Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Surfing Safari

It feels more like October than May this week. Gale force Santa Ana winds and temperatures in the 90s  have raised the red flag for fire danger and sent crowds to the beach, braving sand-blasting to seek relief from the heat, but before the winds blew in there was one perfect day for surfing.

You could tell the surf was up without even seeing the ocean. The Chumash name for Malibu—Humaliwu, "where the surf sounds," was well chosen. When there's a powerful swell the sound of the surf forms a dull roar in the background of the lives of anyone within a mile or so of any of the major local surf breaks.

Another sure sign of surf is the mob of cars parked along PCH at Surfrider, Leo Carrillo, Nicholas Beach, as hopeful surfers skive off work or school in search of waves. They were double-parked at the Malibu Lagoon, but a car pulled out just in front of me and, on a whim, I stopped and joined the rag-tag army of wetsuit-clad surfers heading for the beach.

"Not surfing today?" the guy behind me asked. 

"Just taking some pictures," I replied.

The vegetation at the controversial Malibu Lagoon restoration and reconstruction project is beginning to fill in, despite the drought, although there are still more flags than plants in some areas. The plastic flags are supposed to mark where the native plants are so they aren't weeded out by mistake. There was an American crow foraging for breakfast on one of new manmade islands. It's the first time I've spotted a bird there. 

Here's the same scene in 2013, during construction. I was amused to find there's a crow in this photo, too. Perched on the wire.

The surfers took the quickest route to to the shore, but I stopped to admire the kayak of an audacious explorer, drawn aground near the parking lot. Later, I saw the kayaker paddling lazily around the lagoon. The sand berm is closed right now, transforming the newly re-contoured and enlarged wetland into a kind of brackish lake that is ideal for kayaking, even if it isn't an activity State Parks necessarily approves of. 

I also watched the crow carefully picking its way along the edge of the water, looking for breakfast. A few minutes later, I saw him again, harassing a black-crowned night heron at her nest on top of a ficus tree in a Malibu Colony garden adjacent to the park. Later, he was down on the beach, on the lookout for unattended picnics.

This black-crowned night heron was defending her nest from the crow. The crow eventually gave up on eggs for breakfast and settled instead for whatever he could scavenge along the edge of the lagoon. I would never have spotted the heron if she wasn't giving the crow a piece of her mind. The genus name, Nycticorax, means "night croaker." It doesn't exactly do justice to their amazing range of vocalizations.
I also stopped to examine the "Winter Ramp-Summer Clock" installation, which has already stopped being a ramp and become, well, not exactly a clock, but a water level gauge. It's designed to fill with water once the sand berm seals off the lagoon in summer, transforming the walkway into a kind of post-apocalyptic scene that reminds me of Belgian symbolist painter Ferdinand Knopff's melancholy vision of the end of the world, "Verlorene Stad." 

The last tide slowly and silently fills up a desolate Brussels street in Knopff's pastel drawing. I doubt that's what the Malibu Lagoon project's designers had in mind, but it does sort of convey the same impression, doesn't it? 
There was no silent end-of-the-world-evoking emptiness at the beach. Instead, an astonishing number of California Brown pelicans were gathered on the lagoon sand berm. I've described Surfrider Beach before as a kind of miniature Jurassic Park. Being on the beach with hundreds of pelicans is about as close as it gets to seeing live pterasaurs. Pelecanus occidentalis is on the smallish side compared to other members of the pelican family, but this bird is still a giant, with an 6-8-foot wing span. The distinctly prehistoric looking bill can grow to be more than a foot long and the throat pouch can reportedly hold up to two gallons of water.

The pelicans, grave and silent, were joined by a huge,  raucous flock of terns, their shrill voices rising above the sound of the surf. California brown pelicans are a rare conservation success story, rebounding from the edge of extinction in the 1970s. The terns' fate remains less certain. They are a California species of special concern due primarily to habitat loss. 

California brown pelicans crowd the sand spit at the Malibu Lagoon. 
A huge group of elegant terns, the punk rockers of the tern family, were having a convention on the berm, too.

Here's the Malibu Lagoon berm. It forms naturally every year after winter storm season ends and the sand deposited by the tides is no longer washed away by the creek. During the winter, the creek flows directly into the sea. During the summer months, the berm impounds the creek and turns it into a closed system. At the end of summer, it's either breached by the first storm of the season or by human intervention. 

The terns like to take advantage of the calm water inside the main channel of the creek. Usually they have to share with a flotilla of ducks, coots and cormorants, but they had it to themselves on this morning.
The surfers are just on the other side of the berm, waiting for the waves that give Surfrider Beach its name.
It gets crowded out there when the word goes out that the surf is good.
But almost everyone—birds and humans—would agree that it's worth it. And every now and then, everything comes together and you catch that perfect wave.
I walked back along the old Adamson House wall. When you see it in surf movies, it's always the side that faces the ocean, although a section of it is missing now, torn down after a truck smashed into it, and it's blotched with mismatched paint, where State Parks has painted over years of graffiti. This is the land side. It's in better shape and still decorated with bits of Malibu Potteries tile.

Here's my favorite detail:

The Malibu Potteries' pseudo-Aztec god has kept a benign, if slightly lunatic, eye on the Surfrider surfers ever since the 1920s, when local legend says pioneer surfers Tom Blake, Sam Reid and Duke Kahanamoku first hit the waves at what is now Surfrider. 

More than anyone else I know, surfers understand the philosophy of living in the moment. Just hours after I took this photo the Santa Ana winds arrived, signaling the end of this surf event, but it didn't matter. "I was out there all morning and it was awesome," a surfer told me as I walked back to my car. It was, too. Carpe diem, dude.

Suzanne Guldimann
1 May 2014

Friday, April 25, 2014

In Plain Sight

I was reminded the other day that sometimes the things that make Malibu remarkable can be overlooked among the noise and haste and busyness of life. I had stopped to catch my breath for a few minutes at Zuma Beach. It was almost entirely empty except for a few distant walkers and the beach grooming tractor, traveling like a monstrous ceratopsian dinosaur back and forth above the tide line. I watched as the tractor came closer and closer and realized that I wasn't the only one keeping an eye on it. Photos © 2014 S. Guldimann
All the time I stood watching I had a small sand-colored companion stationed in plain sight just a few feet away from me. Here's a closer view. Can you see it? It took me almost five minutes to realize it was there. It seemed completely unconcerned by the tractor or the human intruder, but it kept a calm, watchful eye on both. It had nothing to fear from me, at least. As soon as I saw it I walked away quietly, in a different frame of mind than the one I had when I arrived. 
Here's a close-up of my companion. It's a Western snowy plover. This small shorebird has perfected the art of hiding in plain sight. It's tiny and fearless, but it's also increasingly threatened by habitat loss and human activities, despite being a California species of special concern that has special protections and is the subject of an active conservation program. There are only an estimated 2600 of these birds left on the West Coast. Seeing one is a gift. For me, it was a reminder that we may be surrounded by unseen wonders even on the most prosaic and ordinary-seeming days.

Suzanne Guldimann
25 April 2014

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Socially Eminent Rabbits

Here is the mild-mannered monarch of our Point Dume garden, Sylvilagus audubonii. Audubon's cottontail rabbit, more commonly known as the desert cottontail, is a small package with a lot of personality and determination. All photos © 2014 S. Guldimann

A Rabbit Parable 

In Wildwood, a socially eminent Rabbit,
Of dignity, substance and girth,
Had chosen a suitable hole to inhabit–
An excellent burrow of earth.

When up came a Woodchuck, a genuine Groundhog,
Who wanted the place for his lair;
The Rabbit, impressed by a seventeen-pound Hog,
Abruptly departed from there.

But shortly thereafter a virtuous Badger
Slid down from the neighbouring shelf;
The Woodchuck he slew as a robber and a cadger,
Bequeathing the hole to himself.

 A Fox who believed in the law of requital
Appeared through the bordering fern;
He questioned the Badger’s Manorial title
Demanding the burrow in turn.

A battle ensued in a terrible smother,
Affrighting the hardiest soul;
The Fox and the Badger abolished each other,
The Rabbit returned to his hole.

So here is appended the mildest of morals,
Accept it for what it is worth:
“When all the Haughty are killed in their quarrels
The Meek shall inherit the earth.”

—Arthur Guiterman

We are blessed with a wide variety of four-footed wildlife on Point Dume. Coyotes, gray foxes, raccoons, skunks, opossums, long-tailed weasels and an assortment of native rodents live here, largely unseen by humans, but the cottontail rabbits seem like neighbors, they live alongside us, as well as in that separate, unseen world that just happens to occupy the same space as the one we inhabit. 

When I needed a photo for the top of the page I knew just where to find the front yard rabbit this evening. She's lived here for years and has no fear of the resident humans or the family dog. However the shadow of a hawk passing overhead or an unfamiliar sound will send her instantly into hiding. It's a tough life at the bottom of the food chain, and any rabbit who lives to be old and wise knows not to take chances. 

The front yard rabbit performs her disappearing act, vanishing instantly when she hears an unfamiliar sound, in this case, the click of my camera. 

Rabbits are on the menu of every native predator and are also the frequent victims of domestic animal attacks, poison, and vehicle strikes—the zigzagging dash at speeds up to 20 mph they've evolved to evade hunters doesn't help them to avoid cars. Every second may be their last, but despite their precarious existence, or perhaps because of it, they give the impression of enjoying life to the fullest. They lounge in the sun like contented house cats and nibble the flowers with evident enthusiasm. They don't dig burrows or form colonies like other rabbit species, but they seem to enjoy each other's company and often congregate in small groups (flocks? herds? pods?) of three or four.  

The front yard rabbit lounges in a sheltered spot, looking for all the world like a contented cat. 

Cottontail courtship involves a cross between tag and country dancing, with elaborate leaps and figure eight patterns. Occasionally, an importuned rabbit becomes annoyed and boxes the aggressor rabbit's ears, but on the whole, rabbit society is remarkably easy-going. 

There are two types of cottontail rabbits in the Santa Monica Mountains, S. audubonii and S. bachmani. S. Audubonii is the more common species. S. bachmani, the brush cottontail, is smaller, shyer, wilder. Brush cottontails stick to the chaparral. Desert cottontails have adapted to urban life and are found wherever there is enough food and shelter. This can be a problem, since the rabbit's idea of dinner includes just about everything humans like to grow for food and many ornamental plant species. 

Desert cottontails have remarkably good climbing skills and have been know to climb up stairs, onto decks, and even into pots to gain access to tender, tasty flowers and vegetables. The best way to prevent misunderstandings is to fence off anything that is off limits. Although we don't always follow our own advice here at The Malibu Post, leading to scenes like this:

"Oh look, a salad bar!"
"Nom nom, nom."

Around here, everyone agrees that the pleasure of having rabbits in the garden is greater than any rabbit-related aggravations, but there was a time when one of the neighbors did mind and poisoned everything in sight. There were no rabbits for many years. It was a reminder that humans recognize property lines but wildlife does not, and that poison can spread to a much wider area than the poison user may realize.

Not long after that individual departed, the rabbits began to return. We see them almost every morning and every evening all year long, eating, resting, playing, dozing in the sun. They may be small and defenseless and meek, but they love life and live it with joy.

Happy Easter!

Suzanne Guldimann
20 April 2014

The front yard rabbit dances by the light of the moon. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

The There That's Here

A panorama of the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains, photographed from above King Gillette Ranch, looking towards Malibu. Last week, the California Coastal Commission approved a land use plan intended to keep the mountains looking like this in perpetuity. Photo © S. Guldimann

Not that long ago, a member of the Malibu City Council stated that some people say that the Malibu Civic Center needs to be developed into a destination for visitors because "there is no there there." Somehow, that doesn't deter the millions of people who come to Malibu each year not for the shopping but for the mountains and the sea. It helps to remember that Malibu is located within a National Park, one that is just as valid as Yosemite or Acadia, for all that it is on the edge of the largest urban landscape in the country.

Developers have always seen the mountains as an opportunity for profit, but the area has been blessed by passionate defenders as well, who have worked for more than a hundred years to protect and preserve this unique mountain range and the Mediterranean ecosystem it encompasses. This week, conservation activists are celebrating what is being hailed as a major victory for the mountains. The California Coastal Commission approval of a Local Coastal Program for the 80-square-mile portion of the mountains that are in unincorporated Los Angeles County.

On his blog, L.A. County 3rd District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has championed the land use plan from the beginning, wrote:

In a vote that will resonate for generations, the California Coastal Commission this week cleared the way for the enactment of a wide-ranging plan to protect the Santa Monica Mountains from development that already has scarred portions of one of the region’s most important environmental and recreational resources.

The 12-member commission voted unanimously in favor of a land use plan adopted last month by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, despite strong opposition from real estate development interests. The Coastal Commission vote was mandated by state law and represents a milestone in the years-long effort to preserve the mountains along the coast as a rural escape for tens of thousands of visitors each year.
The plan will, among many other things, ban ridgeline development, save oaks and other native woodlands, outlaw poisons that can harm wildlife, protect water sources, restrict lighting to preserve the night sky and prevent the opening of new vineyards, which take a toll on the land and water.
It's also a validation of the work of generations of activists who worked against the odds to preserve and protect something they recognized as rare and exceptional. 

Here's the poster child for bad planning in the Santa  Monica Mountains. Almost everything about this Kanan Dume Road mega-mansion/vineyard estate would be banned under the new Santa Monica Mountains coastal plan: the vineyards, the ridgeline house site, the mile-long "mansion driveway," and the acres of scorched earth habitat destruction. This glorified spec house probably did more than another other site to raise awareness about the potential negative impact of vineyards in the mountains—you can see those tidy, geometric rows of vines from vantage points all over the mountains. That's Saddle Peak in the foreground—an important Chumash cultural site that used to be the most conspicuous landmark in the area. 
The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area was created by an Act of Congress in 1978, but the effort to conserve at least part of the mountains and the coast as a park began much earlier. Although it's largely forgotten now, the first advocate for a Santa Monica Mountains park was Frederick Hastings Rindge, who purchased the entire Topanga Malibu Sequit Rancho in 1891. He had plans for development in Malibu but also envisioned parkland. In his book Happy Days in Southern California he expresses the desire to preserve at least part of western Malibu as a park:

It seems best to keep Zuma as a park, and to tell the axe and plough to keep off the sycamore and alfilaria. So you can come, kind reader, and see it as it is, at your convenience. Zuma! to be in thy presence makes one happy ; it makes one feel like singing — nay, it makes one sing: 

God grant that peace may ever be
 In Zumaland beside the sea.

As early as 1902, there were government plans to create a preserve. A formal proposal for a 70,000-acre park was submitted to Washington in 1907. The plan was derailed by an influential developer.

The Olmsted Report, issued by park proponent Frederick Law Olmsted in 1930, recommended a 10,000-acre chain of parks throughout Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains. Sylvia Morrison, an even earlier activist, proposed that a section of the mountains in Pacific Palisades slated to become a cement quarry should be preserved as "Whitestone National Park."

The 1930 Olmsted Report recommended a 10,000-acre "belt park" encompassing the City of Los Angeles. What are now Zuma County Beach and Zuma Canyon Park were part of the plan, which was swiftly torpedoed by (surprise!) development interests.
Activists in the 1960s campaigned for the creation of Toyon National Park. They didn't succeed—Congress turned down the proposal in 1971, but the state of California acquired 6700 acres of the old Broome Ranch in 1967. The Danielson Ranch—an additional 5700 acres—was added in 1972, creating Point Mugu State Park. Topanga, Leo Carrillo, and Malibu Creek state parks came next. Conservation advocates Sue Nelson, Jill Swift, and Malibuite Margo Feuer led the charge for the park in the 1970s. There efforts led to the creation of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in 1978.

Today the SMMNRA encompasses 156,670 acres. Slightly more than half of the total acreage is parkland and the percentage is growing. Instead of a portion of the old Malibu Rancho being set aside for a park, the entire City of Malibu is technically within the boundaries of the park.

However, until Rindge's widow May Knight Rindge, lost her battle with the county over the coastal route right-of-way and the gates of the rancho were opened to the public in 1929, Malibu was as remote and unattainable as the moon.

In those days, the Las Flores Inn—located where Duke's Restaurant is now—was the end of the road for day-trippers. It was an adventure for early motorists to take the precarious coast route to the inn for fish dinners and ice cream. When Topanga and Las Flores Canyon roads were constructed, they offered access to an unimaginable wilderness for adventurous Angelenos.

The Las Flores Inn was as close to Malibu as the public could get in 1915. It was an adventure to motor out for ice cream and a glimpse of the fabled Malibu beaches just out of reach beyond the Rancho gates. 

The Topanga and Las Flores Canyon Stage Coach Co. advertised "Southern California's Prettiest Drive." Coaches left from Santa Monica opposite the P. E. Railroad. According to the comprehensive history of the Topanga area published by the Topanga Historical Society and entitled  The Topanga Story, a pamphlet issued in 1925 by coach promoter Francis Burnett boasted that a trip to Topanga Canyon "will improve poor appetite, get rid of colds in the bracing atmosphere, relax the nerves and provide a sure cure for the 'blues.'""Visit Mohn Springs," another brochure from the 1920s invites. "Drink from the famous mineral springs. The Most Beneficial Water Known."
Campgrounds, cabins, lodges and even spas and baths touting curative mineral water sprang up all over the area.

Here's an image from the Water and Power Associates web archive showing outdoors enthusiasts camping in Santa Monica Canyon as early as 1880.

 A pre-Roosevelt Highway 1920s postcard from "Cooper's Camp Tent City" shows tent cabins and bungalows at Topanga Beach. This stretch of the coast route was paved by the City of Santa Monica in 1916, and was known as the Palisades Beach Road. The image is from the LMU Digital Archive.
In some cases, homesteaders took advantage of the new craze for outdoor activities and transformed existing farms into mountain health resorts. There were plenty of real estate investment schemes, too. An ad for the "Malibu Mar Vista" development boasts, "In development of Malibu Mar Vista we have not followed the usual mountain subdivision plan of selling small lots. Such commercialism always results in congestion and the destruction of the desired privacy. Our average lots are one-quarter of an acre. Roads are built and water installed."

Roads and water. Makes you wonder what the other mountain subdivision plans were like, and it underscores the reason why the mountains aren't entirely carpeted with quarter-acre lots—the terrain, even today, is difficult to access and prone to the same violent geological forces that shaped the mountains in the first place. There's a Malibu Mar Vista Drive off Latigo Canyon Road,  the last reminder of this particular endeavor.

The authors of the Malibu Mar Vista brochure seem to have been holders of a creative license. No. 3 states "Roosevelt Highway looking towards Santa Monica from Malibu Mar Vista. It fails to mention that the tract is miles up a winding mountain road, not on the beach. looks more like the Malibu Colony area. No. 6 is "Malibu Lake and Clubhouse," which is equally far away in the other direction, and number 4 is "the picturesque road from Ventura Blvd to Malibu Mar Vista. "Road" being an insanely optimistic definition for the largely unpaved track from the San Fernando Valley. The men with the lawnmower-sized tractor in no. 2 are allegedly grading Latigo Canyon.
Here's a close-up of another page in the brochure, featuring flappers picnicking and frolicking in the surf. The prose may be purple, but it sums up the enduring romance of the mountains. A "wonderfully interesting drive" isn't hyperbole. Like almost all of the local mountain roads, Latigo is still wonderfully interesting.

Visitors are still arriving in the mountains in search of something wonderful. Advocates for the County's new LCP hope that it will ensure that future generations continue to find the beauty that drew earlier visitors, but all of the main roads into the Santa Monica Mountains begin—or end—on Pacific Coast Highway, in Malibu. Thanks to the efforts of generations of conservationists, there's still plenty of wonderful, interesting and beautiful things to see and do. And just like the old ad says, there's seclusion and privacy and freedom. But it's up to us to ensure that Malibu also continues to protect the things that make it unique. Perhaps those who think there isn't a there here haven't taken time to look around and understand that what people come to Malibu to find is already here, and not there, or anywhere else on earth.

Suzanne Guldimann
14 April 2014