Carol Ralph lives and breaths the natural world, and delights in sharing her immense knowledge with a great many in our community and beyond. She is also a natural-born teacher. Many of you will recognize Carol as the face of the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) for nearly two decades. As chapter president, she is the spirited and welcoming host of our monthly programs. She also has led hundreds of CNPS field trips over the years, and for those partaking in the Annual Humboldt County Wildflower Show, she frequently has been the first person to greet visitors at the door.
Carol’s sustained contributions locally to environmental education and public enjoyment of our natural surroundings on the North Coast are legendary, and in my view without equal. But that’s just part of her fascinating story.
While Carol wears more hats for CNPS than she cares to admit, or probably would like, her husband CJ can attest to the fact her first love is field trips, and sharing our incredible botanical diversity on the North Coast with others. Some of that love I’m sure can be traced to her rather unusual childhood. Her father was Oliver Payne Pearson, noted mammologist and Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley. Like Carol, Dr. Pearson was an avid field biologist, as well as a self-described “original hippy,” who in the early 1950s outfitted a van and packed his young family off on collecting forays across the backcountry of South America. One of those trips even provided Carol with inspiration for a later scientific paper—a treatise on a cushion plant, Azorella, native to the high Andes. The paper includes a delightful picture of Carol, age 4, perched atop a 3,000-year-old, house-size cushion plant. Her mother, Anita Kelley Pearson, was also a mammologist and herpetologist at U.C. Berkeley, and well-published in her fields of expertise.
Not surprisingly, Carol pursued a science education, receiving her PhD from Cornell University, working with the large milkweed bug. During grad school she published multiple papers on the milkweed bug, bird distribution and ecology while in Colombia, and on sparrows at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. Her extensive record of technical writing in many of the best scientific journals came as a surprise to me, both in the wide subject matter (wow, she’s not just a botanist!) and the fact that, until now, I had only appreciated her gift for elegant, lay writing style that she uses to great advantage in our CNPS newsletters.
Carol and CJ Ralph started their family in Hawaii in the early 1980’s, and in 1983 purchased the Lanphere homestead on the coastal dunes west of Arcata. Hortense Lanphere was a local celebrity known for her early efforts to protect the fragile coastal dunes from marauding vehicles. She later deeded the dunes to The Nature Conservancy (eventually added to the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge). Lanphere’s recollections from her days wielding a shotgun in the dunes were put into popular book form by Carol and CJ, entitled “Bedlam on the Slough.” Still, for many of us in the botanical community in the 1980s, well aware of CJ’s ongoing bird research, Carol remained somewhat of a mystery. For many years Carol was preoccupied raising two sons—Peter, currently a professor at the University of Oregon, and Duncan, a research biologist. All that changed in 1998 when her eldest son turned 18, and Carol joined the CNPS board.
By 2003, she was our chapter president, and remains so to this day (comprising a full third of our chapter existence, but who’s counting?). She has led us through a period of unprecedented success in fulfilling our mission as the premier, non-profit advocate for science-based conservation and management of our native flora.
Some of the other CNPS activities Carol has helped spearhead include our native plant gardening consultation service, community native plant gardens, our native plant nursery and annual plant sales, and a group working to establish hiking trails at Horse Mountain. She not only leads most of our monthly field trips, but also follows up with several field trip reports in each of our bimonthly newsletters, the Darlingtonia, along with frequent articles highlighting native species, conservation, and other topics.
In 2005, she joined with others in acquiring land in rural Humboldt County that supported the entire global population of a threatened species of wild (two-flowered) pea (Lathyrus biflorus). Now covered under a conservation easement, that property will be managed in perpetuity for the benefit of the pea. While Carol has volunteered for many other local non-profits, she is—to our great satisfaction—CNPS’ prized secret weapon.
If all this weren’t enough, in 1981 Carol and CJ joined wildlife colleagues in what has become a life-long effort to restore Moturoa Island, a severely degraded, 200-hectare isle just off the coast of northern New Zealand. Carol assumed the role of restoration botanist, helping inventory the island species, exotic removal, and native plant propagation and planting efforts. CJ suggests this is really where she honed her botanical skills above all else.
Beyond her immense energy, dedication, patience, and other leadership skills, Carol is all around a really nice person (NOTE: nothing to do with the fabulous campfire berry cobbler she occasionally conjures up on overnight fieldtrips). For so many reasons, she is truly a Kin to the Earth, and—lucky for us—“Kin to the North Coast.”