“The protective walls of a family are not made of stone, but of love.” Mary Pipher, The Shelter of Each Other
Those walls, I think, include the whole human family, the strangers and loved ones who show up to shelter us when we need it most.
We all understand shelters to be temporary, a place to collect body and soul until we can secure better circumstances. The word comes from the Middle English words, “scield” and “truma,” meaning shield and troops. The notion is of a compact group of soldiers holding up interlocking shields encircling the one in danger.
This fall we’ve had our collective share of natural and unnatural disasters: hurricanes, earthquakes, mass shootings, wildfires. The recent firestorms of Northern California burned close to home. My family’s lives and homes stayed safe, but that wasn’t true for many friends and neighbors. Firemen’s hands were the first line of shelter, banging on door after door in the predawn hours, often pulling dazed, frightened people towards safety through walls of smoke.
Nearly everyone in the fire areas needed shelter or offered shelter. The needing and the offerings are ongoing, for all survivors of fire storms and other calamities-- and will be, for a long time to come.
Large-scale disasters make headlines, but personal traumas require shelter too. When hearts are shattered, we need emotional shelter. During a low point long ago, a friend drove four hours to buy me a pizza and listen to me wail. The pizza is long gone, but the kindness lives on; the smell of pepperoni and extra garlic is still a scent of hope. Emotional shelter can’t fix us; it only attempts to shield us as we struggle to our feet.
During my sons' high school years, they and their friends found their “port in a storm”-- in a fort in the orchard. Through summer mornings, fall afternoons, Christmas-lit nights and spring evenings, they hammered together their idea of shelter, drenched in happiness and sweat.
The fort attracted others as well, young women, drawn like moths to a lantern, tromped through the orchard, bringing art supplies and ideas. I like to think they were seeking more than my construction crew; that they were also drawn to the chance to create and to find shelter from their own storms.
I hope that every single person, who came through these walls felt protected and safe within. They were, I believe, safe-ish, as safe as teens in this world can be, which is to say--not very. Of course I tiptoed down in the dark, more than once; I may as well confess right now. But the rules are different for parents of teens. The fort wasn’t far from home, a literal stones-throw, if you were a budding baseball pitcher, but the orchard canopy made it feel a world away. It wasn’t church camp there--I can attest to that, but somehow this temple of plywood and Christmas lights felt like holy ground.
Each summer the fort evolved as new builders and artists emerged, then disappeared, sailing off to their worlds of college and work. But for one bright era, the fort consumed their free time and imagination. It sheltered them--and they sheltered each other; from loneliness, boredom, stress and the critical, anxious eyes of parents like me.
Wherever we find shelter, however we offer it--a roof to share, a pizza to deliver, a gloved hand reaching through the smoke--I believe there’s a stronger hand beneath our own, helping us hold up the shield. And the old tree fort? This morning, when I peeped inside, I startled two feral kittens sheltered inside, sleeping in a pool of sunlight. Shelter on, human family. And, of course, the song below was playing in my head as I pondered this post all week.
Bob Seger, "Against the Wind": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0Tsnqa8uaQ
Hopeful is my default setting. It’s not a choice, actually, it’s just the way my brain works, even when it’s not in my best interest, even when the star I’m following is more likely the high-beam of an oncoming train. In my last moment I will for sure be scanning the sky for flickers of light, for silver linings and for guiding stars. The thing is, most of the time my faith in happy endings is rewarded with just that--happy endings, often enough, at least, to keep me looking for that star.
Lately though, Hopefulness has taken a beating, right here on my home turf. You see, I live beside a river gasping its last breath. Ironic that a woman obsessed with wild rivers has landed beside a nearly dead one. This is staggering to me. After years of talking to people in charge of water politics, I’ve tasted the sludge of Hopeless, which tastes exactly like it sounds. The Salinas River, with the largest watershed in California, is the most degraded watershed in the state.
It wasn’t always this way. Old-timers tell of gathering at the swimming hole in our town to cool off on summer days. I’ve seen photos of farm-boys with pitchforks, standing beside wheelbarrows piled high with steelhead they gaffed out of the river. For eons before that, Chumash and Salinan tribes lived along the Salinas River Banks. Life along the Salinas River was abundant, until the summer of 1942.
That’s when the Army Corp of Engineers decided to dam the Upper Salinas to quench the thirst of the city San Luis Obispo. So long, Summer Swimming Hole. Huge farms sprang up in the valley, lowering water levels further. So long, fish and beavers. Then vineyards joined the party, turning groundwater into wine. Hello, tourists. So long, every last drop of water. The Salinas River, along my stretch, today, is drier than a cornhusk in the wind.
The upper Salinas River (described by Portola’s crew in 1769 as: “a river watering a luxuriant plain”) is a now a dusty playground for ATV and motor cycle riders, with occasional horses trotting by. Each time I ask how this could happen, I’m met with shrugs. You can’t fight city hall. San Luis Obispo gets our water. It’s a done deal.
But this is actually a story about hope. It starts when I walked into a recent presentation on reviving steelhead in the Salinas River. Hah! Fish with no water? Now that’s something I had to hear. I signed my name as I went in, which registered me for the door prize. (Another Ha! I’ve never won a prize in my life.) I settled down to listen with a cynical heart.
A fish expert named Devin Best, relatively new to the Salinas River Las Tablas Resource Conservation District, began his pitch about bringing steelhead back to the Salinas River. This made me incredulous and a little bit mad. Will they come roaring back on motorcycles? But I listened carefully. In a nutshell, this man with a vision, and with experience up and down the west coast working with rivers and endangered species, told us why there is reason to hope: (I’ve paraphrased here)
Steelhead are remarkably tough. In spite of all that’s been done to eradicate them from the Salinas, the species has persisted in pockets of water.
Dozens of groups along the watershed are coordinating and collaborating their efforts to restore the Salinas.
Growers are hauling out the invasive reed, Arundo, which hijacked much of the watershed. The reeds displace native plants, offer zero nutritional value to wildlife and suck up way more than their share of water.
We just passed the “State Groundwater Management Act” enforcing sustainable aquifers. There will be less water sucked out of the ground, providing more for the river.
The National Marine Fishery Services is working with the Upper Salinas Management group on sustainability plans for steelhead in this region. Mr. Best concluded that he expects to see water and fish in the Upper Salinas River in the future.
The audience filed out. I hung around to ask him some questions. Then it happened. Amazing local artist, Helen Davie, (who had arranged the presentation,) came up to me and said, “Congratulations! You won the Door Prize!” She handed me a beautiful painting of a running river. To be fair, this door prize may have been a little rigged. Everyone except me was already out the door. And also-- she knew me. Still, I was delighted beyond words. Further proof that even blind hopefulness has its rewards.
The painting is a night scene, a river spangled with reflected moon and starlight, titled “Riverbend, Milky Way.” It’s a block print, layered with coat after coat of paint, until it looks like it could flow right out of the frame, right into your home; like you could dip your hands into the cold, starry water and drink it.
And that is my hope. Because one day, before I leave this earth, I hope to see the Upper Salinas River flowing wild and free. I’ll be scanning the sky regularly for guiding stars. In the mean time, this painting hangs above my desk, reminding me that sometimes all we can do is follow the flickers of light leading through the dark, one hopeful step at a time.
“The Pit” is a dirt pullout way down our country road. Teens congregate. Drifters camp. Drug dealers slide in and speed away in sketchy cars.
Really it's just a pullout beside a pretty stream, wedged between two mountains. A row of boulders attempt to keep cars out. Trash barrels overflow. “Keep Out” signs abound. But creek access is rare—so people stop. Everyone loves a stream.
There’s a fire pit here, constantly dismantled by authorities; just as quickly rebuilt by pit-enthusiasts. Maybe this is where it got its name. Or maybe, as roadside pullouts go—this place is just really the pits. Even though I’m the slowest jogger in America, I speed up when I pass the Pit.
But last week, no one lurked at the Pit when I jogged by. I felt brave-- because I had my two disreputable hounds and my big, stern-looking husband alongside me. I suggested we stop for a minute to let the dogs get a drink.
It was a lovely, early-fall afternoon. As we waited for the dogs, my husband pointed out a well-crafted stone wall I'd never noticed--because I always run past like a scared rabbit. Then he spotted a spring, seeping out of the ground beneath a thicket. I'd never seen that either.
Following the trickle of water, peering into a tangle of bushes, I found two sets of old stone stairs. At the base of stairs, cradled between the two flights, was a perfect stone circle, an artisan well. It was clogged with leaves, but brimming with ice-cold, fresh water. Someone long ago had circled it with rock and mortar, making it the perfect place to dip a bucket beside the road.
Suddenly, “the pit” looked different to me. Friendly and welcoming. Beautiful even. Maybe the well and stone work was once part of a beloved homestead, now long gone. Or maybe it was just a wayside rest; a place where travelers refilled water jugs and refreshed their oxen or horses before pulling their rigs over the steep mountain pass.
I was struck with the realization that “The Pit” is more than I'd realized. It's still a pit, but it is also the home of a historical, clear-flowing well, artfully crafted by caring hands. Homesteaders or travelers passed this way, with all their stories and history, long before it was a rough spot in the neighborhood.
A week passed, and I went by, once again, this time with just the hounds. I didn't stop at the Pit, but Gus found a pool to wallow in, just around the bend. We had to scramble over some big rocks to reach the pool. While I watched him cool off, I spotted something even more ancient than the old well: hollows in the boulders where women once sat, stream-side, grinding acorns into flour. Native Americans lived along this stream, hunting and gathering here long before the well or the Pit. They too, had their stories and their history. Who knows what came before them? Who knows what will come after us?
I’m not about to start camping out at The Pit, but I will see it through a wider lens. I hope it reminds me that there is much more going on than what I perceive-- especially when I fall into my own little narrow-canyoned pits. I hope I remember to look around, to see what assumptions I've made, what I've overlooked. Maybe lots of things that seem like the pits have a well-spring just waiting to be discovered. Maybe every pit is actually just a well I haven't finished digging. At any rate, next time I pass, I'll bring a little rake to clear out the leaves--and a cup to leave by the well.
I've had a lot of blunders lately.
I picked a huge bin of yellow peaches yesterday, that were 90% brown mush by this morning because they got too warm and I didn't tend to them fast enough. I'm stalled out on a project I feel passionate-- and don't know how to move forward. I bungled a communication with a relative that seemed to me positive and warm, but was received by the recipient as, well, controlling. Sigh. And just now, I deleted an entire blog post that I'd worked hard on. As if that isn't enough, it is the SECOND one, in as many days, to vanish in the exact same way. If I delete a photo on this program, it grabs all the text as well. Poof! Two hard-wrangled essays vanished into this air. Dismay is the only work I can think of. You'd think I'd have learned. But no, I did not. I've even failed at learning how to prevent failure. Which is why these photos are floating here where I didn't want them.
So, that picture of me smiling? That's not today. That was me hiking a bluff trail with my husband recently, (when I wasn't having a string of failures.) The second photo is of my mom and sons, exploring San Francisco earlier this year. I wanted a more recent photo, but I can't even make the wrong photo go into the right spot, and I'm no longer interested in trying.
I'm not going to write any more about failure, though, because I don't know anything profound to say, except that it happens to me often, and it sucks, and I know the best thing to do is simply try again. But I will try to tell you, in six sentences or less, what I was trying to say, in the vanished essay with the empty birdhouse picture.
Recently, the bluebird family in my back yard grew up and flew away. The sight of the empty box makes me a little blue. It reminds me of my own newly-emptied nest, which is now quieter than a library. I'm happy for all of them, birds and boys, flying free, but I miss bustle and cheer of a growing families. I'll be fine, I'm just adjusting. End of story. (Ok, seven sentences)
When my husband gets moody, he does Useful Things. Rips out old carpets, paints a room, chops down a dead tree. Me--I just wander around aimlessly, getting in his way. Finally I remember; just go outside. Somehow, nature's complete disinterest in me is a relief. Nature doesn't care how many times I falter and fail, what I want, or what I think. Nature just does her work. Birthing and growing, dying and composting, bringing new life up from the old. Trees grow, birds sing, creeks flow. Nature doesn't cling to the past New seasons come, her forms and colors changes. Nature is always creating, always evolving towards the future. I guess that's a pretty good role model for me. Besides, I'm a terrible painter, and Joel won't let me help.
I'll make one more attempt to attach a photo--maybe one of my creek this time-even though I'm likely to fail once again. It won't land here at the end of this sentence, I'm pretty sure--but win or lose--in five minutes, I'm headed downstream. See! Ya gotta scroll down, cause it won't come up here. Oh WELL!
"Stumped: to be stuck on a problem. An old English expression, referring to when a farmer's plow got hung up on a buried tree stump, so he couldn't move forward or backwards. And that is where I find myself. The dilemma of being the proud granddaughter of a beloved, hard-working lumberman--and discovering myself to be a dedicated tree-hugger.
I grew up in a forest of stumps. I thought these stumps were my own private playground, child-size castles and forts for my brother and I. It never once occurred to me that our castles were the skeletons of a lost race of titans. Some of us are deep sleepers, slow to wake.
Now, at 58, my eyes are wide open, and all I see around me are ghosts. Circles of redwoods outlining the space the size of my kitchen, where a mother tree once towered. These circles are called fairy-rings and they are all over Northern California. Walk around any redwood forest and look carefully. You'll be astonished at what you don't see.
In the late 1800's into the mid 1900's, logging was a tough and honorable profession. Times were lean, jobs were scarce ,and cutting down trees for lumber was a path to putting dinner on the table. I don't know if Grandpa worried about leveling the forests around him. I do know he worried about keeping his family fed and clothed.
It's a fact that my family profited from my Grandpa's sweat and hard work. It is a fact that we also profited from the destruction of some of the oldest, largest, most beautiful living things on this planet.
My husband and I now own my grandparents' home, built from the heartwood of ancient redwoods. "Heartwood," Grandpa told us proudly, is the hardest, most valuable section of lumber from the heart of the biggest, oldest trees. Such shocking extravagance for a simple dwelling place. Our home was built nearly a century ago to showcase what could be done with redwood lumber, when most people just used it for chicken coops and dairy barns.
This house sheltered my grandparents for the last third of their lives. It embraced our entire family as I grew. The walls still glow a warm red-gold, sound and sturdy after 90 years. I love this home passionately. I am pained by its history.
A virgin redwood log, sawn in half lengthwise lies in our patio. By the 1940s, when Grandpa owned the mill, most of the virgin timber was gone. Loggers had to settle for spindly, second growth trees. But when this log was hauled in, Grandpa thought it noteworthy. He kept a section for a picnic buffet table, and as a place to display his hundreds of flower pots.
Ten couples could slow-dance on this picnic-table. My husband thinks we should preserve it with concrete crack-fillers and wood-preservative. My uncle thinks we should donate it to the sawmill museum across the road. I ponder all these ideas. I'm stumped by the right thing to do. Currently, it lies on the ground, where Grandpa placed it with his forklift nearly 50 years ago, slowly being reclaimed by moss and wildflowers.
In my mind, this is preferable to being displayed in a museum, or shined up with shellac for posterity. Both of these feel like glorifying a crime. Lying here on the earth, slowly decaying, while sad, is at least honest. Recently, a crack has developed right through the heart of this old log. Looking closer, I see something that heaves me off the stump of indecision.
A tiny redwood has sprung from the cracked heart of this ancient log. Redwoods are notoriously hard to start from seed. Conditions must be just right. I don't know much, but I know this: when God plants a tree, he doesn't wish concrete, chemicals nor varnish poured on it.
For now, the log will stay put, unvarnished, uncelebrated, unknown by most. It has a new job, cradling a life that could last 2500 years, provided we simply leave it alone. If I planted about ten thousand more redwoods, I might pay off the family debt. But for now, I try to be a voice for the trees that are left.
I ponder the parallel of trees and humans. We both get stumped by problems we didn't ask for. We both can't change the past, and have little control over the future. Perhaps it is only when hearts are cracked wide open that they're most available to miracles.
Six weeks ago, I stepped out into a rainy, dark night with Bo, our mixed-breed mutt, for the before- bed-dog-walk. Rivulets of rain pour down the driveway, small creeks converging into bigger ones. I'm visiting our family cabin alone this trip, with just Bo for company. As we walk along the edge of the woods, I hear a new sound. Even over the creek-roaring-sound, and rain-pelting-my-raincoat sound, I hear something else. The tiniest, sneeziest, loneliest, little "achoo" sound in the world, wailing somewhere in the dark.
Bo, enthusiastic squirrel terminator that he is, goes crazy, trying to locate the sound. He finds the first wailing waif, half-submerged in a puddle under the redwoods. Smaller than my thumb, with wet, silvery fur. Its pointy-white face, no bigger bigger than a blackberry blossom. Amazingly, Bo doesn't swallow it in one gulp. He wags his tail like a maniac and whines until I came over. Instinctively, I scoop up the tiny whatever-it-is, and try to warm it in my hands. I have the district feeling I've scooped up a baby fallen star. Oh my goodness, who are you? And where is your mama? The baby stops crying, settling into the warmth of my palm.
I look around and see nothing more. I slip the baby into my pocket and turn towards home. That's when I see the mom, dead on the road. She is not nearly so cute. In fact, she's about the homeliest road kill I've ever seen. A possum. She must have been hit by a car, rigid as a board when I nudge her, eyes wide open. I'll get a shovel for her tomorrow. Bo gives her a quick sniff and moves on.
Suddenly, the sneezy-wailing music starts up all around us, stopping and starting, in the woods, like that one chirping smoke detector in your house that needs a battery. Bo's shepherding instincts kick into overdrive. "Rescuing baby stars, are we ? I'm on it!"
The sound comes from everywhere and nowhere, impossible to localize, scattered far and wide. But Bo keeps at it, and soon, he's found a second, twinkly, sopping-wet baby in the berry brambles He raises his front paw, whining and yipping. I beat my way into the brambles and scoop this one into my pocket as well.
On and on we go, muddling around in the dark and rain, until we have five wet, (but no longer sobbing) babies in my pocket Finally it is quiet. I have no idea what I will do with these creatures. Wet and cold, I turn to go home. But Bo isn't finished. He dives into a culvert where two small streams converge, whining for me to follow.
Water and mud soak through my jeans as I crawl into the culvert, my flashlight illuminating a pitiful sight. One more scrap of life, clinging to the corrugated edge of the culvert, with only its tiny star face out of the water. This one also, wailing in that wild sneezy language I've never heard. I fish out the baby and try to warm it with my hands and breath for a moment, then plop it in my pocket as I climb out of the culvert.
In the warmth of my kitchen, I settle the babies into a towel, nested into my Grandma's straw hat. I set them on the heated floor tiles where they sleep, blissfully snuggled together. All but one. The culvert- star-baby no longer sparkles. No breath. Stiff and cold. Eyes closed, goodnight. After all that effort, I couldn't save this one. My heart feels heavy--even though I know it's foolish. Possums are considered varmints where I live--hideous looking cat-food stealers. Everyone despises them. I head to the trash can to dispose of this little fur scrap. but I can't toss it. It feels disrespectful to throw a baby anything in with the coffee grounds. So I wander, just around holding it, for lack of a better idea. I call, with one hand, the wildlife rescue hotline to make plans for the others. I get simple instructions from some animal-loving saint, to keep the orphans warm and safe until tomorrow when the experts will take over.
It's quiet and late now--I want to talk to someone --but everyone I know and love is long asleep. I make some tea with one hand. Bo lays down, guarding his nestlings, keeping one paw on either side of the straw hat, and I sit, listening to the rain, thinking g about the incredible fragility of life, holding the snuffed out star baby. Then, the tiny body stirs.
I think I have imagined this, but just in case, I start to breath on the fur-scrap in my palm, and after a bit, it shudders. The little star face opens its eyes and looks right at me, squeaking its sneezy sound. Astonished and a little horrified, I feel like I've witnessed a miracle. But mostly, I want to dance. Life is so uncertain and precious. Soon, the revived culvert-star-baby is sleeping soundly, snuggled with his litter-mates. I shower and fall into bed. I awaken several times in the night to check them, and they still sleep between Bo's paws. He is wide awake and vigilant each time I check.
In the morning, I tell all my people about our night. They are somewhere between horrified and amused. You did WHAT? You saved vermin? What are you thinking? In my defense, I think anyone would have done the same. Bo and I pack up the babies in the hat, and head for the wildlife rescue center, where they are scooped up and tended to by the kindest people in the world. Bo looks on anxiously. I am relieved, but feel somehow bereft as we drive away.
Back home, I am chagrinned to see there is no dead mama possum on the road. No trace of a squashed , stiff possum. That's when it hits me. Was that thing just "playing possum?" Was I a total dunce? Did I take away infants from a mom whom later "woke up" and tried to find her babies? I'll never know. I like to think she was really dead and the buzzards got to her before I did. But even if she was only pretending, I've gotta say-Bo makes a much more attentive mother.
Fast forward six weeks. I get a call from the wildlife rescue folks. The babies all survived. And now, by law, they have to be released back where they came from. So Bo and I drove to get them. And settled them down in their box, in a clover patch near the stream where we found them.
They snuggle in the safety of their box until evening, nibbling on the clover blossoms they could reach, for several hours. We watched awhile, then left them in peace. When Bo and I came back, at twilight to check on them, all that was left were six distinct paths, trampled through clover, down to the stream. Six sturdy little stars, setting off to seek their fortune.
Cool things I learned about possums since my adventure:
They can and do play dead--(convincingly and involuntarily,) when frightened. With bared teeth, rigormortis, and foul smelling chemicals leaking from them. They can be out cold for up to four straight hours. This convinces some predators that they are a poor meal choice. It can also fool do-gooders like me.
Possums are small super-herts immune to rattlesnake venom, mostly-immune to rabies, and they can eat ticks without getting Lyme's disease. Speaking of which--
Possums are terrific little sanitation workers--they can munch more than 5,000 ticks in one season, safeguarding us from Lyme's Disease. They also eat slugs and snails, and clean up dead animals that carry diseases. They will also chase off, or kill, rats and cockroaches that invade their territory.
(Possums do like cat food. But that's a small price to pay for their services.)
This morning is the birthday-anniversary of my nature-loving Grandpa, who first taught me to love birds and flowers. The robins are singing, bluejays squawking, mockingbirds showing off, bees buzzing and sunshine pouring down like honey on the lushest, greenest, noisiest spring morning since our long California drought. We have a loud spring here on the Central Coast this year, the bird and bee chorus just tuning up for the day's performance. That's the wonderful news. But we can't take it for granted.
I recently had a peek at a gorgeous, engaging, soon-to-be published children's picture book, titled Spring After Spring. Stephanie Roth Sisson's storyteller the story of the life of Rachel Carson, the brave scientist who told us the truth about the dangers of pesticides in her 1962 book Silent Spring. We never want to go back to that time. I expect to see Stephanie's book on teacher's desks and bookshelves around the world by next Earth Day, inspiring our littlest ones to be vigilant and observant and brave. Because we can't afford to forget the past.
Round Up weed killer is suddenly everywhere again, in virtual monuments to human short-sightedness. We know it kills or sickens whatever it touches. Round Up has apparently been given a wink and a nod by our not-very-green new Administration (Actually, it's looking as orange as the color of dying grass after a shower of Round Up.) But the good news is, we're free here in America. We don't have to buy the stuff. We can pull our weeds, or mow, or whack them, or get a goat or sheep to munch them. We can, (where they aren't causing a fire hazard,) leave them alone, and admire the beauty of native grasses blowing in the wind, giving small creatures a place to raise their young in grassy nests and burrows. Yesterday I was surprised by two speckled fawns, completely hidden, napping in the grass off the side of the road, and my dog startled a wild turkey from her nest under a tent of grass. We could look at grass as a habitat, not just something to slash and poison.
But here's Good News: (all taken from this weeks Economist)
China is finally getting on the green bandwagon and teaching their children about conservation! It turns out Hong Kong has an avid bird-watching population. A nature center in the Mai Poi Marshes, (a huge waterway between mainland China and Hong Kong,) is bringing in throngs of schoolchildren to observe birds, teach them about migrating waterfowl and inspire kids to protect their planet. And--in Tawain, a conservation movement has rescued the spoon billed sandpiper from extinction, by prohibiting hunting and by fighting development in their nesting grounds. And Glory Be, China is suddenly realizing they have a great deal at stake if this climate change business is actually real! Even if the US Administration doesn't believe in it, China is actively looking to cut coal use, invest in green technology, and experiment with ways to reduce green house gases. Prime Minister Li Keying pledged last month, "We will make our skies blue again."
And more good news: Ireland is ditching burning peat bog, which has fueled their country for over 1000 years, in favor of wind energy. They're building wind farms as fast as they can, which is exciting because burning Peat Bog is far dirtier than burning coal (over 23% more carbon spewed into in the air burning bogs) By 2030, Ireland expects enough wind electricity to meet domestic demands, with leftover energy to export to other countries. Cleaner air around the world means cleaner waterways and healthier, noisier springs for us all.
And finally, a small story on foolishness and fear:
I slowed my car as I approached the bridge to avoid hitting the guy. The neighbor that comes every year, with his backpack of chemicals and spray pump, up and down the road, all along the creek. Spritz. Spritz. Spritz. I know he's a man with good intentions, trying to protect us all from fire danger. His yard is always weedless. Now he's focusing on the highways and byways near our homes. Spritz, spritz, spritz, on the waving grass in the culvert which empties into the stream just yards below, home to beavers and fish and herons and ducks, and crawdads and turtles and who knows what else? I've educated my nearest and dearest about this stuff, but I don't intrude into my neighbors' business.
But as I drive past, my stomach is churning. I don't know this man. He looks responsible and serious, like someone who doesn't suffer fools. I don't wish to look like a fool. Also, by nature, I avoid being confrontational, or political, or telling others what to do. Yet, somehow, my car seemingly turns itself around and rolls down it's window, in the space of ten seconds. And my voice is (foolishly) calling out
"Excuse me, Sir. Is that Round Up you're using?"
(No, honey, it's just a little wine spritzer to cheer up the weeds.)
"Yes, it is," he replies, pleasantly enough.
Now I'm stumped. I don't even know how I got here, much less what I'm going to say, but words suddenly come tumbling out.
"Well, Sir, you're so close to the creek, and that stuff's going to kill all of our fish if you keep spraying. And the beavers and turtles will get sick, and--I'm sorry. I'm just sort of a nut about this."
He looks at me blankly. My heart pounds. I feel both foolish and happy. At least I didn't just drive by him this time. I thank him for listening and drive up the road to turn around. When I drive past again, he's taken off his backpack and is heading home. I toot my horn and wave. He gives me a curt nod.
Did I change his mind? Probably not. But I changed a bit, from a woman who never speaks up, to one who just did. And nothing terrible happened. Maybe if we all speak up, when we need to ,even if we feel foolish and fearful, this lucious, fertile, rip-roaring Spring Chorus can continue, spring, after spring, after spring.
It's a celebration on the Salinas River. This is a banner year, because the Salinas is actually flowing, after six or seven of not-flowing. Years of drought turned it into a playground for dirt bikers and ATV fans. After 40+ inches of rain and wild floods, it's now a playground for songbirds, ducks, herons, spring breezes and an alphabet soup of wild things.
I scan for steelhead, knowing that even though I don't see them, they are silently, beating their way upriver to spawn in their native streams, seeking safety in shadows and under tree roots. Anadromous" is the Greek word for these salmony kinds of fish, which roughly translates to "Running Upstream." As living creatures on planet earth-- there are days when "running upstream" can describe any one of us.
Some days, some years, it seems like all I do is struggle against the current. I make everything harder than it needs to be. I worry. I try to micro-manage my loved ones, who (shockingly) neither cooperate, nor appreciate my efforts. I rail against politicians who do not share my views on rivers and streams. I have the bewildering thought that I should have something to show for my 58 circles around the sun--besides wrinkles, scars and offspring that find me both somewhat amusing and (more than somewhat) annoying. But I have no idea what that "something" is. I'm an ordinary woman, having an ordinary life, apparently needing the same lessons over and over.
Still, these gritty little fish inspire me. They don't give up, even after years of this river offering only dust and dirt-bike tracks. They wait it out, until the conditions are right, and then they just swim with all their might. That grit, that refusal to give up, is what makes them survivors. It's what takes them, finally, to the quiet pools where they lay their eggs, propelling their species into the future.
Life has such conflicting messages. "Go with the flow." "Swim harder." Maybe there is a time for each. But today, rambling up river with the pound parolees (who never worry and are deliriously happy just to be here) I'm thinking that maybe the only lesson I need to learn right now, is just to be truly awake, truly aware, of this glorious moment I've been given, with river and sunlight and birdsong. And if the weather forecast holds, there's another blessing coming: more rain on the way, which my fierce little swimmers will love. Happy rambling!
I love standing where rivers meet the sea. Here, I imagine the crescendo of a timeless cycle. An entire ocean fractures into a single drop at the crest of a wave-- crashes, evaporates into mist, morphs into a raindrop, falls onto mountaintops, trickles downhill to become a river, plunges towards the plains, winds through meadows, forests and valleys, and finally, after a lifetime of wandering, pours itself back into the sea. Such a quiet crescendo, for such a miraculous journey.
The end of the trail looks a lot like the end, in general, for the old river. The glory days of bounding over boulders and cascading over falls are behind it. The long, peaceful stretches, that seemed would go on forever, did not. And yet, what looks like the end, is just a new beginning, a merging of the finite into the infinite, like melting into the very best welcome home hug, after arriving home safely at last. Maybe it's only wishful thinking, but standing where Coon Creek ripples into the Pacific, I can't help but ponder: maybe we too are only journeying towards home. Maybe, we are destined to merge and fracture and merge-- whole, to part to whole-- over and over, catching new waves on different shores, rising up again and again in a shimmer of mist. Who knows? In the mean time, happy surfing and streaming!
This week, the rain fell in California more furiously than I have ever seen rain fall. It rained horizontally and vertically and slant-wise, all at the same time, with wind howling like wolves outside the door. The rain seemed intent on scouring our house from the earth.
I've been pondering this uneven bestowing of sun and rain. Seven years of drought, and now this? Pondering the mysteries of the Great Divine, my fanciful, egocentric brain demands:
"You couldn't strangle California with drought, so you just wanna pressure-wash us off the continent?
You're annoyed with our politics?
You're weeping for your lost people? Weeping with joy for our gumption?
You just got distracted and forgot us--and are trying to make up for lost time?"
In my sciencey moments, I assume it is only science, no interference from the Benevolent Creator, and that natural and unnatural forces have messed with our atmosphere so much we've upset the climate balance.
In my best moments, I chose to believe that rain, no matter how much and how furiously it falls, is both a natural blessing, and also, is a sign of abundance and good will. It might seem too much a good thing-- but the frogs are singing, and the ducks are flapping, and the creeks, so long empty, are roaring.
Still, rain like this makes us think of arks. The idea of trying to save humanity from being washed off the planet is worth contemplating. Ok-- to be honest, I don't really want to save everyone. There are a few I would leave off the ark. And that is the problem.. Maybe I need to build a more spacious metaphorical ark--an- extra-roomy-personal-worldview ark--with room for two or more of every stripe and color, for when the rain stops and we go forth to replant, repopulate, repent--whatever.
I picture myself (how flattering!) a tree-hugging Koala, double-bunked, cringing in a cramped, dung-filled stall with a whirling, carnivorous, foaming-at-the-mouth, Tasmanian Devil. It keeps shrieking that everyone (except itself, and the red-white-and-blue striped zebras) have to be thrown overboard. "Put up the wall! Haul up the gangplank ! Make America Great! Dump Toxins into the streams to save the coal mines!" I am aghast. Appalled. I want It off my boat. In my heart of hearts, I acknowledge that the Great Creator made the snarly ones just as he made the snuggly ones. But still, I I want that devil off.
However-- my metaphorical-and-wise Noah-Voice reminds me, the rain will eventually stop, and the world will begin again, with its work of sowing and reaping and lurching towards grace. With only Koalas or Tasmanian Devils (and American-flag-colored Zebras) on board, we lose the strength and resilience and brilliance we only get with diversity. This isn't faith; it's science. There is a reason for each of us to be saved.
So, from my grimly-shared bunk, on my metaphorical ark, I will grudgingly grant this Devil his right to be on board. I will try not to give in to my fear of being eaten alive. I will look for ways to make it apparent, even to a Devil, that for mutual survival--we gotta make space for those not like us on this ark.
I will sing over the shrieking, in my off-key voice, the "Be Kinder than Necessary" and "Take Care of Mother Earth" hymns that are whispering in all of our ears, if we take time to listen. Koalas, it turns out, can be loud when they need to be. In the mean time, let it rain. Streams in California are dancing once more.
Welcome to Streamriffs.com, a place for fellow creek- walkers and nature lovers. Lori Fisher Peelen lives in California with her family.