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Stoking Creative Embers: A California Naturalist Story

Petra Silverman

Taking on this fellowship year, I wanted to be especially intentional about making the most of my training opportunities, which led me to become a certified California Naturalist. I felt this class would help me hone my skill sets and deepen the impact of my work with the RCD of Tehama County (RCDTC). While I was expecting an informative growth experience, I found that taking this course expanded my knowledge and understanding of fire in our ecosystems, and helped me to heal some old wounds as an artist pursuing science.

My California Naturalist training was offered through Tuleyome - a regional environmental non-profit that focuses on stewarding within the Northern Inner Coast Range and the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument through outreach, recreation, conservation, and advocacy. While this region is technically a bit south of Tehama, the areas overlap bioregionally and exhibit similar climates, soils, flora, and fauna. 

While on one of our field trips, we spotted Palmer's Asterella (Asterella palmeri), a highly regional species of liverwort, clinging to a disturbed hillside around Capay Valley. Also pictured: the purple blooming flower of a wild hyacinth (Dichelostemma capitatum)

Throughout the course, students were encouraged to use their unique perspective to enhance the learning of the whole, as each of us has life experience and expertise to offer. With my plant ecology background and current ventures into prescribed fire, my instructor, Nate, motivated me to use the lens of fire as I analyze the landscape.

Understanding post-fire landscapes and learning how to heal them has been a major part of my work with GrizzlyCorps this year. Elevation-wise, Tehama County is vaguely U-shaped with mountains and coniferous forests to the East and West and a lower valley center. Some of the largest fires in California’s history (the Dixie and August Complex fires) have occurred here in the last five years, severely impacting the forests on both sides of the county. Some of my work with RCDTC has been supporting the reforestation efforts on areas within the August Complex burn scar.

Pile burning with RCDTC near Elkhorn Peak (west side of the county, not too far from the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness). This area was severely impacted by the August Complex fire of 2020.

Navigating burned areas can be psychologically taxing, especially when you are tending to areas you’ve grown up in that are now completely altered by severe wildfire. Through coordinating prescribed burn operations and other post-fire surveying, I let myself key into the transformative nature of fire. Fire has duality; it can be humbling and powerful, and also transformative and regenerative. 

On our class field trips, we would traverse these patchworked areas of recovering, burned oak woodlands, seeing the contrast of life and death in the late Winter-early Spring. Some trees are charred beyond repair, while others are reviving themselves, resprouting from their well-established root crowns.

An unknown species of mushroom grows in a freshly charred area of the Mendocino Forest. Post-fire forests are known for experiencing invigorated mushroom growth. Also pictured, at the top right – the pinkish thorny stem of a whitebark raspberry (Rubus leucodermis).

Reading the effects of fire on a landscape can feel like looking into a crystal ball, predicting what this area may look like in 50 years time. You ask yourself what plants are present and which might be missing? Which plants are doing better than others? Are there any invasive or introduced plants encroaching on these areas? Can we tell how recently fire passed through here? How intensely did this area burn? Many of these questions can be answered when you’re in a team of naturalists, putting your minds together to keenly observe the area around you.

This deeper analysis of my environment and my thought process on fire began to take shape through nature journaling. As a part of the 10-week California Naturalist course, we had to create at least one weekly journal entry. There was something surprising to me about being asked to journal and draw. Coming from an academic background of evolution and ecology, I was more often encouraged to collect data for research purposes. While I am both artistically and scientifically-minded at heart, growing up and in academia, I often felt pressured to pick one or to sort of “choose a lane.” I always felt there was room to combine these mindsets, using creativity to solve complex issues, but I felt discouraged by the seemingly deep chasm between these differing schools of thought.

California Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristalochia californica) seen climbing up a branch in Capay Valley, accompanied by my artistic rendition of it in my journal.

Part of the philosophy of nature journaling is to capture what our environment looks like in this present moment; this moment is unique, and between the constant ebb and flow of ecosystem dynamics and the increasing volatility of the climate crisis, it has become especially important for us to look back in time to see where we are heading. For instance, scientists are studying plant fossils to understand the Earth’s climate throughout deep history and to measure the escalated rate of climate change in the current era (see paleobotany/paleoclimatology). Especially for the western US, having a record of species distributions through journaling and surveying is increasingly important when facing the trend of intensifying wildfire severity and frequency. This knowledge is integral to our conservation and restoration efforts.

There is something really grounding about sinking deeper into your local terrain – rooting yourself in the specific confluence of bioregions with their unique mix of plants and wildlife. It grounds you to the place, but also to this moment in time. While there is a scientific drive to capture the current world around us, I think this is a highly artistic pursuit as well. In the world of landscape painting, the practice of plein-air painting, or painting and drawing in the landscape, is an extremely old tradition. Painting outdoors requires practice and swiftness, as the lighting and weather conditions can drastically change the appearance of a place. I channeled this artistic practice into my journaling, puzzle-piecing my creative inspiration with my love of detailed descriptions and ecological jargon. Over the course of ten weeks, I become more comfortable seeing my art and science all mixed together on the same pages. It was like coming to peace with those sometimes conflicting parts of myself. 

An example of one of my journal entries, showing the details I look for and the species list I maintain, along with my notes and drawings. On this day, I observed a neighborhood in Davis while on my way to class. Generally, journal entries should include a mix of drawings, descriptions, and numbers.

To complete the California Naturalist certification, you have to develop a stewardship project to present at the end of the course. This project can take various forms, but the idea is to provide tangible support toward your local ecosystems. Some students develop botanical guides for regional hikes, others may help construct bat boxes or bird nesting structures. Creativity is highly encouraged, and I wanted to make something that embodied what I had learned, threading together science and art and fire. I decided to make a painting as a fundraiser raffle item for Tuleyome’s Spring Thing event, hosted in partnership with the city of Woodland.

“New Life from Berryessa Peak Trail” by Petra Silverman. 11x14, acrylic paint on cradled birch panel.

I titled the painting “New Life from Berryessa Peak Trail.” It is my rendition of an actual photo taken by the folks at Tuleyome while they were conducting trail maintenance. For added context, the Berryessa Snow Mountain area was majorly impacted by the LNU Lightning Complex fires of 2020. During those fires, I was living near Sacramento where we experienced months of being smoked in by the multiple fires in the region. One of the things that really struck me about this photo was the plants in the foreground – paintbrush and yerba santa. These plants are notorious fire followers, meaning that they grow best after fire clears out chaparral, allowing for rich soils and ample sunlight. Yerba santa seeds can remain dormant for decades, waiting for the event of fire to germinate. These plants are both great reminders of the fact that fire can create opportunities for new growth. 

One of my first reflections from entering the California Naturalist classroom was that I was part of a refreshing mix of students. There were some young professionals from a range of careers, parents wanting to learn more to pass on to their children, and retired adults who felt liberated and excited to connect with their local environment at this stage of their lives. Each of us with different backgrounds, goals, and interests that led us to this place. The only true commonality stemmed from our shared interest in connecting with our natural environment, wanting to expand our knowledge further and deeper. Thank you to the folks at Tuleyome for providing a supportive space for personal growth and development, for people from all walks of life. 

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