Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Splendid abandoned farms
There's an old study skin of a shrew mole at the California Academy of Sciences that was collected on the Greenly farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In the summer of 1960 I discovered that specimen in the academy's mammal collection and wrote to Mr Greenly for permission to snap trap shrew moles on his farm. Permission was granted in a letter signed by "Pops Greenly".
Pops was a lonely widower and the farm was a wreck, a wonderful wreck of collapsing barns, broken equipment, and a forgotten orchard. Consequently, it was seething with wildlife.
Pops gave us a tour. The bloated woodrat floating in the springhouse didn't bother him a bit. Wrens and swallows nested in the outbuildings, honey comb spilled from half-opened oak filing cabinets in the tool shed, and the attic's colony of fringe-tailed Myotis gave the house an alluring batty bouquet. One evening on the porch the old man told us a mountain lion passed through the property every few weeks. He pointed to its usual path, and his imitation of it raised the hair on our necks. The place was being reclaimed by wildlife, and it was a naturalist's paradise. It didn't take long to make a nice collection of shrew moles and other mammals there.
About 3 years later I visited the Cleary Reserve in Napa County with fellow undergraduates in a class called "Natural History of the Vertebrates". The reserve was also an old farm, and we spent a memorable weekend collecting and identifying wildlife, but it didn't compare with Greenly's derelict farm.
Forty plus years have passed since then, but a few weeks ago when my old friend Rich Tenaza invited me to join him at the Cleary Reserve I was ready to go. Last weekend was a codger fest of old Asia hands, Rich, Steve Anderson, Rod Jackson and yours truly.
The reserve didn't look quite the same. The trees seemed bigger, and a lot of dead wood had fallen. The dirt road was choked with sticks, limbs, and canes. Gone was the pond with its nesting redwing blackbirds. If it was still there, it was hidden in towering vegetation.
When Rich unlocked the old stone house it was plain to see that wildlife had reclaimed it. Carpenter bees were jousting under the eaves. They made sorties at us whenever we passed, and were irksome buzzing against the windows in the house, but that was remedied with an insect net.
The walls and plastic covers on the furniture were peppered with bat poop, and when we found the perpetrators in the hall we hurried to our cameras and photographed them.
The amount of rodent crap on the floors was simply amazing-- a tribute to high fiber diets and a population explosion.
Rich knew the place well, and within minutes was checking the old septic tank for rattlesnakes. Sure enough, there they were. The pit was evidently a splendid predation trap, an irresistable attraction to rodents where the snakes lie in wait.
The old Cleary house had come of age. Barely liveable for most humans, it was a paradise for wildlife and old biologists.