Unfortunately, not all of us are taking care of it.
These are pictures from the Sacramento Bypass, a free access land, after dove season. This kind of ridiculous behavior goes beyond the pale. I won't keep on about this, the pictures speak for themselves, and if I were to try to put words to it, I'd just wind up cursing.
On some encouraging words from my friend Hank over at Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook, I'm back here at my 'Lands on the Margin' blog. I'd been putting this aside due to a number of constraints, not the least of which was my inability to actually get out to some properties that fit the description. But the past three weeks I've been able to visit a number of haunts, and so I can continue to attest to both my love of these priceless places on the edge.
About a month ago, my cousin offered to take us to his "no-fail" catfish hole on the Sacramento Delta, which turned out to be a little piece of publicly-accessible levee surrounded by mostly private lands. As it turned out, 'no-fail' that day meant three cats around 10", and a couple of shaker stripers, but we had a good time, anyway. I know that catfishing can be hit-or-miss at times, and just getting out there really piqued my interest to do it again. I'd spent many years chucking-and-ducking with long streamers and medium weight fly rods, and it was nice to just throw out a hunk of worms, sit, and talk about the barn owls.
A couple of weeks back, I also hit up a piece of property around Pollock Pines in the Sierra Nevada, bowhunting for deer. Though I saw nothing with antlers this day, I did find the nicest patch of blackberries I'd seen in a long while, and though I've got a great patch in Isleton, this one's berries were riper later in the season (being uphill), and the berries were particularly sweet, if a tad smaller. I went to work on them, and got to thinking about preserves, vinegar, and cordial. A few days later, on a trip out to Isleton, I picked a few pounds. I also noticed a patch of fig trees, and picked a few pounds of those, too.
So the last couple of weeks, I've been canning and making blackberry vinegar and a blackberry-plum cordial. I'm new to preserving these things, and I'm realizing that preserving them gives me the opportunity to see these foods and places in a new light.
Here in California, seasons mean something different. Being the largest ag. producing region on Earth and receiving over 2/3rds of all overseas imports, we have both an abundance of produce and a lively market year-round. But, rarely does one see figs or blackberries in the market, and if so, only during the Summer (or, of course, as a processed ingredient). People love them, and gorge themselves on them during their short season, probably just like we have done for millennia, and in a special way. When you bring in a bag of blackberries or figs, at least to my house, and you expect to cook with them, you had better be ready to fight. Hands quickly find themselves in bags, 'just for a couple more.'
I think it's because these fruits are just about the best tasting things you can eat, and they don't lend themselves at all to the mechanical picking operations. Few fruits do, which is why most of what you get at a grocery store is bland, but if you pick a blackberry while it is still truckable, you either have a low-calorie variety, or get ready to pucker. The best blackberries barely make it from the bush to your mouth, and many kids are caught in the bramble patch red-handed. The same is true for figs: one fig preserving recipe I found called for firm-ripe figs, which was new to me. In my humble experience, you either have firm, or you have ripe.
I was still able to make some good fig preserves, and the blackberry vinegar is great. I haven't tried the cordial yet, but what can go wrong with blackberries, plums, sugar, and brandy?
These foods, from the attempts at catfish and venison to the blackberry vinegar, are reasons enough to check out your local overlooked patch of public land. Just like we tend to forget about these places, we also tend to forget about the foods they offer when their season passes. These lands hold critters and fruits and berries, all marginal goods, and the best on Earth.
The Sacramento Bypass, stunted sister to the Yolo bypass, sits just North of West Sacramento. Bordered by the Sacramento and Tule canal, the bypass offers any manner of shotgunning and fishing. Of course, it's pretty desolate, and it gets abused a bit, but like many of these places, early morning, just before sunrise, it comes alive.
Arriving this Sunday morning before 7 am, nobody was there. I stepped out, grabbed my tackle box and spinning rod and camera, and started off down the road. Immediately, I wanted to stop and take pictures, but the light wasn't good enough, and I'm definitely no professional. Soon, however, I couldn't resist: The North side of the bypass is edged by a canal and a nigh-impenetrable riparian zone. Birds aplenty here, all singing praises as I walked along the levee. Overhead passed pairs of mallards; perched atop a eucalyptus, a redtail hawk; at the edge of the tules in the neighboring farmland gurgled the redwing and brewers blackbirds, and of course, the occasional cowbird; too many starlings (one is too many in my book).
I was then offered a flight of white-faced ibises heading out from the flooded fields to some other flooded fields, I'm sure.
I'm not as quick with a camera as I'd like (those of you who have hunted with me understand), and a fishing pole and tackle box also make for a difficult, fumbling move. But I was able to get a fading away shot over the sunrise, so I was happy enough.
So on I walked, poking along, not seriously interested in fishing as much as looking around, but knowing I'd regret not bringing the pole when I got to the slough at the back.
The bypass is only about one mile in length, and the north entrance drives a person about half that length, so after a half-mile or so, then, I was at the back end of the property. However, Tule canal heads north and south from here, and I followed the levee road northward along the edge of its milk-chocolate waters.
I cast occasionally, but the banks are pretty high and pretty steep, and after taking a fall onto some river rocks, I poked around much more slowly. Unfortunately, where there weren't blackberries or wild roses at the river's edge, I found small bunches of poison oak at the lowest elevation I've ever seen them. However, most of it was mowed down, and so access isn't impossible, and if I had brought my long-handled net and the proper equipment, I could have sat and enjoyed an entire day there fishing for cats, carp, and the occasional black bass. As it was, I moseyed and cast here and there.
At one point, sliding like crocodiles from the far bank, two gigantic river otters came straight at me through the slough, snorting their warning. I snapped some pictures, but none really came out good enough. I moved along.
I didn't catch anything this day, though I got within a foot of a carp sucking on the weeds at the river's edge. I don't think I'd want carp from this particular slough, or possibly at this time of the year with such turbid waters, but who knows? Perhaps I've just fallen victim to a newer myth about the horrible trash fish that is the carp...
I did get to see this fellow, and about a half-dozen of his ilk, poking around. Aix sponsa, the wood duck, a reclusive, beautiful bird with some really amazing, haunting sounds.
I also found the remains of one of the lawn mowers used here, and decided to go all Georgia O'keefe for a bit. Here is what I think was my best shot...
Have you ever driven by a particularly wide ditch and seen folks sitting on five-gallon buckets, fishing poles in hand, looking down the cattails and tules? Have you ever driven by a car parked precariously upon a levee, and slowed down instinctively because a kid may come running out from behind it? Have you ever driven by an untilled, fallow corner field at the edge of some great city and wondered, "What are they going to do with that?" Or saw a large refrigerator, it's door still attached, sitting on the side of the field, and thought, "What kind of person does it take to do that?!?"
Or, perhaps, you've parked that car on the levee, and sat your child down next to you with a cooler full of sandwiches and drink boxes and maybe a soda? Maybe you've stood up and turned that bucket around that you were sitting on, dipped some water into it, and threw your bluegill or carp into it? Maybe you've driven by that untilled field and glimpsed a big ol' tom turkey strutting his stuff at the far end and thought, "I wonder who owns this field... can I just walk on and hunt it?" Perhaps you drove out there to pick up somebody else's refrigerator and take it to the dump, or at least pull off the door, wondering, "What kind of person would endanger my kids like this?"
If you are either of these people, then this blog is for you (if you are the person leaving the refrigerator, PLEASE go and pick it up, then read this blog).
I grew up on these lands. I learned to love nature and the outdoors, to hunt and fish and track and birdwatch with my Dad and Mom on just these parcels, little places still un-"developed", huge tracts of free forest land and grassland, corner lots without houses, edges of water treatment plants, county parks.
Over the years, I've seen some amazing things on these lands, some of them horrible, and some of them beautiful. For example, these...
are the same place.
I have grown up on these marginal lands, marginal because they occur on the edges of farms, industries, and cities, marginal because they physically, poetically represent the economic concept of marginal utility, marginal because they cater to and provide for many who would otherwise not have these experiences, folks on the margin. Through them I developed a patriotism that includes, as a right, free and public lands. I have also developed a sense of ownership and responsibility, through my parents' examples, to these lands.
This small space on the internet, therefore, I would humbly dedicate to these humble lands, places where kids can still go to learn about wildlife and the outdoors, where first generation folks can come to fish for dinner, where retired couples can stroll along and catch glimpses of rare species. Hopefully, through photographs and some writing, folks can build a stronger appreciation for and desire to protect these places, like they do our grander and more majestic public places.
I hope this blog will provide a place for folks to come and talk about their own experiences on these marginal lands, as well as provide a place for news and information about land access, habitat, resources, and issues surrounding these often-used, yet curiously overlooked, amazing places.
Born and raised in a small town in the Sacramento Delta, Joshua has been at one time or another an educator, ag. man, nonprofit manager, and park interpreter. He currently teaches archery, custom crafts leather, writes and directs policy for a transportation nonprofit.