From camping and hiking, to learning about organic farming and observing elephant seals and the environment’s ecosystems, Assistant Professor Andy Rost and his Fundamentals of Environmental Interpretation class learned it all on March 7-9 at California’s Central Coast.
After having in-class discussions about the ecosystems they would be observing, students were given the opportunity to learn first-hand about the natural history, wildlife and land characteristics of the California coast.
Upon arrival Thursday night at Green Oaks Creek Farm and Retreat, the dark night welcomed the students with a coastal rain, forcing them to set up camp underneath light showers. It was only by the near smell of eucalyptus tress and salt water along with the coastal downpour that they knew they were not in Tahoe anymore.
Nestled off Highway 1, Green Oaks Creek Farm and Retreat lies in the coastal hills of Santa Cruz. Here, approximately three acres of organic vegetables, berries, herbs and flowers are grown and eggs produced. They sell their product to farmers markets in the Bay Area. Paul Pfluke and Stephanie Jennings, the owners and resident farmers are long time friends of Rost.
The lush view on the farm Friday morning turned any complaint about the damp surroundings into small concerns. The bright sun accentuated yellow flowers that carpeted the farm’s ground. A soft breeze weaved through the eucalyptus and redwood trees as the class brewed coffee and prepared breakfast under a straw and concrete molded structure.
Across the highway from the farm is Ano Nuevo State Reserve. During this time of year, male and female elephant seals, along with their pups, can be sighted on the beach. Even though breeding season was in December, some mothers can be spotted nursing their young while the large males lay around waiting for what Mike Goodkind, docent naturalist at California State Parks referred to as, “Last Call.”
After the females arrive in late winter, they give birth to their babies and shortly afterwards is when the orgy of fighting and competition starts between the males. Compare it to this: imagine walking into a bar at 2 a.m., only to find a bunch of males all waiting for the same thing, a female. That is why we refer to this sequence with the elephant seals ‘last call.’ It’s comparable to what occurs at a bar for males at around 2 a.m., Goodkind said.
The pups, which are referred to as weaners, hang out on the beach for up to six weeks until they make their way into the shallow offshore waters.
Goodkind was helpful in informing the students about the seals. Elephant seals don’t drink anything ever and can last a long time without food. The pups make their way to the water more out of curiosity, rather than the need for food. Once they learn how to swim, they disperse one by one and make their way up to northern Washington. They will not return to land again until late September, said Goodkind.
The natural history lesson didn’t stop there for Rost and his interpreters. Life back on the farm awaited with a guided tour by owner Pfluke. Pfluke shared about anything ranging from how to make your own yogurt from goat’s milk and how to plant transplants into the field, to general farm logistics and about how they work with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).
“We’ll have wwoofers come for a minimum of two or three months,” Pfluke said. “They will work as a group with a manager and two or three apprentices that are here year round, and everyone does the same thing. They do the planting in the green house and the transplanting and the weeding and the harvesting.”
According to farmers, Pfluke and Jennings, their goal is to create beauty in sustainable, low-impact ecologically friendly and simple living.
“By spending time on my friends farm, we got a sense of the central California coast,” Rost said. “We learned about what the cultural fabric that they are working under and living under, along with getting a sense of their livelihood: how does it work and what’s hard, what’s easy and what’s successful.”
“I got a feel for the lifestyle of an organic farmer,” Reifers said. “I think it was better to stay on the property of someone who’s local rather than paying to stay at a hotel or somewhere else.”
Outside from staying on the farm, Reifers said, “the trip was pretty geo-touristic, we supported the small local restaurants and businesses and tried to connect with the community rather than being a normal tourist.”
The final stop at Monterey Bay Aquarium gave Rost and his class a unique perspective of what life is like for wildlife in the ocean.
Rost emphasized about how dramatic the central California coast is and how each ecosystem, starting at the redwoods on the higher points of the peaks, to the coastal plains and then to the seashore are remarkably different.
“If you continue on the westward trajectory, the next ecosystem is the ocean,” Rost said. “But you can’t go see the ocean unless you have the gear or time or expertise. So, the aquarium gives us dry land people access to understanding the ocean.”
Rost’s aim for the trip was to learn ‘how to learn an ecosystem’ to help students of Environmental Interpretation begin to understanding how to look at an ecosystem and begin to understand not only the organism that live there but also the environmental gradients that create diverse habitats. The central California coast has an incredibly range of diverse habitats all with in walking distance of each other. It’s a great place to study natural history in a hands on, active learning framework.
“We can use the coast as a template for how to go about learning the ecosystem,” Rost said. “If you’re going to be environmental interpreters, part of your skill set is learning how to learn about a place.”
This is the first time Rost has traveled to the California coast with this class and in hearing the outcome from his students, he said he hopes to continue the trip in years to come.