Praying Mantis

This praying mantis is eating a yellow jacket.  Eating is not the right word; this praying mantis is butchering a yellow jacket, disassembling it, undoing it.  And all the while, the yellow jacket is still alive, trapped in the clutches of the mantis's claw.  The yellow jacket wrestles against its captor.  It attempts to sting and writhe from the vice grip, but the mantis has its prey played perfectly.  It holds the yellow jacket far down, at the joint of the body, rending the stinger useless. IMG_9853

Apparently, the Praying Mantis vs. Yellow Jacket phenomenon is fairly common, though I had never heard of it.  I found dozens of videos on Youtube, all of which are interesting and worth a look, but rarely is Youtube better than real life.  In this case, the mantis had positioned itself next to the entrace to a hanging yellow jacket trap, and as the unsuspecting yellow jackets approached, attracted by the scent of the fresh bait, the mantis snatched them out of the air.  At one point (before I had my camera with me) the mantis was clutching two yellow jackets--one in each claw.  In the time of plenty, the mantis was stocking up.


But two turned out to be too many for the greedy mantis, and by the time I returned with my camera one yellow jacket had escaped.  With both claws free, the mantis abandoned his efforts for a double helping and began devouring the one unlucky yellow jacket.  I watched as the mantis bit into the head, removed the protective outer shell, and began picking at the soft inner flesh (click on the photo below for a close up).  It was horrible and fascinating.


But most fascinating was that even with the top of its head ripped off, the yellow jacket still buzzed and pricked, determined to fight to the end against the forces of mantis and nature.

Welcome To Stonyford

One weekend every year the tiny Northern California town of Stonyford is overrun by bull riders, bullfighters, bronco busters, steer wrestlers, calf ropers, barrel racers, beauty queens, rodeo lovers, and rebel rousers.  It's the annual Stonyford rodeo and it's the biggest thing to happen in town all year. IMG_9000

With a population right at 250, Stonyford boasts one bar, one restaurant, one tiny community church, and one general store with gas pumps from the 1960's and chap stick on sale for five bucks a tube.  But when the rodeo comes to town (and brings 3,000 screaming rednecks with it) the small arena just off East Park Road might as well be Market Street, San Francisco.


For two consecutive days this arena is where cowboys make it or break it on the backs of their angry bucking beasts.  Only lasting seven seconds on the bull (instead of the full eight) can mean a difference of several thousand dollars, and one miscue chasing a calf with the lariat can break a cowboy's bank.


These small town professional rodeos used to be much more common in California; today however, Stonyford is about the only one left.


Most of the small town rodeos disappeared because people lost interest or the town outgrew its cowboy identity.  But in one case, it was the town itself that disappeared.  Monticello, CA had existed since the early years of the Gold Rush, but in 1958 a government project put a dam downstream and inundated Monticello along with the rest of the Berryessa Valley.  (Pictured above pre-flood - photo credit: Eftimeos Salonites, courtesy Vacaville Heritage Council)


Much like Stonyford, Monticello had a small population and drew the majority of its residents and support from ranchers and farmers in the Berryessa Valley.  Also like Stonyford, Monticello hosted an annual rodeo that was a major destination for cowboys and horsemen from all around northern California.  (Above photo credit: Eftimeos Salonites, courtesy Vacaville Heritage Council)

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Historical accounts of the Monticello rodeo call it "Napa county's largest attraction.  Usually the first rodeo of the season, it drew spectators by the thousands."  But when the dam went in, the homes and businesses were all razed, the trees were cut to within six inches of the ground, and even the graves in the cemetery were dug up and relocated to a hillside overlooking the new lake.  The rodeo was finished.  (Above photo credit: Eftimeos Salonites, courtesy Vacaville Heritage Council)


The Stonyford Rodeo might as well have been Monticello seventy years ago, only with newer cars, newer music, and a louder PA.






Utah Is Great

It's true.  Utah is great.  This may not be a very popular opinion, especially among people who are not from Utah or have certain ideas about the state's character, namely that it's a bleak desert wasteland with foul weather and full of hyper-religious extremists.  I am not from Utah, though I did live there for six years and admit that certain aspects of the state got on my nerves (like the horrible drivers, the insane traffic, and the endless urban sprawl on the Wasatch Front), but nowhere is without its drawbacks and all that becomes a moot point considering the state's diverse natural beauty.  I've photographed landscapes in many different places throughout Utah and still feel like I haven't even scratched the surface.  So getting to go back this past week for a family reunion at Bryce Canyon got me excited to see some more great scenery.

This first shot came on highway 20 between Beaver and Panguitch on our way to Bryce. Driving into this high valley (I think it's called the Lower Bear Valley), a summer thunderstorm was breaking and the sun came through the clouds and lit up the green underbrush of the fertile steppe.  But, pulling off the road to get this shot, some local bro in a little green Saturn sped past me at 75mph, middle finger held high out the window, yelling at me for apparently not getting my car off the highway fast enough.  Still, even despite that, I think Utah is great.

Since we only had a few days, we spent the majority of our time at Bryce Canyon.  One of the downsides of Bryce is that its beauty is so easily accessible , which means in the summer the park is overrun.  At times, getting a decent view of the canyon required pushing my way through the unwashed masses, dodging sour-faced Frenchmen and other grumpy Europeans.  I was getting a little annoyed until I reminded myself that I too was a tourist come to gawk.  Whether from California or Germany or Japan I suppose we're all tourists, except for maybe the bro in the green Saturn; I'd say he's pretty much a yokel.  But, on the whole the landscape was spectacular enough that I didn't mind braving the overwhelming crowds to get a glimpse.

The next morning however, we woke up at 6am to get into the park before the crowds and we experienced a quieter side of Bryce.  The sun was just coming up, spraying dramatic light on the Bryce Amphitheater.  As we hiked from the canyon rim down into the darkness of the lower washes, we passed maybe three people on the whole trail.

Down in the depths beneath the red rock, I caught the early morning sun illuminating the hoodoos above us.  It was quiet in the canyon, only the occasional raven cruising silently overhead and a couple of lizards darting in and out of sight between the rocks.  Much better company than the crowd from the day before.

I realize that I may have a mild case of agoraphobia, but I can't help it if I prefer solitude.  After leaving Bryce we made our way back to California through my favorite part of Utah: the West Desert.  Away from the jammed interstate and gaudy billboards advertising for ModBod, the backroads of Utah are the best.  This highway, west of Milford, UT near the Utah-Nevada state line, was especially desolate, which was great until one of the cars in our caravan broke down one hundred miles from the nearest tow truck.  Luckily we got some cell phone service, eventually had the car towed, and made it back on the road the next day.  But during the two hour wait for the truck to come, I took a walk away from the highway into the sagebrush hills.  I ate a few Pinyon Pine Nuts picked from the nearby trees, found an ancient Bireley's Soda bottle, and got very hot walking around in the dry heat.  I probably walked just a half mile, but the desert sun was overpowering and I was glad that back in my car I had plenty of water.  I love the big sky and austere landscape of Utah's West Desert, but only if I'm well prepared to weather it.  Though it is beautiful, it's still an unforgiving landscape.

Various and Sundry

Going through my camera a few days ago I came across some photos I'd planned to put on the blog but had neglected to download.

These first two are from last May.  This hayfield, on the neighboring Luchetti Ranch, was nearly ready to be cut and whoever had been spraying happily left the old tractor in the middle of the tall grass for me to photograph.  On the skyline is Cobb Mountain, the tallest of the old volcanoes in South Lake County.

In the background of this photo are the South Hills, the one thousand acre backcountry of our ranch, with the Meadow Barn just in front.

These two I took in a Walnut orchard near Chico, CA.  I liked these because of the contrast between the symmetry of the trees and the random chaotic light of the afternoon sun coming down through the branches.

Walnut trees are interesting because they are actually a combination of two different species of Walnut grafted into each other, an innovation pioneered by Luther Burbank, a well-known horticulturist from nearby Santa Rosa, CA.  The dark base and root system of these trees are Black Walnut and the white upper portion are English Walnut.  The fruit of the English Walnut is more desirable though the Black Walnut is a stronger tree.  The combination of the two produces an ideal orchard tree.  The United States is the world's largest exporter of Walnuts, 99% of which are grown in orchards like these in California's Central Valley.

California Summer-Landscapes

The best thing about living on the ranch is watching the seasons change.  Since California summers are so dry, the grasses that grew tall and green in the springtime turn golden and brittle, contrasting with the clusters of still green oak trees on the ridges.  Except for around the creeks and springs, the only green vegetation that remains are weeds: the noxious Star Thistle and the fragrant but useless Tarweed.  The summertime highs range up into the 100's with the overnight lows plummeting into the 40's or 50's.  It's a harsh landscape for anyone unfamiliar with it, but it's paradise to me.

Natural grasses in the front meadow.

Putah Creek.  Running at it's lowest in late August.

The yearly crop of Tarweed growing in the meadow with the Meadow Barn in the background.