Of Piss and Dreams

6 12 2016

In the weeks following the cougar attack and capture, the birds were present, as always, their camouflaged bodies adding no definition but much movement and sound to the landscape. When you are deeply in tune with a place you begin to notice not only what is present before you, but also what might be missing.

Something was definitely missing. Walking the dogs around the house, the property was no longer dotted with fox poop. It had been many nights since the faint smell of our resident deck skunk had made its way through the closed windows. The hilltop was quiet, except for the occasional peeping and trilling of the chickens. The gekkering foxes were either silent or absent. And we began to wonder how our cougar friend might be connected.

The researchers told us that, in all of their experience, cougars will not return to where they had been trapped and collared. And, while that might be true, we were still finding evidence of his having been here.

Danae drove the Polaris to the red gate on the logging road to go up and milk our last remaining milker, Ginger. When she got out of the vehicle to open the gate, she noticed something she hadn’t remembered seeing before. A redwood that our gate butts up against had a long patch of bark scratched off. She took a picture then showed it to me when she returned to the house.

“That’s our guy,” I said. “He was marking his territory.”

“OK,” she said, “that freaks me out. It’s one thing to know he was here, it’s completely another thing to know that he was claiming our space as his own.”

Danae and I walked down the road to the red gate to look at the tree. 79M was just shy of four and a half feet from snout to rump. I stood at the base of the tree and stretched my arms upward. I am 5’4″. The reach was beyond mine. The snout to rump measurement doesn’t include the expanded length of the animal when on his hind legs, arms outstretched, which could end up being well over six and a half feet.

I looked up and around. From my forays finding the back line of the property I recognized a small plateau just above and slightly beyond the red gate.

“You see that fairy circle up there,” I pointed about thirty feet above the slope and slightly behind us. “There is a perfectly flat spot just in the center of it.” When I was up there exploring, my first thought was that this looked like a hang out spot for somebody. It has a view of this whole section of the valley all the way down to the creek bed. “It’s possible that he’s been watching you going up and down this logging road for quite sometime. This marking was a message to you!”

When Danae first showed me that photo of the scratched bark, I thought it was odd that, of all the trees in our forest, he would choose to mark one right next to a gate that was used by a human twice a day. Suddenly I was realizing that a cougar’s marking behavior might not be just to warn other cougars away. This felt personal.

As humans we delude ourselves into thinking that the animal kingdom is something that exists around us, that we are somehow separate from and/or above it. Cougars will mark their territory with urine or scent emitted from their paw pads when scratching a tree. Suddenly, it was becoming clear that we were very much a part of a literal pissing contest with this guy over our land and livestock.

While we cannot be certain of his whereabouts for another few weeks when his tracking becomes public (but on a two day delay to protect him from hunters), we are remaining vigilant.

I have a terrible safety track record when left home alone. My most recent disaster was in 2015, months before we moved to the mountains. I was mucking the goat run after some heavy rain. It was muddy and slippery and I was determined to make a better environment for the animals. As usual, I loaded the garbage bin too high. As I braced myself to pull the heavy can out of the goat run and to the curb in front of our house, my feet slipped beneath me and I landed in the muck with this 95 gallon trash can pinning me down. I called out for help again and again, but no one came. Surrounded by houses and yet no one could hear me. I’d seen survival shows where people reported being able to lift a car or boulder in order to save their own life or the life of another. This moment showed me that this would never be me. I wasn’t even stuck in a cool or interesting place. I was pinned under a can of goat shit, and the can was sinking and beginning to cut off circulation to my legs. I could not move it for the literal life of me.

I screamed out again and again. It took minutes, but finally, Gwen, who was home from school that day, heard me through the cracked open bathroom window. She came out and went straight into hero mode. She couldn’t lift the can either. I was beginning to panic as the can was becoming heavier and heavier under it’s own weight. My girl finally figured out that, while she couldn’t lift the can, she could drag it in the other direction and off of me. Once again, just like when we were unable to lift Om Shanti into the back of the van, Gwen saved the day and, thanks to her, I only suffered some deep and ugly bruising.

In just over a year’s time, I have yet to muck our current goat run. Fear of that day pinned under a can of goat shit prevails in my imagination. There are no houses around us and it could be hours before anyone might pass and hear me. Plans of spending my days up on the hilltop tending to the animals and cultivating a huge garden had given away to fearing for my own safety. We hire day workers to do the work that I had intended to do on my own.

When we moved here, Danae made me promise that she would not come home to find that I had tried to climb and deadwood a redwood and failed, or that I had tried to cut down a large maple and had it land the wrong way and on top of me. I promised. I wasn’t really afraid of my inability to keep from doing something stupid but, in the back of my mind, I worried about rattle snakes and cougars, mishaps with the chainsaw and, as the months went by, I went up the hill or down to the creek less and less.

Danae admits now that she had convinced herself that a cougar wouldn’t ever come on our property. We’re surrounded by redwoods, she thought. Oaks, maples, madrones, these are the trees that have boughs where a cougar can sleep or lie in wait, low boughs with just enough horizontal attitude as to be comfortable and practical. Our maples, while stunning in fall, are not quite old enough to provide a wide enough berth, and our oaks are actually not oaks at all, but tanoaks (or tanbark oaks), a part of the beech family and, much like the redwood, have long lengths of trunk with narrow, bendy boughs higher up on the tree.

This is where Danae and I differ. While she was sweeping the possibility of us being in prime cougar habitat under the rug, I was diving headlong into all the reasons why they would be here. I’ll admit, before we moved into the house, I shared Danae’s thinking that the redwoods don’t make suitable cougar bunkhouses, but as soon as we were living here I began studying the trees around us for various reasons — primarily to determine if any threatened the house and should be taken down. Redwoods upon redwoods, douglas firs (thankfully none close to the house, as they do tend to fall), tanoak, maple and…madrone. Looking around the house, I began to see them everywhere. There’s one. There is another. That one over there provides a great view of the dog run, and that one looks down on the patio where we sit in the hot tub each night. Those up on the hill? Perfect for keeping an eye on the goat run (and Danae). Madrone after madrone. Our visitor should have been no surprise. But, if I was as crazy as Danae to go milking in the dark, I suppose I might try to convince myself I was safe as well.

Still, I remember bringing the kids to the property before we moved in. We went down the rickety old creek stairs and, at the bottom, found a deposit of deer bones. They had been there quite a while as they were clean and dry. We knew then that it must have been a cougar kill, but from how long ago? We had to put fear out of our minds. As time went on, I’d find more bones between the steps down to the creek. Finally, this summer, when we were having the stairs rebuilt, the workers pulled out the skull, which now sits in a planter next to our front door. I can only imagine the pieces of the animal were dispersed by other animals over time.

Just as I had to put fear out of my mind the day we found the deposit of bones, I realized I needed to set out to conquer my fear of being alone up on the hill.

Thursday I went for a walk at Rio Del Mar. It was sunny and the ocean breeze was cool, but not cold. I got a text from Gwen. She was asking if she could hang out with friends after school. I said yes, but then realized it was adding another two hours to my day. I simply did not have that many errands to run in Santa Cruz, so I decided to head home. On my way, I stopped at San Lorenzo Lumber to look at a small, rechargeable chainsaw that I had been wanting. I hate dealing with pull chords, so a rechargeable would give me an easy way to trim, prune, etc. When I really examined the tool, I realized  how short the guide bar was and decided that it was not worth the $179. Instead, I bought a pair of $20 tree pruners, went home and walked up that hill. I hadn’t spent time with the goats since the attack. To be honest, I was still reeling from my trip back east and hadn’t been ready to confront the loss.

Up on the hill, the ceiling of the goat run was low. It was painfully obvious everywhere the animal had been. The seam where he fell in, the corner where he busted out, the spot where Danae had found our lifeless Om Shanti.

The rest of the goats were getting back to normal, but Rainbow, poor Rainbow. Her neck was still swollen and there was pain in her eyes. I walked around and gathered redwood shoots then offered them to everybody. Adobe came over to me. We touched foreheads.

“I know what you did,” I said to him. “I know what you did. I know what you did.” I couldn’t help but repeat myself as tears welled up in my eyes at the thought of the terror these guys must have felt — trapped that night by the very enclosure that had been built to keep them safe. I grabbed his beard and tugged on it, then grabbed his horns and playfully tugged at them as well. I picked up my tree pruners and rested them on my shoulder.

“You got one,” I yelled out to the forest. “But you’re done.”

I looked around to the goat run and began cutting branch after branch away from the perimeter. When I was done there would be nowhere left to hide. Once I cleared the perimeter, I slung the pruners over my shoulder and walked out onto the clearing. At the southern edge of the hilltop is a slight drop to a gentle slope that, thirty years ago, used to be a clearing but is now covered in brush and baby tanoaks. We know this was once clear by not only the age of the trees that are now present, but also because there is still a tire swing there which, with all the new growth, makes no sense. I became determined to make it a clearing once again. This will not only expand our useable space, but will also create a safety perimeter as brush is a favorite tool of the ambush predator.

I turned around and looked at the space around me. This part of our land had become lost in the overwhelming project of bringing the house into this century and perhaps Om Shanti was the cost of that. The afternoon light was low, the cold was settling in and our muddy, sad little hilltop began looking to me like the unused pages of a child’s coloring book. The work I had in front of me now was to find the the color pallete for this space inside my imagination and to then find the courage and determination inside myself to color in the lines and bring that dream to fruition. In front of my eyes planter boxes began sprouting from muck piles, the road was graveled, monarchs  were stopping by to feed on milkweed. And that tire swing? Not only was it back up and running, but all around it was a course of zip lines running down the hillside. I walked down the hill toward house and there, on the trail, was a small deposit of fox poop. We’re gonna color the hell out of this hillside — not with pee and scratches, but with dreams.

 

 

 

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Circle of Life — Cougar Women Dealing With Actual Cougars.

28 11 2016
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Puma Project traps many of their mountain lions by baiting traps with road kill. #79 was lured with skunk meat.

Our second night in Connecticut (visiting my father for Thanksgiving), the kids and I had just returned from the hotel pool and were getting ready to turn in for the night. I got a call from Danae. She was in tears. We weren’t able to get a house sitter (at a reasonable rate) for the trip, so she stayed home to care for the animals. She had just gone up to milk the goats, she said. She could barely get the words out.

“What is it” I insisted.

“It’s Om Shanti,” she said,  “she’s dead.”

Om Shanti is one of our most beloved goats, and one of our oldest. Om Shanti was a dream to milk. Not only did she have big, easily graspable teats, she had this wise and calm demeanor, an intelligence, that made it impossible not to connect with her.

Several years back, she was pregnant with twins and the first baby got stuck in the birth canal. I worked on her for three hours trying to free the baby until Om Shanti, exhausted, gave up and the baby began to turn blue and non-responsive. All that I could free of him was his snout. His tongue was hanging out of his mouth and off to the side. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t make it. I called Danae and told her to get someone to cover her class and to rush home with the mini-van. We dragged this gravid goat on a picnic blanket across our back yard to the van, then realized we didn’t have the strength to lift her in. It was the first moment Gwen realized that she was the same size as we were and could offer assistance.

“I can help,” she said. And she did.

The three of us picked up corners of the blanket and lifted her in. I had called ahead to the vet’s office and they had a team waiting. I told Gwen to get in the back of the van and to not stop slapping the baby goat’s face until they arrived at the vet. He needed the adrenaline to survive.

In the end we were able to save Adobe, his twin, a girl we named Sukhi and Om Shanti — even if it meant bottle feeding Adobe (who could not swallow on his own due to swelling in his throat) and having the three goats live in our laundry room for a week or two. Ever since, Om Shanti had a certain regard for me. She knew that I had tried my best to help her. I had earned her trust and respect, something I could always see in her eyes.

I couldn’t believe she was gone.

“What happened,” I asked Danae.

“I think it was a mountain lion,” she said. “There are two puncture wounds on her neck and there’s a lot of fur on the roof of the goat run. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

I could tell Danae was feeling responsible. She knew there were weak spots on the wire fence roof of the run, but we had read that cougars don’t like roofs, and they really don’t like unsteady ones. They also hate enclosures of any kind. In theory, a cougar would never intentionally enter a cage if it was healthy and well fed. The only thing I could think of was that the cougar jumped on the roof of the milking shed, then tested the weight of the wire roof and actually fell in.

“What do I do? I’m really freaked out,” she continued. “I dragged her to the compost pile, but I don’t feel safe up here milking.”

“No, definitely,” I said, “get back to the house. That cougar is still around because it will want to return to its kill. Call the Puma Project, they’ll come and, if this animal isn’t already collared, they’ll trap it and collar it. But, at the very least, they might be able to confirm that this was, in fact, a cougar kill.”

There are two organizations that track pumas in the Santa Cruz Mountains and beyond, the Bay Area Puma Project and the Santa Cruz Puma Project. The Santa Cruz Puma Project is an organization out of UC Santa Cruz that traps and collars mountain lions in order to study their behavior. I have been obsessed with mountain lions for at least a couple of decades. It’s a fear/fascination thing (I have the same relationship with sharks). I used to log onto the Puma Tracker even before we moved to the mountains. I had remembered reading that if a lion is hanging around your property or has made a kill on your property, you can call them and they will come with either dogs (to tree the lion so they can tranquilize it) or a trap that they will bait (often with the exact kill from your property or with fresh road kill), and which they monitor remotely.

Danae called the Santa Cruz Puma Project and they agreed to come the following day to set the trap and that they would camp out in their truck and wait for the alarm to sound on their receiver, indicating the trap has been engaged.

The morning following the kill, I asked Danae if she would drive up the hill in the Polaris to check on the goats and whether the shoring up of the run she had done the night before had been effective. She called me immediately after descending the hill.

“Om Shanti is gone!”

Not only had the cougar returned, but it had rammed the fencing in several places to try and get to the other goats. Humans are not the only animal to kill for sport. One attack on record has a single mountain lion killing 132 sheep in a single night. When the cougar failed to re-enter our run, it found Om Shanti’s carcass and dragged it away.

That afternoon, when Danae returned home from school, she saw truck tracks going up the logging road, the researchers had been there. They found Om Shanti’s carcass about seventy feet up the logging road past the goat run. They set a trap where they found her and told Danae they would sit in their truck on our road that night and would call her if they trapped the animal.

The first time the alarm went off, they caught a fox. One researcher was ecstatic. He had never seen a live fox. This was huge for him. When I heard this story I couldn’t help but cock my head. Dude, you trap cougars for a living! Our house is surrounded by foxes. We hear their gekkering in the night and our property is dotted with fox poop.

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Researchers (yes, chicks!) work on the puma. As intimidating as #79 is while awake, during his time under sedation, Danae said he looked like a hot sleepy puppy that she wanted to cuddle with.

Then, at 12:50 a.m., Danae got the call. They had the cougar. Danae got out of bed (not that she was sleeping), put on her boots, grabbed some coffee and hiked up the to the hilltop where two trucks were parked. There were five researchers total (one being a volunteer photographer). Three of the researchers were up with the cougar, while the other two asked Danae to wait with them until they were sure the animal was subdued. One researcher filled a syringe with drugs, then went up the logging road to tranquilize the animal. The needle had a sheath around it to help prevent it from bending, as a cougar’s skin is so thick. People who have reported trying to fight off mountain lions with knives have also reported that stabbing at the animal only served to bend the blade.  They poked at the caged animal from the front with a sort of pole to get the animal to back up toward the rear of the cage, making it easier to get the needle in his rump. The first needle bent straight away. The researcher walked back to the truck on the hilltop, filled a new syringe, and repeated the process — including the bent needle fail. The third time ended up being a charm. The animal was out and Danae was permitted to walk up the road with the researchers. As they tried to drag the groggy animal out of the cage, it kept using its claws to grab at the wire of the cage, preventing them from getting him fully out. Danae said that, even after they got him out and onto a tarp, he was still moving his paws as if he was grasping at something, suggesting that he had some awareness, even in his drugged state, that he needed to defend himself.

The tarp they put him on was then used to cradle him as they held him up and took his weight, 125 pounds. For two hours the researchers took blood samples, a fur sample, a whisker sample, measured him — stature, teeth, etc., all the while he pawed at the ground in his sleep, as though gathering forest duff to cover his kill. He was a five year old male, 53 inches from nose to rump (add another 31 inches for tail). His canines, used to puncture Om Shanti’s throat and to close her airway to suffocate her, were a little over an inch in length.

The animal was healthy and well fed. The researchers couldn’t understand why he would have risked entering our goat enclosure. They corroborated my theory that he must have fallen in by accident. He was definitely stalking the goats, but falling in was a lucky accident. Or was it?

Danae and I were in agreement that our big male goat, Adobe (the one who almost died when he was stuck in Om Shanti’s birth canal) had attacked the cougar with his massive horns and scared it out of the hole it fell in from. Danae later discovered that another goat, Rainbow, also had puncture wounds to the neck, but survived. Adobe may very well have saved her life, even if he couldn’t save that of his mother.

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Danae, coffee in hand, joins the researchers on the top of the hill before they sedate #79.

The researchers hung around long enough to see that the cougar was rousing from the drugs. They told Danae that cougars who have been trapped and collared tend not to return to where they were captured because they associate the place with trauma. We can only hope. He would be around for another day or two until the drugs totally wore off, then he would likely be on his way to find a new territory.

Male cougars tend to have 100 square mile territories. In populated ares, it becomes increasingly more difficult for young males to establish themselves. This is one reason you might begin to see groups of young males hunting in packs, not expected behavior for these typically solitary animals. It is also why you find the young males walking the roads of our communities in search of easy prey — house cats and unattended small dogs.

In Santa Cruz County, you can get a nuisance permit to hunt an animal that returns repeatedly to kill livestock, but it is only good for 48 hours to prevent people from pulling such permits just for trophy hunting. I have no interest in hunting, and I recognize that these animals are part of a complex, healthy ecosystem. Still, I won’t lie, the thought did occur to me, what do we do if this guy is persistent? Back in East Palo Alto, the biggest threat to our goats were our Latino neighbors who were constantly offering to buy an animal to throw on the bar-b-q. This was so vastly different. What if he does come back? What if he poses a threat to not only our livestock, but to our pets, our children, ourselves? We do have a large can of bear spray and several air horns that we have stashed in various places on the property.

Danae and I sit in our hot tub each night and enjoy the peace beneath the trees. Sometimes, when the jets go off, we take in the silence. Frantic scurrying in the duff, while startling, is usually just a forest rat. Clumsy crunching on the forest floor (usually coming from way up on the hillside) is a deer. One soft footfall, then silence, is “get out of the hot tub now and go into the house”. We’ll get out, make our bodies tall, talk loudly as we put the cover back on the spa then go inside. We know we’ve been stalked, maybe once every two weeks we get spooked and go inside. But we’ve never had confirmation. This isn’t a game of Marco Polo. I may call out in a firm voice to the animal, “I know you’re there,” but it’s not like the puma calls back, “OK, you got me. I’m outta here.”

Before the kids and I left for Connecticut, one of our dogs, Olivia, was going crazy out in the dog run. There was something up on the hillside. In retrospect, it was likely our big cat stalking our dogs. I know of two instances where a mountain lion has walked right through a pet door. Bullshit they don’t like roofs. Bullshit they won’t go in enclosures. You have to be aware and vigilant, but not afraid.

Our cougar will be known as #79M.

I felt it was important to turn a personal tragedy into something positive. Om Shanti’s death will at least contribute to research which not only tells us something about Mountain Lions, but also about our entire ecosystem here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Researchers have recently discovered that local cougars have alarmingly high levels of mercury in their systems — something they believe is due to the mercury content of the fog that lingers here. The fog is absorbed by creatures at the bottom of the food chain and works its way up to the top.

The juxtaposition between what Danae and I were coping with on either coast of the country was so vastly different and, were I not dealing with the state of my father’s health, the loss of Om Shanti would have felt far more grave and important. Instead it became prioritized, as it should have been, as just something that needed to be dealt with.

The reality of the situation is that, while we live in cougar habitat, it does not make us more susceptible to attack. There are no known cougar attacks on humans in Santa Cruz County and, while we live in an area where more pumas are present, we also live in an area that has an abundance of naturally occurring prey for these animals. They have neither the need, nor the desire, to encounter us.

In 2014 a cougar was captured in a parking garage in downtown Mountain View. Talk about the least likely place you’d expect to encounter this top-of-the food chain predator. We cannot live our lives as though a puma might be around every Prius in a heavily populated city center, nor can we spend our lives looking up at the horizontal boughs of the madrone tree with a fear and expectation that our well-fed middle-aged bellies might be on tonight’s menu.

On the plane I was nervous about coming home. Would my feelings toward Faeriewood Hill change after the cougar attack? Or would my understanding of the place deepen and sharpen?

We arrived at the house in the dark. Holding my little boy’s hand, I took a flashlight up the stairs of the deck to the front door. My dogs greeted me, soft bluegrass music was playing on Pandora through the soundbar beneath the TV. The house was warm — embers of a fire recently gone out glowing through the window of the wood stove. This was home. The relief I was feeling after a very difficult trip back east was overwhelming. My resolve strengthened and my connection to our little haven felt stronger than ever. Yes, a cougar was on the prowl, and yet, stepping through that door, I felt a safety and a belonging like I had never experienced at any other point in my life. This was Faeriewood Hill. We were Faeriewood Hill. And, yes, even #79M is a part of Faeriewood Hill and of us.





Gifts From A Stranger: A Story

26 09 2016

The day was perfect — sunny, just breezy enough to take the edge off of Indian summer — and I was enjoying my solitude. Usually my Tuesday and Thursday walks consist of either listening to or recording a digital voice message for my friend but, on this particular day there is silence. For some reason I get the feeling I may have been put on a bit of a time-out by her for comments I made the week earlier, but I can’t be sure — mainly because I haven’t asked. So typical for me to take a stand on the things that matter least and to avoid the conversations that carry the most weight.

I walked from the main beach parking lot of Rio del Mar to the end of the campsites, gave a high-five to the bronze sculpture of a hand embedded in the rock wall, then walked back to the main parking lot. Usually I walk a mile past to the far end of the beach, then back to the car again, but today I was exhausted from having my two and a half-year old nephew for the entire day while my sister-in-law had surgery and my brother was by her side. I wanted to rest. I drove to the far end of the beach looking forward to eating my lunch with my toes in the sand.

I pulled out my beach chair and walked out toward the water to a flat spot with a round of Douglas Fir that was perfect as a side table and set down my cardboard box from the Staff of Life salad bar. I plopped down in my chair and removed my shoes. My whole body sighed with relief. The cool sand beneath the surface felt like clean sheets to my toes. Deep breaths. I’ve been struggling with my weight and health for three years now and it seems that life keeps throwing curve balls at me to derail my health seeking process. These walks are meant to save me and it frustrates me on the days that I don’t quite feel up to finishing the four miles. But I’m learning that, while exercise is important, pushing limits is not without consequences.

I dug into my salad and looked out over the waves hoping to spot a dolphin or otter, as I often do. These quiet moments are when my brain does the filing — thoughts and ideas drift in and out with the waves — I need this time to sort things out, to sort me out, to figure out next steps in this life that keeps moving too fast.

From behind me a man’s voice startled me. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

I froze for a moment, hoping like hell he wasn’t talking to me, then I turned around. He was standing right behind me, having just gotten out of the ocean. His eyes were deep-set and a little wild in a way that frightened me into instant judgment.

“It really is,” I said, then turned back toward the ocean again hoping my large sun hat and sunglasses might be cue enough that I was trying to hide from the world.

The man came around to my side and sat down. He was roughly my age, and had a nice body — no mid-life paunch hanging over his swim trunks.

“Do you like coming here,” he asked.

I took a deep breath. Fuck, I thought, I’m going to have to leave. He’s not going to leave me alone. I came here for quiet. I want solitude. I didn’t ask for this.

“Yes,” I said, not wanting to be rude, but keeping my answers short. Then I felt rude, so I added, “I like to look out at the waves. To me, when I see a dolphin swim by, or an otter playing in the surf I feel like most people would if they passed Madonna on the street in L.A.”

“I have a pair of binoculars,” he said excitedly, “would you like to borrow them?”

“No. No thanks,” I said, afraid that the binoculars might link us. That if I took them I would then have to use them, that he might want to see me enjoying his generosity and that, at some point, I’d have to give them back, meaning I’d have to talk to him again.

“Oh, OK, he said. “I love to come here and look for shells. Once I start looking, my expectations are always exceeded by tenfold within the first three minutes.” He then began crawling around on his hands and knees in the sand, as if to prove his claim.

I began to wonder if this guy was a short bus kid as a child or, being that this was Santa Cruz County, if his mind had been fried by drug use.

He found two pieces of shell then brought them over.

“Look at these,” he said. In his hands were two long broken pieces of what looked to be scallop shell. “I love to make things out of shells. Check this out,” he said and laid out the two pieces, one crossed over another on my make-shift table. “Wouldn’t this make a nice earring?”

“Oh,” I said, “sure, that’s an interesting way or arranging them.”

He extended his hand to me. “I’m Jake,” he said.

I met his hand with mine. “Julianne.”

“I love meeting new people. I just feel like everyone is always looking at their phones these days. People just don’t talk to each other anymore,” he said.

Suddenly he was speaking my language.

“True,” I said. “I don’t want to assume your age, but they say we are the last generation to know a childhood without the Internet.”

“I’m 47,” he said.

“Oh,” I exclaimed, “we’re almost the same age! I’m 46.”

“So, what do you do, Julianne?”

The question I always dread. What do I do? I’ve never been one to have a clear path, a one word career, a short answer. This is precisely how I lose people’s interest at parties. What do I do? I go for walks. I work on my house. I dream. I shuttle my daughter to and from school, to and from dance, to and from orchestra. I do the shopping. I clean up dog pee. I skate by with my fledgling business while we get my work space remodeled. I sit on the beach and eat my lunch and judge strangers who stop to say hello. And in the quiet moments I sit and ask myself, what are you doing with your life?

“I’m a poet,” I said. “When I come to a place like this, where there’s wide open space and quiet, that’s when the ideas come. That’s when I feel most creative. Of course, then reality sets in and I have to go pick my daughter up from school, but for a few hours a week, I seek this out.”

His eyes lit up. “Really? A poet? Wow. That’s amazing. I wrote a children’s book once. It rhymes, kind of. I’ve never published it, but maybe I will one day. Do you write a lot,” he asked.

“It’s coming back to me,” I said. And I wasn’t lying. It’s been a year or two since I’ve had anything published, and that poem was years old before that, but my heart always returns to poetry. I am happiest when I am writing, and, for me, getting a piece published feels like winning the lottery — only because it is like winning the lottery. When I was a poetry editor I used to accept around 1% of the submissions I received. The pieces I’ve written lately aren’t amazing, but at least I’ve turned the key and cranked the engine on my creative brain.

“What do you do, Jake,” I asked.

“I’m a carpenter. I build stuff, do custom deck work, that sort of thing.”

“That’s cool,” I said. “We just remodeled our house. I love watching the building process. I always wished I had the knowledge to do that sort of thing — or the knowledge of how to do it well, anyway.”

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “I mean, I get by, but I just can’t get my head around charging more for my time than I think it’s worth, otherwise I feel criminal. I once charged $40 an hour for a tough job, but mostly I charge $35.”

“Wow,” I said, “I don’t even know how to respond to that. Most contractors seem to be billing labor at $75-$100/hr. It kills me to pay that. My partner and I have to do a lot of work ourselves just to be able to afford all the stuff that needs to be done to our house. We live on a teacher’s salary so that I can be devoted to our children. It’s not easy.”

There was a pause in conversation then Jake stood up and said, “You know what? Maybe I’m keeping you from a poem idea or something. Let me leave you to your wide open space.” He gestured grandly with his hands.

“I’ll be right back here,” he said, and pointed to a chair, complete with armrests, that he had constructed out of driftwood. “I have a lot of shells and stuff, so if you feel like talking some more, or if you want to look at my shells, just come over.”

“Thank you,” I said, then returned my gaze to the waves. This man, who I had judged so harshly minutes ago, just showed me mindful consideration. I was suddenly left with some questions. What is it about our society that trains us to view an honest person, not wanting to rip people off, as an idiot for not “getting ahead”? What does that mean? Why should people charge more just because they can — creating a society where people like us, a one income family living on a teacher’s salary in the Bay Area, have to choose between updating their water and tank system or putting a new roof on the house because the laborers just laying poly pipe on the hillside are billed at $25 more an hour than what I command for my ghost writing and legal document editing services. Where does the accumulation of “more” end? And at what cost?  This man was not an idiot, he was remaining true to his values and his values were not in the least bit money driven or materialistic.

I remember when Danae and I first decided to move in together, we were considering neighborhoods in San Francisco where we might like to live. Danae kept returning to lesbian, blue-collar (at that time) Bernal Heights as her top choice. “I don’t know why,” she said, “but I just feel more comfortable in a blue collar environment.” I didn’t get it. How could a woman who grew up affluent in Los Altos, who had master’s degrees from Stanford and Santa Clara Universities, not want what she grew up with?

Suddenly it hit me. Maybe, eighteen years later, I was finally learning that this is something we have in common. A year away from the Silicon Valley and it feels as though I am still shedding my valley skin. I’ve had conversations with people who hang drywall that have given their families a more lucrative lifestyle than I am able to give mine. I realize that these are different times in the Bay Area, but more and more I become convinced that if my children can earn $75-$100 hour doing skilled labor, why should they go to college and potentially rack up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to get advanced degrees that might be obsolete before they even set their fingers on a diploma? The white-collar working world has changed drastically since my last layoff. Longer hours are no longer appreciated, they are expected. Work is paramount to the personal, and the casualties are piling up. Stress, disconnect between spouses, disconnect between parents and children, out of control drive and consumerism. Why the hell did I sit down on the beach and look at this man as crazy?

Suddenly Jake was back at my side thrusting some shells in my hand.

“Look at this one. Look how beautiful it is.” He turned over a vermetidae coil to reveal its shiny orange interior. “And this one,” he said, “look at the pattern on this.” It was a piece of what was once a very large scallop — the underside with a pretty opalesence. He handed me limpits and sea snails. “Maybe you could give some of these to your daughter,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“I want you to enjoy them,” he said.

And I believed him. These pieces he was handing to me have always been the sorts of things I walk past because my gaze would normally not even register them. I go for the whole shell, the dinner plate sized concretion, the fossils. Go big or go home. Jake takes the pieces and makes them whole in the form of something plucked from his heart and imagination.

Jake went back to his driftwood La-Z-Boy. I turned these gifts over and over in my hand, then stood up, folded my chair, gathered my other belongings, then walked over to him. I wanted to give him something and I realized there was only one thing that he wanted: connection.

“Oh,” he said as I approached, “you probably have to go pick up your daughter.” Once again, I was stunned that he had not only listened, but was mindful enough to connect the timing.

“Yeah,” I said, then looked over his collection that was spread out on a round of redwood. I knew that what I was seeing was not nearly what he was seeing whle looking at all the fragments. He saw these scraps of dead sea life as a brooch, a necklace, earrings. I realized that this is the same as how I see my house versus how others see it. I see it for all its possibility — over there is where the creekside cottage will be, and there is my amazing garden that has yet to be planted. These are the trees where the ziplines will be, and down there (you can’t quite see it through the trees right now) is where the guest cabins will go. This driveway and that driveway will be paved, and that area beside the garage will be expanded when we put in the retaining wall… — while others might just see my house as a sad, risky little money pit.

“Jake, your collection is beautiful,” I said. “And I really enjoyed talking to you.” I meant it. I thought about giving him my card, about suggesting he could maybe do some deck work for us, but then I decided to just leave things as they were for now. “Maybe I’ll see you again,” I said.

“You will,” he said, making steady eye contact, “you will.”

I waved, the turned my back on him as I walked toward my car.

“Julianne,” he called out, not wanting to sever the connection, “where can I read some of your poetry?”

Suddenly my skin felt thick and tight around my body.

“Oh, there isn’t really a whole lot on line,” I called back.

“You may feel nervous about sharing, and if I didn’t understand what I was reading, you could walk me through it! I could learn. And I would never judge you, I would praise you!”

I smiled and nodded uncomfortably. “Ok,” I said. I wasn’t the least bit nervous about sharing my work — my abilities are vetted by the fact that I’ve been published so many times. I was sure he wouldn’t get most of my work. I was more nervous about opening up my world and the thought of explaining my work to this man felt tedious. Suddenly I woke up to my inner dialogue. Oh my God, I was still judging him.

A thought came to me: bit by bit, each day as layer.

Julianne, what do you do?

I shed layers.

 

 





Where is Here?

12 09 2016

Back in the mid 90’s, my ex-fiancé and I lived in a little bungalow in the flats of Berkeley. It was a sweet little two bedroom one and a quarter bath craftsman walking distance to North Berkeley shops and restaurants. Aside from it being smack dab in the fog belt, I enjoyed the space.

The house was owned by one of Daniel’s co-workers, a fellow stock trader, who had bought the house with his then girlfriend, Polly, back when they were students at Cal. You could tell a lot about Polly just by stepping into the house. There wasn’t a wall that hadn’t been stenciled. There were flowers, suns, vines on every vertical surface, and you could tell that they were done with a lot of passion, if not a lot of skill. I don’t remember the husband’s name, but what I do remember is that Polly seemed to be an ethereal type. She was tall and thin, had strawberry blonde hair and unremarkable blue eyes. She was the type of woman to wear overalls and big sun hat. They had moved out of the house because her husband had been riding the ranks at Montgomery Securities, and they were able to afford a house with acreage on a hilltop in Ross. I spoke with Polly once (she came for a routine inspection of the Berkeley house — and seemed particularly concerned about the condition of her stenciling) about how she spent her days. She said she spent them walking the hillside with her dogs and working on various art projects. I was so envious of her. She could live exactly how she wanted, and she had a partner who knew and understood her and was able to provide for the both of them so that it seemed Polly never had to worry about making a contribution to the marriage other than her own bliss. Part of me aspired to be Polly one day, but I was still locked into my ambition of becoming a successful writer and college professor.

Yesterday marked one year since we started living here on Love Creek. This past year, while both the kids were still in school in Palo Alto, I had nothing but time. Once construction projects were finished, I spun my wheels. Good days once in a while when I would put in many hours working on a house project, but most days I would spend hiding behind my computer screen or running errands just to get away from what we had worked so hard to get to.

I even spent most of the summer happy to be away. On the road trip to and from seeing my dad in Connecticut, I would look at places as various as Tampa, Santa Fe, even Waco as places that maybe we could run away to — buy a cheaper “finished” house and just get back to living again (everybody’s perpetual Portland escape fantasy). Then we went to Hawaii and I became convinced we should try to move there. Danae was exhausted by my suggestions, but never once silenced me in my process of talking things out.

Once we returned home from summer travel, I was rested enough and had enough distance perspective to make some changes and get going again on the things that need to be finished. Our first night home, I asked Danae to go out to the hot tub with me. It had been almost ten days since we’d logged any hot tub time. We sat with a glass of wine looking up at the redwoods, steam ascending from the swirling hot water around us. Holy shit, this was home and suddenly I was in love again. Since then I have not looked outward for the next “here”. We are here, and I am loving it.

We have so much to project our dreams onto, and I have learned that it just takes time, lots of time, to bring those dreams to fruition. Our neighbors (and now friends) have been at their house since 2001. They own more than 100 acres? 200? (I can’t keep track of who owns what around here — I only know we are the puny parcel at 5.2 acres) and have spent their time and money getting systems into place and developing the land into a wonderful retreat center. Only now are they beginning the process of updating the main house for themselves. It just takes time. A lot of money and time.

I had really hoped and imagined that by now we would be living a happily ever after with all projects completed and just maintenance on our plate. I couldn’t have been more wrong in the time projection. We are coming up on rainy season again (October 10th is the date to have projects buttoned up) and so the hilltop will have to wait. The creekside dreams will have to wait. We can just enjoy what is and leave the rest to unfold at a later time.

When I think about the difference between my life here and my life before here, my life here is by far more interesting. My drive to and from anywhere might present me with turkeys, quail, deer or the occasional fox. I drive in the trees, along the ocean, the air I breathe always smells like camping. My kids are in love with our neighbors and, just yesterday, puppy sat for them so that they could go out and see a play. We’ve been to Noel and Jody’s twice for dinner now and have had an amazing time both visits. It is definitely our turn to return the favor, but we have just come to learn that Noel’s specialty is cooking Indian food, so now we have another invitation on our plates to enjoy Noel and Jody’s hospitality (and to help empty Noel’s wine cellar). We are determined, however, to have our neighbors over and to show them all the changes we’ve made to what was once a weird, rustic DIY mountain cabin, but is now a comfortable fairly contemporary home.

I have a freedom here. I think the city has fallen away from me. The noise, the crowds, the pollution, the unbridled ambition and the voices — not necessarily those of others, but rather the ones inside my head that used to tell me that who I was and what I was doing wasn’t enough. This life is no longer for others, there is nothing to prove here for status, there is just being. The freedom is from the pressure I felt to be something I am not. And not that anyone was actively putting that pressure on me, but I lived my life over the hill in a constant state of comparison, something I no longer want or feel.

Monday, Wednesday and Friday I spend working on things at home. House projects, cleaning, grocery shopping, Faerie Goatmother. Tuesdays and Thursdays are for me. I go for a four mile walk at Rio Del Mar, then eat my lunch on the beach before picking Gwen up from school. If I enjoy my walk, and if I get my feet in the sand while I eat, it has been a successful day. I feel in balance and have started to feel creative and open again for the first time in years. I realize that my gifts reside in my ability to synthesize information whether writing poetry, coming up with systems and solutions on the property, or being able to listen and be a good friend. Never mind the demands of parenting a teenage girl or a tweening boy. So much listening, patience and interpretation are necessary in order to be truly present for them. These are things that I cannot do well when my mind is cluttered and overwhelmed.

Last week I had to make two deliveries up to San Francisco. This took me out of my routine, but that was fine. What wasn’t fine was the traffic, the ego driving, the almost getting into four accidents within the 30 minutes between highway 92 and getting off the freeway in San Francisco. I was so flustered. I used to adore deliveries to the City — a stop in at the Ferry Building for lunch, a little shopping on the Haight, dropping by old haunts — but now I couldn’t wait to get home. I was so flustered, I made the second delivery to the wrong address, causing my customer great stress. I couldn’t get the F back to the mountains fast enough.

Here my mind has time to wander and I have enough silence. I have dreams to grow into, but one decades old dream that I think I have finally realized: minus the stenciling — I have achieved a life like Polly’s. And while having a partner that supports and takes care of a sensitive, creative soul is wonderful, getting rid of those judgmental voices in my head has been even better.

I get it now. Polly loved the stencil work in her home, no matter what anyone else thought of it. She had a freedom about her. And, while I’ll leave the overalls back in the 90’s, it might not be such a coincidence that you can find me any Tuesday or Thursday, toes in the sand, poem ideas running through my head, which is covered in a big-brimmed sunhat.





Letting the Dust Settle

16 08 2016

Summer is coming to a close. Kaherdin started school this morning — his last year of elementary — and I want him back. The feeling of missing him is so strong that it physically hurts. Upstairs, Gwennie is still sleeping. It’ll be just six days before I shuttle her off to her first day of high school. The transitions are both exciting and terrifying.

Kaherdin has grown this summer from being around boob height to being chin height on both me and Danae. His legs are longer and his demeanor is getting edges. We still get cuddles and hold hands while he falls asleep, but there is a distinct masculinity growing beneath the surface — a strength, a tad of playful aggression that wasn’t quite there before. There is a part of me that likes it. My boy seems sturdy and self-assured, these are great qualities, but what happens next? I’m already mourning the loss of his sweet voice as soon it will begin to descend. I find myself going upstairs just to sit in his room while he plays with friends on the computer, just to be in his space. I don’t want to lose the boy I call “Food” because his sweet love has always felt like sustenance to my heart. I know that we will always be close, but he is growing from being “mine” into being very much his own little man.

And Gwennie, my Gween Bean, will soon be making friends with people who drive. Cars. On windy roads and freeways. She will be wanting to “hang out” after school with people I don’t know. These people will, at some point, ask her to make risky choices. Drinking, drugs, sex, these are all things that will soon become a part of her world — whether directly or indirectly. We are entering uncharted waters. And this, to be witnessing my baby’s high school experience — the four years that are supposed to define her generation in terms of influences. THIS will be the music she looks back on. THESE will be the movies and fashions of HER time. I find myself wondering how her memories are shaping up. What will her stories be about when she reflects on home and family?

This is it. This is the time, and I want nothing more than to be in there — in the memories of my children — as being a mom who was caring, involved, fun, capable.

We had an epic summer together. I needed nothing more than to get away from this house. My whole life for more than a solid year has been about nothing else. I had had enough. I packed the kids up and left for a little over a month driving around the country. We visited friends, spent the most deep and soulful ten days with my father in Connecticut, did Washington D.C., found fossilized shark teeth on a beach in Florida, walked in Dinosaur tracks in Texas, but, the best part of the entire trip was being together. Seamlessly. The entire month was relaxed, no fighting. Just lots of love and talking and shared experiences. I get tearful when I think back on it because I know that this trip was a heyday. This was the kind of trip that soon might not be possible when the kids have friends and activities and aren’t nearly so easily stolen away.

This, with my kids, is the time to dig deeper. This is truly the time in their lives to mine for gold. They have strongly enough developed senses of self that if I commit myself completely to them, to truly knowing them and listening to them and understanding who they are, a foundation will be laid for some beautiful relationships for when we are all older.

We came home from the road trip for two weeks, before we were to take off again for Hawaii, and I was happy to see that Danae had supervised the building of our new creek stairs, but was disappointed that she hadn’t done the one thing I requested — finish installing the baseboards. I was also disheartened to find the road in worse shape than it was when we moved in after a neighbor had done a huge logging operation. The road is washboarded and dusty. My bedroom skylight was so covered with dust that the first morning waking up at home, I literally could not make out any trees. My feelings of being overwhelmed by this house returned. Then the spring dried up again — even after getting over 6 feet of rain this winter.

I focused my anger on increased traffic on our road. On people selfishly driving too fast, throwing a huge dust cloud over our deck and house. I wanted to move. Maybe a year in the forest was showing us that we weren’t cut out for this. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a seemingly endless supply of water? Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry about dust? Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a house that was completely painted and had baseboards, and didn’t need a second round of remodel? I began to ask Danae some hard questions. How much do we really want to put into this house? Even with the slated remodel of the laundry room and more repairs to supports under the house, we’re still not done. We have deck repairs — and even then that will only buy us another 5 years before we might have to replace the deck completely. The expenditures seem endless.

It took many days for the figurative road dust from our trip to settle. I had to get used to being just in one place again, for my focus to settle on *here* rather than on the next place, wherever that might be.

My first weekend back we had our workers come to continue working on the finishing touches of the creek stairs and on cutting wood from some small trees we took down down in the campsites. I love when the workers are here. Unlike us, they have zero emotional attachment to what they are doing, they just get shit done. The idea of hiring day workers came to me when we had an insurance assessment coming and needed to clear a lot of tree debris away from the house. I came down with the flu and couldn’t finish the work. It was far too much for Danae to do on her own after work, so I suggested she pick up some guys to help. We’ve never turned back. Every weekend we have a crew of two to three guys helping us with whatever we need to get done — chopping wood, clearing debris, repairing bridges, demolition. We now have enough firewood and kindling to last us at least two years, and the effects of getting the land in shape have been invaluable. We had our haulers come — they took a load of garbage (a year later we are still finding and getting rid of shelving from inside the house, garage, on the side of the garage), cut some small trees that were growing at an unsafe angle, ground a stump for us in the front driveway, etc. Things are shaping up. After a long day of work — either by us, the workers or, oftentimes, both, the vision I have for this place returns. The possibilities for improvement, care, expansion, are food for my dreamscape. Sometimes I drift off to sleep building a faerie cottage, a retaining wall, or putting in a home gym.

We took off for Hawaii where we had our first true vacation in 7 years. Road trips are trips, not vacations. There is no rest in a road trip unless you build in lengthy stays along the way. This was a vacation. We stayed put at Danae’s grandfather’s house in Kapoho. Danae and I woke every morning, made a pot of coffee, then sat by the ocean to watch the sunrise together. The kids slept as long as their bodies needed. We went for long walks, swam whenever we pleased and just allowed our minds and bodies to rest after a very crazy and stressful year. While there, I realized that swimming in a thermally heated hot pond was something I wanted more of in my life. The experience is so different than swimming laps in a pool. Having a snorkel on, watching fish, diving down to clear debris from the bottom. The experience is so meditative and fluid, much like water yoga. I did what I always do, I began to stalk real estate listings. This exhausts Danae. One thing I know though, I don’t want to live in Hawaii, but a vacation home with a pond sure would be nice.

When we came home, I settled more easily than after the road trip. The rest allowed me some background processing time. I returned home “awake” and full of solutions. I don’t like the light fixture we chose for the dining room. I ordered a new one. Same with the pendant light over the kitchen island. We needed a rug under the diningroom set — ordered. We needed a log holder for the hearth — ordered. Sick of the house smelling like dog, I ordered UV air purifiers and did a deep clean of the house. Finally, we needed a solution for the road dust so that I could let go of my anger toward anyone that drove by and so we could finally enjoy our deck again.

Months earlier — before winter — I had looked into solutions. There is always water, but installing a creek-fed sprinkler system would involve installing electrical on the other side of the road to power a pump — something I’m not willing to do right now. We could use well water and a hose, but that only lasts 1.5 days before drying up again and, with the spring dried up, we needed our well water for ourselves. I returned to a solution I’d read about that people use in farm country — vegetable oil.

Apparently, if you spray the road with oil, it penetrates the dust and lasts all season long. I’m not willing to rent a truck to spray the road, nor do I want to buy vegetable oil by the ton. I had thought about using a pesticide sprayer but wasn’t sure the nozzles would work for oil. It was this doubt that prevented me from trying this potential solution sooner.

Our first Saturday back, completely sick of the dust, Danae and I went down to the Ace to look at sprayers. I settled on an $89 professional grade backpack sprayer that can hold 4 gallons of fluid at a time. We then went over to the Ben Lomond Market and bought two gallons of vegetable oil. I spent about 15 minutes spraying a test area until I ran out of oil. Once out, I had Danae toss me the car keys so I could do a drive by. I brought dust from behind me and caused dust after the test strip, but no dust came from the coated area.  Danae said, “Go get more oil!” I went to Costco and got ten more gallons and was able to do the entire section in front of the house. Two days later, the oil has settled in — it is not slick or gummy and with all the cars going buy, it has not shifted away. The dust is a thing of the past. An inexpensive completely biodegradable solution. Total cost, including backpack: $200. If I need to do this once or twice a year, it would take 25 years for the cost to exceed the expense of paving.

I am reminded of one of the reasons I love living here. I am never short of problems that need solving and, when I come up with a solution — whether completely original or borrowed — the success of putting that solution into action has a direct positive influence on my quality of life. This is very different than coming up with a solution for your boss or your company, this solution is something that I can see and feel on a daily basis, something that I can give to my family to create a better quality of life for them.

Gwen and I walked down the new creek stairs the other day to look around and plan next steps. I want to build a little fairy cottage on one of the campsites — just big enough for a camp stove for making tea and for a sleeping loft. A tiny creekside escape. I jumped down into the creek and invited her to come along. The coaxing has gotten a little easier this summer, but the smart phone and internet are definitely still Gwen’s seductive mistresses.  I was so glad that Gwen had agreed to accompany me down to the creek, but knew she was feeling a pull back to the house. I needed to pull a rabbit out of my hat.

I haven’t seen my newts for a couple of months and had begun to get worried. A year ago I found my first newts down by the creek and in the water. It was breeding season. This weekend marked exactly a year since we brought the first load of our belongings to this new place. It would be another month before we would actually begin living here, but the kids and I were coming here every day to monitor the work that was starting on the house. Going down to the creek became a daily ritual. There was one newt in a deep pool that had a neon white outline from the sulphur coming from the sulphur spring. I would look for her everyday. Newts return to the same pools where they were born to breed and, newts that survive preditors (California rough skinned newts can live up to 20 years in captivity, which helps me to now understand why some of these guys seem squirrely while others seem sturdy and wise), return to those same pools as well, but the topography of the creek had changed drastically with the heavy winter rains. Islands have grown in the middle where deep pools used to be. Before Hawaii, I came down to look for my friend, but found no one.

Gwen and I hopped rocks and found that the neon pink bacterial mats were returning. Almost immediately Gwen shouted, “Newts!” Her voice sounded just like it did when she was a little tiny girl. Rabbits, newts, it didn’t matter. I loved the excitement. I loved it for her heart, but I also loved it because it made me realize that she had made a connection with this place. Perhaps she hadn’t realized that she, too, had bee missing these little friends that, along with Banana Slugs, we have come to call the true faeries of the forest.

“Where,” I asked.

She pointed to a new pool, formed this winter, where she spotted four of them hanging out. In among them was my neon girl. My heart sang.

“Hello, friend,” I said. Suddenly I realized my own depth of connection to this place. I realized that I still love where I am. That a year in the forest has taught me exactly the opposite of what I thought earlier in the summer. I can not only handle this place, problems and all, I was made for this place. At least for now.

 





When Absence Proves Presence

26 04 2016

They’re back. They have to be, because something is missing in the air.

We’ve been waiting for a couple of weeks now, hadn’t given them much thought until the mosquitoes started coming out in full force.

We’re closing in on a year since we first came to the open house and decided to put in an offer on this property. In that time we’ve witnessed much in terms of what the mountains have to offer us.

We survived a winter that dumped so much rain on us that, here in Ben Lomond, they stopped measuring in inches. With over five feet of rain this season, we have cleaned the roof and gutters countless times of branches and redwood debris, only to have them fill up again within days. We have witnessed massive branches falling in front of our windows, as well as entire trees coming down, taking power lines with them as well as sometimes blocking the road. These poor trees, many of which became weakened from drought, could no longer stand the weight of water inside of them. Part of me knew how they felt. I’d had enough of the rain.

One night it rained so hard that I couldn’t sleep. I opened my eyes, looked up at my skylight and could swear that a wave was cresting over the house.

We’ve had power outages. PG&E came out immediately when we called — a tree had taken out the power line just at the end of the paved part of our road. We were hopeful that in a few hours we’d be back up and running. You can imagine our dismay when we went out later to check progress to find they had abandoned the work site in favor of larger repairs with more customers. They did not return for TWO WHOLE DAYS. We had long since abandoned the refrigerator and ran small appliances on a medium sized generator after Danae accidentally broke the pull chord on the house generator that would have kept our major appliances and water system running. All the water we had existed in the line from the tank to the house. We adhered to the “If it’s brown, flush it down” rule and barely made it through without going to a hotel before PG&E finally decided we were worth their efforts.

The roar of the seasonal creek next to the house after an 11 inch rainfall sounds much like the jet engine of an airplane at take off and definitely took some getting used to.

The winter was hard, but what came after reminded us what makes all the hardship worth it. When the sun finally came out, the forest floor began exploding in wildflowers. First the Milkmaids, then Columbines, Baldhip Wildrose, and too many others to name.

We’ve met so many new creatures in the seven and a half months since moving here — my beloved newts and banana slugs, the giant salamander (as well as several other, more common, species of salamander), the gray fox and, of course, who I was referring to at the beginning of this post, the bats.

When we first moved here, we would sit out on the deck with a glass of wine and wait for 6:55, the precise time when the bats would emerge from beneath the house every evening on their quest for a substantial bug dinner. We never did figure out which species live here before they went away from us. We couldn’t be sure if they were migratory bats and had left for a warmer climate sometime in October, or whether the amount of work we had going on underneath the house had frightened them away. We knew we’d have to just wait and see.

Once the patio was finished and the hot tub was in place and working, we began seeing more and more bugs, particularly giant, hulking mosquitoes. Up on the hill, where the goats and chickens live, the bug life was almost unbearable.

Saturday, Kaherdin cut down four more trees with an axe, and I cleared out a bunch of old book cases from the front driveway. In doing so, I found our old tiki torches from garden street. I cleaned them up, poured citronella oil in them and planted them firmly in the ground by the hot tub. That night, when Danae and I went out to relax in the hot water, we admired what a good job the torches were doing in keeping the mosquitoes away compared to the days before without the torches. The following day I went outside to do some hot tub maintenance in the late afternoon. The torches were not lit, and yet, no mosquitoes. I mentioned this to Danae and she said, come to think of it, there were no bugs up on the hill, either.

Last night, around 6:55, we went out to the hot tub, no torches and waited for the bats to emerge. I thought I saw one buzz by the front of the house, but I couldn’t be certain. What I can be certain of is the absence of mosquitoes and that can only mean one thing, that the bats are back. I am now adding bats to my list of newts and banana slugs as the true faeries of Faeriewood Hill.





The Three Signs

1 03 2016

I have a fox in my freezer.

A gray fox. Possibly one of the most beautiful wild animals I have ever had the privilege of seeing in its natural habitat.

I did not shoot the fox, nor did I trap it. In fact, I had only seen it once before, crossing the road and running down to the creek. The sight thrilled me. In almost six months of living here in the redwood forest, I have seen relatively little larger scale wildlife. I have heard a deer tromping the forest duff high upon the hillside, but a glimpse has been elusive. I can find a newt with little effort and, recently found my second Pacific Giant Salamander beneath a pile of trash as I helped the haulers load pieces of scrap wood and broken down cabinets into their truck. Before the weather turned dark and cold, we enjoyed the nightly ritual of sitting out on the deck and waiting until precisely 6:55 p.m. when the bats would fly out from their various hiding places. I’d heard from two workers, while the house was under construction, that they’d spotted coyotes in full daylight on our road, yet I have never actually seen one. The owls that call in the darkness and swoop low in search of small prey — a flash of white against the night sky. We have so many birds that the ground is constantly moving with them, and the butterflies. What can I say about the butterflies? The forest floor is carpeted with Cardamine californica (Milkmaids) at the moment and, while the Monarchs aren’t due to Natural Bridges until October, we are seeing our first glimpses of these gorgeous little faerie wonders in every color and around every corner.

Danae has seen skunks traipsing across our deck at night and has actually given a raccoon a spanking with a handy plank of wood when it wouldn’t back away from drinking at our deck top fountain. I’ve read that you don’t want to encourage any type of animal to live around your house, as it might just attract a cougar to your doorstep.

In a way, I count myself fortunate. The creatures I see make me happy. We do live in cougar habitat and the desire to see all the animals that live here comes with a “be careful what you wish for” price tag. To me, the number and diversity of animals you see is indicative of the health of the land, so our bats, newts, salamanders, skunks, raccoon, and the multitude of bird species and butterflies we see make me feel like this is a good place to be.

The story of how the fox got into my freezer however, is a sad one and, in a way, contradicts something that I said about the land. I want to make clear that, while it is possible that this fox could have been the culprit that gave us a tailless chicken, it could just as easily have been a raccoon, so there were no hard feelings.

One thing I know for certain about about this fox, is that she knew a lot more about me than I knew about her. While the sight of her thrilled me, the sight of me must have filled her with dread and fear. Each and every time I walked up to check our spring box for flow and debris, I had the feeling I was being watched. The spring box is in a ravine away from the house a couple hundred feet. At dusk, especially, it feels like a place I shouldn’t be. The spring box is where I found my first giant salamander. It was slow moving, lethargic even, with a bit of foam coming from its mouth, and one day after I discovered it, I found it dead in the seasonal creek. It seemed unlikely that it would have moved to that place and into that position on its own to die. Now I think I know how it got there.

Friday afternoon I returned home from a long day. My mother had had surgery on Tuesday and I had planned to go visit her in the nursing facility where she was recovering. I ran a couple of errands before getting a call from my sister saying that our mother was demanding to go home. Going home was not an option for her, or us. None of us was in a position to give her care to the extent that was needed, and if she left early, against medical advice, she would lose her benefits for this surgery. I rushed to the facility where my sister and I worked with the director to get her a better, more quiet room, and to reason with her that she would need to stay until the following Tuesday.

I unloaded the car — several trips up the deck stairs — when suddenly I felt a call to walk up to the spring. The call was strong enough to cause me to leave groceries in need of refrigeration in a bag on the table. The workers had just finished framing in the new patio, so I surveyed the job before heading over the footbridge and up the hill into the ravine. I knocked on the water tank to check the level, as I always do, then made my way up the narrow footpath and back into the ravine toward the spring. I kept my eyes peeled on the ground, not wanting to step on a Banana Slug or newt, but as I crested the small hill, I lifted my eyes to the spring box. There, laying over the cover, was the fox.

I gasped audibly and felt an instant of dread. My first thought, this was a cougar kill and I might be in immediate danger. I checked my Spidey Sense and felt nothing, so my thoughts turned to concern for our water. How long had the carcass been there? I stepped closer. Her eyes were half open, her nose was still glistening in the light. Her fur was perfect — no sign of injury, disease, or of other creatures feeding on the carcass. Her fur was dry, seeming to indicate that she had not died in the night, when most things tend to dampen with dew. Soon I heard Danae’s car pull up and called to her and Gwen to follow me up the hill.

We all stood there looking at this animal — she was beautiful. Gray-blue eyes, gray fur on her back, red on her chest and belly. And her tail, so full and long. She was the size of our dog, Oliver. Her paws were clean and the claws on them looked no different than those of our dogs.

Danae went down and got a bag to put her in. She lifted the body into the bag. It was dry and clean, no wet spot underneath, no signs of trauma on her other side. That’s when it hit me.

Rat poison.

We know from abundant evidence that this house was infested before the previous owner put it on the market. There was steel wool in every crevice, mouse droppings behind every bookshelf, more mouse holes than you could count beneath the baseboards. And when we had some windows installed in the garage office, our friend, Jim, pulled no fewer than six rat carcasses out from the walls. There was poison left in the laundry room, in the bathroom, I think the previous owner had every indication to think we might need it. I disposed of it readily, fully aware of its dangers — not only to our pets, but to our ecosystem. Once the intended pest eats the poison, it dies a slow and painful death — spending it’s final hours desperately in search of something to quench its insatiable thirst. I have seen it happen. Many years ago I saw a mouse crawl out from a wall after ingesting poison. It moved slowly and stopped to look up at me. It’s eyes were pleading. Poison is second in cruelty only to the glue trap, which I have also witnessed (some things you can never unhear). The intended victim is desperate, slow, an easy catch for whoever might be up for a game or a quick snack. Most often pets become the unintended target, and that is how we learned to be aware, but now, living where we do, we are stewards to all who live here, and yes, that does include mice and rats as they are part of the food chain.

In all likelihood, our gorgeous friend, who nature intended to help keep the rodent population down naturally, got hold of a critter who had recently ingested poison that was scattered beneath the office floor. The floor is plywood on skates, so up 3-4 inches from the slab creating a perfect environment for growing a rodent population. I know there is poison still there, because a couple of months after we moved in, I smelled new death in the space. Suddenly, my plans to take the floor down to the slab, have become more urgent. Truly, there is no other way to get rid of the rest of the poison, and to naturally deter any more rodents from setting up house beneath my office.

The fox’s den was a place I was familiar with — a perfectly round hole up the banks from the spring. I had no way of knowing that the den was active, or what kind of animal lived there before Friday afternoon. But now we know that she likely enjoyed her meal (a rat?) at home before growing very thirsty. Maybe she came out for a drink several times in the night before that final time when she climbed down to her water source and found that no amount of water could save her.

We stood over her and thanked her for being a part of our home and asked her spirit to watch over us. We apologized for not being able to protect her from someone else’s actions. Just as we have saved the bones that we have found on the property (some believe that the bones of animals fallen on your land have the power to protect you), we have decided to save her as a reminder of our responsibility here. Not in the freezer, of course, but in taxidermy — not something any of us has ever been into because we are not hunters. We may only have five acres (so much less than any of our neighbors), but they are our five and we intend to imbue them with love and respect in order to preserve the magic that we fist found here more than eight months ago when we sat on the deck with Bradd, asked about making an offer, and just couldn’t conjure a desire to get up and leave and go back to the madness we were living in.

And what madness it is. Fewer than six months after moving into our old house, the new owners decided to move back to Maine. They got a cash offer $70k over what they paid us for the house. They are still taking a hit — after realtor fees, moving costs and capital gains, they will realize no profit.

Danae and I talked it over. Would it have been better for us to wait six months before we sold? Both of us give an unequivocal no. We wanted out. Our family desperately needed a change of scenery. When we look back on the experiences we’ve had in just six short months — the people we’ve met, the things that we’ve learned how to do, the new places we have discovered, this new way of life — neither of us would trade any of it for money.

Just yesterday I was up on the top level of my house sweeping tree droppings, cleaning out the gutters and cleaning out the stove pipe before heading back up to the spring to clean out the spring box (we gained eight inches of depth), create a rock bed and cover the source with pond liner.

I asked Danae, “How many people do you know that work on their spring box?”

Danae replied, “How many people know what a spring box is?”

I thought about how sad I would be if I lived in a “done” house with a manicured yard, fences all around. Our world is definitely not for everyone, but life is so much more interesting to me now.

I stopped pounding stakes into the surrounding banks and logs to secure the pond liner.

“How many people have a fox in their freezer,” I asked.

“Just two,” she said. “Just you and me.”