Wild Neighbors: Celebrating the Natural World of Point Reyes

By Joe Eaton
Thursday June 26, 2008 - 09:55:00 AM

Where do you start with the University of California? Decades of happy accommodation to the military-industrial complex (see Gray Brechin’s Imperial San Francisco.) Construction mania: geographer Richard Walker calls UC and Stanford the two worst developers in northern California. Torture apologists on the faculty. 

Then again, this university has a hell of a press. 

A while back UC Press decided to revitalize its California Natural History Guide series. The results have been impressive, although the flow of titles has slowed lately. Some volumes have just been minor updates of older versions; others reflect extensive revision, and a few—Tim Manolis’ guide to California dragonflies and damselflies comes to mind—were groundbreaking. No other university press has done anything comparable, although the University of Texas Press has started its own, clearly UC-inspired natural history line. 

Some titles are on the esoteric side, or with a limited geographic focus; I’ll probably never need to consult Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of the San Diego Region. But I’ve found most of them useful: they’re well-written, beautifully illustrated, and chock full of maps, charts, diagrams, and tables.  

The latest entry is a new edition of Jules Evens’ Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula. Originally published in 1988 by the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, it has been thoroughly revised, updated, and expanded for its UC Press incarnation.  

Evens, a wildlife biologist specializing in avian ecology and wetland restoration, lives in or around Point Reyes Station and used to contribute to the Point Reyes Light before it went strange. He’s the ideal guide to a place that many of us regard as part of our extended front yards.  

My first exposure to Point Reyes was in the early ‘70s. I had heard of it as a birding destination, but was not sure what to expect.  

For some reason I decided to leave my friends with the car at Drake’s Beach and walk to the Lighthouse. A harbor seal paralleled my path down the beach, keeping a close eye on me. Then I saw a gap in the bluffs, scrambled up it, and found myself knee-deep in wildflowers.  

It was April and the irises were blooming, along with things I couldn’t begin to identify, being in a prebotanical state. Not knowing where to step, I pushed on. An occasional Holstein observed my progress. Finally I was back at the rim of the Pacific, looking down at the pigeon guillemots with their absurd red feet. 

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been back since then: chasing vagrant birds (sooner or later, everything with that flies will turn up at Point Reyes), taking part in the Audubon Christmas Count, watching Coast Miwok dances at Kule Loklo, getting to know those wildflowers, showing the seashore off to visiting friends and family. Every visit brings something new. (This April a dark blue larkspur that I had never seen before was blooming along the trail to Chimney Rock.) I know people who make weekly pilgrimages to the Point when the fall migration is on, and will probably continue to do so even if gas tops $5 a gallon. It’s that kind of place. 

Jules Evens’ book covers Point Reyes from the ground up, literally. He calls the peninsula a great granitic whale slowly migrating northwest. After rock formations and soils, Evens introduces the major plant communities and the hosts of animals, from tide pool creatures through reptiles and amphibians to birds, culminating in the mammals, terrestrial and marine.  

That was the structure of the first edition as well. What’s new are the updates on a number of ongoing sagas. Over a thousand acres of bishop pine forest burned in the Mount Vision Fire in 1995. I remember skirting the devastated zone on that year’s Christmas Count and wondering if it would recover in my lifetime. Evens documents that recovery: how waves of pioneering plants came and went, how soil fungi went through their own succession, how the birds returned.  

There are other stories: the buildup of the tule elk herd, now California’s largest and healthiest population; the fate of the exotic axis and fallow deer; the elephant seal comeback. And some less familiar ones. Who knew about the Pacific sand bear beetle or bumblebee scarab, an endangered yellow-haired inhabitant of the coastal dunes? I didn’t, and even if I never see one, I rejoice in its existence. 

The book includes checklists of algae and sea grasses, rare terrestrial plants, butterflies, birds, and mammals, and a wealth of photographs, many by Evens and local naturalists Rich Stallcup and David Wimpfheimer. (One error: the butterfly illustrated on page 288 is an ox-eyed satyr, not a California buckeye.) I was pleased to see that Keith Hansen’s sketches were retained from the first edition. 

Well done, UC Press. Not that this makes up for John Yoo, of course.