My favorite book, as a kid, was about this puppy that always lagged behind the others. The Pokey Little Puppy sniffed about, dug holes and gazed through fence gaps while his mates raced ahead, found all the bones, then raced home for dinner. The bowl was always empty when he finally showed up. I named the stuffed dog I slept with “Pokey.” He still sits in my window seat. Do you see, now, how it happened? Those bare patches? All that pokiness rubbed off on me.
“Congratulations! It took you long enough!” a friend laughed this week, regarding my upcoming picture book. Hey! Only three and half decades! Right. If I were a dog, I’d be Pokey. If I were a plant, I’d be that century plant that takes a lifetime to bloom.
My whole life, I wanted the same three three things: to be a cowgirl, a writer, and a mom. They seemed like humble enough goals. I set off blithely into adulthood to lasso them.
Sadly, cows don’t actually roam the wide-open plains much anymore, serenaded by vaqueros. Mostly, they’re corralled in big feedlots, and the roaming ones are often herded around by guys on ATVs. I put that dream on hold while I worked out my options.
The dream of writing eluded me too. I failed Journalism due to showing up a day late for the final. You see how it goes. I submitted stories by the dozens to book and magazine publishers. The stories were mostly terrible. The editors were mostly kind. Still, I needed an umbrella to shield me from the rejection slips raining down upon me. My writing career went along about as well as my cowgirl career.
I turned tail and fled to Plan B: becoming a speech therapist, where at least I could get a paycheck. There I could work with kids and words too--while I waited for publishers to pound down my door. I married my high school sweetheart. After his medical training was complete, I announced it was high-time to start a family. I still believed dreams were like peaches--mine for the picking.
But becoming a mom was trickier than I’d guessed, as well. Unlike most people-- who make babies without half trying, I couldn’t get the stork to fly anywhere near our house. After two years of "trying" and failing, I started the long trudge through the land of infertility.
I’ll skip over the misery of this era. If you’ve been there, you know. It’s enough to say that sadness follows infertility patients like a coyote tracking a rabbit. While friends are throwing kid birthday parties and heading off to Disney Land, you're trying to climb out of the hole of another failed cycle, smile through a friend's umpteenth baby shower, and face down another weird, uncomfortable fertility procedure. I was 36 and all my best dreams were dangling way out of reach.
And then, miracle of miracle, just as I was trying to imagine being childless forever, the stork arrived. As infertility stories go, I hit the Baby Jackpot. One year after our first son arrived, two more followed in quick succession. In spite of the overwhelming exhaustion of three babies in three years, I've never taken these blessings for granted. We dove into into family life with gusto, making up for lost time. The mess and mayhem, hilarity and hijinks of raising three boys so close in age are hard to describe. But I don't question my miracles.
Once a month, I took a welcome break and soaked up the exhilarating tonic of a writers' group near me. This bunch of talented, brilliant, passionate and accomplished women who wrote just for kids. They saved my brain from dissolving like a sugar-lump in hot tea. They taught me their craft, critiqued my blunders and inspired me. A member recommended a small publisher for a story I’d written, so I sent it off, with little expectation.
A year later, another miracle arrived. Not a baby (thankfully) but a contract, to publish my story. I was dumbstruck. And euphoric. And confused. Because nothing really happened for a long time. More messy, loud, chaotic years passed, with little contact from the publisher. I began to wonder if I dreamed that contract. More years went by. My boys grew up and went off to college.
In the mean time, the publisher, illustrator, and publicity women, all in Minnesota, were busy making other picture book dreams come true. In due time, they turned their time and talents to my manuscript. Picture books, it turns out, are a time-consuming, collaborative affair. During the years we've been in contact, I've come to know, admire, and treasure this extraordinary, inspired, environmentally-passionate group of book-makers that are Raven Publications.
Big Fish Dreams is based on a true story about a salmon and a family fishing trip. Consie's artwork is glorious. Johanna Dee Hyde, an amazing publisher, editor, fire-fighter and canoeing guide-- taught me so much about watershed and the plight of salmon. It was her vision to help salmon in a more direct way. Part of the proceeds will go to stream and river restoration, so you'll be helping our watersheds if you decide to purchase a copy. Big Fish Dreams is due to be released this May 1st to bookstores and Amazon, but can be preordered from www.ravenwords.com . I hope you'll enjoy it with a kid you love.
Nothing beats a dream coming true, no matter how late it shows up. Perhaps slow-moving dreams just seem slow because we have an arbitrary timeline in mind. Like peaches on the tree, they ripen when they're ready, not one minute sooner. I'm pretty sure that wherever we are, at any given time, is exactly where we're meant to be. It's our job to figure out why.
I may never gallop across the plains herding cattle, wind in my hair. But then again, who knows? They probably have cow-girl camps for dreamers like me. In the meantime, I have two cherished, ancient, backyard horses waiting for me to bring them breakfast.
Some lucky folks are sprinters, knocking accomplishments off their lists with ease. But lots of us are wanderers, poking along, with plenty of detours along the way. Thankfully, sometimes even the pokiest pups find a bone. One way or another, the longed-for baby arrives. The century plant blooms. And sometimes-- the damn book finally gets published. However, if I hope for any more books in this lifetime, I may need to get Pokey an assistant. I'm thinking of a stuffed jackrabbit. Or a road runner. Because, wow. This really did take me long enough.
Feeling moody? Here's a favorite of mine!
Willie Nelson, My Heros Have Always Been Cowboys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMko5LelBdA
I breezed into my horse stall last evening, swinging a pair of buckets. I was singing, as I recall feeling ok in general--when the tip of my shoe caught under a plank, partially buried in the ground. Most of me flew forward. The foot-part of me stayed put. It's rude, really, how hard the earth is. I slammed face-first into ground. It knocked the wind clean out me, spitting dust and hay. A feeling of outrage, at the pain and at crashing down in such an abrupt fashion. Other than a pair of bloody knees and a pulled muscle or two, no damage done, except to my dignity. Obstacles. Ugh. They catch us off guard. They get in our way. They sure can get our attention.
A board is small, as obstacles go, and for most people avoidable--but life has so many big ones, ones we can’t avoid. Some so large that they seem insurmountable. Many of us have several at one time. Money issues. Health. Anxiety. Depression. Family problems. Loss. Grief. Loneliness. Fear. Anger. Addictions. Kids, parents, pets that need us, and not enough time, knowledge, resources or skills to address all the holes that need filling. The list is endless. And once one obstacle is conquered, another one pops up, just like those clown punching bags.
Shyness is a stumbling block I've had forever. (As a kid I used to hide in the coat closet when visitors came.) Even today, staring down the barrel at 59 years-- the coziness of being snuggled behind all those winter coats still appeals to me way more than than trying to make small talk at a party. But there’s something in all of us, pushing us to conquer, like flowers pushing through sidewalk cracks, fish beating against a dam, environmentalists hammering away against slow-moving bureaucracy.
Steph Wald is one of the many stream-loving heroes I've met, sporting a ponytail and green waders instead of a cape. As Watershed Projects Manager of Central Coast Salmon Enhancement, Steph's life work is all about removing obstacles for anadromous fish like steelhead and salmon. Ironically, she could probably cast a fly-rod from her office door and snag one of the "ten largest obstacles" in the Arroyo Grande watershed.
Steph sloshes hip-deep through the current, peering into the depths, reading the stream-bottom like a book. “See that change of gravel color? See where the silt is disturbed? Those are signs of fish." I plunge along behind her in borrowed waders, dazzled by the steady stream of science words which I can’t remember. “Water is everything,” Steph says. That much I remember, because she repeats it several times. Our upstream slosh concludes at the big obstacle: (photo above) A concrete weir, no longer critical to the water gauge operation, effectively blocks all young steelhead from from going beyond this point.
Due to a blizzard of rules and regulations, the removal of the obstacle has been in the Arroyo Grande Creek Watershed Plan since 2009. Dozens of bullet-points in the document start with words like "studying, securing, conducting, establishing, providing, assisting, overseeing, scheduling"--including a two year observation and and relocation plan for red-legged frogs! All this--before any "removing" can begin. I don't say this outloud, but honestly, I'm thinking: a few college kids with sledge hammers and some beer could have this down in a weekend. Then the fish and red-legged frogs could all get on with their business!
However--I'm neither a scientist nor a bureaucrat, which is a good thing, because everything would be in chaos, with no accountability or proper measurements of progress. I don't know how things like this work. When I express my dismay over the seeming lack of progress, Steph hauls out a huge binder, The 100 Year Plan for all the problems in this watershed to be solved. ONE HUNDRED YEARS?? I’ll be a fossil by then! "Yes--but it took at least a hundred years to make this mess," Steph reminds me.
I sit down to read, and listen to Steph describe all the projects in the works--and see so many good things happening, in large part due to Steph, her staff, and other like-minded organizations battling environmental, legal and buerocratic obstacles. They educate children with their "Trout in the Classroom" program. They teach about water conservation at the schools with the DROP program. They've just begun a program to protect the famous Pismo Clams. Their staff and volunteers are passionate about the health and vitality of the rivers and streams along the Central California Coast--their feet in waders, their minds on education and eyes on the future.
"The work ahead is not of one lifetime," Steph explains--"but of many lifetimes." Which means she and her colleagues are working for the benefit of people and wildlife not even born yet. And that humility and foresightedness is what makes them all heroes to me. If you want to join their efforts, check out their website at http://www.centralcoastsalmon.com
I don't have any great ideas for obstacle removal -- but I did just read a wonderful book: Mark Epstein, MD, in his recent book, "Advice Not Given" combines decades of Buddhist wisdom with psychiatrist's skill. "What I try to convey to my patients is that they can meet the challenges life throws at them by changing the way they relate to them. The goal is to meet the challenges with equanimity, not to make them go away."
The sub-title of Epstein's book (Advice to Getting Over Yourself) makes me laugh. Ultimately, "ourselves" are probably the biggest obstacles we'll ever have to get over. "Getting over myself" is a work in progress, but a worthy one. It might even lure me out of my shyness closet. As for stumbling over perfectly visible boards in my path--I guess there's a lesson there as well. Each time I inhale this morning, a sharp pain in my rib reminds me: some obstacles can actually be avoided by paying a little attention.
All day a song has been playing in my head. This rendition of Johnny Nash’s song, performed by Jimmy Cliff, is my favorite. Guaranteed to make you feel at least 10% cheerier--maybe even enough to consider tackling an obstacle of your own.
"I Can See Clearly Now" - Johnny Nash
It’s ironic that I’m a terrible at fishing. My dad was an expert fisherman. My husband is an expert fisherman. My sons all fish. My maiden name is even Fisher, for Heaven's Sake! And I wanted to be a fisher-person, if only to please my Pop.
Before I could reach the kitchen counter, my Pop took me fishing with him. He was fishing-obsessed and every family vacation was a fishing trip. I was his Saturday morning fishing buddy at the creek below our house.
Pop and I would get up early. What I remember is that the birds were always singing—because fishing season opens in the spring, and my Pop was always whistling, because we were going fishing.
We’d let my mom and my baby brother sleep in. The two of us would drive to where the creek had the deepest pools, and then wander downstream
Whenever I hooked a fish, I’d yell out, “GOT ONE!” and then Dad would rush over, urging me, “set your hook!” “Keep your tip up.” Usually the fish flipped off before I could land it. I hated that. Even though I felt sorry for the fish, I hated letting my Pop down.
While it’s a fact that I could bait a hook, cast, reel, and even conk a fish on the head, (so it wouldn’t suffer long) and could (sort of) help clean and fillet a fish —I never actually liked fishing. I never got good at it, because I never really wished to catch them. I felt sorry for the worm, and sorrier for the fish. Plus I got bored waiting to catch something I didn’t even want. None of that mattered though, because it was splendid to have my Pop all to myself on those Saturday mornings, going fishing'.
Anyway—after an hour or so, we’d have enough “fingerlings," just the right size for frying up with pancakes for breakfast. Pop would pull the willow branch out of the stream where our fish were strung through their gills to stay cool, tuck them in his fern-lined creel, and we’d head home. Mom and Scott would be up, with pancakes ready—and the Springtime Saturday Morning ritual was complete.
That could have gone on forever, as far as I was concerned. Except that I got this baby brother. As he grew bigger, (and probably showed signs of being a more promising fishing partner) I got replaced as the Saturday fishing pal. But the family fishing vacations continued. I started taking along my sketch pad and note book, fishing for stories and things to draw. I sometimes wondered if Pop was disappointed in me, but if he was, he never said so. We shared other things then—like gardening, and horses. And he encouraged my doodling.
Anyway, in his later years, my Pop got involved in a Water and Soil Conservation group. Stream restoration for improving fish habitat was the passion of his later years. He and a group of young biologists and other volunteers planted baby steel head in a stream that hadn’t seen a steelhead run in 50 years, due to commercial logging clogging their spawning beds with silt.
My Pop passed on, to the great fishing river in the sky, four years ago. And while I never made it as a fisherwoman—I have a wish to help pick up where he left off with stream restoration efforts.
This week, I went to visit the stream where we Pop worked, and where we scattered his ashes. There, not a short-cast away, were three steelhead—as long as a mans arm. Swaying and thrashing in the riffle, digging a hole to lay their eggs. I was so excited, I almost fainted dead away. But I got a short clip to share. I wish my Pop could have been there with me. But somehow, I’m positive he was. Thanks for checking in to Streamriffs--and may all your best fishing dreams come true.
The Chaos Theory says that the flutter of a butterfly’s wing on one side of the world can lead to a hurricane on the other. It’s a weather theory by an American mathmatition, explaining how a tiny disturbance of air makes a wave, which ripples outward, leading to unexpected consequences on distant shores.
(Gus is the disturbance in this creek and in my life as well. I didn’t ask for him, but somehow, a long list of butterfly flaps on someone else’s shore rippled him here to my shore. )
But I’m writing about ripples here, not dogs. I'm not good at math, nor weather, and airwaves are hard to see. But waves in the water are easy to watch. Toss a pebble in a pond and watch the ripples roll to infinity. Every action, word and thought is like a stone in the pond that starts a ripple. Once it starts, you can’t call it back. The trouble is, I’m often sleepwalking through my life, maybe I'm worried or distracted, or just daydreaming, kicking stones into the pond, causing ripples without even noticing. (Each time I write that word, I think of fudge-ripple ice cream, which I would like to have right now, but sadly do not.)
And regrettably, sometimes I actually mean to kick those stones, egged on by the grudges I carry around in my invisible backpack. I rehearse some old story of someone's wrong-doing, embellishing it, even. My grudges love this. They holler for more attention. Mean thoughts go rippling right out into the world. My grudges get fatter and louder. The thing is, this backpack is heavy and the noise is getting to me. Wouldn’t it be great to just drop the whole stinking pack? I imagine that feeling you get-- when you finally get into camp after a long day of hiking and take off your backpack—and feel like you’ll float right into the treetops...
On this darkest month of the year, I’m thinking about how I might experience that lighter-than- air-feeling. Thinking that if even a butterfly flap causes a reaction, positive or negative, maybe I should be more deliberate about my flutters and ripples.
If I’m starting something, just by my thoughts and wing-flapping, I’d like to start something good, like a hurricane of hope, or a tsunami of light and love. A wave of Fudge Ripple ice cream about now would be pretty sweet too.
“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.)
Welcome to Streamriffs.com, a place for fellow creek- walkers and nature lovers. Lori Fisher Peelen lives in California with her family.