A hawk greeted me as I rode up the dirt path with my bike (panniers, tent, and all). I found a lone tree in the Great Meadow that would be my station for the next 24 hours. There began my first sound vigil!
A few sonic highlights include: daytime ground squirrel calls, the sound of cyclists soaring down the nearby bike path, the wind blowing against bronze bells that I hung on a tree branch, a chorus of coyotes howling at midnight, and the really incredible high register sounds of two (or three) barn owls at first light. And at certain moments at night, it got so quiet that I swear I heard the distant ocean waves.
For those unfamiliar with UCSC, the Great Meadow is an iconic landscape on campus filled with thick annual grasses that turn golden every summer. I found a fascinating article by UCSC professor Ingrid M. Parker on the ecology of this place. The landscape is almost entirely devoid of native plants. In a study Parker conducted with her colleagues, it was found that 84% of the plant species in the Great Meadow were introduced by Spanish colonists beginning in the eighteenth century, including familiar European plants like wild oat (Avena fatua), ripgut brome (Bromus diandrus), wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum), Italian ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum), and wild mustard (Brassica spp.) (Parker, p. 155).
She also speculates on what the meadow looked like before these plants arrived from Europe. One hypothesis is that the fields were originally dominated by perennial native grasses such as purple needle grass (Stipa pulchra) and creeping wild rye (Leymus triticoides). Another possibility is that they were filled with native wildflowers. She cites Richard Minnick’s California’s Fading Wildflowers, who makes this argument based on a range of historical and ecological evidence (Parker, p. 160). According to Minnick, at the time of European contact, spring in California was a “riot of color.” In addition to Minnick’s evidence, research on phytoliths (plant microfossils) now support the theory that the original California grasslands were wildflowers. Native wildflowers thought to have populated the hills include blue lupines, baby blue-eyes, pink owl’s clover, prickly yellow fiddlenecks, scarlet paintbrushes, and white fairy lanterns (Parker, p. 160).
Parker writes that these wildflowers “are like ghosts to me” and that their absence in the hills of the Great Meadow have a haunting quality. She uses the Great Meadow’s ecological history as an example of an “amnesia” that she says currently pervades the relationship of many humans to their landscape (Parker, p. 160). In the case of the wildflowers, there is no formal record of their disappearance (Parker, p. 161). She notes the Amah Mutsun’s important role in shaping and maintaining open meadows and forest edges through their use of controlled fires (among other practices) and how such cultural practices have also been dormant and at risk of being lost (Parker, p. 161). Their absence also haunts the Great Meadow.
Parker, Ingrid M. 2017. “REMEMBERING IN OUR AMNESIA, SEEING IN OUR BLINDNESS.” In Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, 155–68. Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. University of Minnesota Press.