Moss Landing

“North County”

Is there another name for this rural/semi-rural area that I live in, between Monterey and Watsonville? To some it’s known as “North County,” but that term doesn’t say much. I think that to some, it evokes a misty border or hinterland between northern Monterey County and Watsonville. It’s those big flat agricultural fields north of the pesticide-laden Salinas River. Or maybe it’s that swampy area you pass before you hit the traffic jam going to Santa Cruz. No, wait — it’s where the Marina police stop lurking on the overpasses above Hwy. 1, monitoring your driving speed…

I think most people see the city of Monterey and the city of Santa Cruz as the two stars on each side of Monterey Bay. I have a slightly different view; I envision the two tourist meccas as remoras attached to each wing of a giant batlike ray (or skate) fish. Curvy Monterey Canyon (one of the largest deepwater canyons in the world) even resembles a ray’s whiplike tail (which conceals a threatening stinger), and we all know how dangerous the waters above Monterey Canyon can be. A remora (if you don’t already know) is a small fish that attaches itself to sharks, skates, and other large marine animals (even boats, sometimes) including whales, by means of a specialized sucker on its head. They are not parasitic; they feed on scraps from the larger fish. But they can slow it (and boats) down, and can be occasionally annoying.

Santa Cruz and Monterey each have their own “personalities”: Santa Cruz is viewed as a university town with a lefty element and a freelance, free-for-all (weird) culture. Monterey, long a host for the military, has a more staid, traditional and conservative reputation, although the artsy and hippie folks claim the southern coastal end  (Big Sur). Both cities have depended on the bounty of the bay for centuries, and on the labor supplied by local and migrant workers. It goes both ways, too; workers living between Santa Cruz and Monterey also depend on companies in those cities or on the big farms and their distributors to supply jobs.

Less snarky, one could also say that the bay is shaped more like one end of a shallow hour glass. Moss Landing and Elkhorn are right at the center, where the fresh waters of Elkhorn slough mix with the salt waters and sand from the Bay and the Canyon.

I’ve lived here for about 5 years now, and often feel like Elkhorn, nearby Castroville, Prunedale, Watsonville, and Moss Landing are a bit lost in time. Moss Landing plays into this, of course, with its pastiched collection of warehouses, old and new boats, gingerbread-victorian (kind of) antique shops, and tilted cottages. The fact that it’s surrounded by acres of farmland, dotted here and there with old barns, only adds to that feeling. The area doesn’t get much press from the two cities on each end, unless there are reports of gang violence, farmworkers go on strike, there’s a shortage of seafood, or the population starts to worry about water quality and availability or the effect of pesticides on produce.

The Bay is a living thing, though, and its health is often judged by the catch at Moss Landing, and the environmental quality of the slough and wildlife. I’ve worked in Monterey and Santa Cruz, and I know what people think of North County folks. Unbelievably, a lot of people living in this area don’t even know that Elkhorn and Elkhorn Slough exist. Unless there’s a good antique show on at Moss Landing, Bobby Flay visits Phil’s Fish Market, or Pajaro Food Market’s burrito shows up in Sunset Magazine’s “Best Burrito” list, the inhabitants of the two cities happily  forget we are here.

Categories: castroville ca, Elkhorn, elkhorn slough, Moss Landing, Moss Landing Ca, Uncategorized, Watsonville | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

“poison parsley”


When my dog and I go for a walk in the big field near my home, I have to pay attention to the earth. This is because the ground of the field is quite uneven, damp in spots, and in the winter thickly covered with a carpet of grasses and weeds. It’s a good cognitive exercise; I constantly have to watch for holes, guessing how soft or hard the ground is under the green, and noting where certain types of vegetation prefer dry spots, while others (the pickleweed, for instance) gravitate to damp, mushy areas.

Pickleweed 1

The soil at the south end is riddled with broken sea shells, a middens of some sort. Nearby, the remainders of tall weed stalks after mowing are dry, hard, and sharp-ended, sticking up vertically out of the ground. I wince, thinking of what would happen if I should trip out there, and land on my hands. Near the middle of the field, there is a large, mysterious swatch where the grasses come up tall and straw-colored, as though some chemical underground is leaching out the color. The south end of the field is covered in emerald green clover, a surprisingly calming color to gaze upon.

Now that we’ve passed winter solstice, I look forward to foraging for New Zealand spinach, which is found in my “secret” cache near the ocean. Likewise, the burgeoning vegetation in the field prompts me to wonder what might be edible there. Early in winter, what looks like millions of tiny, dark green lettuces emerge from the soil. There are also greens with feathery leaves that look like parsley or cilantro. Wouldn’t it be great to have a free parsley source? And there are broadleafed greens sprouting tiny yellow buds. I also see a few clumps of that stubborn cheeseweed (also known as Malva neglecta, and Bastardia viscosa sanctae crucis–or the viscous bastards from Santa Cruz) that infests my backyard every winter, and is so hard to get rid of.

Wild Radish leaves
The “lettuces”

Now in mid-January, the “lettuces” still look like something that could be tossed in a salad, but some are sprouting tiny pink buds. So much for the “lettuce” theory. Wild radish? I pull a small one out of the ground. Yes, the white and pink root does look a bit radishy. I wonder if they are edible. The broadleafed weeds with the yellow buds are now knee-high, and they look a little like young broccoli (rabe).

Young hemlock
Young Hemlock. You can just see the purple spots on the stems.

While examining the feathery “parsleys,” I detect the warm, sweet scent of fennel — another plant that might be fun to harvest. I don’t see it, but I smell it. And that reminds me of something: fennel grows near poison hemlock. I look closely at the “parsley” stems, and notice that there are tiny purple spots on them. It’s hemlock!

Mature Hemlock
Mature hemlock — as it would appear later in the season.

Back at home, I find a useful website, Calflora: What Grows Here. You can type in the county and zip code, and a page will come up listing all the flora growing in the area, along with photographs.

I was right about the wild radish and the hemlock, which is also known as “poison parsley.” The “broccoli rabe” was in fact wild mustard. Since the field is usually overrun with hemlock during most of the year, I’m now loathe to try out the fennel, wild radish and mustard (all edible), fearing that they might absorb the poison in such close proximity.

Wild Mustard 1
Wild Mustard

So, although I’ve lived in Elkhorn for about two years now, perhaps I know the Central California area better than I think; I know the earth here — I know enough to be wary. How many fields have I walked through in my life? How many times have I followed a path near water, and noticed fennel growing near hemlock? As a child I squeezed the milky juice from wild radish pods. I didn’t know the names then. Now I do.

Wild Radish
Wild Radish (purple and pink flowers)

Foraging Database.

Categories: elkhorn slough, Moss Landing, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

After the Storm

The storm is over, and early this evening I took my dog, Gracie, to the big field across from the cemetery in Moss Landing. A couple weeks ago, I walked through the cemetery. It was older than I thought. I found a very worn headstone, whose italicized inscription I could barely make out:

Aqui Yace Josefita
hija de
Jose y Romana Boronda
(born 1886, aged 19 years)
Fallecid el 2 de Julia

I wonder if they were related to the Borondas–the big family that built several “Boronda Adobe” houses in the area during the early 19th century. Perhaps, as Robert B. Johnston wrote, it was the very same family “that collected at weddings, baptisms, birthdays, where much hilarity, verses and songs prevailed. They made a lot of noise…healthy, exuberant spirits…” The older names (dating to the 1860s) in the cemetery seem to be mostly Irish, Spanish, or Mexican.

The humidity has been high; just before twilight, the mist began rolling in from the bay. The field, brown and dry all summer, felt damp and spongy.

What I thought were big patches of green grass suddenly sprouting turned out to be mats of salty pickleweed. The land here is built up from marsh, after all. Gracie, who is a grass gourmet, didn’t find much to her taste. I was thinking of foraging for New Zealand Spinach, but it’s probably too late in the year.

We took the not-so-secret path to Moro Cojo Slough, and found that the rainstorm had broken up the bright green algae that ordinarily blankets the slough during summer–revealing big swaths of still, black, mirror-like water.

At the south end of the field, near the highway, the little boat that holds the Captain’s Inn sign was tipped over, blown a couple yards north. The wind also knocked down the wire fencing around the construction site for the buildings-that-will-never-be-finished (they’ve been working on these for — what? Over a decade now?).

True to her nature, Gracie found a small pool of muddy water, and wallowed. By mid-December, the field will be too smooshy to walk over. We’ll have to find another place for our strolls.

Categories: castroville ca, elkhorn slough, Local History, Moss Landing, Moss Landing Ca | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment


I began writing about the three communities a few months ago, and discovered in the process that I enjoy documenting the life of the communities around me. So I decided to post Part 1 of “Documentarian” (revised), which was originally posted in another blog:

After a pretty rough day at work, I find it oddly comforting to document my surroundings. I was thinking, today, of the two communities nearest to my house; these two places provide my basic provisions.

The first is Castroville, also known as the “Artichoke Center of the World,” and the place where one Norma Jean (yes, Marilyn) first won fame as the — you guessed it — artichoke festival queen. Local hype makes much of these two facts about the town. One fact it doesn’t mention: Castroville is the site of probably the only cooperatively gay/straight bar in town (and in the Monterey Bay Area, for that matter). Initially named after Norma Jean, it is now known as Franco’s. It’s also the site of the Islamic Center of Castroville.

This is Castroville’s main street. There’s not much going on in Castroville at 6:30 in the evening—at least, so it seems; I may be wrong about that, however. In town, I purchase things like toilet paper, dish soap, and dog biscuits; I go to Ace Hardware for tools. The first time I went in there, to replace a missing screw for the kitchen table I had just bought, the teenaged clerk walked out to my car to get a look at the table, to make sure the screw fit. When was the last time a clerk volunteered that kind of service for you in the city or suburbs?

Most of the population of Castroville is Mexican. They work in the fields, and they own many of the stores, beauty shops, garages and gas stations. I had my first taste of freshly squeezed betabel y naranja (beet and orange) juice at the Michoacan Meat Market here in town. YUM!

The other nearby community that I frequent is Moss Landing Harbor, about 5 miles north of Castroville. Local hype makes much of the seafood, antiques and fishing excursions in the area, and the fact that the Marine Research Labs are located here. I go to the Harbor to buy seafood, because it’s good and fresh. You can get it right off the boat — the Tina Louise, which is painted bright pink.

When I visited Moss Landing years ago, the Harbor was full of run-down, rotting warehouses, along with a handful of struggling antique stores. It was also notable for a certain bar (now gone) that was patronized by local motocycle clubs like the Hell’s Angels and the Flying Coffins. Now, the Marine Labs, affiliated with UCSC and Stanford, and MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) have lent an air of busyness and importance to the place.

I think it’s safe to say that most of the people who live at the Harbor are more or less Anglo, although I have heard that there is a small population of Vietnamese here, who run some of the fishing boats. Moss Landing is a working harbor, with all of the stink and noise of same.

The power plant is located on the other side of Hwy. 1 from the harbor. It uses seawater for “cooling purposes” and discharges the heated water into the Bay. It is northern California’s largest non-nuclear electricity facility.

The MBARI website says this about Moss Landing and Monterey Bay: “Monterey Bay is one of the most biologically diverse bodies of water in the world. The Monterey Canyon, which bisects Monterey Bay, is one of the deepest underwater canyons along the continental United States.”

Categories: Castroville, castroville ca, Communities Connecting, Elkhorn, Moss Landing, Moss Landing Ca | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Grey Morning in Moss Landing

The catch

This morning, I went for my walk at Moss Landing Beach. Across from the Marine Labs, at the harbor, the seagulls and pelicans were raising a ruckus. The catch was being off-loaded into big boxes and packed in ice. Occasionally one of the workers would grab a hunk of something, and toss it up to the top of the refrigerator car, causing a noisy squabble.

Although a 2001 report by Richard Bard in National Fisherman reports that Moss Landing commercial fishing, with its population then at 362, hauled in about $1 million worth of salmon, $930,000 in sardines, and $680,000 in albacore, a more recent community profile report by the NOAA points out that the commercial fishing industry in Moss Landing harbor is in fairly steep decline. Lori French notes in her blog that California fishing communities are struggling right now, just to exist. This doesn’t seem to stop the tourists and locals from getting their seafood at Phil’s Fish Market. Even on a Sunday morning, the parking lot was already filling up.

cats Xing moss landing

The residential area across from the loading area is clearly a cat reserve. Careful not to hit any felines, I parked my car to take some photos (wary of possible “accidents” raining down from the winged ones above), then went down to the beach.

Rebecca and Colleen w/horses

We’ve been expecting a heat wave, but instead, the morning was grey and cool, although beginning to lighten up. I ran into Rebecca and Colleen, exercising three beautiful horses on the beach.

Colleen and Rebecca w/horses

Rebecca was seated on a young horse (the dark brown) who was maybe just a tiny bit skittish. She said it was his first time on a beach.

Categories: elkhorn slough, hyperlocal, Moss Landing, Moss Landing Ca | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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