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Collections November 2019: Leaving an Impression

cottonwood leaf with a newspaper printed on it

Sometimes nature can feel distant. As we move through the obligations and opportunities of everyday life, it can be hard to see the way that the natural world shapes the things we do and see. At other times, we can’t help it. Like when you finally have time to take that walk in the woods, or when you’re awakened by an earthquake, or your hair is tousled by the wind. Or, when someone is using nature to make a point.

One such example is this month’s Collections Close-Up: a newspaper issue printed, not on paper, but on the leaf of a tree picked in the Santa Cruz Mountains one hundred and three years ago this November. 

In 1916 newspapers were embattled by the high cost of paper. This was due in part to supply shortages caused by World War One, which were aggravated by a widespread increase in publication demand. Closer to home, the relatively new publisher of Boulder Creek’s Mountain Echo paper had another problem: his readers weren’t paying their fees.

To drive home the stark realities of the situation, Luther McQuesten printed four issues of his paper on leaves! A contemporary article from the American Printer and Lithographer ties McQuesten’s strategy to the changing of the seasons: “The advent of fall gave him an idea, and he gathered a bale of golden cottonwood leaves, which are broad and smooth and the Mountain Echo began echoing on Nature’s own papyrus.” 

Although now faded from gold to brown, this November 18th, 1916 issue still carries the news of the day. An editorial extols the virtues of Boulder Creek’s beautiful trees and babbling brooks, local families have visitors, a Winchester rifle is for sale, and D.E. French is visiting again to enjoy the scenery and collect specimens of native woods.  

The leaves proved sturdy, and our collection is not the only one that stewards one of these remarkable issues. The Boulder Creek Branch of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries has some copies on display, and the San Lorenzo Valley Museum has some in their collection as well. In fact, the San Lorenzo Valley Museum houses the original copies of the Boulder Creek Mountain Echo newspaper, both those made with “nature’s own papyrus” as well as plain old wood pulp. 

We reached out to SLV Museum Board President, Lisa Robinson, to learn more about this unique object. Lisa is a wealth of knowledge, especially when it comes to the Santa Cruz Mountains. She has also authored the “Redwood Logging and Conservation in the Santa Cruz Mountains: A Split History,” among other things.

Lest you think this leaf printing was a tired gimmick, Lisa told us that in all her years of working in museums and historical collections, she hasn’t encountered anything like this object. She highlights the technical feat of being able to print legibly on both sides of the fragile leaf. McQuesten was fully committed to people actually being able to read these nature notes – an attitude underscored by the fact that the newspaper subsequently reprinted the content of each issue on regular paper. While we don’t know exactly which of the newspapers’ presses was used for this printing, one of them still exists and is now at San Francisco’s Book Club of California.

Newspaper office for The Mountain Echo in Boulder Creek, CA
The Mountain Echo offices, Boulder Creek, CA

In this image from the SLV Museum’s collections you can see the Mountain Echo office at the corner of Highway 9 and Forest St, in downtown Boulder Creek. Less than a block away from the location of the former office stands a handful of cottonwood trees (Populus fremontii). 

In 1917, an article from the Santa Cruz Evening News described the printed leaves as having brought McQuesten a “vast amount of desirable publicity” from all over the United States. Despite this notoriety, McQuestion’s stunt didn’t appear to have its desired effect: the Mountain Echo ceased publication shortly afterwards. And while the Mountain Echo is no longer covering local news nor nagging delinquent subscribers, this page of “nature’s papyrus” persists. It will be on display all this month in the Museum’s Collections Close Up, highlighting the contrast between nature we think of as natural, and the items from nature we use everyday.

If you want to explore more on related topics, stop in the Museum Gift Shop to find Lisa’s book about conservation in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and on November 23, join us for a seminar on American Indian Art, made from nature’s resources. 

November 2019: Giving Thanks and Gratitude

Ohlone Basket
Ohlone Basket, circa 1885. Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History Collections.

In this traditional time for reflection and gratitude, we continue to be grateful for the many people who connect with nature at the Museum, and those who find ways to carry our mission beyond our walls. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to honor Native American History Month through our school programs focused on native culture, and through exciting public programs including a lecture “American Indians 101” and seminar about American Indian Art, both lead by our esteemed board member, Dr. Rebecca Hernandez of the UCSC American Indian Resource Center.

As I write our Annual Report (keep an eye out in next month’s newsletter), and think about this year’s accomplishments, I am also considering the many triumphs and changes that the Museum has undergone in its 114 year history. In this season of reflection, I am excited to also keep my eyes set on future growth and renewal–natural processes that connect all of life. From innovations in programming, growth in our garden, and renewal in our spaces, I can’t wait to share what’s to come with you all!

Elise Scheuermann: Education Assistant

Elise Scheuermann, Education Assistant

Elise Scheuermann, one of our newest Education Assistants, has been exploring the outdoors since she was a child. She grew up in Santa Barbara, where she spent her time discovering tide pools, trekking in the mountains, and swimming in the ocean. Her family encouraged her to spend as much time outside as possible and together they spent many weekends camping on a remote piece of land in the Ventana Wilderness.

She feels lucky to spend every day outside and continually feels that working with children is a rewarding experience that gives her a strong sense of purpose.

“In my short time here I have had multiple students tell me that our field trips are the best one that they have ever been on,” says Elise. “It is also exciting to hear that they want to come back and visit the Museum and our green spaces again with their families.”

Elise has a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Education from the University of California, Santa Cruz and is a Certified California Naturalist. She joined the Museum as an Education Assistant in September 2019, and is integral to our school programs, leading groups at Neary Lagoon, Pogonip and at the Museum.

I grew up frequenting my local Natural History Museum and learned so much from their exhibits and programs. I have always thought it would be an amazing experience to get to work for one, so I am really excited to become a part of the team here in Santa Cruz.

When not at the Museum, Elise can be found working at Kids in Nature, a local after school program, or out surfing, biking, and taking her dog Milo on hikes around Santa Cruz. Please join us in welcoming Elise to the Museum team!

October 2019: Changing Seasons

As summer turns to fall, the Museum enters a season of transition as well. Gone are the summer crowds, replaced now by the energetic buzz of school groups going on their first field trips of the year. We look forward to welcoming new volunteers and docents to share their love of nature with these groups (New Docent Orientations are October 10 and 15), and to seeing the familiar faces of our dedicated docents returning after the summer break.

Felicia Van Stolk Portrait

There has also been a transition in our staff this season. Some have moved on to new adventures, and we have welcomed new educators onto the team. After nearly four years leading the education team at the Museum, I am honored to transition into my new role as Executive Director. Just as new seasons welcome new life (migrators headed to wintering grounds, fungus soaking up first rain, etc.), this shift will signal new opportunities, approaches, and energy. As everyone settles into their new roles, and as we look to the horizon of possibilities, the Museum staff remains committed to ensuring that our services, events, and programs continue to connect people with nature in meaningful ways. We look forward to sharing this journey with our Museum community.

We are looking to continue growing our team! Click HERE to learn more about the Fund Development and Community Engagement Manager position that is currently open.

Felicia Van Stolk
Executive Director

Collections October 2019: Sheer Coincidence

sooty shearwater specimen
Sooty Shearwater (Ardenna grisea)

“It’s the end of the world!” 

Thus interrupts the drunk man from the corner of the bar, as the leading lady of Hitchock’s The Birds tries to get some answers. Outside in the sleepy town of Bodega, California, birds are everywhere. They’re massing at playgrounds, dive-bombing pedestrians — malicious attacks, intentional and murderous. It just so happens that one of the bar’s customers is an ornithologist – a baffled bird scientist who insists that birds don’t have the brain power to mount a deliberate attack – and yet, we know how serious the situation gets. 

This month’s Collections Close-Up highlights the protagonists of Monterey Bay’s real life The Birds episode, as we explore how scientists, using historical museum collections, can help us understand the natural world even when things seem bizarre or scary. 

Sooty shearwaters (Ardenna grisea) like this one are seafaring birds that spend most of their lives on the ocean. Named for their rich gray-brown plumage, the birds have gray beaks and feet with a brush of silver-white under the wings. Sooty shearwaters complete a remarkable annual migration. Each year they cross a whopping forty thousand miles round trip from nesting sites in the Southern Hemisphere to the nutrient rich waters of the north Pacific, in one of the largest mass migrations known. Here off the coast of California, you can see them from mid summer to mid fall. The shearwaters can be observed in the summer, diving down as far as 200 feet, “swimming” with their wings in pursuit of anchovies and squid.  

Sadly, sometimes they get more than they bargain for.   

One such occasion, a hallmark of local lore, was rumored to have inspired Hithcock’s horror film. Around 3:30 in the morning on August 18, 1961, thousands of sick sooty shearwaters began slamming into the coast of the Monterey Bay. As they fell against homes, cars, and streets, primarily in Capitola, they disgorged half eaten anchovies. Some frightened folks were even bitten by the crazed birds. Municipal services struggled to clean them up. 

Two years later, Alfred Hitchcock released The Birds. We know that the Capitola incident caught his eye — he even called the editors of the Sentinel to ask about the news. However, at the time of the so called “Seabird Invasion” Hitchcock was already at work on a project inspired by British author Daphne DuMaurier’s 1952 novella of the same name.  As Capitola Museum’s Frank Perry points out in a Santa Cruz Waves article on the incident, that the sad fate of the sooty shearwaters mirrored the film was simply a coincidence. And where both stories portray their avian antagonists with a malicious intent, the actual culprit is more concrete: domoic acid. 

Domoic acid is a neurotoxin produced by diatoms in the Pseudo-nitzschia genus. When these single-celled photosynthetic organisms occur in high numbers, the toxin can build up in the fish and shellfish that eat them. While it doesn’t appear to harm them, as it accumulates up the food chain to birds and mammals, it can cause lethargy, dizziness, disorientation, seizures and death. In humans, those symptoms can include irreversible short term memory loss. 

Today, when seabirds are discovered with symptoms consistent with domoic acid poisoning, swift treatment can save their lives. This was not an option in the 1960s, in part because the mechanism of the poisoning was not yet known. While scientific work on domoic acid began taking off in the 1950s, it wasn’t until a major die off of pelicans and cormorants in 1991 that researchers began monitoring the presence and effects of domoic acid in the Monterey Bay. Within a few years, scientists began suggesting that domoic acid poisoning was also at play in the 1961 event.

In 2012, a team of researchers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, intent on solving this scientific whodunit, examined the guts of zooplankton samples harvested in 1961, a few months before the berserk birds hit Capitola and the surrounding area. They confirmed sufficiently high levels of domoic acid-producing species of Pseudo-nitzschia diatoms had been consumed by zooplankton, who would in turn be eaten by the anchovies that poisoned the birds that ate them. As one of the researchers excitedly pointed out, historic specimens can provide answers that nothing else can, and in ways that were never imagined by the scientists who collected them.

The story certainly doesn’t end there. High levels of domoic acid in the food chain is a form of Harmful Algae Bloom. Also called HABs, these events are on the rise. HABs occur when there is a spike in the growth of algae with negative consequence for their surroundings, such as the accumulation of toxins or the depletion of oxygen. They occur when an excess of nutrients builds up in waterways, and are often associated with higher temperatures and stagnant water. Scientists are working to understand these occurrences and their complex consequences through monitoring projects across the California Central Coast and beyond

If toxic algae blooms are a little too dystopian for you, check out this year’s Museum of the Macabre for a more classic scare. We’ll be highlighting the natural and cultural history of our sometimes frightening feathered friends, from Hitchcock horror to ancient omens and beyond. Set the spooky mood by locking eyes with our very own Sooty Shearwater on special display for October’s Collections Close-Up.

References available upon request.