Friday, June 30, 2023

Goodbye, Jan Conn—legendary rock climber, caver, musician & much more

Jan Conn (center) with her woodworking group.
Jan Conn passed away in May at age 99. She was a valuable part of my life, following a lifestyle to which I aspired, encouraging me in music, sharing my interest in native plants, and showing by example that being one's self, enjoying life, and helping others do the same are so important. Maybe this short account of Jan and our friendship will encourage others as well.

It was while I was working as a ranger at Devils Tower that I first learned of the Conns.
In 1948, Jan and her husband Herb drove to northeast Wyoming in their converted panel truck and climbed Devils Tower, an 800+ ft rock monolith rising from the valley of the Belle Fourche River. Jan thereby nabbed the first female ascent (not counting Linnie Rogers who used a wooden ladder). Four years later, Jan repeated the climb with Jane Showacre, making the first manless ascent!

Jan Conn and Jane Showacre after the first manless ascent of Devils Tower, 1952.
Devils Tower was just one stop of many in their wanderings. The Conns drove from area to area, living in their little camper, climbing, working the odd job, climbing, working, climbing ... actually mostly climbing. Really?? I totally understand the lifestyle, I know it well. But these people are old enough to be my parents! Yet that was indeed what they did, living the dream, doing first ascents and establishing new routes from the east coast to the west. The Conns have been called the first climbing bums. And after the great Fred Beckey passed away in 2017, Jan was anointed the oldest living dirtbag.
Jan and Herb in their converted panel truck, 1957 (source).
Camping at Devils Tower, 1956 (source).
In the early 1950s the Conns settled near Custer, South Dakota, in the high country of the Black Hills. The area was filled with granite spires, fins and massifs awaiting first ascents, which they happily supplied. Then in 1959, a friend introduced them to caving by way of a "small" local cave (Jewel Cave) and they were hooked. Supporting themselves by selling leatherwork, giving music lessons, and living really cheaply in the Conncave, they would discover and map 62+ miles!

By the early 1980s, they had "retired" from caving and returned to climbing. That's what they were doing when I had the good fortune to share a bit of their lives.

One day Jan invited me to an ascent of the 3BT massif (a classic Conn name meaning 3 Billion Tons). Should I, of intermediate skill, join two world-renown climbers? Sure, why not?! After all, these were white-haired elf-like characters in their early 80s.

We followed a secret winding trail marked by subtly arranged pine branches to the base of the massif and into a deep rock-walled gully, which soon narrowed. Here I observed a conn-flict, a rare event. "Herbie, I think we go this way." Herb smiled, "No, we go up the gully a bit further." Jan wasn't conn-vinced, "But I remember that tree." "We need to head for that chockstone" Herb said, pointing up the gully. This conn-tinued for another minute or so until I interjected dramatically, "Quit fighting!!" We all burst out laughing.

Herb was right of course (he was the mapper in the family), and so we scrambled up the gully, wriggled around beneath the chockstone, roped up for a short section of easy climbing, and then strolled to the summit.
Getting close to the top!
Headed home after a successful ascent of 3BT.
Climbing was not the only kind of adventure Jan offered. One day, having learned I played recorder, she asked if I would come to the monthly Hootenanny (Jan was a product of the Beat Era). It sounded like fun until I learned that all attendees had to perform. She suggested we perform a duet for flute and recorder.

Oh dear. I was untrained and played only for my own enjoyment. Yet like all things Conn, it turned out to be fun. Performances ranged from a boy's poem about his frog (in his hand) to a phone company employee demonstrating how to hook up a new phone line. We fit right in. I would go on to play and perform with the French Creek Folk (Jan and any locals that were available) until I left the Black Hills.
French Creek Folk c. 20 years ago. Jan on bass next to Hollis on fiddle.
Jan was (in)famous for her yodeling, including underwater (watch here).
And there was more. Jan told me about an odd fern they had found on one of their climbs. Since I was a botanist, she was sure I would know it. The three of us went to investigate, with a rope. Herb led the climb, Jan and I followed. There they were—two different ferns, one of which I did NOT recognize. After consulting with an expert who confirmed that it was a significant range extension, we published our discovery in the American Fern Journal!
Botanizing by rope; Jan pointing to fern habitat.
Having shared some of my stories, I will finish with links to others. The Conns were special to many people in many ways. The final sentence of the first article below says it all: "It has been a wonderfully satisfying life for the Conns, just doing what appealed to them, and they are grateful if their fun has brought things of value to others." Indeed it has!!

Legacy Jan Conn, induction into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2011. 

Explorers of an Unseen World by Paul Higbee, South Dakota Magazine, revised & republished in early 2012 after Herb's passing.

Jan Conn: Always Improving (or, The Oldest Living Dirtbag) by Elliott Becker. 11/7/2017. Includes links to audio.

The Ups and Downs of Herb and Jan Conn by South Dakota Public Broadcasting. 05/03/23

For much more, see Wikipedia's Herb and Jan Conn article.
Herb and Jan at home in the Black Hills.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Blue Sailors & Brown Pelicans at Surf, California

Surf Beach

Surf is an unstaffed Amtrak rail stop on the California coast west of Lompoc. It's part of Vandenberg Space Force Base, but there's public access to a short stretch of beach. Use is light and facilities limited. It's often windy, the water is rough, and we're warned of undertows and rip tides.

When I crossed the tracks and started down to the beach I was hit by an awful smell, the stench of rotting by-the-wind sailors, also known as Velellas. They had been washing up on California beaches by the millions. Fortunately there was enough of a breeze that upwind of the decomposing sailors the air was fresh. The recently stranded ones were beautiful—rimmed in deep blue, their transparent sails still erect.

By-the-wind sailors, Velella velella. These are about 5–7 cm across.
When they make the news, Velellas are often called blue jellyfish, being gelatinous. And there was a time when they were thought to be jellyfish ("medusae" among scientists). In 1795, George Shaw published a description and illustration of the Medusa Velella, named by Linnaeus 37 years earlier:
"The Medusa Velella ... is an animal of a very singular as well as elegant appearance. It consists of a flat thin body, of an oval form, and beautifully marked by a great number of concentric lines or fibres. On the upper part is situated, in an oblique direction, an upright broad process or sail ... It [the Velella] is of a blue color, except the sail, which is pellucid, and of a glassy appearance."
Velella Medusa or Blue Sailing Medusa; illustration by F.P. Nodder (Shaw 1795, BHL).
Shaw was correct about Velella's elegance, but he was wrong about its fundamental nature. It's not "an animal".

Each sailor is actually a multitude of animals—tiny cylindrical polyps in a colony designed to survive and reproduce on the open sea. Polyps form the "flat thin body" noted by Shaw. It's surrounded by a dark blue float and topped by a chitinous sail, both built by polyps. Some polyps contain photosynthetic plankton that share energy from sunlight with the colony. Some kill by stinging and supply nourishment to the colony via canals. And of course some are devoted to reproduction.

By-the-wind sailors are unisexual, male or female. They reproduce asexually by budding off tiny jellyfish just 1 mm across. This is the medusa stage—solitary creatures rather than colonies. "So Velella really is a pulsing jellyfish, just not when you find it washed up on the beach" (from The Secret Life of Velella).
Note very different scale bars (compiled from Schuchert 2010).
Velella's little jellyfish are sent off into the world with a supply of photosynthetic plankton for nourishment during their first few days of life, before they can hunt on their own. At maturity they produce either eggs or sperm, which eventually develop into new sailors. For more about Velella's fascinating bipartite life cycle, see Sources below.

While I was on the beach, pelicans flew by periodically, all headed north.
California brown pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus.
Back at the parking lot, a local explained that pelicans gather en masse late afternoons at the mouth of the Santa Ynez River, which is on Base property and off-limits to human intruders. She directed me to a county park nearby, where I watched them from an acceptable distance. It was wonderful ... a real treat!
I'm a huge fan of California brown pelicans. I like to watch them flying in formation just above the waves, scanning for fish. I have great memories of communing with them while sea kayaking, when they would sometimes dive quite close to the boat! They strike me as bold confident birds.

They're larger than their gracefulness suggests—about 4 ft long and 8 lbs in weight, with a wingspan of 6.5+ ft. They dive spectacularly, usually from 10–30 ft above the water but sometimes as high as 60+ ft. Deeper fish require higher dives. Underwater, the pelican's bill opens and its throat pouch stretches to scoop up 2–3 gallons of water plus fish. Back on the surface, the bird tilts its head to release water before swallowing the fish. These pelicans are skilled feeders, eating an estimated 1% of total anchovy biomass off the California coast (they LOVE anchovies).

In the 1960s and 70s, California brown pelicans nearly went extinct. They were feeding on fish contaminated with the agricultural pesticide DDT. It altered the birds' calcium metabolism, making the shells of their eggs so thin that they broke under the parent's weight. In 1971 the subspecies was listed Endangered, and DDT was banned the next year. It worked! Recovery has been dramatic, resulting in delisting in 2009 (see Sources for more).
Brown pelican; photo by William H. Majoros (Wikimedia).
California brown pelican; red skin on pouch during breeding season distinguishes this subspecies. (NPS, Tim Hauf photo).


Bartels, M. May 2023. Bizarre Blue ‘Jellyfish’ Washing Up on California Beaches Are a Sign of Spring. Scientific American online.

Cornell Lab. Brown Pelican in All About Birds (online).

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. c. 2015. The secret life of Velella: Adrift with the by-the-wind sailor (video). Highly recommended; includes tiny pulsing medusae and philosophical reflection.

National Park Service. California Brown Pelican.

Schuchert, P. 2010. Velella velella, in European athecate hydroids and their medusae. Revue suisse de zoologie 117(3). Velella is on pages 476-480.

Shaw, G. 1795. Blue Sailing Medusa. The Naturalist's Miscellany, v.7. Courtesy Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Wikipedia's Velella article has a lot of interesting information.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Tree-visiting at Mission La Purísima

Fountains and olive trees. Olive oil was one source of mission income back in the day.
Rather than trying to visit my Rocky Mountain Junipers between rainstorms, I'm reporting on some trees I saw at Mission La Purísima in California several weeks ago. It was a lovely spring day and the plants were lush, having been drenched in torrential rains earlier this year.

By far the most common tree was the Coastal (or California) Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia. The old ones were magnificent with their spreading sinuous branches.

Young oak already beginning to curve, with barrel—for olive oil or maybe wine?
On one oak, I found a thriving colony of California's state lichen—Ramalina menziesii or Lace Lichen. It was designated in 2016 by then-Governor Jerry Brown, making California the first state to have a state lichen. How cool is that?!
Some call it "California Spanish Moss".
Beneath the great oaks were healthy thickets of Poison Oak (no relation). If you don't know this plant, it causes a terribly-itchy skin rash. But along the trail, someone had kindly trimmed it back, making a wall of sorts.
In all my time in California, I don't remember seeing this much poison oak!
Now one more tree ... this one for Pat, of Squirrelbasket fame and host of our monthly gathering of tree-followers. It is what we (on the west side of the pond) call sycamore, Platanus racemosa.
"Our" sycamore's leaves and bark, courtesy J. Maughn via Flickr.

After parking my field assistant and van in the shade, I visited the mission itself, as I have many times. Its historical role is complicated. It was one factor in eradication of traditional Chumash (indigenous) culture. Yet at the same time, Catholicism was strongly embraced and became well-established. “I don’t harbor bitterness because I consider God my spoils of war ... I have my Catholicism.” said Ernestine Ygnacio-De Soto, whose great-grandmother survived the Chumash rebellion. (For a lengthy and thought-provoking account, see "The Chumash rebellion of 1824 illustrates the changing conversation surrounding life at California's missions". Santa Maria Sun, March 2018.)

For me, heathen that I am, there was no conflict when I entered the cool quiet space of the mission. The thick adobe walls and simple decor seemed to insulate and protect me from the crazy world outside, and offered a chance for secular contemplation.
Mission La Purísima was established in 1787, rebuilt in its present location after a large earthquake in 1812, secularized in 1834, and was in ruins by the 1930s. It was reconstructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, an amazing project and fascinating story.

The park is in La Cañada de los Berros (watercress canyon) very close to the town of Lompoc, yet it feels remote. It's a beautiful and peaceful place to visit—except perhaps in April when group after group of local fourth-graders tours the grounds (as I did, MANY years ago). As a bonus there are about 25 miles of trails, and dogs are allowed on leash.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

California's Central Coast, through a lens

"I gazing at the boundaries of granite and spray, the established sea-marks, felt behind me
Mountain and plain, the immense breadth of the continent,
before me the mass and doubled stretch of water."

Those are not my words. Robinson Jeffers wrote them a century ago. But that's very much how I felt after driving across the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, Mojave Desert, Central Valley, and Coast Range to reach the "Continent's End" as Jeffers called it. He loved this rugged coast with off and on fog—a place where we can "unhumanize our views a little, and become confident, as the rock and ocean ... "

Estero Beach State Park north of Cayucos, in intermittent fog.

Herring Gulls probably (note pink leg).
Cormorants were cooperative, hardly moving while I played with my new camera and lens.
Seabirds as sculpture.
My friend showed me a curious erosion-resistant white deposit near the base of the bluffs. Geotripper Garry Hayes says it's calcite, perhaps from a spring. What do you think?
This one is harder to explain ;)

The next day, I hiked up the Point Sal road south of Guadalupe. It climbs steeply, and then winds down down down to Point Sal State Beach. The road is closed to motorized vehicles, is dirt much of the way, and is quite rough in places. Hard to imagine going to Point Sal in the family station wagon! But that's what we did.
Looking down from the Point Sal road; trailhead is white spot in lower left quarter.
The hills were still green (normally brown by now) and plants were flourishing, thanks to torrential rains earlier in the year.
The beloved and the despised: orange California Poppy and yellow Black Mustard (actually, some people like the yellow patches the mustard adds to our grasslands).
I spotted several giant thistles along the road—about six feet tall! This is the non-native Blessed Milkthistle. It's listed Noxious in some parts of the country, but the California Invasive Plants Council considers it of limited concern, with low rates of invasion and minor ecological impact. I was taken by its dramatic features, especially the boldly mottled leaves.
Silybum marianum.
I turned around at the crest, far above Point Sal beach. Views down can be spectacular, but that day they were mostly hidden by fog—the ocean's breath (channeling Jeffers again).
Looking south with a bit of ocean and strand visible below the fog bank.
The rugged north end of Point Sal beach ... a view I will never tire of!