Point Reyes: To See a Piece of Land

Photo by Ken Conger, NPS

Photo by Ken Conger, NPS

by Cole Hersey '17

I have been hiking Point Reyes since before I was conscious. My family goes on walks there. My friends live and work in Point Reyes Station where I visit them. It is the place where I first swam in open ocean, where I first went backpacking, where I first began to wonder how landscapes were made, where I first saw kinglets and yellow warblers, where I first began to bird. Point Reyes is the birthplace of my affinity for things that are not human.

Much of Point Reyes that is not private ranchland is protected wilderness. Two and a half million people visit Point Reyes to enjoy the waters and the wildlife, to admire a world that is not their own. It’s almost as if, in some sense, these protected areas have become like landscape paintings we can walk into, enjoy them for their physical beauty, and leave. And largely I am this way as well. There are many who make their living in and around the peninsula farming oysters, or herding cattle, but for the most part I only view this landscape as a visitor. My most recent form of viewing Point Reyes has come in the form of the Christmas Bird Count.

I love the Christmas Bird Count. It’s a day where my friends and I hike around until the sun starts to fade, tallying up the birds we see in this peninsula by our home, getting distracted by the mushrooms and the trees, pausing to look at the landscape, so beautiful, so pristine in an idealized way that you quickly realize why the Spanish named it Point Reyes. Everything in the landscape is angelic, from the turkey tails to the amanitas, the grey squirrels to the grey foxes, the bishop pines to the live oaks, the coyote bush to the marshes full of cattails, koots and black phoebes. It is a landscape that I have easily wrapped myself into, a landscape I readily identify myself with and call home. And a landscape I would like to know better.

For this Bird Count we were surveying a stretch of land that is bisected by Highway 1. It’s a large area mostly comprised of marshes on the eastern edge of Tomales Bay, eucalyptus groves, grasslands, and chaparral. It’s private rangeland for the most part, so getting onto a site can be difficult. But once arriving into those areas you can see a myriad of beautiful things: Ruby-crowned kinglets, scrub jays, great and snowy egrets, vultures by the dozens, townsend's warblers, black-capped and chestnut-backed chickadees, hermit thrushes, barn owls, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, golden-eyes, golden-crowned and white-crowned sparrows, California towhees, occasionally a golden eagle, and hundreds of yellow-rumped warblers (a.k.a. butter-butts).

During this last Christmas Bird Count, just as the sun was beginning to set, my friend Rae and I were walking out to the edge of a point on Tomales Bay covered in coyote bush. It had been raining the days before, so there were small brown ponds all over the landscape. As we paused to look at a scrub jay propped up on top of a coyote bush, I heard something tweeting in front of us. I saw a small white-crowned sparrow taking a bath in a puddle tucked underneath another coyote bush. It dipped its chest into the water, opening its wings slightly and then shaking its body, splashing water all over itself. Looking at its beak and eyes pointing up into the thicket as it flapped its wings, I became enveloped by a longing to be this sparrow. I wanted to clean myself in this puddle and then go about flying in and out of bushes, looking for grubs in the muddy ground. We all watched the bird bathing in the brown puddle, enjoying how the sunlight hit the water and the bird, making small glints of light flash as water-droplets flew from the sparrow’s wings to the air. It was just so damn cute. As we walked away, my dream of being the bird faded and I began to feel strange. Disconcerted.

We all were standing there, enjoying how cute, or pretty, or beautiful, this image of the bathing bird was. But the bird was cleaning itself. It wasn’t necessarily playing in the mud, or enjoying the way it felt to be wet. It was just cleaning itself. Objectively that’s all the sparrow was doing. Later it would leave, find food and if it survives the coming months, it will make a nest and find a mate. But I took the image of the sparrow and idealized it, placing it into the construct of what I idealize and what I see as beauty. And that’s what unsettled me. It wasn’t that the bird was taking a bath, it was that I had made the bird solely into beauty, and left out so much of the sparrow’s story. I had made the bird, much like the Point Reyes landscape, into an object to be viewed only with admiration and with beauty.

We miss so much of the world when we merely admire beauty. It is like looking at a house on a street and not recognizing that someone built it, that the building of that house has a history, and that the house wasn’t always there. We forget about the complexities within these worlds if we just see them for the trees and the wildlife that inhabit them. We forget that there are thousands of years of human history on these landscapes. And this history has, in part, created this idealized world.

The Miwok people — who lived in Point Reyes before European settlers systematically destroyed their ways of life on the peninsula — created large rolling hills through controlled burns to cultivate the land, making it more appealing for deer and various plants they harvested. Their various methods of cultivation drastically impacted and shaped the Peninsula, essentially creating their own ideal landscape for cultivation. And it was this way for tens of thousands of years. But eventually, with the introduction of cattle, large scale lumber industry, and a few Old World crops, the settlers manifested the golden rolling hills that we see today into the perceived ideal beauty of California. Though those hills weren’t always gold. That gold is oat grass, Avena sativa, a species of grass introduced by the settlers. Before the grasslands formed, the oak savannahs were burned by the Miwok people to regulate what did and did not grow there. The landscape of Point Reyes today that we picture as a mixture of pasture land, chaparral, oak woodland, sparse second-growth redwood forests, and douglas fir, was for thousands of years not this way.

That white-crowned sparrow in the puddle was cute. It was so cute. Its feathers all puffed up, I wanted to snuggle it. And it’s fine to think of the birds as cute. They are. But that’s not all I would like to know of the bird or the landscape. I would like to know what the sparrow eats in winter and summer and where it goes for shelter. I would like to know the rock that the coyote bush grows on, to know when the oat grass is ripe to pick, to know what the succession of species is in the grasslands. To put it simply, I want to know the complexity of the world. Perhaps then I can understand this landscape better, love it more. And that is in part why I enjoy the Christmas Bird Count. I am forced to look at the landscape in context with the birds. And the better I know the behavior and attributes of the birds, the better I will know the landscape. But, if I just keep thinking that the white-crowned sparrow is cute, what will I be missing? If I keep seeing the grasslands and rolling hills only as beautiful, then what am I forgetting? What am I missing if I only admire the landscape as it is today, and not ask what it was and what it will be?

Malia Guyer-Stevens