©Joe Medieros

Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules: Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season
By Lillian Vallee


38.  Dry Creek S.O.S.

In early September I joined a few La Loma residents to clean up trash in Kewin Park, a dreamy, oak-studded, sunken park occupying the old flood plain on Dry Creek’s southern bank. The activity was sponsored by the La Loma Neighborhood Association which is quite active in beautifying and protecting this part of Modesto. Jerry Frad, who has lived here for fifty years, was leading the folks engaged in this monthly Sisyphean labor.

A lot of people use this park, and it seems that many of them are unacquainted with the virtues of a garbage can. It would be easy to blame the trash on transients or the homeless who spend their mornings and afternoons at the picnic tables, but most of the refuse I collected (near the sidewalk or in the ground cover near the parking lane) was probably thrown out of a car window: disposable fast food containers, Starbucks coffee cups, Haagen Dazs ice cream buckets, CDs, lighters, batteries, napkins, Kleenex, plastic straws, liquor bottles, etc. A hazard is also created by unsuspecting lawn mowers shredding innocent-looking aluminum cans into something resembling throwing stars or shrapnel. Once chopped into pieces, the cans sink into the grass and can lacerate a bare foot or knee. These, along with broken glass, were especially hard to remove.

Yet the lack of housing for the homeless and trash are not the only problems reflected in the necklace of parks (Beard Brook, Kewin, Moose, Thousand Oaks, East La Loma, Trees for Tots) that make up the Dry Creek Regional Park green belt. The dramatic colonization of the creek’s riparian corridor by two invasive plants, arundo reed (Arundo donax) and blue gum eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globolus), and the appearance of two others, yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) and pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana), should be a serious cause of concern to city residents. In addition to destroying the aesthetic and recreational integrity of a rare remnant corridor of native flora and fauna, the plants constitute ideal tinder for fires, especially in dry times.

Arundo, or the giant reed, an ancient introduction to the Mediterranean basin from the Indian subcontinent, was introduced to Southern California in the early nineteenth century and used for roofing material and fodder. The reed is the original source of the Pan pipe or syrinx and is still cultivated today in commercial plantations for musical instruments. In Dry Creek, however, arundo (which can be from nine to thirty feet tall) is blocking creek flow and pushing out the native willows, currants, blackberries, black walnuts, oaks and cottonwoods. There are entire walls and islands of reed (it can regenerate from broken fragments), displacing habitat for plant and animal species that constitute the corridor’s oldest relationships.

Arundo can occupy an entire river/creek channel from bank to bank; it monopolizes soil moisture and reduces habitat and food supply, particularly insect populations for least Bell’s vireo, southwestern willow flycatcher, and the yellow-billed cuckoo. Even while it is shading out other plants, it provides little shading to in-stream habitat, leading to increased water temperatures and reduced habitat quality for aquatic wildlife such as the arroyo toad, red-legged frog, and the western pond turtle (this one uses muddy banks for sunning itself). It also reduces groundwater availability, and the dense growth presents fire hazards by doubling the fuel available for wildfires.

Like arundo reed, blue gum eucalyptus tends to grow below 1,000 feet. It is an Australian native first cultivated in California in 1853 as an ornamental. After 1870 it was planted for timber and fuel. Blue gum is an aggressive invader of neighboring plant communities and is most invasive where there is “fog drip.”

According to Bossard, Randall & Hoshovsky, eucalyptus groves threaten California plant communities in a number of ways:

Biological diversity is lost due to displacement of native plant communities and corresponding wildlife. Understory establishment is inhibited by the production of allelopathic chemicals and by the physical barrier formed by high volumes of forest debris consisting of bark strips, limbs, and branches. The fuel complex formed by this debris is extremely flammable, and under severe weather conditions could produce drifting burning material with the potential to ignite numerous spot fires. Because string bark is carried away while burning, eucalyptus forests are considered the worst in the world for spreading spot fires. The Oakland hills firestorm was both intense and difficult to control because of the many stands of eucalyptus. (185)

Years ago, it was in Kewin Park that I first came upon a pair of alligator lizards sunning themselves, and it was in Thousand Oaks Park that I saw a half dozen western pond turtles basking along the sandy north bank. It was also in this green belt that I found myself surrounded by dozens of skunks (complete with families) out for a walk one June evening. You can catch sight of beavers, bats, wood ducks, gopher and garter snakes, orioles, acorn woodpeckers, red-shouldered or Cooper’s hawks, to name just a few of the animal residents.

It is also here that you can pick up a few buckeyes or acorns, find patches of miner’s lettuce or brodiaea, or get acquainted with wild rose, grape, and elderberry. There are groves of black walnuts and several species of willows, and in the Trees for Tots section, you can treat yourself to the heartening sight of young oak woodland. If you are in the park at the right time, you may even see the paths around the older oaks transformed by millions of poppyseed-sized jumping ball galls, pure visual magic.

The solution to invasive species may be love and commerce. Love enough to understand the value and integrity of a local riverine system, and the knowledge to make it worth somebody’s while to use the invasive plants decimating that integrity. Since both the giant reed and eucalyptus have traditional commercial uses, couldn’t they be made available to those who could profit from them?

Action: If you are interested in learning more about the flora and fauna of Dry Creek Regional Park, please join me and residents of La Loma for our monthly Oak Apple Nature Walk on Saturday, November 3, at 10:00 a.m. We will meet near the playground in Kewin Park.

Sources: Bossard, Randall & Hoshovsky, eds., Invasive Plants of California Wildlands

Oak Apple Nature Walks to begin in Kewin Park

Edited from the La Loma Neighborhood Association newsletter

Lillian Vallee, MJC instructor, naturalist and La Loma Neighborhood resident, will conduct the first of a series of Oak Apple Nature Walks highlighting the riparian flora and fauna of the Dry Creek area. This is an exceptional opportunity adults and children to learn about the natural wonderland at our doorstep. The guided tour will run approximately 1-2 hours, so dress accordingly with comfortable walking shoes.

The nature walks will occur every first Saturday of the month at 10:00 a.m. The first walk will focus on oaks, acorns, and oak galls on November 3, 2007, 10:00 a.m. at the Kewin Park Playground, 401 Buena Vista at La Loma Ave., Modesto.

Children may bring a small bag for collecting acorns. Call 575-6158 for more information.

Grass in November

Peach fuzz growing
Green at first
I see it spreading down the valley
Climbing up the hills
Creeping over rich brown ground
Spring's blush
Touching autumn's rain-washed face

Gray clouds parting
Glimmer at first
I see it kindling in the eastern skies
Darting downward
Gold spears warming the waking earth
Life's promise
Soaking into every waiting blade

Fall's colors die
Yet hope is alive

— Tim Smart

November 22, 2006
Andra's birthday; on a drive through coastal valleys and foothills to Cloverdale for Thanksgiving

Fitness: that other F-word (like fun)


The absolute tactless part of fitness is personal “intimidation” at the daunting road from one’s fitness “valley” to the steeper climbs of fitness. Any intimidation at the thought of daily exercise is definitely self-inflicted, though easily corrected. Before starting the path to fitness, the most discouraging thing to do is to try maintaining focus on doing too much too soon. Always begin with a slow, comfortable pace, and maintain that pace before gaining any momentum. Start small and slowly build stamina from there. But before anything else, congratulate yourself for having the resolve to exercise in the first place. You’re doing this for your own health and well being, so don’t bother comparing yourself to others.

It’s unlikely you’ll be preparing for the Tour de France or aiming to run some sort of Olympic Marathon, so an easy bike ride in the neighborhood or a jog or brisk walk around the block would be a good start. If jogging is your thing, aim for soft soil or grass to cushion the pounding your body will take running on pavement. As well, investing in a good pair of running shoes will do much to prevent potential pain and suffering the “old bones” may feel.

Keep in mind your end fitness goals, but focus on your daily objective—and only on what’s directly in front of you. Once you reach your goal, you may want to set another one knowing what you are capable of. Confidence builds confidence. If you exert yourself too strenuously for your fitness level and fatigue occurs, slowly walk it off, calmly stretch out, relax and call it a day. Recognize that that’s a start. This goes for folks who are new to disciplined exercise, attempting to find some consistency and regularity with the idea, as well as for those who may have had a long layoff from regular exercise. Your body can do what your mind reasonably sets out to do.

Cardiovascular Exercise is the most elemental and essential form of exercise we need; it creates mental alertness and places us all in a better mood throughout the day. Whether you begin with jogging, riding a bike, roller skating or any other type of cardiovascular exercise, go slowly until your muscles are warmed up. Also, build slowly from one week to the next. If you’re feeling gung-ho about initiating or reinitiating an exercise program, be careful not to mentally push yourself to try and gain the most in a short span of time. You may never live up to your expectations. You may become overly discouraged and create a mental hurdle even more difficult to move beyond.

I begin with a jog first thing in the morning. Then I lift a small amount of weights at home. This jumpstarts my metabolism, and makes me feel more alert during the day and gets my daily chore of exercise out of the way to enhance both my physical and psychological fitness. Generally, exercise before eating breakfast while glycogen levels are low is the optimal time to burn fat too. However, the best time to exercise is when you have the time and will do it! Though it may be good to work out two hours a day like Jack La Lanne, any exercise is good exercise. That said, an optimistic attitude will be your most important “equipment.”