Nature Notes: A Discouraging Turn

Our individual histories are marked in different ways

It’s Martin Luther King Day, Noyac Bay is refrozen, and it’s 29 degrees out, mostly gray. I’m inside, warm and cozy. Our individual histories are marked in different ways, storms, wars, frigid winters, hot summers, presidential elections and a variety of local events, births, graduations, weddings, promotions, firings, divorces, and deaths. Our most calamitous times on Long Island are the result of hurricanes and northeasters. Growing up on the North Fork I remember most of the hurricanes of 1938, 1944, 1954, and 1956. I missed the storms thereafter, until I returned in 1974, the year before Belle.

We also had some wildfires of note during my early years. One or two in the central pine barrens were so large they could be seen against the night sky in Mattituck 25 miles away. And I remember harvesting potatoes by hand in the early 1950 Augusts when the temperature was close to 100 degrees.

But when I got to California in 1958 I experienced a whole new set of catastrophes: earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, mudslides, volcanoes, El Niño tides, and, oh yes, wildfires, as large as the whole of Long Island. Life in Oregon in the early 1970s was not much different. There was always that anticipatory fear of the next big one haunting you as you moved through each year. In most years, the next big one never materialized, but when it did, you knew about it quickly; all hell broke out.

I spent most of my California years in Santa Barbara, right next to Montecito. In 1954 a giant fire up the hill in the Los Padres National Forest chased a lot of folks out of their homes. One family of three ended up moving in with our family, housed on the campus of the University of California Santa Barbara. Rains and mudslides followed in its wake.

A large part of the soils of California’s coast range are mixtures of sand grains and clay, in a word, adobe. One can make very strong bricks and walls out of adobe, all you need is to soak the soil in water, put it in a mold, and let it dry in the sun for a few days. However, if you let rain fall on it while it is drying, watch out, it turns into a slimy mud that will ooze toward its down side. Imagine an entire mountainside oozing towards the down side, i.e., toward the Pacific Ocean, and you get the picture. It moves slow at first, than faster and faster until it becomes a torrent of mud taking bolders and trees with it. If there happens to be a house in its path, forget it, it’s a goner.

As you may remember, in 1971 the space age industries, which had been flourishing the way the Silicon Valley industries flourish today, started to lose momentum. There was a panic. I was hired by one such firm in Santa Barbara to come up with other ways to make money. The engineer that I was assigned to work with was foreign, but he and his bosses thought that if he put their space age technology to work to strengthen the coastal range soils, and make them mudslide-free, the company could be saved.

Simultaneously, seawaters up and down the Pacific Coast were becoming befouled by the effluents from treatment plants in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other coastal cities to the degree that inshore waters glowed at night from the phosphorescence produced by different phytoplankton species, which fed on these enriched effluents. Signs posted along the entire coast, from Mexico to Oregon, warned against gathering and eating California mussels — very much like our own blue mussels — because of the poisons they might have accumulated. Fish living near these outfalls began developing tumors.

Why not kill two birds with one stone, my boss thought. If we could send that effluent up into the chaparral-covered hillsides, instead of out into the ocean, we might be able to stabilize those hillsides while keeping the effluent out of the ocean. So we set about experimenting with the sludge accumulated at the Santa Barbara sewage treatment plant, which separated out the effluent before it entered the ocean.

My job was to take the sludge and try to grow chaparral-loving species in it. While the project turned out to be unsuccessful in the long run, it was educational. I put the sludge in wooden trays fitted with drain holes and watered it. From the seeds already contained in it, tomatoes and other non-native plants began to sprout up, a promising result. “Well,” we thought, “you can grow stuff in this sludge without adding fertilizer. Let’s keep trying.” What happened next, however, was quite discouraging.

I began waking up halfway through the night with intense anal itching. After a few nights of this, my wife, Julie, who had trained to be a nurse earlier in her life, examined me. And what did she find? Tiny white worms, each no bigger than a grain of rice. We looked them up in our medical books: pinworms! I had a case of enterobiasis for the first time. Unbeknownst to me, the pinworm eggs were in the sewer sludge, and when it dried and was mixed around with a trowel, the microscopic eggs became airborne and I inhaled some. 

It turns out that enterobiasis is one of the most common parasitic afflictions in the United States. The scientific project was temporarily put on hold. The nightly pinworm encounters lasted for a month or so. Then, ahh, relief at last. The project was halted for good.

But, just think, after the largest forest fire ever to befall California, and the rains that followed, if it had been successful, we might have prevented the destructive mudslides that came down the Santa Barbara slopes at breakneck speeds, such as the one that ran rampant last week through Montecito, causing great havoc and accounting for at least 20 deaths. On the other hand, we may have given thousands of coastal inhabitants enterobiasis, in which case, I would never have been allowed to show my face in California again.


Larry Penny can be reached via email at