Prahlad Papper on Natural History

A Natural History of Natural History at Pepperwood

By Prahlad Papper

I’d like to be able to say that I can remember the very first time I came to Pepperwood. That would be great storytelling. I don’t really don’t remember it, but I do know I was a novice naturalist on that first trip to the preserve, and like all earnest naturalists I kept a field journal. So let’s see, I should just be able to go to my bookshelf and… yep:

September 18, 2010 – Saturday at Pepperwood Preserve

The first storm of the season seems to be coming in, though the rain won’t start until tonight and tomorrow. It feels warm and light, though—so a bit of a tropical storm. Yesterday it got especially humid into the afternoon and then overnight it hardly cooled at all—it was well in the 60s when I woke up. Foggy and misty this morning and throughout the day it will alternate between overcast and a light misty rain…

That was our first day in the field as part of Santa Rosa Junior College’s UC California Naturalist course, offered as The Natural History of Pepperwood Preserve. According to the rest of the narrative recorded in my field journal, we visited several locations on the preserve and discussed the unique geologic features of the preserve, as well as how the preserve’s plants and animals were handling those very last moments of summer before the fall rains began. It was my introduction to Pepperwood and it was also my formal introduction to natural history. Maybe I’d been doing natural history all my life—maybe it’s all any of us does—but now I had a name for it. A name and an excuse, too. And Pepperwood seemed like a place made for natural history, somewhere set aside just so that we could get to know it.

New winter herbs grow up through last year’s fallen oak leaves at Pepperwood. What can the patterns of leaf shape and the whorls of new growth and the alternation between life and death under your feet teach you about this place?

Over the coming weeks and months of 2010 and 2011, as the California Naturalist course continued, I did get to know Pepperwood. Week after week, as we followed its watercourses and hugged its blueschist outcrops, as we pondered the lobiness of oak leaves here and there and received some nasty bites from deer mice that just didn’t seem to enjoy being measured. Somewhere in all this, I learned what natural history is. I still have trouble expressing it, though. It’s just as much the shape of oak leaves as the shape of this particular oak leaf and it can be “where can you find cobalt milkweed beetles” or “look at that! There’s seven cobalt milkweed beetles on that one stem!” If I had to say, natural history might be just putting in the effort to notice what’s going on and try to make some sense of it. Like I said, maybe natural history is all we ever do.

It was when I started to study phenology at Pepperwood, later on after that first natural history course had already ended, that I really began to appreciate the way a careful and considered pursuit of natural history could absolutely transform my experience of nature. Phenology is the study of life cycles and especially the timing of key events in an organism’s life like flowering or reproduction. As the first student intern for Pepperwood’s Stephen J. Barnhart Herbarium, I worked with Pepperwood’s staff and an awesome group of volunteers organizing an ongoing citizen science project to monitor the phenology of several plant species on the preserve. We had to develop our protocols and hash out our definitions, of course, but we also had to just go out and visit our plants every week. It was with that experience—of returning again and again to the same plants, to see the pattern of their changes as they traced time—that natural history opened up for me and I came to fully appreciate the depth there is in this kind of observation.

Prahlad (center in blue shirt) and other members of the Ackerly Lab conduct field work at Pepperwood, photo by Michael Koontz

Since then, I’ve tried to hold on to those lessons in natural history that I learned at Pepperwood and make them a part of my PhD research at UC Berkeley in David Ackerly’s ecology lab. My dissertation project applies the study of phenology to the curious mating habits of California white oaks, which were first shown to us by Steve Barnhart in that first Natural History of Pepperwood Preserve course. My hope is that by understanding where and when different species of oak co-occur and also flower simultaneously, I can shed light on whether their ability to hybridize is maybe more than just a passive event, but potentially an evolutionary adaptation that helps them maneuver through an unpredictable world.

The study of ecology and evolution, as I’ve come to understand it in the course of my PhD, is a kind of formalization of natural history. While there’s a real advantage to making a naturalist’s observations more rigorous and quantitative, there’s something lost as well. Your sense for natural history has to be continually renewed by coming back to the field and just pondering the odd shape of an oak leaf or putting your hand on the cool face of a schist outcrop on a hot day.

This October I’ll have the honor of co-leading a one day course on oaks at Pepperwood with Steve Barnhart and in the spring I’ll return to SRJC’s Natural History of Pepperwood Preserve course, but as an instructor. The thing about natural history, though, is that you’re sort of perpetually a novice. Each new plant you see and every hill you climb or every day you spend in the field is something brand new and taking in that uniqueness as well as the patterns that repeat is the naturalist’s goal.

Click here to learn more about the Oaks of Pepperwood class Prahlad is teaching on October 6, 2018.


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