Stories

San Bruno Mountain

After Black's, I followed winding rivers up to Puget Sound for a short time, hopping between redwoods and newts, chum salmon and crayfish tucked in between rocks. But I could not easily forget the mother ocean. Tumbling from the bed of my pickup, I was back surfing at Ocean Beach in San Francisco during the warm waters of El niņo: two to three foot waves with flying fish and a mola mola in the line up.

Between the lulls of junky summer wind swells, my hands shifted from wax to dirt. An Indian guru disguised as a black Irishman, Dr. Don Mahoney, yoked my path towards furry milkweeds and pipevine swallowtail butterflies. In the botanical garden, I grew roots and went terrestrial. Everyday, my skin gelled a little bit greener. My apprenticeship to the plant world had begun! Never before did I meet such enthusiastic teachers, willing to share their knowledge and insights. My eyes chattered with the fragrance of basil and mint and stumbled over poppies and magnolias. Jasmine vines encircled my arms. General King Sip ordered, " Let's go to weed! Library or liberty!"

Master Bob Patterson at San Francisco State University was my first official botany teacher. The class that branded me was Plant Taxonomy, the science of classifying plants. He formally introduced me to my plant relatives - a network of botanical families and descriptions, flower structures and their chemicals. The commander-in-chief, Dr. John Hafernik, suggested a master's project studying the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly on San Bruno Mountain. He fitted in the first few pieces of this puzzle for me, and I followed his lead. The bearded great horned owl, David Schooley, guided me through the areas near the quarry, up the Devil's Arroyo, and into manzanita thickets. He meandered with me down to the bay, and showed me where the ancients had stashed piles and piles of mussels, limpets, and abalone shells.


What amazed me most about spending so much time close-up on the mountain was the cycles of changing vegetation, and the insects that followed them. Up and down went clusters of colors. Sticky orange monkey flowers swung through the gulches, and collapsed them. Shy, arched heads of the mission bells nodded lazily, then became exhausted and dried. Hungry black blister beetles mowed down poppy petals and lupine petals, all the while spreading pollen. The chartreuse yellow starred footsteps of spring burst the trails, and were swallowed whole by brown rattlesnake grass. White yarrow flowers rubbed against the prickly Italian thistle, while long antennae bees dipped into both for nectar. A crushed skull marked the gray fox on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway; its body scoured by devil's coach horse beetles. Acorns slept quietly on the floor; weevils poked into them and sucked their meal dry.

In order to remember every funny little flower and fern that opened then closed, I painted them into a picture. Clarkia's yellow stamens and cross shaped stigma embellished the mountain's epaulets. The garrya tree's opposite leaves and purple fruits formed his wings. Biceps of ribbed plantain, composite yellow eyes. Poppy lips smoking a Dutchman's pipe. The story goes that an old Chinese medicine man learned plant properties by tasting thousands of them; I tried to do the same. However, I could not readily discern their specific medicinal effects. I did not know if my dose of diarrhea came from eating web spinners, or from the clam chowder soup at the all-you-can-eat. Nevertheless, somehow, all the odd bits of greenery and bugs I swallowed become a part of me.