Thursday, October 15, 2015

Harvest Reflection: Camaraderie is a key to scientific collaboration

By Lisa Micheli, PhD, President & CEO, written on September 15, 2015

It is a pitch black harvest morning at 5 AM and I find myself in the Sonoma Safeway at the Starbucks counter trying to calculate how much coffee I can safely transport to the Bechtel House via Prius without spillage. I am headed up to Pepperwood to meet some of our incredible TBC3 scientists - who all arrived the night before to share a nice sunset dinner on our deck overlooking the incredible view. We are prepping for a full day of Sentinel Site work, complete with a field excursion to dig a soil pit. The field trip requires an early departure due to the threat of hundred degree temperatures by midday. I get the most sugary doughnuts I can find and carry them out to my car with several pints of hot coffee.

This is a great day at Pepperwood. This particular group of folks, which includes my TBC3 co-chair David Ackerly of UC Berkeley, Alicia Torregrosa and Alan and Lorrie Flint of the US Geological Survey, and Stu Weiss of Creekside Earth Observation - the mastermind behind the Bay Area’s Conservation Lands Network. Who wouldn't get up early to secure stimulants for this brilliant crew!? I want to arrive in time for the breakfast window which often is the most creative, with people freshly out of their tents watching the sunrise, some still in jammies, cracking open their laptops and brainstorming hypotheses about how our natural world works. This is how great interdisciplinary science happens - unless, of course, you are out of coffee.

The TBC3 team visiting a weather station on the preserve.
Well-caffeinated and doughnut-powered, we leave the Dwight Center after a brief strategy session to hoof it to one of David’s long-term forest monitoring research sites on the preserve. There, next to the newly installed wireless weather station, is a square hole in the ground about a foot plus on each side. Many of us got down on all fours to peer inside this soil pit that Pepperwood’s Celeste Dodge had dug by hand. We actually determined that since the soils were so thin Celeste had actually dug more than a foot into the bedrock -highly weathered bedrock - but bedrock after all. (And she had done it in the hundred degree heat of the day before: we were impressed.)

In peering into the hole from close-up we all discover something different through that window into the skin of the earth. We notice the influence of roots on potential water flow pathways, evidence of burrowing animals stirrings the strata up, and the wildly variable conditions just a few feet away in this hummocky forest landscape. This complexity and diversity is thought-provoking but working against our desire to rapidly generate statistically-significant field measurements of the soil hydraulic properties across David’s tennis court-sized field plot. The more the variability, the more pits Celeste will have to dig to get a valid average. That's how statistics works.

So what is the story the soil pit tells? First of all, it’s darn dry. There isn't one iota of moisture evident below the earth’s surface in the midst of California’s worst drought in centuries. The soils are only about 7 inches thick, but below is a layer of deeply weathered porous rhyolite capable of storing great amounts of moisture. This actually what is keeping this patch of forest alive - a secret water cache deep below where our spade can reach-something we would not know without digging this hole in the ground. Lorrie rips out a clod and pours some water on the light gray rhyolite material that absorbs the liquid right up - not exactly the behavior you’d expect of a rock.

The soil protocol we planned to use assumes much deeper soils than we are finding, so we debate how to adjust our sampling strategy to handle that. (We love standardized protocols but in nature rarely do they work everywhere!) We also brainstorm how we can we use our map data to estimate how variable the soil thickness may be across all of David’s sites to minimize how many of these pits Celeste will have to dig. Solutions to these sampling questions are never perfect due to the complexity we find everywhere we look in nature - but they do have to be internally consistent!

Too late, perhaps my most important amateur botanical observation of the day is that we are holding this discussion in a deceptively leafless patch of poison oak. Upon return we are joined by the new executive director of the Laguna the Santa Rosa Foundation, where several TBC3 scientists have also worked. In my hostess’ haste I forget to do my usual Technu rubdown post hike-normally a ritual since as a non-native I am wildly allergic to poison oak. I think I am out of the woods, so to speak, but now I write this with a few bubbles on eyelid, arm and knee to prove that plants can be smarter than people. The toxic oils apparently traveled right through my field pants. (“Oh those tricky plants” as Pepperwood’s Preserve Ecologist Michelle Halbur likes to say.)

But today I wear my poison oak as a badge of honor, proof that this mostly desk-bound scientist still can make it into the field with dear colleagues who share a keen desire to understand the relationships between water, earth, sun and life.  I am reassured that in this age of technology humans observing nature directly remains the ultimate source of our knowledge and inspiration. And, at the end of the day, as the first sprinkles of fall rain try to slake the earth’s deep thirst, I am reminded that really meaningful collaborations are always sustained by the joys of camaraderie.

Julie Bartice on Pepperwood's Fund-a-Need and her own experience with the Valley Fire

The following is the speech Pepperwood's Development Director Julie Bartice gave at Pepperwood's Anniversary Sunset Celebration on October 3rd, 2015, explaining the evening's Fund-a-Need and sharing her own experience with the Valley Fire.

For me, the Valley Fire began with a text message. That text read: "Don't worry, but there's a huge fire." It was sent by my 16-year old niece who was visiting from Wisconsin with her parents. She had stayed at our new home in Hidden Valley Lake while the adults spent the day at the coast. We had just sat down for dinner at Lucas Wharf when the text arrived. With her text, Charlotte included a picture that looked like, well, like something from the gates of Hell. And it had been taken from our balcony.

Photo taken from the balcony
of Julie's home
What I remember of that evening - for lack of a better phrase - was organized chaos. My husband, brother, sister-in-law and I rushed from the restaurant. Charlotte called the police. We navigated numerous road closures while Charlotte kept us updated with frequent text messages: She was in a police car. Fire was blazing on either side of her. Sirens blared.

It was after midnight when we reached Charlotte at a gas station in Lower Lake. That night we stayed with friends who welcomed us evacuees with open arms.

One of the longest nights of my life followed. But the next few days were even longer while we sat in vain and wondered if our home was still there. On day three we were told conclusively: our home had been destroyed.

I'm not proud to stand up here and say that I struggled with that news. We had just moved from Sonoma County to Hidden Valley Lake. After a year and a half of searching for that right place to put down roots, we had found a beautiful home with sweeping views of nature. We could see the magnificent Mt. St Helena from our kitchen, dining room  and bedroom windows. We had amazing views of Cobb Mountain and rolling green hills dotted with Douglas Fir, Madrone and Oak Trees. Deer wandered through our yard daily. Coyotes howled at night. And living in our backyard was a fox who neighbors said had whelped nine litters. It was a magical place filled with nature, beauty and serenity. As I thought about our home, I looked down at my wedding ring and was glad that was with me. I then looked at my husband, my brother and his family, and felt tremendous gratitude that we were all safe.

That afternoon I received a phone call. "Hi, it's Katherine Brown." My tired, emotionally-weary brain tried in vain to remember who Katherine was. "Julie! It's your neighbor Katherine. I want to tell you: Your house is fine."I responded with impatience: " Katherine, it's..." She interrupted me. "Julie, I'm standing in front of your house and I'm telling you, your house is fine. I'll text you a picture." And she did. And the house was indeed still standing.

For the next two days, my husband and I volunteered with relief efforts. We worked with the Sheriff's Department arranging short 15 minute visits for people to check on their homes, their animals and grab necessary belongings. Most didn't know what "home" would look like, if "home"  would even be there, and if their pets were dead or alive.

We were set up at Lower Lake High School in a packed gymnasium of desperate yet hopeful people. And generous and patient people. Many of these people came back after their visits to thank us for our small role in getting them home for a brief time. I saw elated elderly people, hugging cats on their laps. Kids smothering their dogs with love. People with stories of homes that were untouched by fire. And I saw the opposite. People who had lost everything. People whose homes and all worldly possessions except the clothing their backs, had been reduced to rubble. Shell-shocked children, quietly sitting next to parents not knowing what to do next and parents who had yet to figure that out. I saw poor people who had been evacuated three times this year alone, and this time they weren't so lucky. I saw people without insurance, people who literally now had nothing and no safety net who nonetheless said: "We'll be okay." And I saw many people helping to make it okay.

I witnessed so much generosity and it made me love Northern California even more.

The Valley Fire made me realize how precarious good fortune is and how quickly it can turn. It also made me realize that we are generous community, deeply in tune to those in immediate need. When there is a crisis, people of our community respond. It also made me realize that now is the time to focus our attention on working together to ensure a catastrophe of this magnitude doesn't happen again. While we must pay attention to the immediate, our generosity cannot be confined to the immediate. It also needs to focus on the long-term. We need to invest in proactive measures to help prevent these tragedies. And when they do happen, we need to help restore our whole community, and our environment, so they can thrive together well into the future.

I now look out my windows and where I used to see rolling green hills and mature trees, I see black ash and a charred landscape. Where I used to hear the birds singing, now I hear the constant sound of chain saws cutting down dead trees. Last night, for the first time since the fire, I heard coyotes howl again. It was the lonely sound of a few, not the raucous yipping that used to wake me at night. I'm am starting to see the deer return. In fact, just this morning, I saw a buck and doe creep across our front yard. Maybe it's my imagination, but there isn't that spring in their step I remember, and they certainly aren't around in plenitude like they used to be. I haven't seen or heard the fox since the fire and I wonder if she made it.

This year alone, 12.5 million trees have died in California fires. We all wonder, how do you rebuild a community after a disaster like the Valley Fire, but how do you rebuild and restore a healthy forest? Keep in mind, the tinder from these 12.5 million trees is in the forest bed lying in wait to become fuel for fire in the future.  How can we be proactive and mitigate the chances of catastrophic fires while we restore forest health?

Tonight you have that opportunity. Tonight, I ask that you help Pepperwood capitalize on its new partnership with the Federal Bureau of Land Management. and invest in our Fire Mitigation and Forest Health Prevention Fund-a-Need.

By raising your paddle:
  • You will support the engagement of youth in fire response and fuel load reduction.

  • You will support work here at Pepperwood to demonstrate and test best practices for fire mitigation.

  • You will support engaging our students, university researchers and citizen scientists in the necessary monitoring critical to understanding the drivers of fire risk, forest health, and wildlife response.

  • And you will support community outreach efforts to empower the many agencies we partner with - agencies such as the Land Trust and the Open Space District, who have representatives here tonight - to mitigate fire risks and other climate hazards on their own properties. You will also support landowners - landowners like many of you here tonight - to do the same.

Working at Pepperwood has taught me that we can't prevent fire. Moreover, working here has taught me that we shouldn't. Fire is necessary to forest health. But we can mitigate the risks of catastrophic fires such as our recent Valley Fire.

Tonight please help ensure a beautiful, robust Northern California - ensure that the Northern California that we love and that we hold so dear, stands proud long into the future.


You can play a role in the success of this initiative!

 Click here to donate now.

Many thanks to our entire community for a generous display of caring, compassion!

Pepperwood Anniversary Sunset Celebration a Huge Success

Wow! Do we ever live in an amazing community. Words cannot express how grateful we are to everyone who attended our Anniversary Sunset Celebration and made such generous contributions to help launch us into our second decade! On October 3rd, a sold-out crowd of nearly 200 community members gathered to celebrate Pepperwood's growth and accomplishments. 

Pepperwood's Anniversary Sunset Celebration held in the Dwight Center courtyard,
photo by Gary Hundt.
Attendees were treated to a transformational musical performance led by Nolan Gasser that did nothing short of elevate the entire outdoor evening to a whole new plane. There was great food and wine, compelling presentations from staff and partners, an honoring of Pepperwood's founders, Herb and Jane Dwight, and a Fund-a-Need auction drawing in our guests. The outcome exceeded our wildest expectations when our Fund-a-Need alone raised $250,000! 

You can play a role in the success of this initiative!

 Click here to donate now.

Below are photos from the event and some of the feedback we received from event attendees.

Pepperwood Development Director Julie Bartice addresses the crowd,
photo by Gary Hundt.

From my perspective and from the guest point of view - everything was perfect. The Dwight Center looked amazing, the staff and volunteers were coordinated, organized and professional. The food looked amazing, the entertainment was fabulous and the people were beyond generous with their gifts to Pepperwood. 
- Abra Annes, Professional Auctioneer

What an amazing event and evening.  Thank you and congratulations to you and all the board and staff that contributed to making is such a special celebration full of music, fine food, excellent speeches, and fundraising. I can't think of a better way to have commemorated Pepperwood's 10th anniversary and with such a great tribute to you, Herb and Jane... I have the opportunity to attend many evening events, and last night's was my favorite in years--truly a stand-out and reminder of how lucky we are here in Sonoma County to be surrounded by such beauty, community, and generosity.
-  Elizabeth Brown, President and CEO, Community Foundation Sonoma County

Pepperwood President & CEO Dr. Lisa Micheli gives a presentation on Pepperwood's past accomplishments and current research,
photo by Gary Hundt.

Julie Bartice looks on as auctioneer Aubra Annes takes the floor,
photo by Steve Ruddy.

Congratulations on hosting a very successful Pepperwood event celebrating a decade of vision and capital accomplishment. It was a first class affair. [Development Director Julie Bartice's] speech was the second bravest thing I have ever witnessed. You should be very proud to have done such an excellent job with your personal story that spoke to a higher planetary need, and a program vision at Pepperwood. The "funds a need" carried that emotion and enthusiasm and it was a powerful part of the evening.
- Edward Wallis

Musicians perform a piece from Phantom of the Opera, 
photo by Gary Hundt.

Pepperwood Preserve is a beautiful place with some amazing caretakers like yourself doing remarkable work.  The evening and event was perfect and I am grateful to have been a guest. 
- Roni Brown, Vice President and Marketing Director, 
Summit State Bank 

Toni McWilliams of Jackson Family Wines
with Pepperwood co-founder, Herb Dwight, 

photo by Steve Ruddy.

You did such a spectacular job on the event!  ...All of us at the JFW table had a really wonderful evening.  
- Toni Kay McWilliams, Director of Operations, Jackson Family Wines

There’s more to Pepperwood than meets the eye... safeguarding the future of our land and wildlife through the kind of education that excites and inspires... I was moved to witness the testimonials, dedication and support of all those connected to this wonderful gift to our County.
- Suzi Redlich, Executive Assistant, Jackson Family Wines

Auctioneer Aubra Annes hosts Pepperwood's Fund-a-Need,
photo by Gary Hundt.

The Pepperwood Anniversary party was most likely one of the best Sonoma County events of the year. We have this jewel of a property here in our own backyard and the Pepperwood team put together a 1st class dinner with exceptional music by Nolan Gasser in one magical venue. I was not surprised it was sold out months in advance. 
- John Meislahn, Vice President and Sales and Business Development Manager, Exchange Bank 

The sun begins to set on the Dwight Center for Conservation Science, photo by Gary Hundt.
Special thanks to all the Pepperwood volunteers who made this event possible, and to Gary Hundt for volunteering his time to take some of the great photos above!