This week, my Wild Davis students are revisiting their sit spots for a mid-day observation. My goal with these assignments is two fold: first, I want students to get to know a particular location; to see how the same space may be different at different times of day, what animals (including humans) are active at different times, which plants are flowering throughout the quarter, etc. Second, I know that students have few opportunities to slow down and relax; these assignments force them to sit quietly and just watch for 45 straight minutes. Students often note in their observation journals that these activities help them de-stress, to feel rejuvenated and calmer.
The first goal is obvious to the students and directly aligns with the course content and learning objectives. The second is more subtle, and relates to slow-looking, which is a theme throughout the quarter, but not a formal learning objective. This goal is much more easily impacted by societal factors, and harder for me to control. When I taught Wild Davis in Spring 2020, parks were closed and people attempting to spend time in nature were at risk of being arrested and fined. Everyone was scared – of the virus, of each other, of the police. Most of the students did their observations from the only place they were sure was safe – their own backyard.
Fast forward to 2023 and a rash of violent attacks rocks the Davis and UCD communities. Everyone is scared. I feel like since the pandemic, every crisis evokes a deep terror. We thought COVID would last a few weeks, a couple months and we were so wrong that every uncertainty now feels overwhelming. We wonder: how bad will this one get?
My students mid-day observations are due tomorrow, a suspect has been charged in the attacks, and no more have occurred since his arrest. Even so, I relaxed the rules around the mid-day assignment – students can choose a new location if their original spot feels unsafe (fortunately, no students had chosen the parks in which the attacks occurred) and students can do their observation with a friend. Week 9 is supposed to include a dusk observation, which I’ll make optional and provide an alternate observation activity. Even with a suspect in custody, our trust in public spaces and the people in them will take time to recover.
I am mulling over all these thoughts as I do my own mid-day observation at Woodland Cemetery. This time I walk there from my house a mile and a half from the cemetery. Cross Street is the most direct route, but I take Pendegast instead as there are some beautiful gardens on Pendegast, and a couple Little Free Libraries.
When I arrive at the cemetery, there are several cars and three groups of people visiting graves. Two are whole families, with lawn chairs set up for the adults, children playing among the headstones, music playing, and picnics laid out. I’ve only ever ‘visited’ someone’s grave during the funeral, when the grief is fresh and the mood somber. This levity, this celebratory air, seems like such a joyful way to honor a loved one. I wonder who they are visiting, if the young children are old enough to have known them, if they talk to the deceased or tell the children stories about them, if they’re visiting on an important date, or if they come regularly. This relationship with a loved-one’s resting place is not one I have ever known, so I have no frame of reference for what is normal. The third visitor is more what I imagine graveside visits to be like. It is a man alone, a little older than me, sitting quietly in a lawn chair. He leans forward in the chair, almost as though he is looking down at the grave, and reads something on his phone. He is there before I arrive and remains after I leave over an hour later, not once moving.
I spend most of the observation time documenting cemetery wildlife on iNaturalist. The cemeteries didn’t have many observations when I chose the location, so I’m hoping to expand the representation of wildlife in the park. I made the two cemeteries (Woodland and the smaller adjacent St. Joseph’s) a searchable ‘place’ on iNaturalist. I currently hold 87.9% of the observations in the cemetery, but who’s counting?!
The majority of plants in the cemeteries are not blooming. Many of the trees are conifers, and the grass is mowed frequently enough to not reach flowering. The majority of flowers in the cemeteries are fake and adorning headstones. The day is not ideal for pollinators, it is a tad too overcast and chilly; however, I wonder if the lack of pollinators I see is also driven by the graveside decorations. Do pollinators learn that most of the bright colors in this space are not truly flowers? I make a note to look into which pollinators are driven more by sight than by scent of the flowers. A scent-driven pollinator would not be fooled by a (scent-less) fake flower, but a sight-driven one might. The flowers I do find are primarily rosebushes, with a few creeping lantanas, and a lovely patch of purple-flowered pale dewplant covering one full grave. It is lovely, and should I ever end up in a cemetery (unlikely, given that I will be donating my body to science) I would enjoy this sort of blanket for my grave.
While I mostly focus on the plants in bloom, I make a special point to document the location of every ginkgo tree. As the students know, I consider Ginkgo biloba to be the loneliest species on Earth. First, it is the sole species left in its entire phylum (which is four taxonomic levels higher than genus, the equivalent of having only one species of flowering plant or one species of vertebrate) as all its closest relatives have gone extinct. Second, even the two sexes are often isolated. Given the unpleasant odor of the female cones, most ornamental trees that you find (such as in this cemetery) are males. The species is also, however, as a common herbal supplement. When ginkgos are grown as a crop, orchards are planted mostly of females (since it is the seeds, as well as leaves that are processed) and only enough males are planted to pollinate the many female trees. Consequently, I view ginkgos as lonely both taxonomically and socially, so I am pleased to find these three individuals planted in close proximity. I hope they are friends.
I’m also here to document animal life, though I see less than I anticipated. A few honeybees on the roses, a few squirrels napping on headstones (which I find very adorable), and a smattering of birds. The most interesting of these is European Starlings, which have nested in the palm trees lining the main road. I only recently learned that starlings nest in holes in trees, when I saw several along the banks of Putah Creek during the City Nature Challenge. I manage a lovely shot of one in its palm tree nest.
I also catch a strange interaction between two hummingbirds, which at first I think is mating, but when none of the necessary body parts appear to come into contact, I decide might just be fighting? I’m still unsure, and will post it to iNat hoping someone with more hummingbird behavior knowledge than I have comments on it.
I still hope to see more wildlife on my dusk visit, though the relative lack of animal diversity has me a bit disappointed on this trip. I didn’t explicitly look for insects other than pollinators and aphids, so perhaps a more thorough survey is warranted on that visit. I also plan to do a more thorough survey of the trees, since this week I focused mostly on the blooming herbaceous plants. I also wonder what visitors, if any, I will see at the end of the day.