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Sunday, May 15, 2011

#13 Life on the Mountain and Beyond

Since I am now living in the northern California woods, how appropriate that I should be reading Joaquin Miller’s historical novel My Life Amongst the Modocs, a book originally published in 1878 (and re-issued by the fabulous Heyday Press, which specializes in literature about California history and culture, in particular Native American cultures). Ralph, electrician and literary friend, passed this intriguing work along to me.

Miller used his book to alert the world to the threats suffered by California Natives as a result of rapacious mining, pioneer mayhem and anti-Indian murder. I’m always conscious of the indigenous predecessors who lived on these lands and kept them pristine before the invaders came along.

Miller describes beautifully the northern California mountains, the people who preserved them, and the intertwining of philosophy, spirit, and nature:

When the world is done gathering gold… it will come to these forests to look at nature, and be thankful for the wisdom and foresight of the age that preserved this vestige of an all but extinct race. There was a grandeur in the thought, a sort of sublimity, that I shall never feel again. A fervid nature, a vivid imagination, and above all, the matchless and magnificent scenery, … [the] stillness of the forests, all conspired to lift me up into an atmosphere where the soul laughs at doubt and never dreams of failure. … To the east and west, to the north and south, the busy commercial world may swell and throb and beat and battle like a sea; but on this island, around this mountain, with their backs to this bulwark, they shall look untroubled on it all. (p. 269)

The photo shows the clearing on top of the ridge just up the hill from the cabin and from which you can see out to the ocean, here at sunset. When the fog rolls in from the Mendocino coast, the hilltops do look like islands floating in a white sea. Magnificent indeed. The soul dreams of success in such places (unfortunately at the expense of those who lost their lands here).

More Flora
The stillness of the forest around me is often only accompanied by bird sounds, most of which I can no more effectively identify than I can the flowers. I recognize the crow's cawing complaint, the fanning air of a hawk overhead, a woodpecker hammering through a tree, a cooing dove, the skittering of quail in the underbrush, turkeys' haunting laughter, and lovelier songs of birds hiding in treetops, inviting an avian expert to come help me learn their names.

New flowers are springing out at me with every new day on the hilltop. I eagerly awaited the arrival of wild iris (left) in many hues: blue, purple, magenta, white. A patch of ferns glows greenly (below, center).

These Yellow Flowers (above right, with my special name for them) compete with the orange poppies and some new blue and white flowers too tiny for my camera to capture. A few mushrooms linger in the forest nearby, beautiful but fearful in their symmetry (in my earlier mushroom eating post, I noted that regular ridges may mean poison).

More Fauna or “Why Is a Dead Possum in Your Refrigerator?”
Just as it takes time to see a flower, it takes time to see a critter that wants to hide. Sometimes, though, when critters show up dead, we get to scrutinize them more closely. Here are three creatures encountered dead and available for closer inspection; skip this part if you’re squeamish.

The alligator lizard was unburied in the rubble of the new addition, still somewhat fresh but clearly dead. I placed him on guard on the table outside my shed for over a week until one morning he was missing. I called out to Mike and Chris, the carpenters, “Hey, who took the lizard? And I don’t mean one of you!” They knew how much I liked my lizard; we had even been keeping track of its increasing desication. I suppose some other critter had, too. Cholo was a suspect, but Ali's disappearance is still a mystery.

I found the mole (below left) on a walk but did not bring home with me; way too ugly with its buck teeth and digging paws . Still, Thoreau offers an apt metaphor for appreciating the mole: “My instinct tells me my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and forepaws…” (351). Indeed, the usefulness of hands over head in the country is thematic for me in my apprenticeship during renovations.

The baby possum or vole (below right, help with identification is welcome), also found on a walk, was too furry and cute to pass up, so it is indeed hanging out in a jar in my fridge in case someone else who wants to see a possum up close get a chance.

Live critters crawling about the place include this impressive banana slug (left) and these darling newts.

Life Beyond the Cabin
I've been discovering many nearby trails ranging down the mountain from where I live and will find even more as I’ve been inquiring of all my new friends about their favorite walks and hikes. A greenbelt surrounds the Brooktrails Township that one passes through on the way to my dirt road association of Spring Creek. Brooktrails maintains several lovely hiking paths through the forests so that one comes upon a grove of redwood trees five feet in diameter or more, stunning, quiet, old.

One such grove (photo, left) down the hill, named for a Mr. Ohl, provides a clearing near Willits Creek (photo, right). Cholo and I enjoy stopping on our way to town at both this grove and on another path that takes us along the creek to a pleasant wooden bridge overlooking the calm waters pooling below the dark forest.

I look forward to exploring the other special trails and even more so the Mendocino National Forest, the only one in the nation that does not have a road going through it. I’ve been warned that this forest is now a dangerous site due to humongous marijuana production initiated by new colonizers poaching public lands for private use and sometimes carrying guns to protect their illegal plantations. In fact, 10,000 seedlings were just uprooted last weekend. But I hope to enjoy this forest one day without getting shot.
So much to explore, on these acres under my feet and beyond, not to mention in books and through people who know the area well.

“I should think you would feel lonesome down there” (a comment to Thoreau)
Recently someone asked if I was really as relentlessly happy as I sound in these posts. “Don’t you get lonely up there in the hills all alone?” I have had spurts of being relentlessly unhappy in my past life, so a little relentless happiness now provides necessary balance.

Thoreau also noted that people had asked him “if I did not feel lonesome.” He wrote in a chapter called “Solitude”: “I experienced sometimes that the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man” (p. 382). Once, only weeks after he first came to the woods and felt lonesome, he “recovered” his spirits in a rainstorm:

In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficient society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite … friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. … I was made so aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary… that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again. …

What do we most want to dwell near to…. but to the perennial source of our life, whence in all our experience we have found that to issue, as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction.

I live near just such a source at present, where my soul may laugh at doubt, and the sounds of the forest keep good company—not to mention family and friends only a phone call or email away (so much easier to maintain contact than in Thoreau’s day).

This Just In: Snow in Mid-May!
Joaquin Miller also had something to say about the battle with winter’s repeated onslaught in the northern climes, just as spring might arrive:

The balm and alder burst in leaf, and catkins drooped and dropped from willows in the water, till you had thought a legion of woolly caterpillars were drifting to the sea. Still the place was not to be surrendered without a struggle. It was one of winter’s struggles. He had been driven, day after day, in a march of many a thousand miles. He had retreated from Mexico to within sight of Mount Shasta, and here he turned on his pursuer. One night he came boldly down and laid hands on the muddly little stream, and stretched a border of ice all up and down its edges; spread frost-work, white and beautiful, on pick, and tom, and sluice, and flumed and cradle, and made all the miners curse him to his beard.He cut down the banners of the spring that night, lamb-tongue, Indian turnip and catella, and took possession as completely as of old. (p. 128)

I look forward to spring finally winning one of these weeks soon.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting Kim - your Joaquin Miller says winter "cut down the banners of spring". Nice way of putting it as we seem to be robbed of spring this season. Tornado warnings yesterday in Sacramento, hail and snow at 2,000 feet. I would rather ignore the almost science fiction reality of our global climate change, "[t]he Midwest suffered the wettest April in 116 years, forcing the Mississippi to flood thousands of square miles, even as drought plauged Texas suffered the driest month in a century" (Newsweek Magazine, 6/6/11, p. 43, and "look untroubled on it all" (Miller). Please let me stop and smell the roses at bit, or at the very least, your scrubby yellow flowers...