You can tell a lot about a climate by the words local people use for weather phenomenon. The Australian aborigines have no word for snow, while the Tlingit tribe of Alaska has 17 words to describe different textures of snow.
Here on the North Coast, we have many ways to refer to fog. We speak of “a pea-souper.” We have wisps of fog, fingers of fog, banks of fog. We get fogbound and wander around in a fog of befuddlement, especially during the summer.
When inland temperatures go up the hot air rises, pulling cool marine air over the coast like a restless sleeper rolling over and pulling up the blankets. Sometimes it lies here, cold and damp as a wet quilt, for weeks.
The high water content of fog magnifies and distorts sound, so we can hear a leaf fall and the scream of a red-tailed hawk seems to surround us. Fog has always been associated with magic and mystery because it veils an enchanted, shifting world where our senses play tricks and both distance and direction are deceptive.
But usually life and fog seem more mundane. While inland youngsters run through the sprinkler in shorts, coastal children make sand castles in sweat shirts. We pull on sweaters and grumble about the lack of sunshine, giving little thought to the enormous role that fog plays in the water resources of the Earth, especially in our unique coastal environment.
Recent studies have demonstrated the importance of fog water to redwood forests, and we now know that all of the plants which inhabit our coastal redwood groves use fog to various extents. Some plants, like sword fern and redwood sorrel, are almost entirely dependent upon fog drip for their water needs.
In one foggy night, a single redwood can douse the ground beneath it with the equivalent of a drenching rainstorm, and the drops from redwood trees can provide half the water coming into a forest over a year.
The fog drip that redwood trees gather enhances the health of streams where salmon spawn, which benefits fishermen, which benefits tourism, which benefits the local tax base. As we’ve begun to realize, everything effects everything else.
On the coast of South America, where fog is common but rain is not, they build huge frames and cover them with nets that collect fog that then drips into containers. The nets are remarkably effective, and they’re as attractive as ragged blankets on a clothesline.
While fog collection nets may be effective, redwood trees do a better job, require no maintenance, and are much more pleasing to the eye. So the next time the fog creeps in on little cat feet and drifts wispy through the trees, remember what an important part it plays in the redwood forest.
Just don’t expect it to water your garden. It can be foggy for a week, but gardens, unshaded by trees that gather fog, will still be as dry as rice cakes.