By Zack Steel
I was confused about the term natural history for a long time. What exactly is historical about natural history? It always seemed more like natural current events to me. My concept of natural history centered mostly on identifying and describing species and their behaviors. Eventually my view grew to include geology, climate, and astronomy, but it was still all just a careful description of the world we experience.
But how did this world come to be? That is the simple question that unlocked the full, grand scope of natural history for me. The world is the product of the past, and that past has been at times very different from the world we know today. I began to understand that the reality we experience is due to the accumulated changes that have happened over billions of years. The story of that past is etched into the world. The past is layered in the rocks. Every landscape is a library, and every organism is a living artifact.
Just as a deck of cards has four different kings, the state of California has four different types of King Salmon. Each run is creatively named for the season when the adults return to the rivers – we have fall, late-fall, winter, and spring runs. King salmon, also known as Chinook salmon, are the topic of recent news in major California newspapers and science publications alike. One type of Chinook salmon, the winter-run Chinook, is only found in Northern California and is now staring extinction in the face. So I thought I’d take a few paragraphs to introduce you to this fascinating critter, and try to explain why this fish, which requires cold water during California’s hot summer, exists here in the first place.
Have you wandered to the California coast lately? Have you witnessed the up-close encounters with marine life, especially humpback whales? More importantly, have you pondered the ecologic benefits of what these and other visiting marine creatures leave behind? During these fall months, you have the opportunity to do all these things, and can reflect on the role of, yes, poop, in the connectivity of the web of life.
Wildfires in the West, especially what are being termed “mega-fires” can be terrifying and destructive events. Terms such as “environmental disaster” and “moonscape” are often heard in media reports discussing the effects of such conflagrations, further feeding such fears of fire in the West. These terms are symptomatic of a collective emotional response to wildfires. An emotional response we are encouraged to feel as small children. Perhaps the most memorable example of this indoctrination is the lovable Smoky the Bear who has been scaring children straight about wildfires since the 1940s. These stories along with dramatic images of charred trees and blackened soil reinforce the notion that burned forests are completely destroyed, essentially converted to desolate wastelands for decades to come. But what do these landscapes actually look like if we continue watching long after the smoke clears? The Rim Fire, a mega-fire started by a hunter in August of 2013, dramatically burned through the Toulumne River watershed into Yosemite National Park. The Rim Fire burned through an area approximately twice that of Lake Tahoe and is, to date, the largest wildfire in Sierra Nevada history and the third largest ever recorded in California. The fire encompasses huge swathes of land with near-total mortality of pre-fire vegetation and has undoubtedly left a huge mark on the landscape. Certainly these fires can be tragic to the people who depend on these forests for their livelihoods, but is this truly an environmental disaster?
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