We saw it from a long distance, glistening blue in sunlight, a sapphire set in the green. It’s a vernal pool, an ephemeral pond, an evanescent wetland offering habitat to plant and animal species that can flourish nowhere else. Nobody knows how many vernal pools dotted the California landscape in the days before the arrival of the Europeans, but agricultural expansion and industrial development eradicated most, and it felt like a privilege to glimpse this one. Recent rains had filled it well, and summer will shrink it away, but here it was, shining in its moment. It was like a little poem, all its own.
Friar Juan Crespi, diarist for the expedition of Captain Don Gaspar de Portola that set sail along the California coast in 1769, wrote this of the area: “The country is delightful, for it is covered with beautiful green grass which offered excellent pasture for the animals…” In 1791, the scout for that same expedition, Sergeant José Francisco de Ortega, was awarded a grant for more than 26,000 acres of this land, and much of it is still open grazing land, pieces of ranches that have been in operation since the old Spanish days, merging one into another in a great swathe of remarkably unspoiled country. It is in these relatively undisturbed and out-of-the-way places that vernal pools appear.
We had set out for this walk to tune out the noise, to gather ourselves together and return renewed. We knew it would make us feel better. Brush and wildflowers were in blossom, and there was good muddy earth and tall grass rippling in the wind. We walked uphill along a seldom used dirt road and at some point crossed a fence line that vaguely marks the boundary between our ranch and an adjacent one, both of which were once part of Rancho Nuestra Señora del Refugio.
We meandered further along a ridge toward the vernal pool and a grove of trees beyond, and suddenly in the far distance there appeared a herd of cows moving briskly, a border collie whose excited yapping carried on the wind, and a cowboy, not on a horse, but an all-terrain vehicle. We know our neighbors, more or less, and “neighbors” is a broad term in these parts, but it did occur to us that we were on the other side of the fence line. We stood motionless, but we had been seen. We descended the ridge, as quick as cats, then sat low along a hillside, staying still, feeling stalked, being children. After a long wait, we got up and stealthily made our way back to the fence line and the safe zone of our own ranch.
But oh, the vernal pool: I had seen it before, but I’d forgotten about it, and now it is in my head again, and it comforts me. What I love about this place are the quiet miracles, the wonders that unfold whether or not we notice, the reassuring touchstone of the natural world.