These are the Douglas fir and coast redwood covered western foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and beyond them the Pacific Ocean.

Photo of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean across the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains

Douglas Iris

Continuing my series on the plants of the coast redwood understory, here we have some Pacific coast irises growing near our smaller stream. There are almost a dozen species of Pacific coast irises (and they can hybridize) so I’m not positive on my identification but I’m pretty sure these are Douglas irises, or proper name Iris douglasiana.

The native evergreen Douglas iris grows along the coast from central California up to southern Oregon. It’s got long sword shaped leaves and the flowers sit atop a stalk that’s anywhere from 1 to 2 feet tall. The flowers, which show up in late spring, range in color from blue/purple through yellow and even white.

This common iris was first described by David Douglas who also gave his name to the Douglas fir tree.

[Photo credit: me and Deanna L. Pierce]

Douglas Iris covered in dew or rain drops

Purple Douglas iris

Off-white Douglas iris

Pale purple Douglas iris


I’ve just started reading a new book called What Can A Body Do, How We Meet the Built World, written by Sarah Hendren, who teaches design for disability at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts.

One of the interesting points she makes early in the book is that there was a time before we quantified humans, their development, and abilities. For most of modern human history, there wasn’t really an idea of “normal”.

Starting in the early nineteenth century, social scientists began the practice of collecting and studying information about populations, driven by speculation about how these measurements could be useful, especially in medicine. Where could statistics give doctors insight and understanding about people and their reported maladies, especially as mapped on a ‘bell curve’ that helped researchers identify traits that were common—and thereby ‘normal’—or, conversely, uncommon, possessed by people we might now call outliers?

Before the 19th century and modern statistics, we were all flawed beings.

In the absence of a norm, any human body was just a shadow of the admirable perfection of superhuman bodies—the ones gods and goddesses or other hero figures possessed. The emergence of modern statistics shifted the point of comparison from a lofty abstraction that no one was expected to achieve to a side-by-side analysis, assessing ‘normal’ by observing people relative to one another.

I find this thought fascinating. While there’s clearly a huge upside to measuring people and populations, one of the big downsides may be that it helped to create an us and them world. You are either developmentally on-track or not. You are either abled or disabled. You’re either normal, or you’re not.

The book explores the relationship between bodies and the built world and, at least in the early parts I’ve already read, makes the argument that bodies should not be judged outside of the context of how they relate to the world we’ve constructed for them.

This supports something I’ve been thinking a lot about for the last couple of years: humans aren’t disabled by their bodies, they are disabled by their environment, by the barriers to participation we’ve built into everyday life that exclude those who don’t fit our all too often narrow definition of “normal.”

I can’t wait to read more.

Red Clintonia

The redwoods around us are magnificent but so is the understory. Over the next few days I’m going to be posting some about the flowers and ferns and mushrooms and other amazing organisms of the redwood forest floor.

Today I’m starting with a pink/red flowering perennial herb that pops up in half a dozen places in our yard every spring. It’s proper name is Clintonia andrewsiana but also goes by red clintonia, Andrews clintonia, and bluebead lily.

The uncommon lily grows and spreads from rhizomes, has great big oval-shaped leaves that are about 8-10 inches, and sprouts a tall stalk, as high two feet for its cluster of bell-shaped flowers. The flowers are pink to red (hence the name red clintonia) and eventually become steely blue berries (and that’s where it gets the bluebead lily moniker from.)

Its range is coastal, from about Monterey up to southern Oregon, and it prefers to grow in the moist shady coast redwood forests.

[Photo credits: me, Zoya Akulova (via calflora) and Deanna L. Pierce]

close-up of flower cluster on a red clintonia

close-up of blue berries on a red clintonia

red clintonia in rain

close-up of red clintonia flower cluster


The coast redwoods around our home are all or mostly second growth. The original forest in our area was clear cut between about 1870 and 1920. That means that our redwoods are 100 to 150 years old.

That’s equivalent to about age 4 to 6 in human terms. A 200 foot tall coast redwood can be a preschooler 🙂


It can be dark here in the redwood forest. The trees are so tall that we don’t get direct sunlight on the house except mid-day in summer. The rest of the time the sun is so low in the sky that we only get the indirect, scattered, tree-filtered light.

Because of how dark it can feel here, previous owners of our log cabin put in a bunch of skylights. This is the skylight above my side of the bed with a view of several tall redwoods.

skylight view of redwood trees

The Beard

Shaved off most of my beard so I can wear a properly fitting n95 mask when I go out for a flu shot. And just when I was really starting to enjoy my out of control covid beard 🙁

Page Mill Road

I’ve been studying this old San Mateo County map that Casey Dunn shared with me. (Thanks Casey!!)

The map is from 1894, about 25 years before our neighborhood was carved out of a larger tract of land owned by a guy named Timothy Hopkins (son of the Central Pacific Railroad co-owner, Mark Hopkins.) You can see Timothy Hopkins, along with the Pescadero Lumber Company, labeled on the map as the prominent landowners in the area that is now Portola Redwoods State Park and Pescadero Creek (County) Park.

One curious feature of this map is that it shows the precise location of William Page’s sawmill, and it was about 900 feet from our house!

William Page was a lumberman from Mayfield (incorporated into Palo Alto in 1925) who, with Hopkins and others, clear cut and milled much of the local redwood forest.

One of Page’s (then) dirt roads, which was used to transport the output of his mill to the San Francisco Bay for shipping, went from what is now Portola Redwoods State Park (which surrounds our little neighborhood) up and over the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountain range and down into Palo Alto.

That road, called Page Mill Road, is much of my commute to work (in non-pandemic times).

As an unapologetic tree hugger, living under the canopy of the second growth redwood forest, I find it pretty interesting that we are right next to Page’s mill site, an operation that decimated so much of the ancient redwoods, turning them into the shingles and lumber used to build and re-build San Francisco.

section of an old San Mateo County map from the 1860s showing the location of the Page Saw Mill


The CZU Lightning Complex fire is 93% contained and for the first time since the fire started, they have an estimate for the date of total containment: September 20th at 8PM.

Now, containment doesn’t mean extinguished. It simply means that they have established a control line all the way around the fire preventing its spread. The burning and smoke is likely to continue until the rains come.

Nevertheless, this is good progress and welcome news.

Temtop M10

A few people have asked me how we’re measuring our air quality. We’re doing it with an Elitech Temtop M10 air quality monitor that we picked up on Amazon for about $80.

I really like the Temtop M10. It’s a nice size (a tad bigger than a macbook pro power supply) with a clean design and easy feature set. There’s no wifi or apps or anything like that, just a simple unit with a clear LCD screen and single button that lets you cycle through the various readings (AQI, HCHO, PM2.5, and TVOC.) The LED at the top changes colors from green to read depending on the air quality.

This air quality monitor is rechargeable (comes with USB cable) and seems to run for about 5-6 hours on battery but I keep it plugged in except when doing spot checks in other rooms or outside.

You can get this monitor on Amazon for about $80. If you’re only interested in measuring the wildfire smoke, you could probably get the $60 P10 model which is limited to measuring PM.25 particulates and doesn’t measure formaldehyde or volatile organic compounds. (Though I think wood smoke does contain formaldehyde so if that’s a concern, go with the M10 model.)

Temtop air quality monitor reading 4 ug/m3 of PM2.5 particulates