I used to hike at night in the winter in California. Not (normally) LATE at night but after dark. It was a wondrous world of sounds and the smell of black sage in the Southern California Chaparral. Most of those hikes were with my wolf-dog, Ariel, and with Molly or Lupo. Molly, Lupo and Ariel were pretty large dogs, so I had companionship, a warning system and protection.
The night sky above a big city does not reveal a lot of stars, but there I could see stars unless there was heavy ocean fog. The river valley that made the canyon went straight to the Pacific, so little cat feet of fog often made their way up the valley.
Many animals are more active at night, including mountain lions. It strikes me odd today that I never thought of that when I was wandering up a finger canyon with my dogs. I relied on my dogs a lot on those hikes, their noses, their senses, their instincts.
One of the sweetest of the shadowy experiences was toward the end of a canyon beside some oak trees (coastal live oak) where a pair of Western Screech Owls would often just make a racket. I thought they might have been talking to each other. Whatever they were doing, that was THEIR tree. One night, they were completely silent. I sensed they were there, that their silence was strategic, and that there was a predator near. I was a little bewildered because my dogs didn’t react at all, so if there WAS a predator, it wasn’t upsetting Molly and Ariel.
I developed a theory. My dogs had been around coyotes so much by that point that I think, on some level, they just regarded them as “the dogs we meet up with when we go for a hike with Martha.” I thought there might have been a coyote under that tree. To test my theory, I yipped.
He answered. We chatted. Molly and Ariel lay down, and waited patiently as we conducted our conversation, but after a while they got restless. They were hungry, and it was dinner time. I said my good-byes to the coyote, admonishing him to leave the owls alone and headed home.
One of the loveliest aromas I know is black sage after a rain, but how can you describe a fragrance? With similes, but black sage after a rain really ONLY smells like black sage after a rain.
It doesn’t grow here in Colorado. Its range is limited to Baja California and Southern California.
In 1984, I moved from Colorado to California. I didn’t want to move to California, and didn’t like it all that much most of the time, but here’s the thing. Even here, living in Heaven, I sometimes dream of those sere Southern California hills and their magic, and, sometimes (shhhh don’t tell anyone) I want to go back. I know that going back isn’t just a matter of getting on a jet and renting a car at a distant airport. There’s a bit of time travel involved.
Well, here goes, the fragrance of black sage.
It’s January. Still a month before the rattlesnakes and their babies come out in force to hunt around Valentine’s Day. It rained through the night, a real thunderstorm, and the world is wet, a magic thing in that desert place. You drive down Fairmount, under the freeway and connect to Mission Gorge Road where you turn right. You go west on Mission Gorge to Fr. Junipero Sera Trail where you turn left. This road is fun, windy and fast until the place becomes a park, but since we’re on an imaginary journey, lets say it’s not a park yet. You get to the Old Mission Dam Parking lot and park. You let Truffle and Molly out of the back seat of your Peugeot 505 sti (you don’t have your truck yet) and keep them leashed until you cross the bridge away from the dam area where people are often found. Then you let the dogs run free.
They charge off in a rush of dog joy ahead of you on the trail. You wrap their leashes over your shoulder and adjust your pack that contains only water, an orange, a granola bar and a yogurt container for the dogs to drink from.
You walk through the small ravine cut by the seasonal stream that empties into the San Diego River. In January it has water in it, and Truffle — a mix of a couple of water dogs, Labrador and Springer spaniel — is “fishing,” the white tip of her tail waving in joy.
Molly stays with you most of the time, occasionally catching a scent and chasing it. Molly — Malamute and Australian shepherd — is a master hunter who has come back to you with a bunny butt hanging from her mouth. More than once she’s gone off with the coyotes in the darkness and returned, unable to tell her stories.
As they run, they brush against the sage — black and white — and the air is redolent. The black sage is more common on the scrubby looking slopes, but the white sage is what the Indians use to purify spaces. You sometimes pick a branch or two to burn in your car.
Low clouds drifting in from the ocean climb the slopes, so close you can reach into them, walk through them, small patches of moving fog. When you reach the top of the hill — mountain, the world is green. You climb up to the top of the rock. Truffle and Molly join you. You pour them some water, take the orange out of your pack, peel it, suck on the juicy sections and watch the light play over the ocean, breaking through the shaggy remnants of last night’s storm.
That’s black sage after a rain.
“Salvia mellifera. Salvia mellifera (black sage) is a small, highly aromatic, evergreen shrub of the genus Salvia (the sages) native to California, and Baja California, Mexico”
California has naked geology in many places, fissures where the earth has broken apart. In these spots, Earth’s oldest rock is brought to the surface by seismic activity. Sometimes these fissures opened up a fresh-water spring.
It was fun hiking between the two highest “mountain ranges” in San Diego County. The ranges themselves had resulted from a combination of pulling and folding — like laundry? In between were fissure/valleys, often with small streams and springs.
You can kind of see what I mean on the map — the area is actually pretty small — maybe only 16 square miles. It is exactly between the two ranges and near the spot where they split (to the north). There are two creeks (Indian Creek and Lucas Creek) and at the lowest part of these valleys is a small pool.
I had several hikes that took me to that pool — it’s important when you hike with a hairy dog that they have chances to cool down. One of my hikes took me to the mountain top from which I could see both ranges. The trail is on this map but hard to see. That mountain is in the lower left hand corner facing, pretty much just opposite the direction arrow.
There are a few ways to reach the fissure — one is going down the Noble Canyon Trail which is a mountain biker’s paradise so not the most fun hike, BUT once off the mountain bike trail, within earshot of the stream, there were (before the Cedar Fire) some very ancient manzanita.
One afternoon, hiking with Ariel, my white husky/low-content wolf, as I sat eating my picnic lunch against a hillside and Ariel swam, a mountain biker came thundering down the slope. He couldn’t see me, but he saw Ariel and crashed his bike. He came tumbling down the hill. Ariel just stood in the water looking at him. I got up and said, “Are you OK?”
“Is that a wolf?”
“No. Siberian husky.” I wasn’t given to advertising Ariel’s genetics. Ariel got out of the water, shook and walked over to say hi to the guy.
Another splendid fissure was in Mission Trails Regional Park, a spot now called “Oak Canyon.” In my mind’s eye, the Kumeyyay, while they were under the dominating thumb of Father Junipero Serra and building his damned dam on the San Diego River, retired to that canyon every evening for their dinner of wild bunny and acorns. Morteros and small cisterns litter the Precambrian Gneiss revealed in some seismic moment eons ago. It’s one of the only spots in that summer-sere place that is cool in the afternoons because of the deep shade of the canyon walls. The Indians had blocked the flow of water from the seasonal stream that runs through it with ONE round boulder, a dam that held water for their use 12 months a year in elegant simplicity.
The featured photo is my dog, Truffle, swimming at the place I named Indian Kitchen, Oak Canyon, Mission Trails Regional Park.
On this day five years ago I began the journey home to Colorado. Just at dark, I locked up my house in Descanso, CA and headed the 30 miles down the hill to San Diego. The next day, I would be renting a van at the airport, and turning over my car to a guy who would transport it, but that night I spent in a motel near San Diego State. Lily and Dusty went to a boarding kennel for two nights and Mindy went to stay with her two friends, Bailey and Reina at my friend’s house.
On my way down the hill, I stopped at McDonalds and got a Happy Meal (the best deal if all you want is a cheeseburger, fries and a drink) and I ate it on the way.
I was in a kind of exhausted catatonic state, numbed by necessity. It’s only been in the last year that I have allowed myself to “miss” California where I lived for 30 years.
What do I miss? Mostly I miss the “friendly mountains.” I’d hoped that hiking here would prove great, but it hasn’t, and I doubt it will. Even when I lived here in my youth, I didn’t hike in the Rockies much. The “Friendly Mountains” were far more accessible than the mountains around me now. I’ve thought of returning with the dogs to visit them in December for a few days.
Lots of people hike in the Rockies all the time, but (as I should have remembered) good hikes require overnights and better legs than I have. The “Friendly Mountains” also have no bears and that’s a very nice feature if you don’t want do deal with them. I like bears, but a person hiking alone doesn’t really want to deal with that possibility. Also, I don’t really have pals to hike with consistently — and, when you hike with other people (though I enjoy it very much) the people are the main part of the experience, not nature.
In the “Friendly Mountains” I could get to the top of a “high” mountain within an hour and, from there, I could look down 7000 feet to the desert floor. Weather phenomena was amazing at the convergence the Mediterranean ocean climate where I began a hike and the desert where I might end one.
I’ve learned in these five years that the Rockies are for me to look at. The valley floor itself is a pretty friendly place for a solitary woman with arthritic knees, which makes this the best place I could be. I’ve been learning to see the wetlands in all their stunning diversity. I was already tuned to the miles and miles of the Big Empty, vistas of awe-striking immensity, ringed by mountains. ❤
Tony the Tree Man was an East County Character (there were a lot of those in the remote wilds of San Diego County maybe I was one…). Tony was the best (and only) local tree-trimming guy with a boom truck.
Tony the Tree Man was a local legend.
Years of drought had led to major infestations of bark beetles that killed the indigenous oak trees. Old trees were particularly susceptible and some of them were very tall.
I had a 100 foot dead black oak in front of my Little Stone House in Descanso and as time wore on it was clear to me that sucker could easily fall on my house in one of the 70 mph windstorms that came with Santa Anas. One day I noticed a business card stuck in the chain link fence.
“Tony the Tree Man for all your tree needs. Tell your wife. I’ll trim her bush.”
Yes. How could I NOT hire a weirdo like that? I took the card and called him. Tony showed up to meet me and bid the job. He handed me a magnet for the fridge with the same offer to trim the bush. He looked at the job and said, “I dunno. $300?” An incredibly low bid, but there was more. “And I keep the wood?” Ah. That’s where the big money was in East San Diego County. In firewood. I paid upwards of $500/cord and burned through two cords every winter. Sometimes three if winter were long and spring was wet. There were easily five cords in that tree.
“$200,” I said. $300 was actually fine, but I had to demonstrate that I knew how to live there.
“Have you seen my scar. I was in a MF of a motorcycle accident,” and he proceeded to show me a grizzly scar that went from his groin to his ankle. I’d been warned so I just shuddered respectfully and ignored the divestiture of clothing that accompanied the revelation of the scar. “Amazing you lived,” I said.
“True that,” said Tony reassembling his clothing.
He showed up a few days later with a decrepit boom truck and his assistant. A deaf Mexican.
Since Tony’s language was liberally sprinkled with non-obscenities it was probably for the best that his assistant couldn’t hear him, still, I’d think a tree man would need an assistant who could hear, “HELP!” Maybe the Mexican could hear a little something, but the thing is, the Mexican spoke no English and Tony spoke no Spanish.
They leveled the boom truck. Tony was lifted to the top of the tree. He climbed out of the basket and onto the tree, strapping himself around the tree with a leather lineman’s belt. The tricky part was getting the top cut off so he could safely just cut down the tree.
The boom truck roared. The basket he had abandoned was Tony’s only safety “net.” He hoisted his immense chain saw and started to work on the skinny branches surrounding the top, then, he started in earnest on the trunk — above his head. It was so reckless, so scary that it was hard to watch, but the Mexican had to. At one point he whispered “cojones,” and for a split second I felt I was in a Hemingway novel, but that didn’t last long. Tony sawed and cursed and sawed and cursed, and I went inside. If he were going to split his head open and die, I didn’t want to witness it.
Then came a moment when the chain saw stopped. There was a second or two of silence. “Oh my god,” I thought, my heart pounding. Then…
“We are the champions, my friends And we’ll keep on fighting ’til the end We are the champions We are the champions No time for losers ‘Cause we are the champions of the world”
I went out and Tony stood on a couple branches, leaning backward on his lineman’s belt, his massive chainsaw thrust into the air, singing with all his heart.
Featured image: My little stone house in Descanso, CA. There’s a similar tree in the background. The dog in front is Lupo. 2004 ❤
I think it was April 2014. I was asleep. Suddenly I was awakened, not by any noise, but by the noiselessness that meant the electricity had gone out. I sleep with a white noise machine and a humidifier. I waited. It would either come right back on or… Then it hit. A loud rush down the country road in front of my house, a road that lined up between the mountains and the ocean some 45 miles away, a passage way for wind and storms. A rush then a bang. Never had I heard wind like that. 30 mph. 40 mph. 50 mph. Sure. What was THIS?
I got up and went back to the tedious and consuming job that was my life right then — packing and then getting ready for school. At 6:30 I headed down the mountain to school. Along both sides of the freeway were semi-trucks. The big illuminated sign let everyone know that the winds over the pass were too high for any high profile vehicles. I’d seen that many times before. Fire danger was probably off the charts, too.
“Gusts up to 70mph were recorded overnight on top of Cuyamaca Peak.” My hood. Roofs were blown off barns, barns were blown over, cattle were killed by flying debris and I knew I’d gotten off lucky with the escape of a few roof shingles.
Where I live now, the San Luis Valley, is famous for wind, too, especially in spring. Wind here has the great feature of being “visible.” Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Who has seen the wind, neither you nor I, but when the trees bow down their heads, the wind is passing by” could be questioned here. In March 2015 I got to see an incredible thing. The wind was blowing from the east, pushing a wall of dust from the newly ploughed fields across the valley toward my town. Dustless wind blowing from the west hit that wall of dust and held it there in a standoff. And here it is. 🙂
On the rocky coastline near Ensenada, BC, is a curious natural phenomenon known as, “La Bufadora,” the Blowhole. La Bufadora is a marine geyser. The spout of sea water is the result of air that is trapped in a sea cave. The air is forced into the cave by wave action. It blows up out of the hole with a spray of water when the waves pull back.
Not far from La Bufadora — which draws a number of tourists, even in winter — is a small market and beyond that is the requisite beach bar. On a chilly March night, Señor Marquez, a grape farmer and vintner, and his farm hand, Jose, were lifting cervezas after a long day clearing winter’s debris from the vines. Jose was Señor Marquez former brother-in-law and oldest friend. They’d grown up together, and when the shame of divorce invaded the Marquez home because Jose’s sister was and remained an incorrigible slut Jose appeared at his friend’s front door, shame-faced, hat in hand, “I’m sorry for my sister.”
“You have no reason to apologize to me. We have always known about Erlinda. Do you want a job? You can move in.”
So Erlinda had moved out, Jose moved in, and life continued smoothly from then on and no one ever guessed the secret of the two men.
The party lights around the bar flickered and moved in the wind. “Los turistas estan commenzando venir.” Jose gestured with his head to the door of the bar where a woman in her forties came in with a dark haired, dark haired boy in his late teens or early twenties.
“Not sure. La mujer? Si, but el joven, no se.”
There were only two empty seats in the bar, both at their table. After looking around, the enigmatic couple approached. Señor Marquez and Jose stood.
“¿Con permisso?” asked the woman.
“Sure,” said Jose in English. They all sat down. “You speak Spanish?”
The woman nodded and smiled. “Un poco.”
“You study in school?”
“And you, you speak Spanish?” Jose asked the dark haired, dark eyed boy.
“No. I’m Italian.”
“Close though, ¿no?”
Señor Marquez, having caught the eye of the waiter, raised four fingers in the air and gestured to include the whole table.
The woman shrugged. They had a long drive back to San Diego and she was driving but, one beer?
“You know how? Like this.” Jose took the slice of lime from the plate, sucked on it, took some salt and took a swig from his beer. The waiter had brought glasses, but why?
The woman slowly nursed her one beer and waited to see how things would go.
Before long the table was covered with Tecate bottles, salt shaker, small lime slices, empty glasses. In a cacophony of Spanish, English and Italian stories that no one would ever tell rolled across the table’s wooden surface.
“Love is love, right?” said Jose, shrugging. “So now, I am un campesino, trabajo con las uvas de Andres. ¿Y Andres, here? ¡que desastre! Married to my whore of a sister.
“No mas,” said Señor Marquez with great passion. “Tengo mi libertad.”
¿Y usted? ¿cuál es su historia?” Jose looked at the woman.
The woman stared into the warm beer in her glass as if looking for an answer that would reveal nothing (the waiter had carefully poured it. A lady should not drink from a bottle).
The young man answered for her. “Too much to tell.”
“Debemos irnos. San Diego esta lejos,” the woman said, standing. If the bar had been lit by more than a string of party lights, the two men would have seen her blush.
They shook hands all around, thanking each other for the beer and conversation. When the door closed behind the inscrutable couple, Jose turned to Señor Marquez, “¿Amantes?
Los turistas estan commenzando venir = the tourists are starting to arrive amantes = lovers libertad = freedom debemos irnos = we have to go largo viaje = long drive cual es su historia = what’s your story trabajo con las uvas = I work with the grapes
The cutest baby in the animal kingdom is the California coastal horned lizard. Your chance of seeing one is pretty bleak since, as you see from the photo above, their camouflage is excellent. Add to that they’re shy. You would be, too, if you lived in a place with innumerable skillful predators. Whenever I saw one on a hike, I felt a little bubble of joy. One day I saw a baby. I picked it up and looked at it a long time. As it was in the olden days before cell phones with cameras, you have to look at this other guy’s hand with a different baby horned lizard. It’s OK. They all look the same and all of them are named Spike.
57% of California forest is under the “control” of the federal government: the rest is in the control of corporations and Native American tribes. So, the question is, is Trump copping to the reality that budget cuts, a reduction in EPA funding and regulation, a reduction in federal woodland employees and the persistent denial of the realities of climate change by the Republican Party have all contributed to California wildfires?
NO. He tried passing the buck, only to learn that the buck stopped with him.
I lived in California for thirty+ years. The number and size of wildfires grew each decade I lived there. Between 2003 and 2014, when I moved back to Colorado, I lived in Descanso, a small town at the edge of North America’s southernmost rain forest. This forest covers the Cuyamaca Mountains in San Diego County and has America’s southernmost indigenous redwood trees.
In 2003, the largest wildfire in California history (until last year), the Cedar Fire, swept through those mountains burning hundreds of thousands of acres, destroying an entire town, and killing people. It is the third deadliest fire in California history. (The two most deadly happened in 2017 and 2018. Think about that.)
The Cedar Fire began as a signal fire set by an ignorant dumbass hunter who was lost in tinder-dry chaparral, and wanted his friend to find him. If you look at the featured image, behind the biggest mountain in the photo (Mt. San Miguel which isn’t actually very high) is the forest near where I lived. The forest where I lived is about 50,000 wilderness acres, all of which burned. The Cedar Fire also burned through parts of San Diego all the way to the ocean, a total of 273,246 acres burned. I was evacuated from home for more than a week.
California fires for the past two years have been worse but bad is bad, right?
“I think people have to see this really to understand it,” Trump said in his visit to the site of the recent Camp Fire.
I got news for you, sweet cheeks. MILLIONS of people in California HAVE seen it, and they understand it fine. Those of us who lived in fire-vulnerable towns on the edges of the forests (some towns were — as mine — more than a hundred years old and hadn’t burned) were scrupulous about controlling fuels on our property. Not just that, when a “normal” fire started (as happened twice while I lived in Descanso, California) people in the town and volunteer firefighters were able to extinguish the fires before they could become dangerous. These fires were a water heater explosion, random cigarette butt thrown by a tourist into a dry field. We were not stupid nor were we unprepared or inexperienced. Besides THAT the volunteer fire departments of these towns issues warnings and tickets for people who do NOT clear their property.
Still, the clearest property in the world will NOT stop a fire going 80 mph.
He went on to compare California to Nordic nations (hang on while my head explodes):
“Other countries do it differently, it’s a whole different story,” Trump said, citing purported comments from the president of Finland on how the Nordic nation deals with its forests.
He said they engage in “raking and cleaning things and they don’t have any problem.”
Beyond that, Mr. “President,” fire JUMPS from tree-top to tree-top. Fire jumps freeways and lakes. A fire in motion does whatever it damned well pleases.
Moving back to Colorado, I was shocked to see people actually stacking firewood BESIDE their houses! How much more reckless could they be, right?
“…when he was asked by Fox News in an interview set to air Sunday whether climate change played a role in the number of serious fires, he said: ‘Maybe it contributes a little bit. The big problem we have is management.’ He added that he was surprised to see images of firefighters removing dried brush near a fire. “This should have been all raked out.”
How many BLM guys does it take to rake out 250,000 acres of forest — roughly the number of acres burned in two of California’s recent fires. Add to that the man power needed to clear out beetle kill oak and pine? What IF there had not been, essentially, decades of increasing drought?
“We’ve never seen anything like this in California,” Trump said.
Yes, actually, California has. Year after year, worse every year. And not just California. Washington State, Oregon, Alaska, Montana, Colorado, the entire WEST is burning along with Greece, Spain, Italy, IRELAND (for Chrissakes), Australia, parts of Africa — it’s a pretty long list of tragedies just like this.
In August 2017, the northern hemisphere firemaps looked like this:
I am sure that these fires have something to do with careless people, flying cigarette butts, a spark from an electric wire or a car passing by, they have more to do with climate change. Wet fuel isn’t fuel.
The data tell the story: Six of California’s ten most destructive wildfires on record have now struck in just the past three years…
…scientific evidence clearly shows that climate change is exacerbating California’s wildfires in different ways:
1) Higher temperatures dry out vegetation and soil, creating more wildfire fuel.
2) Climate change is shortening the California rainy season, thus extending the fire season.
3) Climate change is also shifting the Santa Ana winds that fan particularly dangerous wildfires in Southern California.
4) The warming atmosphere is slowing the jet stream, leading to more California heat waves and high-pressure ridges in the Pacific. Those ridges deflect from the state some storms that would otherwise bring much-needed moisture to slow the spread of fires.
I am not a climate scientist, but I read. And I know how our lives are different now from fifty or sixty years ago, not just my life, but the lives of people all over the world. Economic development isn’t free and the costs are not just financial. China in its rush to become a developed nation (and it was /is/has been a rush) said straight up that it would be interested in environmentalism when all its people had the necessities for a comfortable and prosperous life. It has reached this goal and has taken steps to ameliorate some of the damage its development has caused, but it could be too little too late. But, in my personal opinion anything at any time practiced consistently can help.
What doesn’t help is having a president of one of the largest, most influential nations and economies in the world deny the need for human beings to step up — or keep stepping up — to diminish the contribution of human beings to the destruction of our world through climate change.
A 2015 special report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society found that “An increase in fire risk in California is attributable to human-induced climate change.” And a 2016 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that human-caused global warming doubled the area burned by wildfires in the western U.S. over just the past 30 years.
I love this planet. It made me, it feeds me, it helps me continue living, my friends are all here, I find it beautiful.
I loved California. Part of my heart will always be there.
I’m grateful that where I live now, in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, alternative energy sources are not only available, but help the economy in one of the most economically depressed areas of the United States. I was recently given the choice by my electric company to choose where my electricity comes from and it is now all solar generated.
Opportunities like this are happening all over the world. I don’t think our government should drag its heels denying a reality that’s all too real to millions of people.
The manzanita in this photo was a destination for Molly and me — a minor destination. The kind where you stop, look in awe at a hundreds of year old immense beautiful plant, sit down, give your dog some water, get up and keep going to a real destination. In this case, our destination was a small spring fed pool in a narrow fissure between some of the earth’s oldest rocks up in the Laguna Mountains.
I’ve known some rocks that are more than 1000 million years old — very common rocks, the bedrock of the Earth, pre-cambrian gneiss. They offered a lot of good lessons in patience through change.
Truffle “fishing” in a seasonal pool in the “Indian kitchen”
These particular rocks had been used by Indian tribes for hundreds (thousands?) of years for all the things Indians can use rocks for — weapons, tools, cisterns, grinding holes, laundry. A person who was paying attention could imagine a small band of Indians doing their chores with the help of those ancient rocks, grinding acorns or maybe releasing the fibers of yucca to make sandals and ropes.
In October 2003 an immense fire — 273,246 acres — swept through parts of Southern California — both of these places, in fact. The ancient manzanita was burned to the ground. The oak trees north of this seasonal pond where my dog is swimming were burned to the ground, too. But the rocks — except for some staining from orange fire retardant — were still there, still the same. And the manzanita? The roots hold a manzanita’s life. By spring, shoots of the future had already emerged. I wonder what she looks like now, 15 years later.