New Book Introduces Life, Work, and Creatures at Big Creek Reserve
July 8, 2011
Feynner Arias remembers the 2008 holocaust that threatened the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve where he lives. With the flames off in the distance but approaching his ridge, Arias stood and watched with a Tupperware in his hand. A frog rattled against the plastic encasement, trying desperately to escape. Little did it know (or care) that Arias was trying to save its life.
Ultimately firefighters fought back the blaze before it could swallow up the protected Big Sur land like the other 160,000 acres laid to waste that June and July. When the danger had passed, Arias restored the frog to its cozy residence, an outhouse at the home that Arias shares with his partner Terry Hallock on Whale Point.
The frog still lives there today, preferring the wet safety to the danger outside. It leaves only occasionally to visit its fellows in a nearby pond. With a chuckle, Arias compares these outings to jaunts to the local bar.
With their home situated in the midst of Big Creek’s green metropolis, Arias and Hallock relate constantly to the life that inhabits it; they couldn’t ignore it if they tried. It is this coexistence, and the lessons that arise from it, that they hope to capture in A Tree Frog in My Toilet: Diary of a Big Sur Naturalist, their second book produced together. (See info at bottom for approaching book signing).
In a series of essays, it documents their shared experience of the secluded Reserve since 2007, opening access to a place normally closed off to the public for scientific research purposes.
They are mainly written by Hallock, but she depends upon Arias for inspiration and expertise. “He points things out to me, and I make a story out of them,” says Hallock.
Some of the essays focus on the work of academics there and adopt an approachable but scientific tack. Others contain Arias and Hallock’s reflections upon the passing seasons and the adjustments that both they and their wild neighbors have to make. All of them hope to draw attention to the rich ecological web that surrounds them.
More than a year ago, the Weekly ran an “831” profile on Costa Rican native Feynner Arias. Arias’s childhood was rough. He often found himself out in the wild, avoiding vipers and chasing birds, fish, and caymans to put food on the table. After he was kicked out of the house at 11, he had to find ways to get by on his own. Arias tells those stories in his first book written with Hallock, Hello, I am Feynner: Growing up in the Rainforests of Costa Rica. In these years, Arias developed an attentiveness to his immediate environment (the natural and human) that proved invaluable when he fell in with a group of scientists interested in protecting Osa Peninsula’s wildlife. Those connections lead eventually to his installation as steward of Big Creek Reserve, in the employ of UC Santa Cruz. Now, Feynner explains, he sees nature from “a different point of view,” and himself as a protector instead of a survivor.
From their backyard, Arias snapped this view of Gamboa Point to the south during a winter storm.
Arias has been caretaker of these 4,200 acres for almost 25 years, working hard to keep trails and roads clear, help researchers find the best spots to observe wildlife, and teach visitors about nature and the reserve’s history. After all of these years, Arias still thinks of Big Creek as a “special place” because of its variety of “microclimates” (coastline, chaparral, forest).
As full-time residents of the land, sometimes Arias and Hallock’s most meaningful interactions with nature occur quite literally outside their door. Here are some stories and details about some common critters at Big Creek. They offer some choice glimpses at both their daily experiences and the stories that fill A Tree Frog in My Toilet.
(All the photos were taken by Arias and Hallock, except for the hummingbird by Joe Tomoleoni.)
Arias mended a crumbling, barn swallow nest in the eaves of their home with staples and masking tape. Each springtime, these birds nest at their home during their long migration between South and North America. For Hallock, those days were a mixed emotional bag: while the new chicks learned to fly, about a third of them fell prey to blue-jays and other predators.
A handful of varieties of hummingbirds congregate on Whale Point, gathering nectar and bugs from flowers. The sprite above is a Rufous hummingbird, who like the swallow migrate along the Pacific seaboard. Arias calls the visiting hummingbirds “nasty fighters.” When he and Hallock put out a feeder, a “bully” (large male) usually claims the feeder for himself, but wastes all of his energy defending it. By the time evening rolls around, he usually backs off and birds of all sizes and ages get a piece of the payload.
Hallock recalls an episode when two bobcats appeared in the area around their home. As they are often territorial, they worried that the felines might clash. When the fight never came, they concluded that the two were siblings. After that, they were often seen together hanging out, sometimes watching gopher holes together for hours.
This photo was taken between wooden slats on the deck of their home.
Though usually hidden under logs and rocks, when the first rains come, Arias says that banana slugs can be seen everywhere. Arias and Hallock found the two above hooked up, mating in the open. (FYI: banana slugs are transsexual because coming across another is a rare occasion). Luckily, these gastropods don’t have many enemies, except for the gardener snake, says Årias. Apart from helping with locomotion, their slime is an anesthetic, and ingesting them can be dangerous. Arias knows of instances where guys, trying to be macho, have been carted off to the hospital after drinking a slug in liquor.
Arias took this photo one day when a wren flew into the window of their home and fell stunned. Knowing it was still alive (the eyes were open), Hallock held and rubbed it. Five minutes later, it revived and quickly flew away.
This doe and fawn are a type of mule deer, called simply black-tailed deer. When the picture was taken, mother and child had been seen regularly in the area. However, Arias and Hallock soon noticed more mountain lion footprints. Before long, the two disappeared, but their remains were never discovered.
In his time at Big Creek, Arias has racked up more than 20 mountain lion sightings; Hallock has had seven. Arias explains that, after the Big Sur fires in 2008, the lion population at Big Creek shot up as they were forced to the coast in search of food. Now that vegetation has returned they are heading out into the back-country. When in desperate straits, they have been known to eat bobcats and even each other.
Nationally recognized wildlife photographer Kennan Ward has recently used motion capture cameras to film these secretive cats at Big Creek, and Arias has helped him decide where to place them. Check out some of Ward's Mountain Lion footage posted on the Big Creek Blog.
Arias and Hallock host a book-signing 2-4pm this coming Saturday, July 9, at the Phoenix Shop, located at Nepenthe in Big Sur. 48510 Highway One, Big Sur. 667-2347.