California is a mosaic of microclimates and isolated habitats. The north-facing side of a hill can look as different from the south-facing side as Beverly Hills does from Fresno. There’s a breathtaking bounty here: the high, dry eastern Sierra; alpine meadows and sequoia groves; oak woodlands; kelp forests; the hot, flat Central Valley; redwoods and coastal scrub; the San Francisco Bay; Death Valley.
California’s Islands tells the story of those places, the peculiar ones and the isolated ones. For now it’s a blog and a smattering of radio and print stories. It’s on its way to becoming a radio documentary, too, called Shipwrecked on Dry Land.
Islands are a little weird. Especially weird are the things that live on them: tiny versions of mainland mammals, colossal versions of mainland reptiles, ancient plant species. Islands serve as incubators for evolution; it’s no coincidence that Charles Darwin first observed evolution–though he didn’t know it yet–on an island. It’s because islands are safe. The plants and animals that live on them don’t have to worry about mainland competition or mainland predators, so they can branch out into a variety of unique forms.
But islands are also incubators for extinction. Animals on islands can’t just head north as the climate heats up, and plants can’t propagate somewhere else when they’re crowded out by weeds or by concrete.
There are other places that function like islands, even if they don’t look like them on a map. Parks are islands in the middle of cities. Mountaintops are islands surrounded by lower, warmer altitudes in one direction and the sky in the other. The species living in those places enjoy the same benefits as island species, but they face the same risks, too. Climate change, habitat destruction, development, and invasive species threaten the things living on islands and in island-like places alike.
California’s Islands tells the stories of species on the edge, forced either to adapt or to disappear. Habitat destruction and climate change are happening everywhere. But the unusual spectrum of breathtakingly beautiful, delicate, and unique islands in California offers the chance to tell stories unknown elsewhere and to peer into the future of our mainland. As always islands, nature’s laboratories, lead the way.
I’m a freelance public radio reporter in San Francisco. I started this project as a fellow with Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism, and am continuing to work on it as a journalist-in-residence at NESCent. You can see my non-island-related work at mollysamuel.com, and get in touch at molly dot samuel at gmail dot com.