Vanishing landscapes, captured in art

David Briggs
Tidestrom’s lupine is growing in areas where beach grass was bulldozed last year at Abbott’s Lagoon.

Out past where the sedges and bunchgrass near Abbott’s Lagoon give way to rolling dunes, endangered plants like the Tidestrom’s Lupine have been struggling to survive a European onslaught: the invasive Continental beach grass, so familiar to residents and seashore visitors, has been making its glacial advance since it was first planted in the late 1800s, and crowding out everything in its path.

Delicate and low to the ground, the Tidestrom’s Lupine has small purple flowers and silvery leaves. It is just one of 150 threatened plants featured in the paintings of Patti Trimble at her Gallery Route One show, Vanishing California.

Ms. Trimble’s work touches on a timely issue that’s been troubling artists and conservationists alike: What is our natural heritage, what parts of it are we losing, and how can we stop the loss?

This Saturday, Ms. Trimble will take part in a panel discussion she has organized at the gallery to discuss the plight of endangered plants in Point Reyes National Seashore, along with biologist and wetlands specialist Sarah Minnick, native seed expert Judith Larner Lowry of Larner Seeds, and Artists in the Schools director Madeline Hope.

“I like to make paintings, but I painted them to alert people to the issue,” Ms. Trimble said. “I also just wanted to take a closer look.”

Some of Ms. Trimble’s paintings in the show function as a catalogue of local endangered plants, with photos of the threatened species printed onto canvas and enhanced by oil paint. She has used the stock photos most commonly found on the Internet as icons for the plants themselves, as a nod to the fact that this is all that many people will ever know of them. For other paintings, she has worked from a photograph of a small part of the plant, such as a clover’s tuft, and has magnified the image by hand on a large linen canvas in a free-flowing, painterly style.

Ms. Trimble didn’t always paint flowers. Originally from San Rafael, she studied environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1970s, and worked as a Point Reyes National Seashore interpreter. Inspired by Marin’s older community of painters, in 1978 she moved to New York City’s East Village to pursue abstract expressionism.

Ms. Trimble worked there as an artist and painter’s apprentice until 1988, and then returned to West Marin with her then-husband to raise their son. She wrote science textbooks and turned to poetry as an outlet for her creativity, receiving numerous awards over the years. Her current show marks a return to the painting studio, and her attempts to express something she says she can’t quite pinpoint with words.

“I would walk through the fields and hills of this place I’d grown up in, and notice differences,” Ms. Trimble said. “I began to study what plants were endangered or had become extinct, and it opened my eyes to nature in this area in a new way. Now when I go out walking, I can’t believe how much is there.”

All of the imagery in Ms. Trimble’s show has come from photographs, except for one small piece done en plein air: the Tidestrom’s lupine, painted during an excursion to the open air laboratory of biologist Sarah Minnick at Abbott’s Lagoon.

Last year Ms. Minnick led a team of park scientists in a large-scale experiment. From January to July 2011, they bulldozed over 100 acres of dunes. After the restoration, nothing was left growing, and the team has been waiting to see what native plants, if any, decide to take up residence there.

On a recent sunny Monday, Ms. Minnick was out surveying her team’s handiwork. Although nearly a year has passed since the last of the beach grass was removed, the bulldozed area was mostly barren. Without the grass’s tenacious grasp, the dunes dissipate and blow flat. All of the vegetation was turned deep under the sand and the rhizomes, the stubborn root-like tendrils of the beach grass that can extend more than nine feet below the surface, were either destroyed by the excavators or pulled out.

For the most part nothing was growing on the test area, and the only sign of life was a lone potato bug making his way across the sand. Because the removal was only completed last July, it’s hard to say yet if the lack of growth is due to the conditions or the timing; next year, new plants may be able to push up from the seed bank, or will migrate over from neighboring areas. Nearby, virgin dunes support a diverse array of native plants, and the hope is that they will colonize the places that have been cleared for them.

But the process must be “natural,” Ms. Minnick says, and scientists won’t place the plants themselves. “The goal for the dune restoration is to remove the non-native species and promote the native dune habitat that is absent,” she said. “We don’t have any research data on it, but evidence is out there that various predators, such as foxes, coyotes and ravens, will use the beach grass as cover to hunt. Predators of the snowy plover might hide in the tall grass, or eat the plovers’ eggs.”

While the relationship between the beach grass and threats to the snowy plover are somewhat tenuous, the idea is to encourage native dune habitats and see if it doesn’t make a difference. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the encroachment of exotic grasses into the small bird’s habitat is among the primary factors in its decline. One of the plover’s vulnerabilities is that it simply lays its eggs on open sand instead of building a nest, providing an easy lunch for a lucky passing fox. Ms. Minnick noted that earlier this spring some plovers had laid eggs in the test area, but the nest has since failed and no one knows exactly why.

Still, the Tidestrom’s lupine appears to be benefitting from the restoration efforts. On two expanses of the flattened open sand about the size of a tennis court, small fields of the little plants have taken root and are blooming.  

“There is an innocence to appreciating the natural beauty of the world,” Ms. Trimble said of her work painting plants. “I wanted to return to that, as a kind of ecstatic practice.” In fact, as evidenced in the titles of her work – five of which include the word ‘Eden’ – the paintings seem to lament the loss of, or the search for, an original paradise.

“I guess romanticism has its recurring seasons,” Ms. Trimble said.

The park service has sparked controversy in recent years over its efforts to eliminate non-native species in the seashore, perhaps most notably with its choice to exterminate the fallow and axis deer in 2008. And after decades, if not centuries, of co-existence, whether it be peaceful or not, it can be difficult to tease out the interlopers. The seashore has more than 10 non-native animal species, including mammals, reptiles and marine organisms, and of its more than 900 plant species, approximately 300 are non-native. Of those, at least 30 are invasive enough to threaten the diversity of the seashore’s native plant communities.

If time and money allowed, Ms. Minnick says she would like to expand her restoration project to cover the whole park. But the park service is estimated to have spent several million dollars on the Abbott’s Lagoon test project, and it would cost many times that to extend the efforts to all the seashore’s beaches.

The panel discussion will take place at Route One Gallery on Saturday, June 23, 7:30 pm. Ms. Trimble will read poems, native plant expert Ms. Larner Lowry will speak on preserving plants locally, and West Marin educator Madeline Hope will share thoughts on her work with children, art and nature. Ms. Minnick will also give a presentation on restoring local habitat for the endangered Tidestrom’s lupine, followed by an open discussion.