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Finding a Way: A Naturalist’s Tour of the Web of Life

Articles: Finding a Way: A Naturalist’s Tour of the Web of Life

Spring 2024 

A book review of Charles Hood’s ‘California’s Best Nature Walks: 32 Easy Ways to Explore the Golden State’s Ecology‘ Timber Press (2024)

It was a bright, blue-sky Saturday morning a few days after a midwinter atmospheric river. I drove north to one of the most popular trails in the San Francisco Bay Area, looking forward to visiting the steep, redwood- and fern-filled canyon for the first time in years. It was the tail end of fetid adder’s tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii) season and the first days for fairy slippers (Calypso bulbosa). Would hound’s tongues’ (Adelinia grandis) blue-purple posies have popped already amid the eager milkmaids (Cardamine californica)?

All the early bloomers were indeed present, as were multitudes of my fellow hikers. Though I understood the collective enthusiasm, I almost ran the trail trying to find that ephemeral sweet spot of solitude between the group in front of me and the one behind. I knew I was being ridiculous and grouchy—what did I expect?—yet my desire for a less social outdoor experience still prompted me to rush home by noon, lamenting I’d paid attention to little on the mountain and was now a bridge toll poorer.

A thick manila envelope greeted my return home. It was Charles Hood’s new book, California’s Best Nature Walks: 32 Easy Ways to Explore the Golden State’s Ecology. Considering my morning, I was beset by a sense of irony, and worried. Had I agreed to help blow up my popular home state’s most lovely places by writing about someone writing about them?

Click image to purchase your copy of California's Best Nature Walks from Timber Press

This is not a bucket list of hikes—it’s an invitation to the web of life, road-trip style

Despite my curmudgeonly suspicion, I did remember one thing: I trust Charles Hood. While reading three of Hood’s other books over the past year, I was impressed by a voice at once practical, poetic, and funny. I was confident in his commitment to preserving—even while promoting—the abundance and interdependencies that make California so unique.

Hood doesn’t disappoint with his newest work. California’s Best Nature Walks is part travelogue, part field guide, part love letter. But it’s mostly, as Hood describes it, an invitation to get to know some of the state’s most “iconic and underappreciated” places.

Any of my initial hesitation vanished upon realizing how thoughtfully Hood chose his featured places. This isn’t a ranked bucket list of five-star hikes to visit, post on social media, and forget until the next superbloom, but a guide that inspires a sense of connection and engagement while intentionally exploring California through the keen eyes of a naturalist.

It’s a much-needed shift from regarding nature as a photogenic backdrop for our entertainment and the wild as another commodity to consume. This perspective is admirable, especially in our post-pandemic era.

I was hooked from the beginning, zipping through the 188 pages in less time than it takes to speed on Interstate 5 from one end of the San Joaquin Valley to the other.

Get ready to enjoy truly easy walks that can be experienced on your own time

When it comes to the logistical ease of each destination, Hood purposefully designed this book around attainable outdoor experiences. This aspect of accessibility is a relief to all of us who devote too many of our waking hours to working in urban areas, yet long to get away and “into nature” in the slivers of off time when we’re not running errands. There are no tricky routes, overnight backpacks, reservations, or bureaucratic permit systems required. Only one hike involves navigating a dirt road, and most are welcome to on-leash dogs. The majority of the walks are fewer than three miles long.

Perhaps most generously, Hood never deviates into physical fitness or self-improvement territory, save for the fact that learning about the more-than-human natural world almost always transforms a person into an improved human being. Instead, he encourages us to go out for as long or as short a time as feels best, whatever that may look like for each individual.

From the author's adventure to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Credit: Katherine Renz

This read is a wonderful mix of the informative and humorous

The dual qualities of ecological perspective and accessibility already make California’s Best Nature Walks a rarity among contemporary guidebooks, but add the fact that Charles Hood is funny, and it becomes the exception. It’s a joy to laugh while learning and provides yet another opportunity for connection, this time to the spirit, and to other readers who will also appreciate a good nature joke.

Case in point, we’re told the leaf of a woolly mule’s ear (Wyethia mollis) in Sierran forests “does look a bit like a mule’s ear, if mules were sage green and grew out of the ground.” He calls pikas “cute little hamster things,” compares the best place to see glacial erratics to “a kind of random art installation,” and argues that because of their tendency to hybridize and have several plumage cycles, “seagulls only exist to make field guide authors rich.”

Having published 20 books, Hood’s had ample practice to hone his humor, yet his accomplishments as a naturalist may exceed his authorial achievements. He added so many birds to his life list that he shifted his tally to mammals, and he’s written still another animal guide focusing on reptiles and amphibians. His experiences and encounters around the globe—from being a bird guide in Africa to a dish washer to a Fulbright scholar—rival Marco Polo.

Considering his focus is California, Hood has no lack of subject matter: As one of the most diverse places on planet Earth, the state is awesome in the original use of the term—inspiring reverence, wonder, maybe even terror.

Not only is California the most populous state in the country (home to almost 12 percent of the nation’s humans), and the second largest by acreage in the Lower 48, it’s also the most biodiverse. In touring California, one can visit ten different bioregions that support a total of 30,000 species of insects, 46 amphibians, 96 reptiles, 63 freshwater fish, 190 mammals, and 563 birds. Plants weigh in at over 8,000 species, of which more than a quarter are endemic—found nowhere else in the world.

Read more from Katherine Renz

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Here in the Pacific West we are graced with a superior pollinator: the moths—easy to spot flitting around gardens, resting on trailside wildflowers, and congregating in the glow of our bright porch lights like holy rollers worshiping an electric god. But with their mostly drab colors, nocturnal rhythms, and occasional pesty behavior nibbling on our crops and sweaters, they tend to be relegated to second-class status as the less glamorous cousins of the beloved butterfly.

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Be prepared to discover fascinating flora and fauna

Fueled by the motto “There’s no bad time to explore nature,” Hood takes us on a road trip traveling clockwise from Point Reyes National Seashore, where he gives a shoutout to gopher-hunting bobcats (Lynx rufus), as well as the river otters (Lontra canadensis) weaseling around Abbotts Lagoon. We drive farther north to an innovative water treatment marsh where sewage gets transformed into a wildlife hotspot. We journey just west of Bakersfield to visit one of the most endangered mammals in the country and shoot east to spy on an inch-long fish that equates earthquakes to aphrodisiacs.

We hear about sand dunes that boom and harmonize for minutes at a time, and exposed rocks on the order of two billion years old. We visit a cloud of bats flying at sunset from beneath Interstate 80, and long-haul hawks roosting in the desert by the hundreds.

Hood made this sense of inclusivity the foundation of his 2021 book, A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat: The Joys of Ugly Nature. In this earlier work, he celebrates these overlooked parts of nature that are all around us, proclaiming he has “come to prefer ugly nature best,” because “at least it’s not going anywhere.”

California’s Best Nature Walks feels like a part two, the on-the-road companion and practical extension from those earlier, more philosophic essays. Hood is adept at taking so-called normal nature and making it fascinating. He features photos of chipmunks, Steller’s jays, pocket gophers, and geese in flight, encouraging us to appreciate common encounters with the larger natural world rather than only the rare and majestic. He extends this democratic approach to flora, too, arguing in A Salad that “plants do not need to be beautiful or even picturesque to be ecologically valuable.” (I see all the restoration gardeners nodding vigorously.)

Though California’s Best Nature Walks is big on animals and will thrill birders with tips and tricks, fear not, horticulturophiles: as the basis of the food web and quite pretty in its own right, Kingdom Plantae gets its due. Highlights include:

A Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) reserve;

The epicenter of California deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens);

The home of the oldest, tallest, and biggest-by-volume tree species;

An expanse of pristine SoCal chaparral composed of over 300 native species;

One of the 10 best riparian forests left in the state.

Any Toxicodendron aficionados, take note: Hood’s photo of poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) from the Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary is the brightest instance of this much-maligned species I’ve ever seen—almost psychedelic with its full-on magenta leaves of three.

Another of the author's adventures in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Credit: Katherine Renz

The destinations are not the usual suspects

Hood spares us the obvious destinations that garner so much media play and absorb so much visitor impact. Big Sur, Yosemite Valley, and Joshua Tree are conspicuously absent. In the few cases he does visit familiar places, he sprinkles in interesting tidbits most of us won’t know already, like the calculation that a mature giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) tree has more volume than four and a half blue whales cruising head-to-tail.

I’ve lived in California for 95 percent of my life, consider myself an amateur naturalist, study my disintegrating paper atlas on a Friday night for fun, and have only been to 11 of his 32 choice sites. Where have I been during my four-plus decades? Hiding under a serpentine rock?

Even more epic than the synergistic sum of California’s diverse parts, though, is the theme Hood weaves throughout his writings like the playful, tender stems of wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpa) in springtime’s chaparral: “Life finds a way.”

It seems almost paradoxical considering both the state’s human population growth and habitat loss, yet it’s this contrast that makes the extraordinary resilience and capacity of nature to adapt so impressive, and why Hood’s equal-opportunity naturalistic approach feels so profound.

His reminders to appreciate what’s right under your nose hit home in his profile of Camp Roberts Rest Area, a typical drab parking area and bathrooms located about 15 minutes north of Paso Robles, off southbound Highway 101. I’ve driven through this oak (Quercus spp.) savannah landscape dozens of times between the town where I grew up on the Central Coast and my adult life in the Bay Area. Never did I consider it might be a wildlife hotspot, though it makes sense, since the surrounding oak woodlands are a habitat supporting higher levels of biodiversity than nearly any other in the state.

Imagine how the world might be different if even one percent of the visitors to California’s 87 roadside rest stops spent a moment appreciating the ubiquitous birds and other critters when stopping to go pee or unleash the kids and dogs.

A good all-around guide with a thoughtful conscious

This sense of camaraderie and encouragement pervades the pages. While I can feel stingy on the trail, wishing for some non-human-dominated space and fearing that our “let’s make nature cool and maybe folks will fight for it” strategy may have backfired, I’m impressed by Hood’s ability to be good-natured without being a Pollyanna.

Schulman Grove in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Credit: Katherine Renz

He avoids an argumentative attitude. Hunting is about as political as he gets when he notes that regardless of how we feel about shooting animals, hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands have been conserved because of hunters and anglers. He often employs his characteristic humor, for example, when he warns not to take selfies with bears in Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest. His compassion for the reader reflects an ethos much deeper than simple journalistic tact. This is a man who keeps a snake hook in the back of his truck to escort heat-seeking, often venomous reptiles from paved roads in the middle of the night, a practice he calls, simply, “good citizenship.”

The only time I furrowed my brow while reading California’s Best Nature Walks was from a quick clause on the last page, a tiny inaccuracy in the epilogue.

In Hood’s extolling of ecological dynamism and the fallacy of a pristine nature, he lauds both species recovery plans and animals’ abilities to adapt to change—great! He gives props to cosmopolitan coyotes and condors soaring back from the brink—totally, yes! He states that California mountain lion (Puma concolor) numbers are at “historic highs”—not so fast.

Just a week after the new year, media outlets reported that for the first time in 40 years, researchers from organizations including UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, and the National Park Service compiled data showing that local populations of mountain lions are at risk of going extinct. The big cats’ large territories are fragmented by suburban development and they are killed crossing freeways. Because these roads separate them, they’re also at risk of inbreeding. Since Hood’s book was written last year and went to press before this study came out, it’s obvious he was going off earlier, more positive numbers.

This quibble, then, is just to make note so we don’t all close California’s Best Nature Walks assuming California’s puma populations are stable and self-sustainable. It not nearly enough to sully an impressive, keep-in-the-glovebox book that champions wild nature.

For the rooted Californian, California’s Best Nature Walks is a reminder of the off-the-charts bounty that can be found locally and a nudge to go check in on some of its denizens. For newer transplants, it’s a welcome guide. For the visitor, it’s a portal to experiencing this weird and beautiful state in all its feathered, furred, scaled, and petaled diversity.

Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself, it’s your invite to a panspecies party. Fill up the tank, grab your binocs and nature journal, and celebrate.

This article is sponsored by:

Resources

deNevers, Greg, Deborah Stanger Edelman, Adina Merenlender. 2013. The California Naturalist Handbook. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fonseca, Ryan. 2024. “A New California Cougar Count Reveals a Smaller Population Than Previously Believed.Los Angeles Times. January 8, 2024.

Hood, Charles. 2024. California’s Best Nature Walks: Step Out of Your Car and Right into Nature. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Hood, Charles. 2021. A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat: The Joys of Ugly Nature. Berkeley: Heyday.

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