"October is the month of painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight" ~ Henry David Thoreau, "Autumnal Tints" ~ Atlantic Monthly, 1862
Last year at this time I was in Massachusetts, on a pilgrimage to Walden Pond, Concord and other locations where naturalists and deep thinkers of Thoreau's time gathered to contemplate nature and what she could teach us. The season of autumn was a good time to go, not only because of the visual treat of New England fall colors, but also because the changes of time and temperature from hot, sunny summer to cool, crisp autumn seem to offer a space for contemplative practices that I sorely needed after experiencing a deep and personal loss last year when Malibu Lagoon in all of its lovely foliage and bird song was cleared and silenced.
While my partner Roy and I were away exploring, learning and quieting our grieving souls, autumn on the Los Angeles coast was also in full bloom.
In fact, the colors of the marsh at the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve at this time of year resemble those colorful leaf changes in New England, as Pickleplant (Sarcocornia pacifica), begins squeezing the salts out of its stems in order to begin the newer green growth of the next season. This hearty succulent was used by native First Nation people to help retain their fish supplies longer through salt preservation methods. The stems turn bright red in the fall, resulting in brilliant autumn hues just as the light turns down with the shorter days arriving.
While the autumnal tints in New England require constant looking up at the beautiful colors changing against the sky, in southern California on the coast, the viewer must look down and out across the plain of the marsh and surrounding prairie grasslands. Dr. Joy Zedler, Professor of Botany and Aldo Leopold Chair in Restoration Ecology. Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, calls our southern California coastal wetlands a "rainforest in miniature" as the biodiversity requires a very close look, sometimes for hours on end as tiny creatures emerge from the soils and plants. The rich biodiversity is much less obvious on first glance than in a rainforest.
Adding to the various stages of red of the Pickpleplant, are Western Goldenrod (Euthamia occidentalis) and Coast Goldenbush (Isocoma menziesii), transition wetland species which are in full bloom from late summer to early fall with their bright yellow flowers, turning to ivory and white as they go to seed.
There also are an abundance of brownish nonnative grasses which the native fauna love and utilize as what scientists call "structure," but there also are native plants that are in their more autumn colors - like the native Alkali Barley (Hordeum depressum), which the untrained eye might conclude is nonnative, invasive, but it is not. This native grass still hangs on in soils at Ballona which have been inaccurately referred to as "dredge spoils" - while they are actually the native soils that were simply moved from one place to another during construction of Marina del Rey. Hosting native plants like Alkali Rye, Pickleplant and Lewis' Evening Primrose, these soils are a precious part of our coastal heritage. The native marsh soils not only provide home to these contributors to the comforting changing "autumnal tints," but also provide shelter and food for the native animals, many of which make their homes just beneath the soil.
For instance, did you know that there are more than 100 ant and ant-like species alone in Area A - the 139 acres north of Ballona Creek and west of Lincoln Blvd.? And then there are the small mammals, many living mostly underground, which birds like the White-tailed Kite, Great Blue Heron and Northern Harrier rely on for food.
A recent walk at the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve with the Venice Neighborhood Council and Los Angeles Audubon Society brought back to the forefront of my mind the calming influence of these "autumnal tints."
If you get the chance to notice - either with a Ballona walk along the county bike path on the north earthen levee of the Creek - or while driving by along Culver or Jefferson Blvd., take in the colors of the season, and ENJOY! Celebrate Ballona!
© 2013, Marcia Hanscom & Ballona Institute