The 125 acre Red Thistle Ranch was purchased by Mike and Alice McElfresh in 2000, a couple totally committed to bringing back the native species to this small piece of earth. Situated in the Diablo mountains by the Livermore Valley, they are approximately 30 miles east of San Francisco.
The ranch is a world unto itself. It has adequate access to water, being near the confluence of the seasonal Arroyo Mocho and a spring fed creek, in addition to a large spring on Cedar Mountain that crosses the property before entering the Arroyo Mocho. This availability of water made the area attractive to Native Americans and the McElfresh’s have discovered numerous Indian artifacts on their property. More recently, this area has been ranched by non-native residents since at least 1860.
In spite of its beauty and natural resources, the land had been degraded over the years. Local oral history and current distribution of trees suggest significant clearing of the native oak and pine trees. At least 100 years ago, naturalists were expressing concern over the dearth of new tree replacement on the property. In 1970, the spring fed creek was dammed up to create a pond which, over the decades, was stocked with black bass, bull frogs, sun fish and cray fish with an occasional turtle showing up.
Initially alone, later under the guidance and with the support of the US Natural Resource Conservation Service, Mike and Alice have undertaken massive restoration projects that include pipelines, troughs and other conservation practices intended to conserve and redirect the available water. Over the years, with some success and many challenges, they have begun to replace the native oaks. The pond has been cleared of non-native marine life, desilted and reworked to modify the overflow pattern, all contributing to the pond being more habitable for native wild life. Discovery of a Native American midden (refuse heap) near the dam, led Dr. McElfresh to obtain a CDF paraprofessional archeological license and to legally register the site with the state of California.
In this piece, I have tried to represent all that is happening at Red Thistle Ranch. The leaves are digital prints on silk of leaves from trees on the property. Mike sent me leaves from the four variations of oak now found on the ranch: Live Oak, Blue Oak, Valley Oak and a fourth version showing up on the ranch, a Hybrid Oak. The “water” represents the cleaned up stock pond, now a clear blue green. Around the water are tracks of deer and mountain lion, both of which now come to the pond to drink. Some of the abstract images in the background originated in Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden Pond”, his sketches that record natural pollination. The flower on the right panel is the “Snowy thistle”, Cirsium occidentale, the native red thistle after which the ranch is named.