A Goldfinch This Morning

goldfinch

MAY TRIGGER DEPRESSIVES.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/17/goldfinch-donna-tartt-review

I borrowed an e-book version of Donna’s Tartt’s The Goldfinch from the library. (Still pretty amazed I figured out how to do that, but a rent crisis made it necessary.) This morning, I arrived at 870/1427. In this passage, the protagonist Theo Decker, who suffered a terrible loss when he was 14, as well as a remarkable, if dodgy, gain, is now 26. He decides to wean himself off his drugs of choice, Oxycontin 80s, et al. These enable him to carry on a successful life, whereas alcohol, his father’s drug, or heroin would not. So he says. (This does not reflect the views of the writer who has trouble with 100 mgs of Sertraline.) The physical withdrawal is bad enough, but after that comes the DEPRESSION.

“This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time.” (863/1427- on my iPad). Theo goes on to enumerate all the futile actions we indulge in -playing, working, having babies, redecorating, reading restaurant reviews…

Elsewhere I have confessed to a black sense of humour. I embrace Beckett’s advice to a young writer, “despair young and never look back.” except I tend to apply it to life in general. So these few pages cheered me up and made me laugh.

My 80 yr-old-body had hobbled out of bed this morning with full awareness that today more strangers would file through my apartment. Eventually, one of them would buy the triplex. Very likely, they would then evict me. My place is the only unit renovated. The only available apartments are $200-800 more than mine. (We’re having a really big real estate boom in Toronto.) I try to remember that “in my father’s house there are many mansions”, but getting into those seems too radical altogether.

So I’ve been ruminating on divorce, recession, illness, housing bubbles that burst, and those that haven’t yet. But this despondent passage in Donna Tartt’s book was so beautifully written that I didn’t care.

Goldfinches, especially painted ones, do not have voices like nightingales or mockingbirds. They twitter as they swoop, parentheses of bright flashing light.

 

Winter Solstice 2014

snowy woodsThe winter solstice occurs on Sun. Dec. 21, 2013 at 18:03 EST (6:03 p.m.) Daylight in North America will last about 9 1/2 hours, the shortest day of the year and the longest night. After that the light will grow day by day until the longest day around June 21st.

The poem that follows was written in Venice Beach, California in 1993, a long way from Hereford Hill in Quebec’s Eastern Townships where the woods has grown ever deeper.

Winter Solstice

Such deep dark
so long sustained
should smell of balsam,
cedar, pine,
should have a canopy of icy stars,
of Northern lights,
shifting panes of white or green.

-A child under a buffalo robe
watching a sleigh runner
cut through blue
moon-shadowed snow
sees a rabbit track running off
into deep woods.-

Waking in the depth
of this longest night,
thirsty for sleep,I hear
the pounding surf,
an angry wordless shout
one floor below
and the reverberating slam
of a dumpster lid.
The sky at least is quiet:
a star hangs
above the flight path.

In my long sleep,
I have been following
that track back
into the woods
breathing spruce pitch
and resined pine,
lashed by boughs of evergreen,
until I have arrived at this
secret place
which only wild things know,
a place to shelter
while things end,
time unwinds,
the circle turns.

When we awaken,
shouting, homeless,
single and bereft,
we will go forth
into the growing light,
a light
we creatures of the dark
must yet endure.

This is the place,
now is the time
for the birth of the Child
in the cave of the heart.

Fare Well; look thy last on all things lovely

sunset over mtnshttp://www.poetry-archive.com/m/fare_well.html

In his poem Fare Well, Walter de La Mare advices us “To look our last on all thing lovely/Every hour”

Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
in other days
De La Mare is telling us to really see the beauty of our world because death will take it from us. Not sure that I agree with that idea, but the line came back to me as I contemplated leaving a beautiful place to return to a more mundane one.So I have been imprinting the beauty of this mountain valley all day. The golden aspens and poplars over the golf course, the evergreen slopes, the rocky peaks below which snow still lingers, the sharp outline of green against the clear blue sky.I prefer to think that beauty, like love, goes with us across the great divide and maybe even as far as Toronto.

IMG_0003Toronto: near the Brickworks

The Hallowed Eve of All Saints Day at the Centre of the World

snow cloud mountain(Hallowe’en is the evening before All Saints Day, the day those in heaven are remembered. All Souls Day, Nov. 2 is the day to pray for all the dead, in heaven or not.)

Darkness fell suddenly at the house in the pines. I sprang up from the dinner table.

“it’s okay,” I said. “It will be lighter when I get out of the woods.”

I flung my various bags onto the golf cart and sped away – at 10 miles an hour. I turned right to where the daylight should be. The  aspens were florescent yellow against the grey sky, but the sun had gone and the mountains on either side loomed ominously. Over rocky Mount Pinos, a rack of black cloud hung and over the San Emigdio Mountains, grey and black cumulus promised a storm.

I hit the dusty trail on the edge of the golf course where I usually go very slowly, but the night-on-bald-mountain atmosphere made me forget. At the paved school bus stop, I passed a couple with two children on their way to the Hallowe’en party at the club house and waved. Now I had to hit the dark streets again.

It’s perfectly legal to drive a golf cart on the village streets because this is a private village, but not entirely advisable to drive an unlighted one after dark. Well, at least, my cart was white. I wouldn’t be making the trip on Saturday and by Sunday, Standard time would solve the problem.

One hundred percent chance of rain by 11 p.m. We had been talking about it all day. Apart from a downpour in July, it hadn’t rained a drop here in drought stricken Centre of the World (according to Chumash legend) for 6 months.

As I fell asleep deep thunder began to roll in from the west. Eventually, I heard what was either a high wind in the trees or rain. Too tired to care. Two very close and very loud thunder claps tried to wake me without success.

I woke up late, after 9 a.m.

“That wasn’t much rain,” said Clara, my house mate, as she stepped out on the porch. “Look,” she cried. “Snow.”

Sure enough the highest range of mountains was  covered with snow.

snow(Okay, you knew all along. The time change means it gets dark an hour earlier.)

Mountain Diary: moths, wildfire and sand storm

 

helicopter

Moth Wars -Monday

Two moths came in the door with me Monday night.

It was full dark, so dark that I had had to take the car home and leave the unlighted golf cart behind. The sky up here on the mountain was a dome of stars, uncountable and humbling, the streets, unlit, and the driveway so dark I had to feel my way. Sandy here-rocks must be there, etc. I carried laundry, bottles of spring water and my computer bag to the porch, banging my left leg with the car door in the process. I noted two large moths pressed against the screen door as I opened the inside door into the light filled room.

It was the resident cat, Jazz, who saw the moths fly in. She began scaling tall pieces of furniture and gazing longingly at the ceiling. I thought things would settle down once the lights were out. I was wrong.

I was woken up by a series of loud thumps at irregular intervals. Noisey burglar? Clara looking for a snack? Flashlight in hand, I ventured out of my room. There was the black and white cat on the top of the step ladder – we’re still hanging pictures-  staring at the ceiling. She jumped. Not surprisingly she missed the moth but I gabbed her and carried her to Clara’s room. I scooted her through the partly open door and shut it. Problem solved.

But no. One of the moths was now making passes at my reading lamp. I sat weighing moth-murder against patience. Sure enough the moth disappeared. I waited some more. No action. Good. I went back to sleep.

In the morning I felt virtuous. Moths after all, adore light, even though suicidally. No one seems to understand why. Perhaps it is because they migrate by the moon, although most moths don’t seem to migrate. Perhaps they are drawn by the heat or the wave length which they mistake for pheromones. None of the theories seem reasonable. So I fell back on a more poetic and spiritual explanation. Moths and I aspire to the light.

That lasted 12 hours. Tuesday night, same scenario. Both moths revived, one in my bedroom, one in my bathroom. Both flew into my hair. Some barbarous part of me lashed out, more than once, leaving a lifeless winged being and moth dust.

Fire on the Mountain- Tuesday

Around 4:45 a.m., I woke up to the smell of wood smoke. Had someone got up early for work and lit a wood fire? Some people leave to drive down the mountain to work at 5. Was it the smell of our own fire place, cold as it would be, being pulled in by the furnace. No, the furnace didn’t come on until 6. Puzzling, I fell asleep.

At 7:45, I woke up again. A helicopter was circling fairly low overhead, whining off into the distance and returning. Over and over and over. I was about to snooze again, when I sat bolt upright and sprang out of bed, calling myself several versions of idiot. Wrapped in a thick, hooded robe, I dashed out onto the deck and there it was a fire on the mountain.

It was below Mount Pinos, two peaks below on Sawmill Mountain, part of the Transverse Range, running roughly east/west, unlike the Sierra Nevadas next door, which lie north/south. The fire was uncomfortably close to town.

Billows of white indicated steam rising from where the water had been dropped by the helicopter, while darker smoke on the western edge showed where the fire still burned. The helicopter would disappear down to Lake Fern, actually a pond, just below my other temporary home here, the house in the pines. Then I would hear it rising and soon it would come into view, trailing water as it rose. It flew into the cloud of mist and smoke, emerging and making directly for the rock face of Mt. Pinos. From my point of view, it was about to crash when it turned and flew over the smoke, where it dropped its water.

Another helicopter was cruising along the ridge and dipping down over the fire when the water bearing one left. I wanted more water helicopters.

On the internet, I read that it was a small, 1 acre fire. Clearly, the authorities didn’t want a panic. The large LED sign at the club house entrance apparently described it as “a moderate threat”. I could hear the people in the house next door talking about it as they watched from their windows; otherwise, no one seemed to be noticing.

One summer, in Greece, a wildfire broke out on the slopes above our camp ground. It crept steadily down from the heights until it reached the shrub-covered slope across the highway directly above. Huge bellied planes flew down over the Gulf of Corinth, scooped up water and returned to bomb the blazing hillside. The flames were so close that we could feel them. Ash fell about the camp ground and the smokey air was not breathable. I wanted to get the hell out of there, but I didn’t have a car and my Greek host took a typically Greek attitude. He shrugged his shoulders. We could always walk into the sea, he said. True it was shallow for hundreds of feet and it was warm, but cooler than the mid-day heat compounded by the fire.  I was not impressed by Greek disaster planning, but in the end, the fire was quelled, leaving a blackened hillside and an acrid smell.

Meanwhile back at the Transverse Range, two more helicopters had come in and all three were dipping into Fern Lake, one after the other, deafening nearby residents, but making more and more progress on the mountain. By the time I set out on the golf cart, the helicopters were gone, although a small area was still smoking. My path led me past two fireman standing beside their vehicles watching and listening for radio calls from the site. There were 20 others up there on the slope, one told me. They had had to hike in on an old trail that ran into the Chumash Wilderness. They were there with shovels to put out hot spots and flare-ups.

Kern County’s clinics and health care bureaucrats have not impressed me and at least one hospital ward has appalled me, but their emergency services are excellent, not least their firefighting force. A helicopter pad near us stands ready for emergency evacuations of the injured and there is an intensive education program about evacuation of the population in general, whether because of wildfire or earthquake. The village lies squarely over a fault line, which is what created the rift in the ranges that cradle the town.

As we got ready to sit down to dinner, a cell phone alarm alerted us to the message that a sand storm was imminent.

Wednesday – Sand storm

Hyper-alert to strange noises after the fire, I listened for the sound of heavy wind whenever I woke up in the night. (How can you tell I am much older than you?) Nothing alarmed me.

Before dawn two of our family members left for a  specialist appointment in Van Nuys. Around 8, I phoned our recovering patient to see how things were. In fact she had been woken up by an urgent summons to an office in Bakersfield, although for bureaucratic rather than medical purposes. You have to be healthy to survive illness apparently. Since she still can’t drive, I got dressed and high-tailed it out the door.

What was this? A brown fog hung over the entire mountain range. Another and more widespread fire? Of course not. Something different.

If you can’t go to the Mohave, Mohave will come to you.

I’m getting used to dust. By the time I drive the golf cart from one house to the other, it and I and all my goods and chattels are covered in dust. I have been tempted to wear a bandana over my mouth like a cowboy. I tried to tell myself that way over there the air was full of sand, not here. I didn’t believe me.

I thought things would improve as we drove down, but coming down the Tejon Pass to the Central Valley, I had to turn on the car lights. I have driven through blinding white fog and snowy white-outs, but this was the first time I had driven through a brown-out. On the valley floor, we couldn’t see the mountains that normally stand blue at the edges of the wide valley. It wasn’t windy. I suppose that’s why the sand just hung there. Breathing scoured the nose and throat, even in the car.

We got to the office 15 minutes before it closed. On Wednesdays, it closes at noon, another example of Kern County time, otherwise known as mountain time. You can never tell what weird schedule businesses will keep, closing randomly, like the restaurants in our village. But give Kern County credit: it notified us of the sandstorm

 

 

 

Bear Alley

bearalley frontSo we moved from the Reality Hotel (see previous posts) to Bear Alley.

Actually, we live on Kodiak, which runs off Aleutian and is next to Klondike, just south of Grizzly Dr, It wasn’t until this morning that we learned that Bear Alley intersects with Kodiak, running below our deck. My first clue was a tall white kitchen garbage bag that had been dismembered there. This was so shocking that I didn’t even take a picture. So against the mountain code! Not quite as bad as actually feeding a bear –a fed bear is a dead bear. (Once a bear has been tamed in that way, habituated to human contact, the rangers have to shoot it.) Leaving garbage accessible is the second most egregious crime.

There are bear safes for garbage costing a thousand or more, so armoured that bears can’t tear into them, the way they can cars. They have destroyed cars for something as small as a burger wrapper or corn-based kitty litter. The people I know up here use trash compactors or sort the smelly stuff and freeze it. Even recycling material is washed and kept in a locked shed. In short, the trash stays inside until it goes to the transfer site. There it gets shut up in a dumpster with a roof and a door. During bear season the site is open late on Thursdays.

Clara and I picked up the garbage. It consisted of a lot of avocado and other fruit shells, a sodden egg box, various boxes -these people didn’t recycle either- and I don’t know what else. I was too disgusted. Clara grabbed her car keys and took the re-bagged trash to the transfer site.

In the old days in Canadian cottage country, people used to drive to the dump and watch the bears feed at dusk. Now all the dumps there are fenced like POW camps. No bear- watching.

I heard voices across the road and left my breakfast to go over to talk. That’s when I learned about Bear Alley.

The woman who lives there said she had been raking her yard, that is the dirt in her yard- no grass grows here at 7 p.m. when a bear sauntered down the alley. She fled to the other side of the house. In the process, a $20 bill fell out of her pocket and is nowhere to be found. (Clara says, “Bears have to shop too.”)

Her visitor, a realtor, said she had seen a bear at 5 p.m. and that air horns were going off all evening. I had come home on the golf cart at 5:45. I think I did hear some of those blasts, but their significance eluded me. Then Clara turned on Jeopardy and in deference to her hearing problems, I took refuge in my iPod.

The realtor said she lived here eight years and never saw a bear, but this year she has seen ten. This is because of the drought. The berries haven’t ripened as a result, so the bears are hungry. They come down to drink at the ponds on the golf course and to forage. They even turn up in groups of five in backyards.

They move very quietly. Another realtor -half the people here seem to be in that business- tells the story of folding laundry in her bedroom while her husband watched a game. She finished and walked back into the kitchen to be greeted by a 300 lb. bear quietly searching for food. She screamed and ran out the front door, leaving it open. Her husband was trapped. The bear was between him and the door. His wife was screaming bloody murder and running to the neighbours. He remembered his gun. The bear ambled out the door. He ran after firing a shot in the air. The bear just kept ambling on, totally oblivious.

Clara and I reconsider the windows we have open in the evening. Several are accessible from the deck and a small bear could get in my bedroom window. Fortunately, cooking gets done at the house in the pines, where they are extra careful about accessible windows.

We are all going to get air horns.

I feel as if I am back on Hereford Hill in Quebec where a pie cooling for supper could win you a smashed-in window or even a door and air horns were all the rage. But never handy when you needed one.

bear alley backThe exit to our secction of Bear Alley.

 

 

 

Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum. Come to the Cabaret

Cabarethttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moOamKxW844

Georgia celebrated her birthday this week. I had bought tickets to Cabaret at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada. I told her where to find them in my apartment in Toronto. They weren’t where I thought they were, but she called me on my land line and I told her to look under the paper weight and there they were. I had invited Blake to go with us. He had agreed to drive. And Georgia asked her daughter to go with them on my ticket.

When I bought the tickets in May, I thought to myself that it would be a treat to compensate me for the end of summer, as well as a good way to celebrate my younger sister’s birthday. Blake, my ex-husband, has known us since we were 16 and 10 respectively and we three always enjoy each others’ company.

Only problem – I am here where summer seems never to end and a typical morning greeting is “another beautiful day in paradise”. You hear that a lot in Southern California, but never more than here high in the mountains, a place which the  Chumash called the Center of the World. It is a town built around a golf club and its sole industry is leisure. Some people actually set out at 5 a.m. to drive down to work in the cities, even as far as Los Angeles, but many more do not. They get up early to play a round of golf and only then do they eat breakfast at the club house. They are resolutely friendly, waving as they pass you in their golf carts.

Others are economic refugees, here because you can buy a house for less than a hundred thousand or rent one for less than a thousand. There are many musicians and many free musical events. They will insist on playing without as much as free beer for their reward. There are talented writers and artists as well and festivals and events that showcase their work.

There are weekenders with big houses, executives, movie people, we suppose. We don’t meet them really.

And yet I missed Cabaret.

Georgia reported that it was wonderful, the set amazing. Blake took them to a good, untouristy restaurant for lunch.

I am suddenly struck by homesickness.

The maple tree across the street from the duplex where I live will have turned red by now. The one in front will soon turn yellow. The swallows will have left on or about August 28th. The geranium on the front porch -did anyone water it?- will be dying back even if they did. Tall grasses beside the bike path will be dead. Crows will be calling more than usual. Perhaps like the swallows, they are coming south.

It goes down below 60 F here at night. The cool air comes down from the heights above as soon as the sun goes down. I close the window before dawn. But by the time I go out the door, it is beginning to get hot, reaching the upper 80s by afternoon. And it is dusty. That’s the nature of a desert climate, even a high desert with pine forest. It’s rained once in the three months I’ve been here. A short trip on the golf cart leaves me, the cart and whatever I have with me -groceries, my laptop, my laundry caked in dust. In Bakersfield, an hour north, the valley floor kicks up so much dust that the mountains beyond look misty.

My Grandpa Munn couldn’t bear to leave his home, a farm in the mountains in Quebec. He would pine away when he did, growing more silent and pale as time wore on. The longest he was ever away was a week, but to him it felt like eternity. I’m not that homesick. I didn’t even notice it until I missed Cabaret. And these mountains are very like his mountains,so they are like that early home of mine.

Besides I’ve had the good fortune of having to be here amidst such beauty and in the middle of my family. Why complain?

The north seems to built into my bones. I miss the quickening of fall.

Random Notes from Shangri-la

happy squirrelMy last post was called “Of Stillness and Slow Time”, since then things have got more still (stiller?). I am now staying in a small hotel -3 rooms, no wishing well- no phone, no internet. If I hike cross town, that is past as many as six buildings, I arrive at the internet cafe. It is furnished with sturdy tables and chairs and free internet access. Pas du café. Something about a permit as yet not granted. I hear rumours of available phones at, for example, the Laughing Squirrel Restaurant. The laughing squirrel seems to have split, leaving the field to Mommy’s Roadhouse. Excellent Angus burgers and maybe a phone there somewhere. We tried semi-phore. I am on the second floor on a height of land. Smoke signals are out pending an end to the draught. Shank’s mare works. Just walk up and knock on the door. Thus was I summoned to breakfast this morning.

Amazing how restful it is! My smart phone turns into a stupid phone up here where AT&T gets no reception. Still coping with the altitude, I went to sleep at 8 p.m. and didn’t wake up until 6. Blissfully out of touch.
view from hotel 1

When I first got here I received a  relayed call from a shut-in to bring Black American Spirit. I went to the closet to find a black t-shirt made by that company in L.A. that insists on making its garments in the U.S. Only to discover it is the name of a cigarette.

view from hotel 2Before I moved to the small hotel, I borrowed the Prius one morning to go to the Bear Claw Bakery for croissants. I couldn’t find the usual electronic key. I grabbed the second one. I walked up to the car, pressed unlock. Got in. Put the key in the coffee cup holder, started up and drove away. I bought the  baked goods, returned to the car. The door wouldn’t unlock. I tried again. I tried the other doors. I tried the trunk. It’s a hatchback after all. I took out my stupid phone and gave it a good talking to. I left the croissant bags on the roof of the car and went back into the bakery. Could I use the phone? Wordlessly the chap I call the grumpy baker handed it to me. I called home. Eventually, someone woke up and answered. That remote key doesn’t work. Hasn’t for years. How did I even get the car to go? Hard to explain how to extract the manual key. Help would arrive via golf cart. Meanwhile I managed to get the actual key out of the remote device and unlocked the door. Now the dash kept telling me “no key”. There was a slot below the ignition button. I poked and prodded. I swear I was about to insert the remote key -well, I would have figured it out given five more minutes- when the cavalry arrived.

view from hotel 3The town is remote and perched at 5000 ft. The road up is serpentine. For 30 years, people could and did die waiting for an ambulance. Recently, a helicopter pad was built so that emergency patients can be air-lifted to the Bakersfield hospital. Even so, not everyone arrives alive as we learned last week. In addition there are now paramedics stationed here at the new fire hall. Imagine having to wait half an hour to an hour for the fire trucks to arrive in a town of wooden houses and tinder dry forests.

Today the ribbon cutting ceremony for the fire hall was scheduled for high noon. In deference to my low-land lungs, we drove over. “The whole town is out,” my companion declared. “Really?” I replied. “It’s a small town,” she rejoined. In fact it was just mountain time all over again. We stood in the shade with a dozen other people, all willing to chat. Noon passed. Twelve fifteen passed. Gradually others began to arrive. The crowd doubled and tripled. Around 12:25 -I shouldn’t have even noticed of course – the dignitaries arrived. In due course and with blessedly few speeches, events unfolded.

It had taken over 30 years to get the fire hall and much lobbying and in-fighting, marching with banners and the deaths of two beloved residents. Finally Kern County agreed to build it. It cost 9.5 million and came in 10 months ahead of schedule because there were no snow days. That would be because of the 5 year-long drought. President Obama has declared this a disaster area.

The fire hall is a thing of beauty. Since it is our fire hall, we got to tramp through it. It is still waiting for its brand new furniture, but everything seems to be of the best quality. Stainless steel and granite counters. Two person bedrooms with private bathrooms and built in desks set under the window. One room to accommodate a person with disabilities. (Fire halls are also refuges for battered women, as well as collection depots for unwanted new-borns.) A fitness room lined with mirrors. And of course room for the two fire engines.

view from hotel 4Some advice, in case you need it. If the great recession has done you in, move to a place like Kern County where the unemployment rate is double the national average. Such places have access to funds because they are poor. The medical health clinic is 40 minutes down the hill beside the I 5, again beautifully new and up-to-date. Another is due to open up here next month, smaller no doubt but no travel necessary. The new library down the hill has soaring ceilings, an auditorium, a beautiful children’s room, computers, a good collection and remarkable art work. Certainly people are here because the cost of living is much cheaper and many are retired so unemployment doesn’t matter as much to them. Nevertheless, there are service jobs available and every second person seems to be a realtor.

view from hotel 5For several weeks, we have been trying to identify a certain bird call, almost piercing, two noted, pendulum-like. It seemed to me it must be made by a large bird. We hear it in the morning and then again about 5:30 in the afternoon, often from a tall pine across the road. We crane our necks, we sneak around and peer upwards. No dice. We listen to bird calls on the Audubon app. Perhaps it is a woodpecker. That could account for its invisibility. One morning, the mystery is solved. The singer sits upright on a rock pile outside the kitchen window and pipes up. It is a squirrel.

sunset over mtns

 

Stillness in the High Desert

high desert pinesSomeone asked me this morning what I do to fill my days here at 5000 ft in the Sierra Mountains of Southern California. The answer is simple: I sit.

I don’t mean I sit and read. Mostly, the book lies face down on the arm of the chair, the computer closed on the foot stool. I start out with good intentions and the next thing I know I’m just sitting.

For one thing, it’s hot. Back home in Toronto, we cherish the idea that dry heat is bearable. The soup-like heat and humidity of the Great Lakes has driven most of us to air conditioning. Up here, few houses have it. In my naiveté, I thought the mountain breezes would take care of that. Not so. And I have given up on the idea that dry heat is better. Parched is not better. Drinking liters of water is not better.

Today, July 4th, 2014, we are having inclement weather. There are small white fluffy clouds drifting between us and the sun. Usually there is snow on Mt Pinos until June or early July. This year it was gone by April. There is a river bed with high gravel banks indicating that torrents of water have smashed through them. Now it looks like a long, narrow gravel pit. Smokey the Bear stands with his upturned shovel warning us the risk of fire is high. There will be no fire works tonight.

I spent an hour earlier today sitting on a rock under a willow tree at the edge of what is optimistically called a lake, really a pond. The water does come down from the mountain but is tightly monitored. It has to be at a certain level – for fire fighting – but it is dangerously low.

Last week an ingenious machine mowed the algae and the cat tales so there is more open water now, but the red wing black birds have taken it in their stride even though their population density is astounding. I didn’t realize they were such a social breed. Each family’s territory must be small. It’s a small pond. But they get along, defending their nests together. I saw 8 or 10 chasing a hawk with a fledgling in its mouth. On the sidelines, another 20 or 30 cried out in protest.

Sitting in the leafy shade with a breeze ruffling the water and cooling me, I disappeared into the background. A mother coot or mud hen with two babies kept diving under water as if to demonstrate the technique, but the baby coots just kept chirping, so she started bringing up bits and feeding the nearest one.

American Coot

American Coot

Ducks were calling from the other side of the pond and every so often, an unseen frog seemed to answer. Eventually, two ducks swam around the reeds and into the little bay at the foot of the tree. One was much larger than the other, but both seemed to have adult colours.

mallardA red wing landed in the branches above me and began whistling its fat whistle. There was no mistaking the song but he didn’t seem to have his red epaulets yet. The next thing I knew he was gone and a Stellar’s Jay was scolding there.

The breeze was fragrant with cedar from the chips on the path, with the smell of mud and  pine needles.

Every so often, a vehicle drove into the small parking lot. Most sat briefly and moved back out. The town was curiously empty on this holiday, but those still here seemed to be doing auto tours. One guy stayed, dragged out a big ice chest and a fishing rod and bade me, “Good afternoon” as he made for the picnic tables farther along the shore. Afternoon? I thought. Another couple made for the archery range armed accordingly.

Every so often, a fish jumped.

What kept me from hurrying off was that I was waiting for a better hiker than me to return down the horse trail. A few days before on a cooler day, I stood waiting on the dusty trail under a pin oak with many trunks. I had learned not to sit out there for fear of ants. I stood there for half an hour, gazing at the mountains and studying the trees, enjoying the breeze that funneled down the hill. That taught me the joy of staying quiet and still and engaging all my senses.

It was my stomach that got me up today. It told me it was well past lunch time. I left my bower and started back up the sun-baked road home.

We sent out a search party on a golf cart to bring home the walker who had made it all the way to the creek and had been sitting with her feet in it.

Bulletin from Shangri-la #6: birds

steller's jayAs you can see the Steller’s jay does have some blue and the same  kind of crest as the blue jay, presumably a cousin, but no white or grey on its breast. They live in the forested western mountains of North America.

Jays in general have a raucous reputation, but the Steller’s that live near the house in the pines give a whole new meaning to the word. The deck is theirs. If you decide that you, a mere human, want to sit there, one of them will sit above you in a nearby pine and give you orders to move on.

They have a variety of calls, including this scold:

Like other Jays, the Steller’s Jay has numerous and variable vocalizations. One common call is a harsh SHACK-Sheck-sheck-sheck-sheck-sheck series; another skreeka! skreeka! call sounds almost exactly like an old-fashioned pump handle; yet another is a soft, breathy hoodle hoodle whistle. Its alarm call is a harsh, nasal wah. Some calls are sex-specific: females produce a rattling sound, while males make a high-pitched gleep gleep.

The Steller’s Jay also is a noted vocal mimic. It can mimic the vocalizations of many species of birds, other animals, and sounds of non-animal origin. It often will imitate the calls from birds of prey such as the Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Osprey, causing other birds to seek cover and flee feeding areas.[3][4((]Wikepedia

These Steller’s have an elaborate game going on. They spend hours carrying twigs and softer materials like bits of plastic to a beam that extends out of the house and over the deck for 12 to 18 inches. Everything they painstakingly place there falls off onto the deck, making a large pile 5 inches deep in a couple of days. One day, we observe a Steller’s, sitting on the deck rail, read the riot act to one of the builders. I imagine she is saying,” First of all, Idiot, we build our nests high up in tall pine trees. Secondly, you need mud.”

“We need to put out water,” I protest to the householder.

“There’s a lake just down there through the trees,” she replies.

Some scientist on-line tells another inquirer that such piles are food stores. Wrong. There is absolutely nothing edible on these tiny pieces of wood.

To me the builders – at least 3 – seem slightly smaller than other adult birds. Are they teenagers trying to get the hang of nest building?

purple finchMy Steller’s observation is interrupted somewhat by my move to the boxcar house which is more in the open, a suburban part of the high desert town.  What was once lawn is now bare earth with scrub. There is an on-going drought. But near the sliding door to my bedroom at one end, bushes still flourish and it is there that a finch sings evensong.
I never actually catch a glimpse of this bird, which seems to have roosted for the night in the dense foliage, so I cannot say which type of finch it is. But the song is long and very melodic. It stops singing at the moment that dusk fades into night.
House finch song [embed]http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/house_finch/sounds[/embed]

mockingbirdThe mockingbird doesn’t live up on the mountain, but I got to enjoy its sweet song at both ends of my California visit when I stayed in a house in Culver City. Years ago when my children were young I taught Lee Harper’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Never having actually heard one, I had to imagine how beautiful its song must be to lead Atticus to tell his children that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. Stepping out of the car in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, one March break, I finally did. That song alone kept me coming back for years. Then when I began visiting Los Angeles, I got better acquainted with its beauty, particularly the year I stayed in El Segundo where one liked to sit in a tree high on the hilly roadside or on top of the roof to sing its heart out. To my great joy, mockingbirds turn up some summers in the Toronto area. One of them loves to sit on a high lamp post at my local mall and celebrate life.

As their name suggests they imitate other birds and sounds they hear, car alarms, for example, so one sample isn’t really going to do the job.