Feast on Table Mountain
Every year, just in time for Earth Month, Mother Nature puts out a nice spread; hurry, before it’s all gone!
A very long time ago, though not quite as long ago as when Table Mountain was being formed, one of my teachers said that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to know the names of everything. Those words have haunted me for more than 40 years, making me feel inadequate every time I’ve looked at something and come up blank at what to call it.
Arrayed on Table Mountain, there are many such things: Bidwell’s Johnny Tuck, Bird’s Foot Fern, Ithuriel’s Spear, Blue Dicks, and Toothed Dowingia. I love these names, and dozens more, though I’m not particularly good at attaching the names to the actual plants they represent.
I also love place names, and Table Mountain is a fine one—so fine, in fact, that it’s been used all over the world.
There’s a famous Table Mountain in South Africa that looms over Cape Town; there’s a Table Mountain casino that sits on a hill north of Fresno; and there’s a Table Mountain Animal Center near Denver, Colo. Jet Propulsion Laboratories has a facility at yet another Table Mountain in the Angeles National Forest, an hour and a half northeast of Pasadena. There’s a Table Mountain in Wyoming, and another in Idaho. Neighboring Nevada has a 92,000-acre park in the Monitor Range, where a peak called Table Mountain dominates the landscape. Up north of us, there’s a Table Mountain in Skamania County, Washington, near the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River Gorge.
Given the limitations of human imagination, just about any fairly flat geological formation encountered by English speakers seems to have garnered the appellation “Table Mountain.”
But our Table Mountain, the one that serves as a backdrop to Oroville as you pass that city on Highway 70, is one of a kind, a unique geological and ecological feature—created by an ancient lava flow that issued from the ground as magma some 16 million years ago in what is now the Honey Lake basin near present-day Susanville.
For anyone who wants an explanation of Table Mountain, Albin Bills, who recently retired from teaching field biology at Butte College, is the go-to guy. He is passionate about Table Mountain, and he’s eager to share what he knows.
“Far too many people know little or nothing about ecology,” he said, “and that includes many science writers. It’s not uncommon to see things in print that are just plain wrong. It’s very easy to trivialize nature, or to sentimentalize it. The natural history of places like Table Mountain is very complex, and that’s what makes it so interesting and beautiful. Our descriptions and conjectures should respect this complexity.”
Bills traces the uniqueness of that mesa to the particularity of Lovejoy basalt and the way that particular stone has been weathered into a mosaic of micro-environments. These range from inhospitable patches of exposed bedrock, to bands of thin well-drained soils, to moist swales.
Basalt is basic to the tale of Table Mountain.
“Why are there so many species of wildflowers on Table Mountain?” Bills asked, rhetorically. “Why are the flowers themselves so numerous? Why do they spread themselves like a Monet painting, varying in color from one location to another?”
It’s the weathered and eroded basalt that makes it so.
“There are other outcrops of Lovejoy basalt,” Bills said. “Devil’s Kitchen in Upper Bidwell Park is one such place. But nowhere else in the world can compare in size or ecological significance to Table Mountain.
“Lava flows issue up from vents below the surface. Magma is heated rock, like molten steel, and its components can vary. Each magma chamber and each lava flow has a different composition. And each behaves differently as it flows to its eventual resting place, to be weathered there by wind and rain, heat and cold to create a unique landscape surface.”
He continued: “For example, the basalts now coming out of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii are much different from these ancient flows we see in Butte County. They differ in temperature, composition and gaseous content. The pros can tell the difference between different basalts by looking at the color, size and texture of the grains; the chemical composition of the rock and the soil that forms on top after the lava cools determine what can grow there.”
A few years ago, with the help of Samantha Mackey, Bills co-authored an informative little book called Wildflowers of Table Mountain. Mackey also designed the Web site that features a gallery of pictures Bills and other have taken of the flora and fauna found up there, a resource for anyone who leaves Table Mountain wondering about what all they’ve seen.
“Almost all of those beautiful wildflowers are annual,” Bills said, “which means that once they bloom and set seed, the parent plant withers and dies. By the end of April, the winds and the sun have dried out the mesa, and Table Mountain becomes a kind of lunar landscape for the summer. But those seeds are sitting on that landscape in what we call a seed bank, waiting to germinate in the fall and early winter of the next year, when the nourishing rains return. It’s a bloom-and-bust cycle, a survival strategy geared to the harsh realities of California’s long summer drought.
“The mesa top is not uniform. There are a variety of micro-habitats. The plant species sort themselves out with respect to soil depth, soil moisture, and that’s why you see these lovely patterns, this impressionistic canvas the mountain paints on itself.”
For geologists and botanists, and for nature lovers who seek its particular beauty, there is one best time of the year to go there. That time is April, when all the wildflowers have spread color over and around the craggy terrain.
Lovers other than nature lovers are also drawn to Table Mountain, as evidenced by the occasional condom, the far-too-numerous cigarette butts, and the broken glass that litters the mesa. None of this human litter contributes to the uniqueness of the place, since such stuff is found wherever people go to gawk or gather, but it lingers as testimony to bacchanalias in the buttes.
The last time I was up on Table Mountain, just a few weeks ago, I overheard a disembodied voice come floating over a rock wall, a man complaining to his wife: “Geez, honey, there’s really not that much to see up here.”
That man’s extraordinary comment notwithstanding, Table Mountain is, for most people, a visual feast. From the oranges of the Fiddlenecks and the Frying Pan Poppies, to the pinks of the Stork’s bills and the wild garlic, from the blues of the Sky Lupine to the purple of the Round-toothed Ookow, there is color in profusion, and in all directions.
Earlier in the season the yellows are dominant. First it’s Yellow Carpet, which prefers the damper sites around the rock outcrops. The Yellow Carpet is, in turn, replaced by Valley Goldfields, which are the most ubiquitous of the yellow wildflowers. But there are others: Sacramento Valley buttercup, Seep-spring Monkey Flower, and Fremont Goldfields, a plant named for John C. Fremont, who was a skilled botanist in addition to his other accomplishments as an explorer, military man, and one-time presidential candidate.
The rock formations provide homes for skinks, newts, blue- bellied lizards and garter snakes. If you stay long enough for dusk to come on, you’ll probably hear the sound of the Pacific Chorus frog as that species makes audible the source of its name.
There are rattlesnakes up on Table Mountain, too, and if you get yourself down in one of the little ravines that run through the terrain, you might be a bit careless in steadying yourself with a hand on a rock face where a rattler might be sunning itself.
It’s not just the sights that make the drive to Table Mountain worth the currently high price of gas. There is also the sound of the wind up there and, in the words of the old Simon and Garfunkel song, the sound of silence, an increasingly rare sound in a time where nearly everything has a ring tone, a soundtrack, or an audio signature.
Cattle are quite willing to share space with all who make the pilgrimage; they will take time from their busy grazing schedule to check you out while you’re checking out the vista they enjoy more routinely. Thirty-five-hundred acres of Table Mountain now comprise a public preserve, managed by the California Department of Fish and Game, which leases grazing rights to a local rancher.
And that’s a good thing, according to Albin Bills.
“There is little practical use for the mountain, though there is an active and heinous gravel mine at the western end of Coal Canyon. You can see it from Highway 70, and it’s slowly eating away the edge of the mesa. Also, there is probably a sizable mother lode of gold under the basalt mesa, but so far it has been too expensive a project to undertake. Horizontal gold mining is unfortunately a possible future threat to the peace and integrity of the mountain.”
The primary value of Table Mountain, as Bills sees it, is as a place to see remarkable botanical and biological diversity.
“In my view,” he said, “the cattle grazing is good, not only for the cattle rancher, but that lease provides revenue for the fences around the reserve. It’s important to have good fences there, good for the ecosystem.
“The cattle do stomp on the flowers, especially around the vernal pools where they come to drink, but if the cattle weren’t foraging up there, the non-native grasses—the Wild Oats, Foxtail, Ripgut Brome and Medusa head—would choke out some of these rarer native species. All those grasses came here with the settlers, intentionally or unintentionally, and many of these invasive grasses are now fully at home in the remaining grasslands of California.”
Table Mountain is host to two rare and vulnerable species of Meadowfoam. “It’s a good name,” Bills said, “because it looks like foam on the landscape. There are several Meadowfoam species in Northern California, including one that has become a bit of a political issue in Chico, but Table Mountain Meadowfoam is distinct.”
And there are other distinct floral species up on that plateau. “Butte County Golden Clover occurs in only two places in the world,” Bills said, “and both are right here. Its scientific name, Trifolium jokerstii, commemorates Jim Jokerst, who first discovered it. There’s a small population off of Cottonwood Road in Oroville, but most of the world’s Gold Clover occurs only on top of Table Mountain. It’s hard to find; you’ve got to know where to look, and when.”
Jokerst was a bit of a pioneer in ferreting out the various flora of Butte County, and Bills speaks of him in reverential tones.
“He was the first guy to seriously study the plants of Table Mountain. In 1983, when he was a grad student at Chico State, he published a paper on the flora of Table Mountain. It wasn’t even his master’s thesis; he did it out of sheer love for the place. He applied the concept of micro-habitats to Table Mountain, and he was very committed to having it set aside as preserve. Tragically, he died young in a drowning accident. A great loss.”
One need not be a botanist or an ecologist to appreciate the feast that nature spreads, for a brief and passing moment, each year on Table Mountain. And though there are some like the weary husband who could find little to see, even visitors with small appetites will find a bounty there, a smorgasbord of color and vitality that will nourish the senses and spirits long after they’ve come down off the mesa.