[Any resemblance to Aesop’s Tortoise and the Hare is purely intentional. Apologies to the classic film 2001]
Zoot and Zimm coalesced into raindrops after enjoying a picturesque aerial excursion from the Pacific Ocean, over the coastline, low hills, then tree-covered mountains – where some of their peers donned their drop suits and departed – then inner coast montane rangelands, where fewer were called to drop.
But Zoot and Zimm were energized, enjoying the ride, and elected to stay afloat within the cloud formation a bit longer so they could gaze out over the great valley once more. To be sure, they and their peers had witnessed changes in the land cover over the eons of their tenure, but they never tire of the changing landscape below.
As the cloud formation approached the towering Sierra Nevada, Zoot and Zimm began to feel lightheaded and sought to pull in more water molecules to increase their own masses. As their drop-forms emerged they no longer felt lightheaded, beginning to feel heavy enough that they just might fall at any time. They began looking for optimal landing spots.
Zoot is a connoisseur of Stoke, seeking out the flash of fast. Spotting the light-colored treeless zone of annual rangeland below, Zoot exclaimed, “That’s for me!” and dive-bombed out of the cloud. “See ya later – much later, heh, heh.” Zoot teased Zimm and slower peers.
Zimm was in a reflective mood, feeling deflected by the bright rangelands below. “Gotta wear shades”, Zimm squinted after Zoot, happy to stay in the company of more discerning drops in progress over the foothills. Soon Zimm and many peers felt themselves polarized toward the lush, green oak-canopied woodlands below, sensing an abundance of other peers already permeating the land, beckoning them hither.
So Zimm and many associates plummeted out of the clouds toward the woodland below, while many of their colleagues, and many more that were jumping on, had other goals, like transforming into solid form to drift down to the high Sierras as snowfall. Some would later liquefy into reservoirs from whence they might journey to farmlands or urban taps on this cycle.
• • •
Zoot knew it was the right place upon impact, which sent Zoot splashing back into the air for a couple loops before bouncing down again for another airwalk loop, then the swift slide down the hillside, which brought Zoot soon enough into the company of many other drops heading down a stream, where they jammed together in a raucous rhythm as they flowed over pools and through riffles, joining others.
“Yeeeeow, almost as good as bouncing off rooftops and impervious paving in the city”, Zoot wistfully recalled, then catching Zootself with the reminder that this would be a much longer ride.
“Stoked!” Zoot exclaimed. “Stoked!” chimed in Zoot’s peers, as they churned together, whipping up whitewater crests and troughs. “Watch out for those eddies! Don’t wanna get hung up there.” Confluences, one after another, enlarged their cadre, then finally, the great river confluence – a wild ride! But all too soon, the gradient dropped and Zoot and pals found themselves meandering through the great delta, the most boring part of their ride. Worst, gotta steer clear of the giant sucking sounds if the game is more Stoke, sooner. Zoot stayed slippery and soon enough was buoyed by the change in salinity approaching the Golden Gate. “Here’s where we can practice our skills surfing ship wakes”, Zoot salivated.
After a fun-filled trip through the bay, Zoot was back in the frothy Pacific, a bit grimy from human-generated effluents, but ready for the next adventure. Zoot eyed pals who were latching onto bubbles lifting them high into the air. Some fell back down when their bubbles burst, but others kept riding their bubbles all the way back to shore, carrying grime with them.
Sultan of Stoke, Zoot was unimpressed and waited for the sun-fueled Really Big Lift back into the upper atmosphere where stars and sun shine together, energizing Zoot for the next wild ride. “Maybe it will be thunder and lightning this time” Zoot gleefully envisioned. “I’m ready!”
• • •
Zimm knew it was the right place upon contact when a welcoming blue oak leaf broke Zimm’s fall, sliding Zimm off its sinuous edges for a cushioned landing into deep duff. Zimm explored the duff briefly, then was drawn to other drops converging into the soil.
Some of them would stick around in the soil matrix long enough to be pulled back into the atmosphere via fungal tentacles linked to root hairs, then roots, into tree xylem and out through leaf stomata. Zimm was enjoying this earthbound journey and wished to prolong it, but since some fun is always welcome, Zimm hopped into a macropore for a zippier journey closer to the center of the earth.
Zimm was impressed with the apparent longevity of this macropore. It had once been a seedling blue oak’s “sinker” root, grounding the nascent tree maybe 2-300 years ago. As the oak matured its root branched out, bifurcating numerous times, its bifurcations inviting mutualistic friendships with mycorrhizal fungi that help the tree in many ways, while the tree feeds them. Among other benefits, these fungal relationships produce glomalin, a resilient compound that supports soil aggregation and structure, helping maintain the macropore Zimm was now riding through.
Suddenly, Zimm’s glide down the macropore came to an abrupt halt as it met a hard rock face. Zimm briefly coalesced into a subterranean stream, but then was pulled further downward into a crevice in the rock.
Zimm marveled at the vast network of fractures open for travel, displaying exposed crystals and gemstones along many pathways, the work of earthquakes and creepage over the ages. Beguiled, Zimm followed a most attractive route, while Zimm’s peers followed their own natural inclinations.
The course generally responded to gravity, but Zimm would occasionally pass peers gripped by hydrostatic pressures that forced them upwards, where some emerged into daylight from artesian springs, others were drawn up through montane wells.
Time became a relative thing of unimportance as Zimm became immersed in
Be Here Now . . .
Eventually, after an unknown interval, Zimm felt the surrounding spaces shift from definition by angular walls and fragments to more rounded pebbles and grains. Zimm had reached an alluvial aquifer.
The feel changed from higher pressure to a more languorous flow, but time remained abundant and many potential routes lay ahead.
In time Zimm flowed toward a gradient where Zimm and peers could reach daylight, but again Zimm sought to prolong the journey, resting for a time within the root zone of a mass of riparian trees.
The subterranean network of root systems of grand valley oaks and cottonwoods had been there long before Zimm was a glint in parent cloud’s eye. Along with those of willows, sycamores, California box elder, wild currant, rose, California wild grape, sedges and their interwoven surface layers, they created a truly hospitable zone compelling Zimm and peers to linger a while longer.
Zimm stayed a while, attracted by the root zone environment, but wanted to travel the river before the low flows waned, so progressed to the gradient of daylight and hopped aboard the stream. And look, there were Zimm’s old friends, steelhead and salmon, welcoming the Earth-cooled flows of Zimm and peers on their way to the ocean. Zimm likewise sought their silvery company for the rest of the ride.
Over the long, repeating cycles, which varied some each time, Zimm had experienced different forms of estuaries – mixing zones between fresh and saline ocean waters – as had steelhead and salmon ancestors. “This delta’s looking crazier by the cycle, but it still works for me and some features are even beginning to improve for my anadromous fish pals, ”, Zimm noticed.
Zimm’s steelhead and salmon cohort moved out to the Pacific where Zimm might wander some more in the deep, or return to the sky as Zoot had done long ago.
As Zimm considered the diversity of environments experienced on this trip, the sense of longevity in Zimm’s connection with Earth, Zimm whispered an awestruck,
• • •
The moral of this story is that raindrops can remain terrestrial longer depending on the land cover they meet where they fall. The age-old pattern of human occupancy of Earth has generally been to unwittingly degrade the functions of our watersheds/ catchments through our economic activities over time.
In California it began subtly as Native management of the landscape through burning expanded the spaces among trees and in some areas just may have eliminated woody plants altogether, as preferred foods such as chia and some game species were encouraged or brought into to the open through frequent burns. While Native peoples may have been relatively few in number, California’s climate favors expansive spread of dry season wildfire across the landscape.
As Europeans began to exploit the land they also used burning to favor plants considered more amenable to livestock grazing – a pattern that only expanded with the expanding population, perhaps reaching its zenith in the mid-20th century when new mechanized tools allowed more thorough removal of woody plants prior to burning their former habitats. See blog post 6, Ball and Chain & Other Links for insight into and documentation of these efforts.
Alas, some of the actions thought to favor “rangeland improvement” may have actually led to their deterioration, as noxious weeds found the treated lands hospitable and spread throughout these rangelands.
From the mid-to-late 19th through at least the early 20th century, dryland farming, especially of wheat, was tried wherever humans and their livestock could work the land. Once abandoned, these fields were also colonized by weeds – mostly annual plants of Mediterranean origin that could withstand the long, dry summers that otherwise render California’s climate so balmy.
We’ve become so used to these grassy hills that turn brown each summer that we’ve come to view them as “natural” and all too many view them as “native”. While many native herbaceous species do persist in these lands dominated by exotic annual grasses, we’ve generally overlooked the fact that history rendered them as we see them today. Among those who recognize their nonnative status, it is typical to imagine that they were once perennial grasslands, but the evidence suggests otherwise [see California “Grasslands” vs. Altered State(s)].
During the great era of hydraulic engineering projects in California, patterns of urban/ suburban development generally sought to move rainfall off the land as expeditiously as possible. Only now, as burgeoning populations require more of the precious wet stuff are we awakening to the folly of those former aims.
Now that most of California’s great rivers have been dammed and our groundwater overdrafted, it’s time to reconsider the vast nonnative annual rangelands for their potential as opportunities to restore natural groundwater recharge and subsurface water storage.
What’s missing are the woody plants whose deep root systems once contributed soil macropores and that, along with those of their perennial neighbors, supported perennial soil ecosystems that stabilized soil structure so as to better imbibe and store water in the ground.