Posted by: James Wapotich | May 8, 2012

Trail Quest: The Naturalist’s Path

If you’re interested in learning more about our local natural history while out on the trails an excellent resource is Santa Barbara City College’s Continuing Education Class entitled simply, Natural History Hikes. The eight week class is taught by Steve Timbrook and is offered on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

Natural History is essentially the study of the plants and animals of a particular region or environment and Dr. Timbrook’s background lends itself well to the subject. Prior to retiring, Dr. Timbrook was the Executive Director at Lotusland from 1987-2005 and before that he was the Coordinator of Education at the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden for ten years. He is also married to Jan Timbrook who’s the Curator of Ethnography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

With a masters degree in zoology, a PhD in biology with an emphasis on botany, and versed in our local geology, Dr. Timbrook draws on all three subjects while teaching the class plus whatever local lore he may know about the specific trail being visited that week.

Having participated in groups and classes that focus for example on the plants or birds on our local trails I was curious how one might weave together a number of different subjects. And Dr. Timbrook does an impressive job of not only balancing the different topics he’s presenting that week, but folding in questions from the students as well as whatever natural wonders are serendipitously seen that day and become part of the class. And then effectively relating that back to the broader subject of the natural world around us.

The class was first offered in 2006 after Kristine Power, then the dean of SBCC’s Continuing Education, asked Dr. Timbrook as he was nearing his retirement, given his background, if he would be interested in offering a class through Adult Ed. And he thought that a class that combined both hiking and natural history would be the most engaging.

I participated recently in the class when they visited San Roque Canyon and then again when they visited Rattlesnake Canyon and given the amount of information that one can potentially absorb through the class and the wealth of naturalist knowledge Dr. Timbrook brings with him, it’s easy to see why many of the students have taken the class a number of times.

The hikes typically start off with an overview of the trail at the trailhead using both topographic maps and Dibblee’s geologic maps. “The geology of a region forms the basis for the plants you have, and that in turn is going to form the basis for the animal communities that you have.” Dr. Timbrook stated.

“The main reason that we have the diversity of plants we have here locally is because we have a lot of topographic relief. As a result of the uplifting of the mountains, a lot of different sedimentary layers have been exposed giving us a number of different types of soils.” Dr. Timbrook offered during the interview.

“We also have plants here that were distributed more commonly during the ice ages, that were left behind as the glaciers retreated. And some plants that came up from, say, Mexico, during the glacial retreats have remained. And so we have a mixture of plants from different paleo-floras.” Dr. Timbrook continued.

It was interesting to learn that during the last ice age that southern California was once a much wetter climate and featured flora that more closely resembled that of present day northern California, including redwoods. And that one can still find plants from those wetter times such as Madrone, Tan Oak, and Western Huckleberry here in our local mountains.

During the class I also learned that there are actually two different types of wasp galls formed on oaks trees, each formed as result of a different type of wasp laying its eggs on the tree’s branches. And while each of these insights by themselves might seem hard to retain or even random, I believe that part of the reason that native people had such a keen knowledge of the natural world around them, aside from spending the majority of their time there, is that each of these insights or understandings about the natural world compound upon themselves over time. And that it’s the cumulative effect of these experiences and insights that can make each us accomplished naturalists and reveal more about the natural world than can be seen in any one visit.

On the moderately paced hike through Rattlesnake Canyon we learned that the Rock Rose one sees growing along the trail originally escaped from the gardens of the Skofield House downstream from the trailhead in what is now Skofield Park. Rock Rose is densest along the section of the Rattlesnake Trail near what’s left of the old stone dam that once provided water for the Mission.

The dam was built with Indian labor in 1808 to provided water to the Santa Barbara Mission and replaced an earthen dam that had been built there earlier along with an aqueduct that carried water over to the reservoir that’s still situated next to the Mission. In fact Las Canoas, which means the flumes in Spanish, takes its name from these aqueducts.

If you’re interested in learning more about the natural history of Rattlesnake Canyon, a good book on the subject is Canyon Voices, The Nature of Rattlesnake Canyon, by Karen Telleen-Lawton.

Dr. Timbrook’s class Natural History Hikes will start up again with the fall session of Santa Barbara City College’s Continuing Education or Adult Ed. The eight week class is offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:00 a.m to noon. For more information go to

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 8th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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