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Scientists study ancient Petrified Forest pollen

Friday, December 13th, 2013 | Posted by
Petrified Forest docent  Danny Blackman stands on an ash fall that was found to be nearly 3.4 million years old. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Petrified Forest docent Danny Blackman stands on an ash fall that was found to be nearly 3.4 million years old. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)


By DOUG ERNST / Napa Valley Correspondent

Thanks largely to the land preservation efforts of one Calistoga family, researchers at UC Berkeley have deepened their understanding of what the Napa-Sonoma forest looked like before a huge volcano struck 3.4 million years ago.

The findings were shared as part of an October field trip to the Petrified Forest during the 46th annual meeting of the international Palynological Society, dedicated to studying pollen, spores and “palynomorphs.”

The Petrified Forest, recognized by the Society as “one of the finest examples in the world of an ancient forest,” is renowned for the enormous tree trunks buried and mineralized in volcanic ash.

Although the trees were easily identified by O.C. Marsh as redwood Sequoia langsdorfii when the Petrified Forest was discovered in the 1870s, the undergrowth and shrubbery growing at the time of the eruption remained largely a mystery.

But early last year, Janet Angell, one of the descendants of the Calistoga family that has owned and cared for the Petrified Forest since the early 1900s, began sending ancient pollen samples to scientists at UC Berkeley.

Angell says she’s simply carrying on a family tradition that began 100 years ago when her great aunt Ollie Orre Bockee bought 265 acres of the Petrified Forest from M.C. “Boss” Meeker for $14,000. She later purchased more land, accumulating 580 acres.

When Bockee died in 1950, ownership of the Petrified Forest shifted to Bockee’s sister, Jeanette Hawthorne, who had two daughters, including Angell’s mother Fay. Ollie’s six descendants – grandchildren and nieces – now own the property, with Angell and her sister Barbara also leasing the land and operating the business.

Diane Erwin, one of the UC Berkeley scientists who received pollen from Angell, is in charge of the fossil plant collection at the university’s museum of paleontology. Erwin credits Angell for using modern science to unveil the true identities of ancient plants.

“I give a lot of credit to Janet and her family,” said Erwin. “They really are doing a service for the public, but also for the scientific community. They’re conserving and preserving the area. And, by taking samples and sending them in it’s given us so much more information.”

For example, she said, “the redwood forest today, compared to Calistoga, is more coastal – so, in a sense, it has moved. Redwood forests are now primarily along the coast. When we look into the fossil record we see where things were in the past that are no longer there today.”

Erwin said when Angell recently opened the forest to about 60 members of the Palynology Society, “she didn’t take a dime. She thinks this is her mission.”

Angell said it’s her privilege to help care for a place that is unique on Earth.

“We are one of just a handful of petrified forests in the world,” said Angell, 58, who conducts daily tours at the Petrified Forest with her sister, 60. The business is open every day of the year, even on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

On May 17 and 18, 2014, her family and a staff of about seven are planning a 100th anniversary party and open house, where historic documents and photos will be displayed to the public. They plan to invite geologists and other scientists, conduct tours and open a trail from the Petrified Forest to the coastal redwoods. They say it will be a year-long celebration.

“We want to show our girl power,” said Angell, “by recognizing all of the women who have been running this business over the past 100 years. Not many women were independent enough to start their own business in 1914.”

The 1950s-style party will feature the re-opening of an old café that operated on the property from 1952-65. Later in the summer, they plan to invite waitresses from the Calistoga area who were teenagers at the time. They also plan to stage a barn dance in October – the month Ollie signed papers – and a 1914-style ball.

Angell said the celebrations will reflect the interests of customers who have enjoyed the Petrified Forest, including naturalists, students, educators and tourists from throughout the world.

Funds raised from daily tours keeps the Petrified Forest open, but the income is low. For example, a 20-minute self-guided tour costs only $10, $9 for juniors 12-17 and seniors 62 and over, and $5 for kids 6-11.

The Meadow Walk, a 75- to 90-minute, half-mile tour led by docents David Storck, Danny Blackman and Devon Jorgenson, is offered Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m., featuring views of Mt. St. Helena. The walk costs only $16, $15 for seniors and juniors, and is free for kids 6-11. Meadow Walks can be taken during the week by appointment only by calling 942-6667.

For Angell, keeping the forest open to people of all ages and all income levels is a labor of love, and the money is simply undergrowth.

“One way or another we’ll try to keep it preserved,” said Angell. “We’re just trying to expand it by opening it up to more people.”

The Petrified Forest is located at 4100 Petrified Forest Road, Calistoga. More information is available at petrifiedforest.org.


Writer Spotlight

Doug Ernst
Napa Valley correspondent
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