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.

Bulletin from Shangri-la # 4: spirits

trees outside windowWhen I first walk into the house in the pines, I hear my mother say, “It’s beautiful!” My mother passed on in 1976, but this is the first I’ve heard from her. My grandparents, even my father-in-law and certainly my father when his time came, showed up in the days after they moved on. Not my mother. Absolute silence. So profound, that I had an existential breakdown. Now here she is- or seems to be- celebrating the tiny, jewel of house in Sierra mountains.

Of course she would be here, if anywhere, because the mountains and the pines are like her birthplace in Hereford, Quebec. And we are here, her daughter and her grand-daughter and full of joy to be together. It is the week of Mother’s Day and Julia’s mother-in-law is due to arrive as well.

We speculate that my mother has been lost in the timelessness of that other place, a purgatory of her own making, and only now has found a beacon to guide her out.

In the days that follow, her spirit seems to be doing loop-de-loops in the blue sky above the mountains. All the other mothers in our line, Janet and Jenny and Gladys, come into our thoughts as they often do, but only Lila is delirious.

She is not the only spirit there.

Besides being thin, the air is bone dry in this drought. Near the front door, a humidifier sends a jet of mist into the air. Out of the corner of my eye, I see it as a dancing water sprite.

The floors are local stone, patterned like rugs. Every step feels rooted in their strangely old, slumbering consciousness. There is a small cairn of rocks near the entry and California jade and other semi-precious stones on the desk and tables. The fireplace and massive hearth of red brick fills one whole wall. The cathedral ceiling is rafterred and wooden. A wall of sliding doors looks out on the woods. Below a lake peeks through the trees.

This is a Taoist household with altars to the ancestors and the family, but there is also a stone Buddha sitting below the bookcases. A path of beige floor stones leads up to him. One morning when I am making tea, I catch a glimpse of a figure standing in front of Buddha, the figure of a monk in a brownish robe. When I turn, he gives me what can only be called a stink eye. I hurry away. Julia tells me there is a Zen monastery nearby.

Enough proves to be enough one night as I get into bed, I have a picture of an army of brownies – no not that kind- tiny beings wearing red hats and overalls going about some work under the trees. I saw such creatures when I was a child when my father took me fishing in the trout stream that ran down through the woods. They scared me with their intensity. I always understood the Seven Dwarfs on a visceral level.

In the fields, as a child, I saw fairies – blue and pink and gold- or once in a while, a towering angel. I preferred them.

Happy ghosts, water sprites, meditating monks, nature spirits, but I don’t have to cry like Macbeth, “No more sights!” I move over to the boxcar house and don’t even see dead miners. https://115journals.com/2014/05/15/bulletin-from-shangri-la-the-boxcar-house/


Bulletin #3 from Shangri-la: bears and lilacs




The bears and the lilacs come out together, they say. The Lilac Festival began last Saturday. On Friday around 7 p.m. a black bear ambled across the golf course. Diners rushed to the deck to watch it head off toward the wooded Sierra slope. There was no doubt who owned the place. The rest of us were merely guests who had to play by the rules.

Garbage goes in a bear-proof safe or directly to the transfer station. Recycling thoroughly washed can go in a locked shed. Grills have to cleaned immediately and well. Food or food wrappers must not be left in a car. (A friend of mine discovered this included corn-based kitty litter the hard way, but at least her bear tidily opened the door, whereas others destroy the car.) Sliding doors and low windows should be closed and locked at night. Always remember that a fed bear is a dead bear.

I come from bear country. I saw my first dead bear hanging from a makeshift tripod of logs when I was very small. My father thought that was just what any little girl needed apparently. Certainly he was very excited. My grandmother and I took pots with us when we went for a wilderness walk, banging them together now and then just in case.

There were lots of funny stories -funny in the retelling- about bears and pies, and bears and flour and molasses, bears and broken windows… Once my uncles and I, the same age,10 or 12, spotted a bear in the vegetable garden. The men were off haying or something. The boys had 22 rifles, as farm boys often do. Despite Nanny’s protests, they loaded the guns and set off to defend us females. We watched them dodge into the tall corn rows. They were crouching as they went and soon disappeared. The bear had also disappeared. Suddenly one of the boys stood up. One corn row away so did the bear. They were nose to nose. Instantly, both turned and ran, crashing in opposite directions. I was terrified. My grandmother was screaming. Then a minute later, she was holding her sides and laughing.

In this Sierra village, some benighted soul filled a tire swing with honey to attract a mother bear and cub. The bear broke into the house next door and vandalized it. The Rangers -the town is in Los Padres National Forest- trapped it in something that looked like a culvert. The bear was not relocated. See above.

The lilacs are not so demanding.



Bulletin #2 from Shangri-La: altitude

The village I am visiting in the Sierras sits in a bowl, at about 5000 ft., surrounded by 9000 ft. mountains. The mountains I was born in are the northern end of the Appalachians in Quebec, Canada. Mt. Hereford is less than 3000 ft. high, but down the way in the New Hampshire, White Mountains, Mt. Washington rises to over 6000. I went up it once with my young children and had to fight the urge to crawl. My additional 5 ft. 4 in. were just too much. I had the same impulse on Mer de Glace in the French alps.

One summer, I went camping in Yosemite with my daughter and her family and my French brother. He joked about being the only member of a film crew on a mountain shoot that had to go down to sleep. Poor thing, I thought. Then I lay down in my tent at 9000 ft.

Half an hour later, I woke up suffocating. I got out of bed, unzipped the tent flap and walked around in the pitch dark. That got tiring. I crawled back into my sleeping bag. Repeat and repeat and repeat. Around 1 a.m., I ran into my brother, who was even worse off than me. He was babbling. My daughter emerged from the tent where she, her son and husband had been sleeping soundly. Being a health care professional, she questioned us about our symptoms. Her most alarming question was, “Are you hallucinating?”  She advised us to go down to sleep.”Don’t sleep in the car. The cops don’t like that,” her husband called out from inside their tent.

I’m not sure what happened next. Rob seems to have set out to walk to the car, some distance away. I must have gone back to my tent to get something. My next memory is of walking the long dark track wrapped in my sleeping bag. A figure up ahead suddenly came toward me.

“Joyce,” it cried out.”Is that you?” Rob walked up to me. His face in the moonlight was full of horror. “I thought you were a giant ninja turtle come to take my soul.”

This was hysterically funny to both of us. We staggered toward the car, laughing. We laughed and laughed until we started to cut down through Tioga Pass where a huge full moon hung in a velvet black sky. Then we both began to cry, convinced that no matter how difficult our lives had been and they certainly had, this moment made it all worthwhile.

It took some time to find a motel. Rob disappeared into reception and came out laughing and waving a key.

“I told her you were my sister,” he chortled. “And I think she believed me.”

There were five beds in the room. It took us an age to chose.

So I scratched vacation spots of 9000 ft. off my list. The town where I was able to sleep was 7000.

Peppermint Creek up the Kern River in Kern County qualified. We spent several vacations there camped under the redwoods beside the rock pools. No problem. Well, there was the time I was getting breakfast food out of the car trunk when something breathed down my neck. Something taller than me. I took a breath. I slowly turned to meet death by bear and found myself nose to nose with a cow.

Then came the year after I had had major surgery, a whole year after. Shouldn’t I be ready to camp up there?

Obviously not. This was my daughter’s dream vacation after a very hard year. Both sons-7 and 16-were there, the latter of whom lived with his father across the continent, her newish man, her best friend and me, old short-lunged me.

Suffice to say that I spent my nights sitting in a car seat, only slightly reclined, the only way I could breath. Well some of the night. The rest of it was devoted to taking the trenching tool and the flashlight and hying myself off into the bushes. This time, altitude sickness featured the runs. But rattle snakes hunt at night and we seemed to be camped in the middle of rattlesnake city. And the flashlight seemed to have a black spot in the middle of the beam. True I could see the bowl of heaven above me and it was absolutely dense with stars. I felt as if God were talking to me. During the day, I got more and more skittish. I was getting about 2 1/2 hours sleep a night. I didn’t want to spoil the holiday. Guess whether I did.

So now I am here at  5000, among pines and bird song. And sun. I’m Canadian, don’t forget, and we’ve had a cold, rainy spring. I  have taken two walks. All roads are uphill! I stop frequently. I aim for benches. Getting showered and ready for the day makes me breathless. I sit gazing out windows at the pines. I sit on the deck gazing at the pines. I sit and read. Once in a while, when I get rested, I do tai chi. Down at sea level, I am full of energy, all those new red blood cells racing around.

I want to stay of course.



Bulletin from Shangri-La: the boxcar house

boxcar house #2

Shangri-La, here in the Sierras at the bottom end of Kern County has a type of house called the boxcar house.

This is the possible view from the back of the boxcar house.

mountain view from boxcarmountain view #2This is the actual view.

actual viewThere are no windows on the long side, except around the front door. There are sliding doors at either end, but we are enjoined not to leave them open, in case of bears. THey are the only windows that open.

During the day when we are out, the temperature inside soars. It is still about 90F/33C when we return. There is no AC. Someone used to live here full-time. How?

My room-mate and I have 163 years between us. The bathtub is two feet off the floor. Tai chi and a well-anchored bar makes it possible for me into it to take a shower. The other gal showers elsewhere.

Our first night is amusing. It is about 60F/15C inside. We have been told there are wall heaters. And yes there are. I turn on the one in the living room. It heats well enough, but not as far as the open kitchen and certainly not to the bathroom or the bedrooms, which are at either end. I turn on the heater in my bedroom. The fan powers up. A little guy inside is hitting heavy metal with a sledge hammer. I actually try to bear it. After three minutes I shut the heat off. I prefer silent cold.

The phone will not make long distance calls. The owner lives in Ventura. My cell phone gets no reception at this spot. Who carries a phone card these days? Next day, we learn that the noise will quit after the first five minutes. That proves to be true.

I start to make my bed. Like all rental cottages, this one does not provide linens. We have brought linens from the house in the pines, over the way. The bed is queen-sized. My sheets are not. If you turn the top sheet crossways and tuck it in at the sides, it more or less covers the mattress. Then the fitted sheet can be tucked in at one bottom corner to serve as a top sheet. I pile the five blankets, I find in the cupboard on top.  Quite a heavy load. I wrap what turns out to be a padded baby crib mattress cover around my shoulders and endeavour to read in bed.

In the morning, I decide to boil water for tea. I search all the cupboards. No kettle. For a few dizzy moments, I can’t find any dishes at all, until I spy the narrow cupboards built into the front wall. I find a pan to fill with water. How to turn the ceramic top burner on high. I take a guess. Ten minutes later the pan is still cold. My room-mate is an outgoing, former actor, a famous joker, but with less salty language. I stand there in exasperation and hear myself exclaiming, “Bad word, bad word, bad word.”

But here’s the best part. It is silent. No railway trains, no traffic noise. One jet – overhead in two weeks -a fighter from Lompok. No light pollution. Great beds. Excellent water pressure. Lots of hot water. And it is costing less than $60 a night. I have the address.