January 2004 Archives

Leave your car in the parking lot on Skyline Blvd. in the Oakland Hills and step through the unknown, remembered gate onto the huckleberry path. Inhale the aroma of rain on the wind, a perfume mixed with the bouquet of a mature bay forest. Sheer rocky knolls punctuate the canyon, its story a potboiler of earthquakes and eruptions. Mist drapes maverick oaks and madrones in fleeting gossamer gowns, and paints the tops of trees on the ridge across the valley. The voice of the river rises from below, a music older than memory.

You have just entered the Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, a living time capsule. For the next few hours, try to fit your calendar and your clock into the big picture. Forget about your spouse's birthday next week, your kid's piano recital next month, and that quest for a promotion next year. Quit wondering what to nickname the current decade, and get over the gravitas of the 21st century. Millennia are still too small -- stop looking at the whale through a microscope. Take a moment and adjust your units.

The geology here is shale and radiolarian chert, the petrified shells of microscopic sea creatures who lived half a trillion years ago. By comparison, this formation's existence as a mountain ridge is still a puppy, upthrust from the ocean floor a mere 12 million years ago. Much of the present native plant community has grown here for 5 million years in a relict association found nowhere else in the East Bay, but only in areas along the California coast like the Channel Islands, Point Conception, and Montara Mountain.

At the trailhead for the huckleberry path, a wooden bin holds informational fliers and a printed key for a self-guided tour, where17 numbered stations along the trail identify plants and communities described in the key. To watch history evolve in the proper direction, follow the self-guided tour backwards: take a right where the sign for the Huckleberry Path points left, and walk the trail counter-clockwise.

The character of this flora is marked by succession, that natural sequence of changes by which certain groups of plants are replaced by others. The laws are dictated by the chert, a harsh and nutrient-poor soil that limits the varieties of plants that can live here; yet succor arrives with moisture blowing in from the Golden Gate, sustaining any species that take hold. Hot summers and frequent wildfires write an agenda driven by flame.