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Mendocino County 1 August 2011

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Our Home County

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We live on the coast, but our county, about a third the size of Sicily at 10,044 square kilometers, extends across a mountain range and includes a hot inland valley where pears and vineyards thrive. The land is more forest and high open meadow than agricultural bottomland, and the trip from Caspar to our county seat, Ukiah, travels right through the most beautiful transect.

Even on the coast, by the beginning of August, the abundant grasses, standing as high in places as my eyes, have turned golden (or tan, if you aren't a Californian.) That's our place, on the horizon at the top of the great open meadow between our house and the ocean. The native pines that tower over us shelter us from the rough prevailing northwest wind, and put our house and garden in a windshadow most of the summer.

Himalaya Blackberries
Invasive Himalaya Blackberries have overwhelmed the low-growing native blackberries, but they are mush meatier and more delicious.


Before european settlers came to this land, the Pomo people traveled between inland valleys and the coastal plain, where they gathered seaweed, shellfish, fish, and berries and materials for their baskets, described as some of the finest baskets in the world. The Pomo used their water-tight baskets to cook in, demonstrating their excellence.

There is still a strong Pomo presence here, despite the fact that Spanish and later East-coast American settlers did their best to kill them off before and during the Gold Rush of 1849. The Pomo undoubtedly had a better understanding of "what the land wants to be" than most europeans. 

<p>European grasses (thanks to hay...

European grasses (thanks to hay fed to the cows that used to roam the Headlands) dominate the meadow southwest of our house. More than 95% of the local flora is invasive and exotic.

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<p>Redwoods can grow to well over 100 meters tall -- tallest tree in the world</p>

Redwoods can grow to well over 100 meters tall -- tallest tree in the world

We too travel between the coast and inland .... more often than annually, but not too often, for doctors' appointments, car servicing, and to visit inland friends. The trip always reminds us of the magnificence of this land.

Our coastal plain is actually several plains, each upthrust out of the Pacific as a sort of "elevated beach" as the Pacific Plate subducts beneath the North American Plate we live on. California is earthquake country, and the San Andreas fault goes out to sea just south of us, near Point Arena. 

The Coast Range starts just behind the coastal plain: a wrinkled and tortured land of deeply indented valleys and sharp ridges, all caused by the buckling of the North American Plate as it overrides the Pacific Plate. This is Redwood country -- the same trees that we remarked in the previous page. On the way to Ukiah, we pass Montgomery Woods, a preserved grove of mighty trees in a beautiful deep valley with a crystalline creek running between mossy rocks -- Redwood country is gentle, and has the authority of many centuries.

Each tree tells a wonderful story in the twists and burn marks of its fire-resistant bark. In the crown of the older trees there is a vivid micro-ecosystem of air plants, frogs, insects, and birds. The joy and tragedy of the trees is that their wood is wonderful for building: rot and insect resistant, soft and agreeable to work with -- and so not many stands like the Mongomery Grove have survived the timber industry.

When I came to Mendocino County in the mid 1960s there were more than a dozen lumber mills, including the largest redwood mill. There remains only a single mill in the county, due to "liquidation logging" that has removed almost all the marketable trees not in protective ownership. There is a constant tension here between the preservationists and the users. As a carpenter, I am torn, because I love the trees standing and I love to work with the wood.

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Wikipedia tells us that there are 22.7 people per square mile in Mendocino County, among the least populous of California's 58 counties. By contrast, San Francisco county is infested by 17,179 per square mile (California's most thickly settled area.)

The distances are huge here, and not just in road miles. Boonville was so isolated at one time that it developed its own language (Boont, in which bahl gorms meant good food and a Bucky Walter, named for the town drunk, was a telephone booth.) The seat of government is inland, in Ukiah, as is the bulk of population (about 60%) and so there's a constant battle with the "gentrified" coast and the red neck inland valleys. In my time here, those distinctions have blurred and softened, but will probably never disappear.

The road miles still determine the culture, and the 75 road miles take an hour and a half to drive if you know the roads and don't encounter any trucks or recreational vehicles. This separation tends to encourage local spheres of influence: Fort Bragg, home of the Skunk Train, and once the site of the world's largest redwood lumber mill, is still the largest city, and our shopping center. Its harbor, Noyo, is a significant fishing port. Mendocino is intensely touristic and self-consciously quaint. Boonville and Ukiah/Hopland are in big inland valleys that produce wine grapes and pears.   

<p>Mendocino and surrounding counties</p>

Mendocino and surrounding counties

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The Coast Range is the source for Redwood and merchantable fir; the county's sole surviving lumber mill is near Boonville. Just north of Fort Bragg, the Range falls right into the ocean, producing spectacular views much like the Big Sur country to the south. In the county's northwestern corner, the precipitous plunge of mountain into ocean creates the Sinkyone Wilderness, often called "the Lost Coast," continuing well into Humboldt county. The Coast Range is the source for Redwood and merchantable fir.

Mendocino County (in red at left)  is the size of Sicily, the Mediterranean's largest island (and, because of the mountains, we often think of ourselves as an island, but I digress.) From that you can see that California is BIG, more than 1200 kilometers from north to south, 37 million people in 167,000 square miles (423,970 square kilometers), about the same size as Italy and Austria together. If California was a sovereign state, it would rank tenth among nations, just above Italy in Gross Domestic Product.

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