Monthly Archives: September 2005

The Earth Turns Color

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Fall is a beautiful season here in Sonoma County. Being a California native, I have taken umbrage at those who claim that California doesn’t have proper seasons. These people can only see two: rainy and dry—and they usually complain about the rain. Yet to me, the four seasons fit perfectly with what I see, feel, smell, and experience through the year here.

Fall begins hinting in mid-July when the acorns start dropping from the oak trees. Then around early August the oak leaves start to turn brown—slowly at first, but by September when the heat comes in waves and the whole region is baked by the harvest sun the oaks are joined by the fruit trees, the grape vines, and lastly by the maples which need a good cold snap to really turn.

At the Fall Equinox, the season has been around for about six weeks by my calendar. Then comes the browning of the earth, one of the most difficult points of the year for me. The chickory, which blooms by the roadside in brilliant blue late into August, has finished its flowering and turned to seed. The grasses are long since harvested, the cows have trampled the golden hills so even the pastoral vistas look tired, overused. Taking a walk through nearby Ragle Park into the seasonal wetland around Atascadero Creek, the ground which stays damp so long into the summer is baked dry. The foliage is not only dry and brown but sparse, as though picked over far too many times by hungry critters. Even the birds are brown, fat little nondescript birds the color of mud, with no song of brilliance to offer the day, only monotone chirps as they go over every stalk once again on their rounds.

The land, the animals, the people, all wait for the rain. It is a wait with an edge of pleading to it: many of us remember the seven years of drought within the last decade, when the rains started hopeful but soon petered out, leaving the hills a delicate green that barely lasted through mid-spring. But even without the rains the air changes in late fall, dropping its pollens and the dust from harvest’s tractors, stripped down to some essence of fall-turning-to-winter. As the air changes, the browning of the year starts to feel less like fall and more like winter. It still can be hot during the day but the air is crisp and cold at night, and even the fog rolling in from the ocean has a stinging bite that is characteristic of winter.

Finally, the rains begin. The earth opens her pores, everyone tilts their heads up to wet their faces. The trampled grass of the fall turns to wet straw, and finally to a mat of mulch which helps the land conserve the water that is falling. The dirt-brown birds go away somewhere and their hapless cheeping is replaced by the erotic sound of frogs in the wetlands. Frog singing is a very wet sound, like slick skin enveloping yours. It comes from all around, not a single source, and if you time it right you can walk through the deafening sound and be completely transported to the Dreamtime.

The frogs bring winter but it’s a bebop winter, full of wild syncopation, surges and silences that catch your attention and keep it enthralled. The dampness freshens the air, plumping it up and making it feel so good in the lungs. It’s as though with every breath we re-hydrate ourselves after the long waiting spell. Rather than causing the air to lose its clarity, the rain makes the air crystalline, brilliant. Standing on a hillside after a rain, there is such an incisiveness to the air that one feels capable of seeing with perfect acuity well beyond the horizon.

That is the weather I love the best here: the kind that finally warrants pulling out the wool sweaters and dressing in layers. Sure, it rarely snows in the coastal foothills, but an arctic storm is an arctic storm no matter what temperature it is. I love it when the wind howls and the rain pounds and finally sunny California is forced to batten down the hatches and cease activity, if only for a long night. Maybe it’s the revenge of the introverts, this love of winter in a sunny clime. Inwardly I sneer and scoff at those who complain of the cold and damp. I can be tipped into road rage upon hearing one too many radio djs refer to winter storms as “bad weather” and sunny December days as “good weather.” For heaven’s sake, didn’t we learn anything from the drought?! Seasonally-appropriate weather is good weather.

The kneejerk prejudices of news anchors and commentators towards the weather also shows up in their near total lack of understanding of the seasons. December 21st is the Winter Solstice, also known as Midwinter. Here in California, Midwinter means exactly what it says: it’s the middle of winter. Not the beginning of winter, as you will hear everywhere. Winter begins here with the rains and the turning of the air around Samhain, or the beginning of November—give or take. By the mid-winter holidays, it’s been around for quite a while.

I will write more about winter when we finally get there, but now we have entered the long waiting period, the browning of the earth, and the sun is beating down on us in great waves of inescapable heat and the dust rises in anticipation of each foot setting on the trail. The fall teaches a plodding patience, and is interspersed with moments of almost unbearable sweetness as a choice ripe fig or luscious pear comes within grasp. May we all bow to the lessons of the seasons, and come to ripeness in our own time.

It All Comes Down to Flatware

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I’m on a campaign of late, to surround myself with beauty and to write more. Happily, this two-pronged plan has a singular solution, which is to spend more time by the ocean at a property we own in Bodega Bay. There, in a half-finished house overlooking the bay, I can watch the fog roll in over Bodega Head, or sit out back on the porch swing and watch the moon rise over the eastern hills. It is as close to serenity as I can get and still be firmly on the planet, and the solitude (no internet! no TV! no people!) makes it possible for me to write.

Less than a block from our house is Bodega Bay’s unofficial dog park — a stalled development known as Harbor View Homes, formerly the similarly dreadful-sounding Romancia subdivision. It is a beautiful hillside just across from The Tides Restaurant that several years ago was stripped of vegetation and vernal pools, got a nice sweeping road put in with utilities at the curb for future houses, then just sat there unbuilt while the lawsuits began. Today, it is a nice wide unused asphalt boulevard where people can walk while their dogs cavort and meander through the vegetation growing back in the empty lots.

The dog park has a stunning view of the bay, wild hills and canyons to the east, and on a clear day you can see all the way south to Tomales. These last few days the coastal fog has been high, meaning the wind is very light and the bay lies still like glass reflecting the varied colors of sunlight through the fog. I take my dog Vince out there with me, and I have never seen him happier than when we walk the big circuit through the dog park and he gets to run around off leash. The other night we walked around at twilight, and I saw what I thought was a hawk fly low and silent, alighting on a fence a few yards away from us. Then as we rounded the bend I saw it fly by again, landing on top of a nearby telephone pole. Its head was far rounder than a hawk’s, though, and it was swiveling to the right and left in an eerie silence. I don’t know that I’ve ever been that close to an owl on its nightly hunt, but it was incredibly beautiful to watch. Maybe now that the rat population is exploding here in Sonoma County, we’ll be seeing more owls.

On Saturday I spent the day in our Bodega Bay house, cleaning the construction dust and debris out of the kitchen and making it a workable, clean living space. The plates I’d bought a year ago I took out of their boxes, washed, and put up on the now-painted shelves. Last year I had thought I was outfitting the house as a vacation rental, so bought most kitchen stuff on the cheap, at yard sales and places like Ross Dress for Less. While picking out flatware, I’d noticed some very nice stainless that was too good for a rental but was just the kind of thing I fantasized about having in my own house. With our house so full of young people for so many years, we had agreed early on that our best bet for purchasing silverware was at thrift stores for 25¢ a piece. Ross being a handy guy but sort of laissez faire in the tool department, most of our forks ended up with bent tines from having been stuffed into odd places, and the tips of all our sharpest knives were bent from being used as screwdrivers when it was just too much trouble to find the real thing. I hated it, and comforted myself with the idea that when all the children moved out I would buy us matching flatware — not the cheap kind that bends easily, but solid silverware, with simple, smooth lines and a good feel in the hand. So I had been in a quandary, there at the discount store: buy the cheaper stuff suitable for a vacation rental, or indulge in the flatware of my dreams (at discount prices!) because I had enough money for it. In the end, I bought both, and stashed the good stuff away for that happy day when we could dump out the Salvation Army stuff and really treat ourselves to some nice flatware.

Saturday, I looked at both kinds of flatware still in their boxes and wondered which to open. I thought I should probably open the cheap stuff as intended, but the good stuff was so tempting. I knew I’d just love eating my dinner that night with beautiful, well-made silverware in hand. Eventually, it dawned on me that what I was trying to answer were much more fundamental questions: was this place mine, or someone else’s? Was my desire for beauty a passing fancy or something that I needed to take seriously? And what prevented me from doing the things that make me happy?

Suddenly all the difficult questions in my life were carefully balanced on the fulcrum of a single set of flatware. The import of the decision was so large that I needed to sit down under the weight of it even to think. In the end, I put the cheap stuff back in the cabinet and opened just one box of the good stuff. I can’t quite make the leap to getting all 20 place settings unpacked, but four is enough for now. I can share with up to three people at a time my complete happiness in having perfect spoons for stirring tea, and beautiful gleaming forks that won’t bend when you press them down. For dinner I cooked eggs mixed with shallots, clamshell mushrooms and homegrown tomatoes, and a salad with smoked salmon on the side. I sat by myself at a clean round table in my clean, bare house overlooking water the color of gleaming silver, and thought it was the best meal I’d had in my entire life.

What It Takes

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All I can say is, thank God for Jon Stewart. I thought I was going to die when the Daily Show took a week’s vacation just as a natural disaster struck the Gulf and a national disgrace continued it. But this week, my favorite asthmatic Jewish comedian is back, and for brief half-hour segments the truth doesn’t hurt quite so bad. If anyone hasn’t yet seen the Beleaguered Bush segment with Ed Helms’s chart featuring “Osama and Jenna”, that is really a must-see. (The fact that their internet clips only play in Windows Media Player, however, sucks.)

Al Franken also made me laugh today, bless his bones, with his “interview” of the old woman teaching 20,000 3rd graders in the Houston Astrodome. I remember him and Tom Davis on the early days of Saturday Night Live, and their “Franken & Davis” routine. It wasn’t that good; I would say they succeeded in being funny about half the time — on par with the show as a whole most nights. But he has definitely gotten funnier with time; his “Finding or Looting” game show today was absolutely hilarious.

Other than that, not much worth laughing about is going on.

Three years ago, as 9/11 segued into the drumbeats of war and we were doing everything we could to prevent a war from happening but it happened anyway, I read an email post from an American Pagan ex-pat in the UK that has stayed with me. I can’t remember who it was, maybe Michael York, but it was someone on the Nature and Religion Scholars e-list, an occasionally fascinating, sometimes contentious, often obscure and/or irrelevant forum. Anyway, I remember him deriding the Orwellian nature of our national discourse, with mindless hordes of Americans going along with the lies we were being fed about the war, and he made the comment that he was never going to live in the US again because this war was “the final nail in the coffin of American democracy.” I just looked at that post and shook my head, thinking, “he must have a pretty low tolerance for pain if he thinks this is the final nail of anything.”

We as a nation have sunk pretty low. The FEMA fiasco sinks us below sea level, I think. Al Franken is right, the neo-cons and their religious fundamentalist backers have no ethics, just a lust for power and a willingness to do anything to keep it. Social justice is a penniless term in America right now. But even this current crisis is not the final nail in democracy’s coffin. Not while there’s a shred of power left in Roe v. Wade, not while people are still fighting for universal health care, not while there’s still hope that honest, independent journalism will rise from the ashes of the media monopoly.

I take comfort in the fact that we are a revolutionary country — that was how we began, at least. When push comes to shove, we value rebellion and independence above most things, and we have vast stores of ingenuity just waiting to be tapped when opportunity arises. I hope and pray that, as Jon Stewart says, Hurricane Katrina is Bush’s Monica Lewinsky. I hope more Kanye West moments keep happening, that American unrest reaches a boiling point and takes up permanent residence on the front pages of every newspaper. I hope the midterm elections bring in ethical people from both parties who are genuinely ready to eradicate poverty in this country. (As opposed to eradicating the impoverished.) And, like Mark Twain, I believe that reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.

In Praise of Goats

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For the past few days, there has been something very foul-smelling under the house. It was most noticeable in the hallway from the garage, and especially in the basement under the ritual room/music room/dream studio. Each day I monitored the smell and dreaded the inevitable search for what had died and begun decaying. If it were a small rodent, say a mouse, the smell would peak after a few days and then start to recede as the little mousie dried up. But this odor was not receding, it was getting more rich and complex each day. So today Ross and I finally undertook the basement search to find and dispose of said visitor.

Our basement is somewhere between a crawl space and a full room in height. It is a storage area for construction materials as well as lots of furniture that didn’t have a home once we moved in with Rosses dad last fall. Up until about a year ago it had been our nephew Alex’s bedroom for five or six years, so it was chock full of old stuff Alex had left behind, dressers and bed frames, antiques, plumbing fixtures, dollhouses, bags of mortar — in short, a place any sickly rodent would love. As we walked in the door, flashlight in hand, and were greeted with the first waft of smell, the thought that popped into my head was, “I’m so glad I’m not in New Orleans. I’m so glad I’m not in New Orleans.”

Following our noses toward (as it turned out) a dead rat cozied up in the insulation was gross, but I can’t even imagine wading through streets and houses filled with water, looking for corpses that have been fermenting for days in order to get an accurate count of the dead. This is among the many horrors coming out of New Orleans and the surrounding areas that I don’t want to imagine (although I do all the time), and that I believe no one should have to be actually living through.

Like most of the rest of the country, I have been watching the tragedy unfold in New Orleans and been absolutely sickened on so many levels. The days of unmitigated human suffering; the failure to act immediately after the levees failed; the lack of preparedness in the days leading up to the hurricane — this caused so much near-term horror that could have been largely avoided. The inability of the federal government to fund wetlands restoration programs that would have protected the city; the yearly reduction in funding for FEMA nationwide; the Iraq war that has drained our first-response resources and all of our money — that is a national tragedy that is all the more wrenching now for having been sickening to watch over the past five years with W at the helm of our country. (Although here’s a good piece suggesting that restoring the wetlands might not have helped New Orleans this time around. I don’t know if you can access the article without subscribing to Salon.com, but if you really want to read it and aren’t able to, email me and I’ll send you the text.)

Anyway, faced with such a national tragedy — and a national disgrace, let’s admit it — it’s hard to know what to do. Like so many others, I walked around stunned for several days, glued to the news, sending money, praying for the dead, the living, and the land. It has caused me to take a close look at how prepared we are here for an earthquake. The Loma Prieta quake in 1989 had the net effect at our house of breaking a mirror we had leaning against a chest of drawers, and sloshing water out of our redwood hot tub. Oh, the trauma of Californians! But if a Big One hits (why does everyone say *The* Big One, like there’s only going to be one?), it’s going to be more than a minor inconvenience. So I’m getting serious about being prepared for when California’s luck inevitably runs out. Everyone else who lives here should do the same, immediately.

The other thing the hurricane/flood has done is that it’s made me appreciate simple things. Right now, my favorite simple thing is goats. Goats are very intelligent, wonderful animals, and they will eat blackberry vines down to the nub! The blackberries around here are running rampant, so we borrowed the neighbor’s goats and within weeks the berries were decimated. Having a goat of our own might be the best way to keep the vines in check.

Fish is getting way expensive, as is (good, organic) meat of all kinds. In the absence of animal protein I tend to eat more cheese, but I have a hard time digesting cow’s milk cheese. Goat cheese, on the other hand, is easy to digest and absolutely delicious. The other day I found some goat gouda from Holland that was absolutely heavenly, and there’s some great local businesses that make mouth-watering cheeses from goat’s milk. Cypress Grove has lots of varieties that I’m sampling very slowly, as does Redwood Hill Farm and Bodega Goat Cheese. A big part of my simple pleasures campaign is feeling gratitude for living in a spot that has such wonderful food as I stroll leisurely through the cheese section of our local markets each week.

But I’ve saved the best for last. My absolute favorite — only for special occasions, because it’s hideously expensive ($7 a pint!) — is La Loo’s goat milk ice cream. Oh man, the flavor and texture of this stuff is out of this world, plus their recipes are incredible. Fig ice cream, strawberry that has a little sweet and a little balsamic vinegar taste, molasses ice cream, a deep rich chocolate… I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s made nearby in Petaluma, which deserves all good things from its recent renaissance of nice river-district development plus the way it’s becoming the center of so much fabulous specialty food production.

This is how I am surviving these difficult times — being frugal, working a lot, getting prepared, and every now and then having a little taste of heaven on earth. I highly recommend it. With so much of our national manufacturing capacity being dismantled and our economic dependence on other countries getting increasingly scary, it’s nice to know that even our little indulgences can help support local businesses, and encourage the creation of jobs that won’t disappear if (Gods forbid) calamity strikes nearer to home.