causing the basin to sink moved north of Southern California, Santa Barbara was about ready to surface for the first time. The basin, or bathtub, was  almost full of sediment and as the shoreline began to retreat westward, the land began to re-emerge.

At this point, Santa Barbara still lay beneath the ocean, but as more layers of sandstone and shale piled up in the Channel, in the form of granitic sands and fine mud, the floor rose, and Santa Barbara timidly peaked its sand and shale covered head above the ocean’s surface.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the red-colored rocks exposed along the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains, especially visible on San Marcos Pass Road several miles above Cathedral Oaks.  These are the Sespe “red beds”, a series of rock layers composed of shale, sandstone, and a mixture of pebbles and larger cobbles called conglomerate. The reddish color is the result of iron oxides within the shales and sandstones, a vivid celebration of Santa Barbara’s rise from its primeval depths.  It also leads geologists to conclude that this also was a period of tropical or subtropical climate, since red soils similar to these are being formed in the Tropics today. 

With the subduction ended, California now began to feel the first effects of the San Andreas Fault. When the subducting portion of the Pacific Plate moved north of Santa Barbara, it was replaced by a piece that began to slide against the North American Plate, a process which resulted in violent collisions.

The pressures built along the edges of these two plates, then were relieved suddenly in the form of earthquakes, releasing energy that began to lift thousands of feet of ocean sediments towards the heavens, making them into mountains. While the earthquakes raised mountains from the sea, erosive forces labored to wear them back down. Streams carried sand and gravel toward the ocean, forming the broad alluvial plain we now call the Sespe redbeds.  

For 11 million years this gently sloping land received deposits of sand, silt, and cobbles that would become the Sespe Formation. But rather than staying above water, almost as if in a last ditch effort to return to its marine origins, the land sank one last time. For another 10 million years the red beds were gradually buried under ocean-bottom sediments laid down in Miocene seas. 

The warm, shallow seas were more favorable to the development of marine life than at any other time. Small, single-celled organisms called diatoms flourished, as did many varieties of shellfish. Sea mammals, including whales, sea otters, seal, and sea lions evolved to maturity during the Miocene Epoch as well. 

Sediments included the layers we know as Rincon Shale, Vaqueros Sandstone, and the Monterey Formation. The latter two layers, heavily saturated with organic material due to the abundance of marine life, now play a very important part in Santa Barbara’s oil legacy. 

Eventually mountain-building processes initiated by our restless earth shoved these rock layers out of the ocean, this time for good, to form the land we live upon today. No doubt though, someday we will once again be part of an ocean floor. 

The Changing Climate
As Santa Barbara rose from the ocean depths, Southern California’s subtropical climate was beginning to shift to a drier, cooler environment. Approximately 13 million years ago, at the beginning of the Pliocene Epoch, rainfall, a staple of the evergreen forests and tropical plants such as the fern, lessened in its intensity and began to fall only in the colder months of the year. Colder ocean temperatures began to affect the positioning of the Pacific High and this blocked summer storms coming from the Alaskan Gulf, allowing them to occur only during winter and early spring months. 

As the cooling, drying trend accelerated, mixed conifer and subalpine forests began to adapt to a narrowing range of environments, becoming situated in small pockets and botanical islands,  either in areas of high relief or abundant rainfall, where drought stress could be avoided.

By the beginning of the Pliocene, open grasslands replaced the retreating forests, and as the Santa Ynez Mountains formed, they and other coastal ranges became important reservoirs for the survival and persistence of plants derived from the northern temperate rain forests. In addition, the uplifting of the Sierra Nevada began to protect coastal areas from even more intense periods of cooling and drying east of the Sierra, thus allowing the persistence of a number of relic plant species in Southern California.

Because of the climatic changes, another vegetative community much more suited to a developing mediterranean environment spread toward California from the East. Fifty million years ago, as the layers now forming the basic rock units of the Santa Ynez Mountains were being laid down in the Santa Barbara Channel, live-oak woodland and associated woodland trees such as the madrone, bay, and pinyon pine appeared as far west as the Rocky Mountains. By the Miocene, some twenty to thirty million years later, they had assumed dominance over the interior of much of Southern California.  

Another ten million years later, during the Pliocene, grasslands and an oak-woodland setting covered most of Santa Barbara County, a land of soft rolling hills, luscious clumps of perennial grass, and thick clusters of oak trees—not unlike the Santa Ynez Valley on an April afternoon today. It was not the home of cattle, however, but of prehistoric land mammals such as camels, rhinos, three-toed horses, hedgehogs, and other exotic species that thrived then on the wide expanses of grass.

As the Santa Barbara basin continued to fill with cobblestones, gravels, sand, silt, and other matter, these alluvia formed either rich, deep topsoils or in areas where shale predominated, were compacted to form dense clayey soils. In the areas of good topsoil, grasses became the primary ground cover, with native bunch grasses covering most of the coastal plain. The clay soils, less hospitable, tended to support a combination of grasses and woodland.

The first oaks to migrate to the west coast were of the temperate forest, primarily deciduous oaks which originated in the cool, wet forests of the northern half of the continent before being driven from the Plains, across the Rockies, and into the West. These migrating oaks were a mixture not only of deciduous, but also evergreen varieties  such as the California coastal live oak, which evolved in a much drier environment, most likely similar to that of the warmer drier parts of northern Mexico.

Today both the deciduous and evergreen varities of oak are an integral part of what we call the Santa Barbara landscape.  Valley oaks, the largest of the American oaks still thrive in the deep, moist soils of the interior valleys, though where people inhabit the valley floors, they are becoming an endangered species. Gnarled little blue oaks cover the grassy foothills surrounding the valleys, somehow getting enough moisture from the shallow soil to hold their leathery leaves through the dry summers. Living on stream flats or ravines where the topsoil is deeper and the moisture a bit more abundant are the equally gnarled interior live oaks, distinguished by having a greener foliage than the blue oaks. Higher on the slopes, where the grasslands give way to fir and pine, are California black oaks, a deciduous species with leaves similar in appearance to the valley oak but having needle-like points at the ends of the lobes. Along the coast, forming huge oak forests in places such as Hope Ranch or Montecito, the California live oak is the prevalent species.  

The drier climate also fostered the evolution of chaparral plant communities in Southern California. Able to survive in wetter climates, chaparral plants thrive in areas where dry, mediterranean environments prevail.

Perhaps the chaparral plants could be likened to hitchhikers, thumbs out, riding tectonic plates north into a more profitable environment, as movement along the San Andreas Fault caused Southern California to drift northward, with forces exerted by this movement generating a power almost impossible to comprehend, ripping Baja California away from the mainland and creating a trench between it and the Mexican mainland that would become the Gulf of California. 

Also breaking up the 30,000-foot thickness of sediments that had built up in the Santa Barbara Channel, it pushed them more than a mile in the air, twisted the entire block from its original north-south direction to the east-west orientation it has today, and moved the  Santa Barbara land mass with its newly evolving drought-resistant plant community toward an environment whose  mediterranean climate would allow them to thrive.

This mountain-building process began to occur about three million years ago, during the Pleistocene Epoch, uplifting the Santa Ynez Mountains to their greatest relief, perhaps as much as 7,000’ in height, as the tectonic pressures being exerted by slippage along the San Andreas Fault caused layers of sedimentary rock in the Santa Barbara area to turn on their edges along the Santa Ynez Fault. 

At this time a cooling trend also developed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, causing the onset of a series of ice ages.  Sheets of ice up to 10,000 feet thick covered much of the continent and the ocean level dropped about 350 feet. This caused the  coastline to retreat between 5 and 6 miles and exposed the Channel Islands as one long land mass. For several million years the climate in Southern California was cool and wet. 

Protected by the Sierras, the west coast endured not ice but torrential rain, which ate away at the rising mountains and provided the County with an environment much more like that of Monterey today, a period of rich and diverse plant life. Intermixed were conifers, redwoods, and deciduous woodlands. It was a period of pre-eminence in the Santa Barbara area for ferns such as the maidenhair.  

The Pleistocene Epoch  was not one long period but a series of recurring cool-moist, warm-dry cycles in which there was a constant reassortment of the two primary elements: the temperate forests of the north and the drought-resistant communities from the south. Some plants sought safety in the high country; others in the canyons, or on the flanks of the developing mountain wall. Those, like the maidenhair fern, did not seem to mind sharing chaparral country as long as it could receive a share of the meager rainfall. 

The overall trend, though, was one of drying, and after the Pleistocene ended, a warmer, less moist climate prevailed, allowing the spread of more drought-resistant plants like the chaparral into Southern California, and causing the  elimination of the primeval forests and the ferns from the low country.  

This warming forced the development of narrower, more specialized local environments, causing plants to separate into distinct plant communities.  Woodland forests  segregated themselves into ecological islands where they could continue to exist. Alder, sycamore, and maple migrated to the canyons. While coniferous forests shifted to the mountaintops, evergreen oak species migrated onto the thin coastal strip. Other woodland species, which required either a colder climate or more rainfall, such as the cottonwood and valley oak, retreated to more equitable climates found in the interior valleys and the backcountry.

Perhaps 10,000 years ago, as the Pleistocene cycles gave way to the development of a mediterranean climate, ferns removed themselves to the hidden places like the Playground. For the time being, at least, it was the era of the chaparral.

Soon the first humans, also in search of more hospitable environments, would be migrating to the South Coast.


The information in the Tabs above come from my 1990 edition of Day Hikes of the Santa Barbara Foothills and republished here for you to enjoy.

Geologic Periods

The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford


LATE JURASSIC TO EARLY CRETACEOUS—135 million
Continental drift begins about 250 million years ago. 135 million years ago: North American Plate begins to override the Pacific Plate. Subduction of Pacific Plate causes rise of the Sierras. Along coast and to the base of Sierras, land subsides to create a large basin. Sea moves inland to the base of the Sierras.

TERTIARY  

Paleocene 60 million
Santa Barbara is under a deep sea. Climate beyond the Sierras to the interior becomes warmer. Sediments deposited on the ocean floor as mountains are weathered get subducted under the North American Plate. These do not appear in the strata of the Santa Ynez Range.

Eocene 50 million
Subduction slows. Pacific Plate is now being pushed north as well as being subducted. Sediments deposited on the ocean floor at this time become the basic geological units of the Santa Ynez Mountains: Juncal, Matilija, Cozy Dell Shale, and Coldwater Sandstone formations. Climate has become subtropical. Large mammals evolve in the lush jungle vegetation. Marine life begins to evolve.

Oligocene 35 million
Pacific Plate has almost passed north of Santa Barbara. The Eocene and early Oligocene sediments begin to fill the large basin. The sea becomes shallow. Santa Barbara area rises above sea level for the first time. The purplish-red Sespe Formation is the first non-marine sediment to be laid down. Climate becomes cooler and drier. Subtropical vegetation is replaced by savanna and oak woodland environments. Large mammals such as the wooly mammoth become extinct. Several grazing animals and their predators evolve.

Miocene 30 million
Subduction ends when the Pacific Plate moves north of Santa Barbara and to its present position off the Washington coast. American and Pacific Plates come into direct contact along the San Andreas Fault. Northward moving Pacific Plate causes a shearing stress. Land mass moves north and into contact with the Sierra range, creating a lateral compression giving rise to the Santa Ynez Range. Climate is cooler and drier and sea life more abundant than at any other time.

Pliocene 13 million
Santa Barbara is above sea level for good and present topography develops. Santa Ynez crest is forced upward by the lateral compression, causing depression of the Santa Ynez Valley. Climate is warm and dry. Chaparral plant communities spread from the Southwest across Southern California. Many mammals reach their evolutionary peak of development.

QUARTERNARY

Pleistocene 3 million
Santa Ynez Mountains are uplifted from 1,000 to 2,000 feet higher than at present and interior valleys subside further. Onset of a series of Ice Ages. Ocean level drops 350 feet, coastline retreats, and Channel Islands become one long island. Climate becomes cold and moist and forest plant and animal communities flourish. Crest of mountains slowly erode to present relief.

Recent 11,000 Years
Warming trend develops across continent and ice sheets melt. Sea level rises quickly. Canyons fill with creek sediments and valleys are covered with layers of alluvia. Evergreen plant communities retreat to canyons and mountain crests. Chaparral becomes the predominant plant community. Man migrates to the Santa Barbara area about 10,000 years ago and has become semi-sedentary by about 8,000 years ago.

 

Formations

The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford


There are eight main rock structures underlying the Santa Ynez Mountains. From the oldest to youngest they are: Juncal Formation; Matilija Sandstone; Cozy Dell Shale; Coldwater Sandstone; Sespe Formation; Vaqueros Sandstone; Rincon Shale; and Monterey Shale. All are composed of sandstone, shale, or interbeds of shale and sandstone. A small amount of conglomerate is also found in the area.

JUNCAL
The Juncal Formation is composed of alternating layers of sandstone and shale that are 4,000 to 5,000 feet thick. They are of the Eocene Age (58 to 36 million years ago). The shale predominates and weathers easily, forming rounded clay hills. The more rapid erosion of the shale interbeds leaves the sandstone jutting out as prominent ledges or ridges. The layers accumulated in a cold, deep sea which supported little marine life. Because the soils formed by the Juncal shales are of poor quality, they support little but brushy growth on steeper slopes that have a southern exposure. Near the crest, such as behind Montecito, the shale has weathered to rolling, rounded hilltops that have a grassy cover, a sharp contrast to the jagged Matilija formation which is just to the west. The Juncal Formation is prominent in the upper Santa Ynez Valley and is the major rock structure in the Red Rock area.

MATILIJA SANDSTONE
Matilija Sandstone is the thick, resistant layer of sandstone that forms the 3,985 foot high La Cumbre Peak. It is 2,000 feet thick at this point. This sandstone is grayish-white, weathers to a creamy buff color, and is extremely hard. This makes it highly resistant to erosion, and allows it to form the most rugged, craggy, and scenic strata found in the Santa Ynez Mountains. The sandstone was laid down in the later Eocene period and its origin is of granitic rock eroded from inland sources. After being washed into the ocean the granite was decomposed by underwater currents and spread out over the ocean floor as a uniform blanket of sand as the basin subsided. The Matilija formation doesn’t contain any fossils because the cold, inhospitable marine environment that emerged during the formation of the Juncal shales continued to prevail.

The upper part of Tunnel Trail passes through Matilija Sandstone and the upper end of Rattlesnake Canyon ends at the base of this formation. Just above the large meadow you can see a large wall of sandstone. This is Gibraltar Rock, a popular climbing area. The narrow, upper part of San Ysidro Canyon is also created by this sandstone.

COZY DELL SHALE
Formed in the upper Eocene, this formation is composed almost entirely of shale. Cozy Dell Shale is almost 1,700 feet thick and disintegrates readily into small fragments. This causes it to form markedly recessive topography, most graphically the deep saddles you can see in between the Matilija and Coldwater sandstones. It is dark gray and weathers to a brownish-gray or olive gray color. Cozy Dell Shale was deposited as a fine mud 35 to 40 million years ago when the Eocene sea reached its maximum depth. While the Coldwater and Matilija sandstones form spectacular peaks and cliffs, the Cozy Dell saddles have their own gentle grace. This shale is exposed in several areas, most notably along the connector trail leading from Rattlesnake Canyon to the Tunnel Trail and the saddle between Cathedral and La Cumbre peaks. The rolling, grass-covered knolls on the crest above San Antonio Creek are also composed of Cozy Dell Shale.

COLDWATER SANDSTONE
Coldwater Sandstone is the thickest of the marine sandstones found in the Santa Barbara area. Its resistant layers form the pyramid-shaped Mission Crags in the mountains directly above the Botanic Gardens. Averaging 2,700 feet in thickness, it is composed mostly gray-white sands which weather on the outside surfaces to a buff color. Coldwater Sandstone contains a composition of approximately 20% siltstone and shale which can be seen in between the much thicker sandstone layers. The main part of the layer is composed of granitic sands washed down into an Eocene sea during a period when geologic activity was causing the sea to retreat. Most likely, the sandstone was deposited when the Santa Barbara basin was nearly full. This shallow marine environment was most likely much more favorable to the development of life. The shallow, brackish seas fostered the growth of large beds of oysters, a fossil found frequently in the Coldwater Sandstone. Though not quite as resistant as Matilija Sandstone, it is extremely hard.

The sandstone forms the picturesque ledges, cliffs, and boulder fields found at Lizard’s Mouth and the Playground. Most of the rock exposed along the upper Jesusita Trail is Coldwater Sandstone, as are the formations in lower Cold Springs and San Ysidro canyons. Where it lies along the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains, Coldwater Sandstone forms beautiful narrow canyons that feature large pools and waterfalls. The most well known of these narrows is at Seven Falls in the west fork of Mission Canyon.

SESPE FORMATION
The Sespe Formation is composed of interbedded shales, sandstones, and conglomerates that total 3,000 feet in thickness. The rock is primarily reddish-brown or maroon due to the high content of iron oxide found in it. The Sespe Formation is the only non-marine layers of rock found in the Santa Barbara area. It accumulated on a nearly level plain as the sea became choked with sediment. Eventually the iron oxidized to become the rusty color it is today.

The Sespe Formation is found along the lower part of the foothills and comprises many of the rolling hills found in the Goleta area. Where there is a large percentage of clay in the strata, it weathers to a loamy soil which supports grassy slopes, many of which have avocado orchards on them. The red conglomerates are readily visible in the first few miles of Highway 154 above the San Antonio bridge crossing. The formation is also present along lower Jesusita Trail and there are outcroppings of it throughout the Santa Barbara and Montecito foothills.

 

Chumash

The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford


“The little Lizard, in order to find out what was going on in the world, would play the flute. And the Coyote, in order to take it in, would cock his ear.

And this is all—the hole of the flute is the pathway to thought.”  --Kitsepawit

“There is this world in which we live, but there is also the one above us and and one below. Here, where we live, is the center of our world—it is the biggest island. And there are two giant serpents that hold up our world from below. 

When they are tired they move, and that causes earthquakes.”   --Maria Solares

The spirit of the mountains has not been lost. It is still lodged in these ancient rocks—a little more hidden now, but there nonetheless, no more so than in those places where the paintings are. There is one I call Wind Cave, and in the times I have spent there I have gotten a feeling for the mysterious world of the Chumash and the relationship they might have had with the spirit world.

There are twelve or thirteen other rock art sites in the Santa Ynez Mountains, most in inaccessible canyons or rock outcroppings in the midst of the chaparral, all with meanings equally well hidden and many more in the back country. This one is easily available only because West Camino Cielo Road is nearby. 

The cave is not large, maybe forty feet in length and twenty feet high. It is more an arching overhang than a cave, but it shelters one of the very special places of the Santa Ynez Mountains, a place of the ancient people. The rock itself has a mottled appearance, and rows of small cup-like depressions fan across it. Cupules like these were grooved into the sandstone of many of the rock sites utilized by the Chumash as part of fertility ceremonies, and it was believed that they could cure sterility. 

The dirt floor is smooth, charcoal grey, the result of hundreds of years of evening fires. There is the sense of many eons of moments spent by the Chumash in this place. Countless cycles, sunset and moonrise repeated time and again; ancient harmonies, the power of a universe in which the Chumash were intimately involved. The paintings here represent something intangible, something difficult to draw out of the artwork no matter how hard one tries.

What sets this apart from other Chumash sites are the steps on the far side of the enclosure, cut deeply into the sandstone bedrock. There are five of them, each six inches high, eighteen wide and a foot deep, the result of many patient hours of carving. They lead to the entrance of a smaller cave. The opening is less than body length long and two feet high. The inside is slightly larger and is shaped like the interior of an egg. The paintings are in red—like most of the others at this site—and crude, but they lend an insistence to this spot. From this perspective, you can see the main part of the cave where a tongue of bedrock, about four feet off the ground, seems to reach out toward the sky. Tucked under it is my favorite painting, its image no longer red ochre but just a rust-colored stain on the coarse sandstone. It is a small circle, six inches in diameter, with what appear to be tiny arms and legs emanating from it, an earth creature whose purpose has been lost in the centuries. A creature of the Twentieth Century, it looks like a “Rasta Man” to me.

Inside the smaller cave there are several circles, a series of XXX’s, a long straight line with V-shaped lines radiating out from it. In the right corner is what might be a lizard design or a waterbug, but the upper part of it is worn away. There are also faint charcoal markings inside the cave.

Painting Styles
Chumash paintings such as these belong to one of several distinct style periods which evolved over the past three thousand years. The earliest were primarily charcoal scratchings consisting of narrow lines drawn in black.  The second style is the one most commonly found in the Santa Ynez Mountains: red on sandstone. Though simple, the paintings of this period include figures with recognizable heads, bodies and limbs—lizards, snakes, scorpions, centipedes—as well as designs like the ones at this site. The third style, found more often in the interior mountains, is called polychrome, meaning “many colors”. This includes any painting with two or more colors, though the traditional ones used were red and black, and to a lesser extent, white. The polychromes sometimes also utilized a dotted style, with a series of white dots surrounding figures, or dots applied to earlier paintings to make them more elaborate.

Just as the Chumash took food from the earth, they also took the colors for their paints. The favorite color was red, produced from hematite, which ranged in color from dull red to bright vermilion. When found, this mineral is brownish-red, but when exposed to flames, it turns a brighter red. Black was made of manganese oxide, while the white came from finely ground diatomaceous earth, a substance that is composed of the fossils of microscopic algae found in large quantities near Lompoc. Oranges and yellow ochre came from another iron oxide. The less commonly used blue and green paints probably were derived from serpentine deposits in the San Rafael Mountains. The paints were also traded among tribes; in fact, the finest of the blacks was made by a southern San Joaquin tribe, the Yokuts. When the wind blows, the meaning of this rock art can almost be heard being whispered to you, but as always, just as the breath begins to take on shape and texture, the meaning slips by.  

The spirit of these caves drifts on, across the face of the mountains, driven by the wind. It is the spirit of the shamans, the ancient ones, who decorated these rocks with the basic elements. It is the memory of the Chumash, people who walked softly through the Santa Ynez Mountains, and the message of their lives drifts with it.

The World of the Chumash
Life, to the Chumash, was both mysterious and powerful. Their world offered them an environment more abundant than any other in California, but nevertheless, it set limits. It was a vast land they inhabited—wild, mountainous, and rugged, and topographically oriented in an east-west direction so that the main ranges seemed to align themselves with the movement of the sun and moon. 

The Chumash called themselves the First People, and most of their villages were situated near the sea where the climate was mild and the food resources plentiful. Over a period of several thousand years, a tribe of people perhaps more prosperous, more artistically inclined, and more highly advanced that any other in California developed on the Santa Barbara coast.

Properly speaking, “Chumash” meant bead maker, which the Indians who lived on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands were. Subsequently, though, the name has come to refer to all Indians who lived along the coast from Malibu to San Luis Obispo, some 15,000 at the peak of Chumash culture when the Spaniards arrived in the 1770s.

Migratory bands of Indians may have settled in the Santa Barbara area as early as 10,000 years ago, as a warmer, drier climate superseded the Pleistocene ice ages, but it is more likely they arrived closer to 6000 B.C.  Before this, most Indian settlements were centered near the lakes and marshes of the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys and at the edges of the Mojave desert.

As the climate continued to dry, and the wetlands began to retreat, these tribes ranged to the far mountains in search of game, pronghorn antelope, tule elk, and deer. In the Cuyama Valley and the Carrizo Plain, much lusher then than today, there was an abundance of these animals, and progressively the Indians moved west toward the coast.

No historian will be able to record the exact moment the first humans walked onto Santa Barbara soil, but it is known that there were people living here no later than 4000 B.C.  These were small bands of people, probably family units, as food-gathering techniques were crude and inefficient and there was a lack of proper storage facilities. These tribes moved often, following shifting seasonal food patterns. North of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the people focused on gathering food from the valley grasslands, the chaparral, and the marshlands, while the Indians on the coastal strip increasingly utilized the marine resources and developed techniques to harvest the plentiful food supplies there. 

By 1500 B.C., the culture that was to become the Chumash nation began to develop in complexity. Villages appeared on the coast as resources allowed the Indians to become more sedentary, marriage exchanges began to occur, and the size of the villages increased—all due mainly to the ability to utilize the ocean more efficiently. The first permanent settlements in the Santa Ynez Valley were also established at this time.

About 1200 B.C.—coinciding with a climatic shift that created a moist, warm environment for several hundred years—the resource base expanded even further and trade relationships developed between the growing number of villages. As the exchange networks grew, shell beads became the standard of value, linking villages on the Channel Islands to coastal villages and in turn to villages in the Santa Ynez Valley and San Joaquin Valley. Of great significance was the development of the tomol, the planked canoe which made the Chumash masters of the Channel.

Prior to this time the mountains of the Santa Barbara backcountry and the interior valleys were used mainly for the collection of seasonal foods—acorns, islay (holly-leaf cherry), or pinyon nuts. The first villages may actually have been seasonal camps for the coastal Chumash. But with the development of basketry, stone cookware, and most important of all, the ability to harvest and store food surpluses in the fall for winter use, permanent villages appeared along the Santa Ynez River and lush streams situated near the base of  Figueroa Mountain. As the inland villages prospered, primitive trails over the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains were built. 

By 1100 A.D., Chumash culture was relatively complex. There was craft specialization, status differentiation, and villages were run by chieftains known as wots. There were also sweat lodges, dance floors, and ceremonial enclosures, and a powerful organization of shaman-priests known as the ‘antap. 

The Spirit World
As hunter-gatherers, the Chumash recognized their dependency on the world around them. Ceremonies marked significant times of the year. Fall harvest, for example, when food gathering and storage was at its peak, not only celebrated the abundance of the harvest, but was a period of food sharing and food giving. Winter solstice occasioned several days of feasting and dancing, during which the shamans honored the power of their father, the sun, as he started his journey back toward spring.

Over the span of many generations, the Chumash integrated these ceremonies into a distinctive mythology and developed a very direct and meaningful relationship with the earth. Most of what we know today of this relationship is the work of ethnographer John Peabody Harrington, who interviewed many Chumash descendents in the early 1900s, including Fernando Librado (known also by his Chumash name,  Kitsepawit) and Maria Solares.

The sky above was Mishupashup. There Morning Star, Moon, and Coyote lived. Moon was a quiet lady who lived by herself, while Sky Coyote was a large creature who watched over human affairs. The world itself was held aloft by an immense eagle, Slo’w, who also watched, but was deep in thought and rarely moved other than to stretch his great wings. Morning Star lived in the home of Sun. 

Sun, himself, was old and naked. Each day he crossed the sky, carrying a torch to light his way. The torch was made from the bark of a cottonwood-like tree that grew in the heavens. Sun was the fiery giver of life, but it was also well within his power to take it away.

Every night Sky Coyote and Sun acted out the gamble of life in a game known as Peon. At the winter solstice, the scores were added. If Sun were the winner, there would be little rain in the following year. If Sky Coyote, who usually had man’s best interests in mind, won, Sun had to give Sky Coyote many harvest products to shower down upon the Middle World.  ‘Itiashup, the Middle World, was like a flat, round island held up by the strength of two giant serpents, and this is where the Chumash lived. The guardian spirit of this world was Hutash, the mother earth. Of her, Kitsepawit said, “...Earth was the Indian’s mother and god, for she gave them their food, and gave the bear, deer and even the snakes and ants their food.”

There was also another world, C’oyinashup, the lower world beneath the earth. At night, it was said, fearful creatures called Nunashush would come from the ground. The worst of these sort of creatures was Haphap, a man-like monster whose home was at the foot of a steep peak. 

The shaman served as mediator between the realities of daily life and this mystical world. It was a world of power, one in which danger often lurked, a world of chance in which the final outcome was to be determined by his ability to harness this power, which he may have attempted to do through the rock paintings.

Lost Meanings
One of the wonderful things about much of this land, like the Chumash who once lived upon it, is that there is a certain mystery that will always remain to it. There will always be some things about it that we will never know. Like a giant cloak, the chaparral hides much from us, including a great portion of the Chumash rock art, which is secreted in little niches in the high country, powerful visual images blurred just enough to defy interpretation.

 

Chaparral

The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford


“It is the aroma I remember best. The sharp smell of greasewood, sagebrush and ceanothus is so powerful that it seems almost as hard to penetrate as the chaparral itself. Its richness envelops you and stains your hair and clothes and memory with fragrance. 

Off in some faintly scented wilderness in Idaho, where there are lakes and peaks that will not be seen here until the coastal range uplifts for a few more years, I have caught a whiff of that aroma and been instantly awash in nostalgia, longing for that spare, glamorless wilderness back of Santa Barbara....”

Michael Parfait, Santa Barbara Magazine

 On a warm spring or summer day there is no finer place to spend an afternoon than along one of Santa Barbara’s many creeksides. The rock is hot from the sun, perfect to lie back on and relax, and after a plunge in the chilling apple-green water, it feels good to lie back and absorb it the sun’s energy. The weariness of the hike will begin to drain away, and the frantic pace which always seems to be the rule back in the city will start to evaporate.

It is a lazy, unpretentious way to enjoy the mountain wall and its hidden treasures. Resting on the coarse sandstone, so many years in the making, it is possible to assimilate the sense of deep time silently offered to you.  

Light filters through the oak leaves in canyon country. Beneath, in their shade are smaller shafts with bulbous, bright-red flower pods known as hummingbird sage, and the intense nuclear yellows of the bush poppy. In the springtime these wildflowers create a Mondrian landscape of pastels which soften and give vibrance to the countryside. There are also the honeydew oranges of the sticky monkeyflower, plumes of goldenrod, long vines of morning glory, and clusters of the odorous pearly everlasting. 

Life in the Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountains begins in the canyons, the corridors into the mountain wall most often visited by Santa Barbarans, thin creases of abundance, a land where wealth is measured in terms not of hard currency but in liquid. Water is the life force here. I have spent many an afternoon hiking in the canyons of the front and back country and what draws me back is this liquid gold and its cascading sound as gravity pulls it down to the sea. “If there be magic on this planet, it is contained in water,” scientist Loren Eisley wrote. “Water....its substance reaches everywhere; it touches the past and prepares the future.”

The canyons are places that seem to allow an easier life. The vegetation literally has its feet in the water, and as a result, the leaves are larger and greener than in other plant communities, for these plants can afford to transpire more freely than their chaparral neighbors, which live but a hundred or more feet above.

The Plant Communities
The canyon community has three distinct layers to it. At the top is the canopy, composed of the long branches of bay, willow, sycamore, and alder, and in the higher parts of the canyons, an occasional bigleaf maple. This overstory provides the shade, coolness, and humidity necessary to the lower layers. Next are the shrubs, including coffeeberry, elderberry, currant, the ubiquitous poison oak, and the fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, which has brilliant red teardrop-shaped flowers with white inner petals. 

Also in this middle layer are blackberry, wild rose, and the sunshine brightness of the canyon sunflower. Beneath is the herbacious layer, including a number of plants which can be classified as fire followers, plants that prosper in the years immediately after fire has swept through an area. Among the herbacious plants are miner’s lettuce, hummingbird sage, cream cups, buttercup, lupine, brodiaea, shooting stars, blue-eyed grass, nightshade, watercress, and mint. 

Here the abundance is nowhere more evident than in the numbers of small creatures which inhabit the canyons. To think of wildlife in the mountains one usually thinks of the big creatures: the bear, the lion, the bobcat, or the coyote. But these are creatures more of open country, the grasslands, the wider canyon bottoms, the higher country where the brush is sparser. In the deeper canyons, and especially in the chaparral, the thickets and the interlacings of ceanothus, manzanita, toyon, and scrub oak serve to keep the big life out. The chaparral, as the canyons, are worlds of small dimensions and the little creatures.

The Little Creatures
In the late spring, the creeks run in volume, with alder leaves accumulate on the surface in places. Some sweep on downstream while others sink as they become waterlogged, and there is a thick layer decaying on the bottom, providing rich nutrients for the small life—the water skaters, the pincher beetles, and the like. 

In the canyons of the Santa Ynez Mountains the water falls fast, racing downhill, rarely traveling more than a few hundred yards before pouring into the next pool. The steepness of the mountain wall, an angle of nearly 50 degrees behind the city, and the constrictions of the resistant sandstone layers causes a pool-drop effect, and inbetween, where the shales prevail, a number of quieter pools exist, which are perfect havens for the insect world.

The hum of the crickets is steady, and like the sound of the ocean, the din does not seem to come from any one direction. Curiously, the sound is more conspicuous when it stops and the canyon becomes intensely quiet by comparison. 

Though they are pitifully small, the water skaters cast monstrous shadows beneath them. But when they propel themselves across the water, they become as graceful as ballet dancers, moving in short spurts with a steady breaststroke. If you look closely, you can see that they rest not in the water but on its surface tension, looking somewhat like miniature trimarans.

Viewed from the perspective of a child, this is an exciting world, and on even closer inspection, face pressed close to the surface of the pool, you can see that it is not a sterile place, as might have been guessed, but is teeming with life. The skaters have greatly elongated legs and their feet have oil glands which help keep them water-resistant. The surface does not appear strong, yet it must be like a thin, stretched membrane, because the feet of these bugs make tiny depressions in the film. 

While this membrane supports and sustains some insects, it constitutes a barrier to others, which do not have the body weight to plunge through it. The water boatmen and the backswimmers make their way back and forth from bottom to surface. Their bodies are coated with water-repelling hairs so that a thin film of air encases each, making them look as if they have been coated with silver. They also have specialized rowing equipment, including elongated hind legs which are covered with hair, making them highly efficient oars. Both look like mini-subs, but while the boatmen swim right-side-up, the backswimmers, as their name implies, move in an upside-down position, which allows them to drift up under their prey.

Other insects, like the dragonfly larvae, are aquatic in their infancy and airborne as adults. The larvae has gills and uses its legs to crawl about or to stalk prey, but if alarmed, it draws water into its rectum and forcibly expels it, creating a unique sort of jet propulsion.

Lying on the pool’s bottom, the larvae do not look like the sort of creatures that will metamorphose into the world’s most efficient flying machines, but they are as predaceous, perhaps preparing themselves for their future role as top hunters in the insect world. If you look closely on the stalks of poolside vegetation, you will see the shells of those larvae that have made it beyond the water’s surface and been transformed into delicate-winged dragonflies.

Home of the Long Legs
Just below the upper pools in Cold Springs Canyon, there is a large alder I have climbed many times. It houses a colony of a favorite of mine, the daddy-long legs in a two-foot diameter tree decorated with numerous carvings. They are monuments to young lovers who have passed by, I suppose. (I wonder whether Rog and Dena are still together, or whether their initials are all that remain of a brief high school fling. And what of Adolph and Laura, who stood under this tree on 8-11-74?). 

Alders are wonderful trees. Their bark is smooth, pearl grey, the leaves like green jewels against the azures of the sky. The branches break off easily, I can promise you from experience, but that seems to add something to their looks, a scattering of what appear to be owl’s eyes etched into the trunks where there were once limbs. 

Directly in front of me, in the pocket of one of these eyes are the daddy-long legs, their message clear: the more you explore, and the closer you look, the more you see. They lie completely still, bodies huddled together, legs jumbled one over the other, so that I can’t tell which legs belong to which. One leg waves in the air like a solitary antenna as if taking in surrounding stimuli. 

The spiders are always close at hand in the canyon as evidenced by the silk of their webs etched in geometric patterns near our sunbathing spot. I must confess that I do not know my spiders, but I am always fascinated by the sizes and shapes and the colorings of those that inhabit the Santa Ynez Mountains. They are not insects, as many people think, but rather belong to the class Arachnida, making them closer relatives of the scorpion and the tick than of the fly or bee.

In the morning dew, their webs are strikingly beautiful, and though I have often cursed these tiny creatures after catching an invisible web full in the face, I am thankful for their existence—if for no other reason than they eliminate the pesky chaparral flies faster than I can. 

Newts and Skinks
In one of the upper pools is another favorite of mine, the water dog, or the Pacific Coast newt, a yellow-orange creature that seems to cling to the bottoms of the pools. Actually this newt is a salamander, but a salamander with a difference, because it has a rough, dry skin which makes it pleasant to handle, as I often did when I was little. 

The Pacific Coast newt is an amphibian, a relative of frogs and toads, and one one which demonstrates one of the basic principles of the canyon—that much of the life is adapted both for water and for land. The newt begins life as one of a cluster of about sixteen eggs in a pool. The eggs hatch into tiny babies with gills for breathing underwater, where they remain for over a year. Then they lose the gills and start to breathe by means of lungs. Thereafter they must surface for air every few minutes. 

After forsaking its aquatic home, the newt becomes a land dweller, living in damp, woodsy places. In the spring, when the wet season comes, it responds to the rain, returning to its original home to breed. I have seen this occur several times beneath the surface of a quiet pool, male clinging to the back of the female, their coloring so closely matching that of the layers of leaves littering the bottom, that the delicate process often goes unnoticed. 

The skink, one of the bright jewels of nature, a slim-bodied lizard which flashes suddenly on the trailside, is often found in environments similar to those inhabited by the newt. A study in water-colored mixtures of beige, black, cream, and flourescent blue, the skink seems to appear out of nowhere, then as suddenly it disappears in a blaze. Its scales are tiny, smooth and very shiny, accenting its colorings, and it is so slick that it looks like it has been dipped in a glossy varnish. The back of the skink is brown. It is bordered on either side with black and cream lines and its long slim tail is a strikingly brilliant blue. Clearly it is the most beautiful of the chaparral lizards. 

Chaparral Country 
Just overhead is the chaparral, a sterile environment by comparison to that found in the canyons. Because it is dry, dull, and difficult to pass through, the chaparral is difficult to appreciate. The key element in the chaparral life cycle is fire, and nature has preadapted this scrubby brush to respond to the slightest spark. It is not uncommon for fuel moistures to drop to 8 to 13 percent during summer drought periods or during Santa Ana conditions. In addition, the close spacing and continuity of the cover and the high surface-to-volume ratios in the chaparral community leads to a high percentage of available fuel.

Over time, the ratio of dead fuel to live plant material increases dramatically. For example, by age 30 often as much as 50 percent of the standing mass of the chaparral is dead, and dry material litters the ground. Where such conditions exist over large mountainous expanses, fires, when ignited, tend to be quite large.

 Though the chaparral seems tough on the surface, it is actually a very delicately balanced community, well adapted to water stress. Over many millions of years, the chaparral has evolved an equilibrium between water conservation and water use. One of the adaptive features is the solid continuity of the brush cover and its nearly uniform height, which helps minimize evaporation and retain winter moisture through the long summer months of water deprivation. Holding fast to this soil moisture in the summertime is critical, and the even mantle acts like a blanket that protects the soil from wind and solar radiation.

While the cover tends to mimimize soil moisture loss, the leaf structure of the chaparral plants is sclerophylous, which means it is well adapted to resist water loss. Some plants, like scrub oak or holly-leaf cherry, have a heavy wax cuticle on the leaves and stems, which helps reduce water loss. On other plants, dense mats of hairs serve the same function. Another adaptation is vertical orientation of leaves, or, as in the case of sugar bush, the leaves are curled so that they do not receive sunlight directly. The greyish color of plants like white or purple sage or yerba santa also reduces the heating up of the plant tissues. Further, sunken stomata on the leaves of these plants help make water loss mimimal. 

Most of the leaves of the chaparral plants are also desiccation-tolerant, which means that the leaf structure resists damage during long dry periods. Nevertheless there are limits to the length of time these plants can survive water stress and many are drought deciduous as well. Often, after 100 days or more of prolonged drought, many begin to lose their leaves, bringing evaporation loss almost to a halt. Plants that drop their leaves commonly develop smaller leaves on side shoots of the main stems, and it is these tiny leaves that enable them to persist through extended drought. 

Most chaparral plants produce chemicals that inhibit other plants from invading their territory. Through a process called allelopathy, the chemicals invade the soil from the leaf litter and prevent roots of other plants from competing for the soil moisture. These toxins are so potent that in some cases, as with the bush poppy or certain species of ceanothus, the spaces that they occupy may remain open and uninvaded 20 to 40 years after they have been killed off by wildfire. 

The main adaptation of the chaparral to its arid conditions, however, is its response to fire, which initiates a new cycle of plant succession. In the hard chaparral the buildup of dead plant material tends to ensure the continuity of fire, while in the softer chaparral it is the volatile and highly flammable oils that do so. 

Afer a fire, annuals and short-lived perennials, called fire followers, temporarily dominate the hillsides, producing spectacular displays of wildflowers. In about two to five years after a fire though, almost all of these species stop growing and their spaces are usually taken by the expanding canopies of the resprouting or regrowing chaparral shrubs. The seeds of these herbaceous fire followers persist in the soil until released by heat from the next wildfire. 

Once a shrub occupies the space held by the fire followers, it physically dominates that site, primarily because of its allelopathy. Not until the next fire will the cycle begin anew. Viewed on a linear scale, the chaparral life cycle can be seen as a series of “pulses”, each initiated by fire. Removal of the older brush by intense wildfires that occasionally sweep across the mountain wall is not just an adversity that these plants must overcome, but a necessary part of their life cycle. Unlike some other ecosystems, which require many years to redevelop a healthy diversity once fire has disturbed them, the chaparral is actually healthiest and contains the widest variety of plant and animal species in the years immediately after fire. The concern is not so much if chaparral will recover after fire, or how long it will take, but rather how rapidly the ecosystem will decline if fire is withheld.

Woven through the almost impenetrable tangle are the trails of smaller animals, though without fire, the wildlife does not fare well. As the fuel volume of the chaparral increases, its food productivity decreases. Wildfire prunes out the dead wood, causes rapid regrowth, and permits the spread of annuals and herbs, which are retarded by the thick overstory. Generally, fire favors wildlife by resetting the botanical time clock back a notch to earlier periods of plant succession, thus forcing the vegetation to produce more food. 

 Almost anywhere off-trail you can see the effect of this fire ecology directly. The branches of the stiff-twigged shrubs make passage within this habitat difficult. Except for the recent  Painted Cave Fire, these mountains have not burned in the past two decades, and except for the outer edges of the bushes, most of the limbs are dead. The chaparral plants grow only at their tips.

Chaparral Birds
It wasn’t until I began to spend time wandering off-trail, crawling through the chaparral, or sneaking up undiscovered canyons looking for new experiences that I began to see the wildlife. 

The amount to be seen often is in direct proportion to the time spent away from the trails, and most definitely in the value placed on the smaller creatures, for this elfin forest harbors the little things. Mostly it requires patience, and the ability to sit for long periods of time, immersed in the chaparral, to let the life come to you.

My favorite are the chaparral birds, somewhat subtle in appearance. As California bird habitats go, the chaparral harbors relatively few species. Though it produces great numbers of plants, there are few plant types, and as a wildlife habitat it is rather uniform and monotonous. 

Because of the density of the brush, many of the birds that reside here are specially suited to life within and beneath the chaparral. Near ground level are surface dwellers such as the California thrasher, the Rufous-sided towhee, the brown towhee and the mountain quail, whose running ability enables it to dash through the narrow avenues in the vegetation. It is a pleasure to lie stretched beneath the chaparral and watch these birds scamper about as they forage through the leaf litter for seeds, insects, and other invertebrates. 

Living in the canopy itself are the Bewick’s wren, orange-crowned warblers and lazuli bunting. When the vegetation is healthy, this layer of the chaparral produces vast quantities of food. Buds, berries, cherries, nuts, seeds, bulbs, corms, and flower leaves are all available. Insects add further to the rich diet afforded these birds, and it is not surprising that, despite therelatively few species, there are large numbers of birds here.

Chaparral Seasons

Seasons in the chaparral differ from the norm. The primary season for plant growth and flowering occurs between March and May, and this season might be likened to summer elsewhere. June and July can be considered as autumn. The hot, dry months of August, September, and early October, during which no new growth occurs, is essentially winter. Spring really commences with the first rains in November or early December and continues until the rainy season ends in early April, it warms, and the new plant life shoots forth. It is then that the highly vocal but elusive wren-tit seems to sing at its best. 

Minstrel of the Chaparral
What is it about the song of the wren-tit, a bird you rarely see, that so gladdens the heart and opens the soul? “Peep peep peep-pee-pee-peepeepepeprrrrr,” the well-hidden wren-tit exclaims, a sound that soars over the chaparral. 

Friends often ask what bird makes the loud, ringing call that comes with surprising suddenness from the nearby bushes, for though they have looked carefully, they cannot spot it. Even if one knows the wren-tit is close by, it is not easy to see this brush dweller, for it rarely leaves the endless expanse of twigs to come into the open at the top or on the ground below. Only patience will bring them to you, and enough time to arouse the bird’s inquisitive nature. With practice they can be glimpsed, but even then it is never easy to see or follow them for any distance. I prefer to let this bird remain unobserved and am content just to sit and listen to it sing. 

The wren-tit is a curious bird. Individuals probably never go more than a few miles from the place of their birth, and once they have established a nest, they spend most of the remainder of their lives on the half to two-and-a-half acres used during the first nesting. Once mated, a pair of wren-tits remains together as long as both are alive, and they are constant companions. Together they flit continually through their limited territory searching for food, keeping in touch with each other by frequent calls. The male often pauses to sing, and in turn other males echo back, creating a thrilling series of calls.

The habitat is such that most of the wren-tit’s movements are a series of hops or flights of a few feet from one twig to the next. Individuals do not cross open spaces of even 30 or 40 feet either readily or often; a flight of a hundred feet or more is a monumental journey. The wren-tits find their food principally on the bark surfaces of the chaparral plants, and only occasionally will they venture out onto the fruiting stems or surfaces of the leafy plants. Rarely do they descend to the ground.

It is after mating that their songs become especially sweet. About 20 minutes after sunrise, the male awakes and begins to sing from his roosting perch. The female responds with her call, and this is repeated often. Then in 10 or 15 minutes the male comes to a branch near the nest. When he is within a few inches, the female leaves, off in search of food. In another 15 or 20 minutes she returns and the male then leaves.  He sings almost at once and frequently while he forages and patrols his territory, and then again when he approaches the nest. 

Similar exchanges continue throughout the day in shifts that gradually lengthen to 45 or 60 minutes at midday and again shorten toward sunset. Finally, when the female returns near sunset, no more exchanges occur, and the male turns once again to his nesting perch, where he sings his last nighttime song. 

The sound bursts forth in quick repetition, a series of whistle-like notes, all on the same pitch, at decreasing intervals until they run together into a trill, “pit—pit— pit—pit—pit-tr-r-r-r-r.” It is the elusive sound of the chaparral, which hides more than it reveals. What it reveals it does so in small bits and pieces, each small piece drawing one a little bit closer to it.

Deeper Meanings
A couple passes, more intent on each other than the setting. Then two boys, about twelve, with fishing poles and knapsacks, carefree in their adventurism. The drone of a plane crosses overhead.  After it is swallowed by a distant ridgeline, the sound of two jays in the brush emerges--a series of squawks, catcalls, and screeches—in sharp contrast to the sweet sound of the ever-pervading rush of water.

Though it is late spring, the creek near which Kevin and I lie still runs in volume.  Had I not been bitten on the toe by a giant water bug, which probably did not appreciate my presence in its pool, we might have stayed all afternoon. As if a signal to move on, Kevin and I head on up the canyon, to extend our journey a mile or so farther, before turning back. But as often happens, the desire possesses us  to see what lies beyond the next corner. Then the next. And the next.

Before we know it, we are far enough beyond our intended destination that we cannot make it back down before dark. Somewhere above us is Montecito Peak, and an upper trail. Should we try for it, though it means a half hour of brush-busting? Or should we stay within the security of the canyon?

We are at a fork in the creek where a large, twin-trunked alder rises overhead. We measure the pros and cons of our choices, but in the end there really no choice to be made. Our sense of enthusiasm pushes us on; we have gone too far to stop now. But which fork? The right one seems to head more directly to last glance and on it I see a series of carvings many years old.

The first exclaims, “J.P laid Martee here.“  

The second retorts, “B___ S____!“  

The third, probably the most accurate of all, simply says, “He’s only wishing.“ 

We laugh and head up into the chaparral.

Scrambling up the bank of the right fork, I am already beginning to regret our decision to continue on. This is alluvial soil, built up behind layers of Matilija Sandstone whose narrows have caused it to act as a natural catch basin for sediments. The soil is rich and loamy and it supports a small grove of live oaks. It would be a welcome place to rest if it weren’t for the poison oak. The three-lobed leaves are huge and they glisten, their oily sheen filled with itchy promises. Poison oak lines the canyon sides, and as anyone who has ventured offtrail in any of them can testify, you rarely make it through the dreaded vines untouched. These are especially frustrating—the branches just far enough apart to make me think I can sidestep my way through them, but not far enough to let me actually do it.  

Finally we crash through, hoping obliquely to minimize our contact, the oak verdant testimony that beyond here there will be no turning back. Then it is up a dry streambed, scrambling under dead branches and around bushes that have been washed down. For fifteen minutes I become lost in the immediacy of the climb. Even in the shade the sweat pours off me, for though it is cooler, it is also more humid and I feel more like a damp sponge in this shadowy sauna.

We are in the chaparral now and it is  it is clogged with dead material.  T he effort to move forward becomes a real challeng. Kevin and I are in the hard chaparral and we see the effect of the fire ecology directly. The branches of the stiff-twigged, shrubs make passage within this habitat difficult for us. It hasn’t burned in the past two decades, and except for the outer edges of the bushes, most of the limbs are dead. Woven through the almost impenetrable tangle are the trails of smaller animals, and though it is quiet and I see nothing, I know they are nearby.

The bed narrows and steepens, a rocky “V” no more than an arm’s width wide and waist deep. No longer can we stand fully upright, and eventually we are reduced to a crawl as the ceanothus, chaparral pea, and other thorny plants hem us in. As we move farther away from the main canyon, farther into the wildness of the chaparral, an uncertainty begins to creep into my consciousness. 

Though it appears that we are nearly halfway to the trail, in actuality we are a long ways from help. I wonder about the wiseness of our decision to head into the brush alone, and I begin to ask myself the “what if” sorts of questions. Like: What if we come upon a rattlesnake right now? The local variety is known as the Western Pacific rattlesnake, a smaller and less potent version of the diamondback, but venemous nonetheless. 

“In the thicker chaparral the rattlesnakes don’t always crawl on the ground,” a friend named Russ, who owns a ranch in the Refugio area, once told me. “They crawl through the branches.” Continually I look back up over my head to see if I am being followed.

There is also the realization that no one knows we are up here. Neither of us has told anyone where we will be going, and if we do not show up at home tonight, I wonder, who will know where to look for us? Presently the chaparral seems neither refreshing nor inviting, more prison than paradise.  

But we are nearing a ridge line, where the going is usually easier, and I begin to feel better. When we reach it, when we crawl—scratched, bruised, with clothes torn—onto the high point, a bitter disappointment awaits us. 

This is not a ridge that will take us up to the trail, but a cliff. Another fork of the main creek has eaten around behind the one we have chosen to follow, usurping it, cutting it and us off, so to speak, at the pass.

Though Montecito Peak lies in full view, less than half an air mile away, we must descend the cliff, downclimb a steep, overgrown side canyon, and in the darkness make our way up another hillside of chaparral. For even now the light is fading. 

I am tired. I am hungry. I am thirsty. But most of all I just want to be done. The fun is long past, the adventure has disappeared. It is now no more than a forced march.

The descent down the cliff and the side canyon is done faster than safety would normally dictate, but we hurry despite the possible danger. Then it is up the far wall, no longer worrying our way in and out of the brush to minimize the damage done to us by the resistant vegetation. We crawl quickly, pushing, clawing, tearing at the bushes, no longer caring about the consequences.

Two-thirds of the way up we stop, on the verge of exhaustion, to rest, to bid the day goodbye, to prepare ourselves for the night. I look over at Kevin. The sparkle is gone from his eyes. His face is smudged with dirt. The sleeve of his T-shirt is torn in several places and he is panting from the effort. Oak leaves and assorted grime sticks to the nape of his sweaty neck, and he looks more the chimney sweep at this moment.

I feel an ant on me and before I can brush it off it bites me, painfully. Nothing seems to be going right. Angry, I crush it between my fingers, and an acrid odor emanates from it, formic acid which renders the ant inedible to most animals. Just then a lemon-yellow banana slug captures my attention as it stretches to bridge the gap between two rocks. 

I pick it up and put it in the palm of my hand. After perhaps a minute it pokes a series of eyes out from beneath a lighter yellow, helmet-shaped head. There are four of them, and they emerge slowly, hesitantly, ready to retreat at the slightest peril. The lower of the two pair are smaller, used more as feelers to probe what lies in front of them, and they pop in and out as they encounter my fingers. 

It leaves a trail of slime on my hand as it moves, creating a lubricated thoroughfare for itself, and this is what seems most to make the banana slug disagreeable. Surprisingly though, what I most remember about the slug is the feel of the rhythmic contractions that allow it to move across my palm. They are sensuous to the touch.

I place the banana slug on the ground and for several more handfuls of minutes Kevin and I watch its progress. Though its forward movement is painfully slow, the slug glides along, in, under, around, and over pieces of decaying wood, leaves, and stones without the slightest disturbance. In its own way the banana slug is both graceful and delicate.

When I look up, some of the fatigue has gone. It has helped to rest for awhile, to let my breath catch up, but mostly it is this unexpected reward that brightens the moment. It is now sunset, and the canopy is silhouetted black, but through it I can see bits and pieces of orange and yellow on the horizon. Suddenly the chaparral does not seem so confining, our predicament so awful. 

In places such as this is the essence of the chaparral. There is no way around it. To know the chaparral you must confront it directly. Caught in its midst, alone, no roads near, the smell of it sunk to my core, I get a whiff of some deeper meaning.  

Listening to the sound of nothing as it passes by, feeling the day ebb away, knowing there is an hour, or more, of hardship ahead, I also begin to realize that there is no easy way out of this moment either. But I like it that way. For me, it isn’t until surrounded by it that the meaning of the chaparral really begins. What is it, you ask? Who knows? These are the sort of things that each of us must make for themselves.  

Fortunately, from here the way is less difficult. Before long we are on the trail, and we collapse, savoring the firm openness of the path. Lying back, shoulders on the upper slopes of Montecito Peak, with the lights of Santa Barbara in front of us, twinkling in the haze, I feel a goodness inside of me that could have come from no other experience than one just like this. 

Later one evening, when  browsing through  a favorite book of mine by Selden Spaulding, Camping in Our Mountains, which describes his  exploration of the Santa Barbara back country as a boy, I saw a passage which described this experience perfectly:

“Looking back now on these escapades it is hard for me to see what fun there was in them for us. Invariably, after such an exporation, we arrived at our homes scratched and torn and utterly weary; yet there was always the feeling in our breasts that we had done something fine that day and there was always the undiminished enthusiasm for another such adventure.”

 

 
 
 
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Last Updated: Monday, July 27, 2015