The Annals of Country Life

Rainy Day Elk

November 7th, 2015 16 Comments

Sometimes—not often—everything comes together just perfectly. (When it does, I attribute it to clean living and good single-malt whisky.)

We had two fine days of cold, grey, and rainy weather. I had to run some errands on one of those days and at the last minute, almost as if the universe had whispered in my ear, I grabbed my camera. Then, on the way home, I took a detour through some hills at the end of the valley and in the fog and rain I found what the universe had been trying to tell me.

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Elk 068 (2) (Small)


Meteorological Update

October 16th, 2015 10 Comments

Bedazzled two


Be careful what you wish for.

Have you ever seen Bedazzled? It’s a marvelous, wacky, 1967 movie starring and written by the brilliant British comedy team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. (There is also a 2000 remake, starring Brendan Frazer, with Elizabeth Hurley as the devil in a red bikini, a sight that is alone worth the price of admission, though the remake is not as charming as the original.) The premise of the movie is that a little nebbish (Dudley Moore), who is in love with an unattainable girl, sells his soul to the devil (Peter Cook) for seven wishes (corresponding to the seven deadly sins), which he uses in an attempt to win the girl.

Of course the devil grants each wish, but never exactly as it was intended, with the entirely predictable result that Dudley Moore never gets the girl, while the devil always does. It’s a masterpiece of the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore team, a team that produced many classic and lunatic comic gems (a routine about a one-legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan; another that has survived as a recording about a man opening a restaurant in the middle of nowhere—“Parking isn’t a problem.”— called The Frog and Peach, where the only dishes offered are frog à la pêche, or pêche à la frog), as well as appearing together in another delicious movie, The Wrong Box.



But the point is to be careful what you wish for. All of California has been praying for rain, and God—who evidently has a very wry, very British, and rather distorted sense of humor Himself—responded last night.

Darleen and I were at a dog training class last night, a class that got cut short after urgent calls started coming in on various cell-phones. Thunderstorms were producing flooding all over southern California, including in our little corner of the golden state. This morning, we saw some of the results on the news.

Interstate 5, the primary north-south artery in California was completely shut down by mud-and-rock slides, with hundreds of people needing to be rescued. The alternate artery over the mountains, Highway 58, the road the Joad family took on their search for a paradise that did not exist in The Grapes of Wrath, has also been closed by mud-and-rock slides, with scores of people needing to be rescued. The California Highway Patrol, interviewed on a local television station this morning, recommended no one drive anywhere, but that people who simply must get to Los Angeles or points south, take the 46 over to the coastal route, 101, and take that road south. I happen to know these routes quite well, and that little detour turns a two-and-a-half hour drive into about a six or seven hour drive, not allowing for traffic which, if everyone is doing the same thing, will become like a nightmare right out of Bedazzled, minus the charm and the humor, but with the dubious addition of frayed tempers.

The storms actually began night before last, with a display of pyrotechnics that made any fireworks created by the hand of man look pretty lame: bolts of lightening hammering the ground all around us with such violence it shook the house. Darleen and I were scurrying around, closing windows, when suddenly the whole world went black. Not just our house, but not a light to be seen anywhere, not even any ambient light bouncing off the clouds from distant towns, a blackness as complete and absolute as our Paleolithic ancestors must have known. We began groping our way to the stored flashlights when, just as suddenly, the lights came back on again, revealing each of us with our arms held cautiously out in front of us like Neanderthals in a cave playing “pin the tail on the donkey” or “blind man’s bluff.”

This went on most of the night, power on, power off, brilliant flashes of God-made light splitting open stygian darkness, and thunder like the final trump; if there is no time interval between the flash and the sound, and the house trembles, you know the strike was close.

At one point, before the serious rain began, I stepped outside to see if I could smell smoke, fire being very much on our minds. It was one of the most dramatic nights I have ever had the pleasure of living through. I was tempted to do a little King Lear:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow,

          You cataracts and hurricanoes…

But it occurred to me that reciting Lear outside in the middle of an epic thunder storm might not be the smartest thing I’ve ever done. I could see the headline in Variety: Former Actor Killed by His Own Performance. It seemed a poor way to make my final exit, so I opted instead for sitting by a window and watching the show from the safety of home and hearth.

Good show, God! Good show.


Rainy Night Redux

October 12th, 2015 19 Comments

Nevada 2


I know this is going to sound really dorky (What kind of a senile old fool is Jameson anyway?) but it only recently hit me how completely and universally pervasive the internet is. I know I am lucky enough to have readers all over America and Canada, as well as in the UK, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, France, Italy, India, South Africa, Namibia, and possibly other countries whose readers don’t identify their location. I wish they would; I find it fascinating to know the states and countries where people live. I used to have a young lady in Kuwait who would respond to blog posts that caught her attention, but she wrote me that, for unexplained reasons, she would have to give up internet use. I hope it wasn’t for any ominous reasons and that she is doing well. So I realized the internet reaches its tentacles out to billions—literally billions—of people around the world, but…

But I recently received a response, to the Rainy Night posting, from Malaysia and for some reason that has stuck with me and made me think about the ramifications of the internet in ways I hadn’t before.

When I was a very young child, back when television sets were still items only possessed by people of a certain economic level, the Parker family not included, the moment someone spoke I could tell what part of the country that person came from. As a southern child, I could even tell what portion of a particular southern state someone came from, the tidewater accent being different from a Piedmont Plateau accent or an Appalachian accent, with Gullah (sometimes called Geechee) being completely incomprehensible.

Those days have obviously vanished and regional accents have gone the way of the one-horse shay and the four-up hitch. In America today practically everyone sounds like a game show host.

But if an old man in a dry season in California can write something that resonates, however lightly, with someone in Malaysia, where the average annual rainfall is greater than the average total for fifteen years in my high-desert part of California, think of the implications of that.

If radical Islam, notably ISIS, can use the internet and social media to recruit young men and women to their evil cause, surely the rest of us can use the same tools to emphasize our shared humanity on this tired old planet. I’m not so naïve as to believe in some kind of Kumbaya world where we all become happy vegans and hold hands and speak Esperanto and run 5-K races for charity and never criticize anyone for anything. In fact, such a 1984 collective world reminds me of North Korea, where I would go mad and start biting myself. For one thing, I love the differences that make the world such a fascinating place. I lament the passing of regional accents in America, I hate holding hands with anyone other than my bride, and if you try to take my steak away I’ll stab you with my fork.

But how wonderful that such a simple pleasure as a sweet-smelling world freshly washed by rain should evoke such a universal response.


Rainy Night

October 4th, 2015 27 Comments

Tehachapi rainbow 002 (Small)


It rained last night. I know that’s small potatoes to most people, and certainly not welcome news to the poor devils in South Carolina right now, but after so long a dry spell and such a long, hot, dusty summer, the rain came as a welcome relief.

So many people in wetter parts of the world complain about too much rain, or too long a rainy season and I would almost certainly be among them. We have a friend in Portland, Oregon, where it has been known to be a trifle grey and rainy in the winter, who has to do light therapy and take meds to help her through the winter, and I suspect I too would be affected by the absence of sunlight. It’s one of the great joys of living in California: the vast preponderance of sunny days and the ability to spend more time outside here than almost anywhere else in the world. Even in the winter, when it’s cold—and that’s a relative term; the thermometer in the low forties qualifies as a cold winter day for us—it is usually sunny and you can do just about anything outside your heart desires.

But this past year has been so dry that, apart from all the negative aspects of drought, with many more negative aspects (higher food prices, primarily) yet to come, I had sort of forgotten how wonderful and refreshing rain can be. It wasn’t much of a rain—basically just enough to clean the dust off the roof and out of the air—but the wonderful freshness of it when I walked outside was intoxicating, that magical “mud-luscious and puddle wonderful” smell that makes the world and the smeller both feel vibrantly alive.

We need more, a lot more, desperately, and when we get it I’ll probably bitch and moan and whine, but this morning was magical.



California Drought

July 24th, 2015 11 Comments

Deer 002 (Small)


If you’ve been following the news at all, you know that California is in the throes of one of the worst droughts of the last hundred years. If you haven’t been following the news, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but your grocery bills are going to go up considerably this year because all the farmers in the Central Valley are either without water entirely, or having to pay a lot more to grow the food you hope to eat. We could have a lively debate about whether it is more important for people to have groceries or for a subspecies of smelt to have water, but I have other things on my mind at the moment, specifically rain.

California’s rainy season typically runs from November through April. In one of Wallace Stegner’s novels, Angle of Repose, the heroine is an Eastern girl transplanted by marriage to California, and one of the numerous troubles she has adjusting to the West is the absolute absence of precipitation from May to October. There are rare exceptions: I once had to leave home on June 8th for a business trip, and I had to keep my truck in four-wheel drive all the way down the mountain because it was snowing so hard. But such things are anomalies.

Well, we had an anomaly the other night. In fact, we had a damn downpour the other night, roughly two inches in a matter of hours. The guy who built our house knew what he was doing: he situated it well; he had the pad graded very cleverly, so that water flows away from the house; he had drainage cuts dug into the side of the hill behind the house. All of things have always worked in the past, and they worked the other night, but…

But one of the side effects of the drought is that I haven’t given a moment’s thought to the drainage cuts for almost four years, and at the height of the storm (my bed time) one of them was clearly having trouble performing its duty and diverting the unprecedented downpour. So instead of curling up with Graham Greene (The Quiet American) or Will and Ariel Durante (The Renaissance), I was outside with a shovel and in a pair of waterproof boots that I quickly discovered are no longer waterproof, doing manly things and being a manly man.

No troubles (other than my back the next morning); I got it done and the next day I used the tractor to improve and expand on my handiwork, so we had no damage to our property other than my driveway which tries constantly to run away to new and exciting destinations at lower elevations.

Others were not so lucky. Darleen had to go into town two days later and she was so stunned by what she saw that she came back and took me for a drive to survey some of the damage.

There are only three roads in and out of this valley, and during the height of the storm, while I was being a manly man and for many hours after, all three of them were completely closed by mudslides. But “mudslide” isn’t an accurate description because what comes down the mountains isn’t just mud. It includes boulders ranging in size from basketball to small refrigerator. Some of the dirt side roads that lead to small ranches and little subdivisions simply don’t exist anymore. A local vineyard has also ceased to exist, with mud and boulders an honest two feet deep over about sixty percent of it. (Don’t weep for the owner; he had let the thing go to seed, so it’s no loss.) A horse breeder who also puts on horse shows in his arena lost his primary pasture, but he’s both smart and lucky, because he was using that pasture as a buffer between him and the main road. The main road, needless to say, was still closed when we went for our drive. A newly installed parking lot at a local B&B has ceased to exist; you can’t even tell there was ever any asphalt there at all.

On the sides of the really steep slopes, deep vertical cuts had opened up, and what they will become can only be determined by Mama Nature, but if we get another anomaly—excuse me, I meant monsoon—it will set up the potential for ever greater runoff and ever more mud and boulders and ever more destruction.

For those of you who live in more sheltered conditions, protected from the more surprising effects of the elements, let me quote a local heavy equipment operator who was interviewed on the news. He lives in a canyon about ten miles from my house, and he told the reporter that his bulldozer was washed about a mile downstream, while a backhoe got washed almost two miles away. Think about the weight and mass of those things; it gives you an idea of the force of a wall of mud and rock.

Yet we still desperately need rain.


The Cat Came Back

July 17th, 2015 22 Comments

bobcat and Bear 005 (Small)


Darleen, whose childhood was clearly subject to dubious influences, likes to sing a very dark and disreputable ditty, the title of which is, “The Cat Came Back The Very Next Day.” It purports to be a child’s song, but it involves murder, mayhem, and the dropping of both an atomic bomb and an H-bomb. And those are the more cheery and uplifting parts. The tag-line of the song, repeated after each new bit of death and destruction, is, “But the cat came back the very next day.”

Evidently Mr. Bobcat, pictured here, is a big fan of that song. We’ve actually seen him several times since the last time he posed for his portrait, but this is the first time since then that he has consented to linger and be recorded for posterity.

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I think here he just said something about my mother, but I didn’t catch it clearly.

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I did hear him this time, and while I won’t repeat his very vulgar choice of words, the general thrust of the thing was that he is used to a much higher class of surroundings.

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I include this photograph just so you can get a feel for how close he was to our dog yard. Note the chain-link fence, the scalloped edging to keep the gravel in, and the black blur in the foreground is my barbeque grill. I was surprised, not only to see him so close, but clearly so comfortable within ten yards of a house with it’s windows open and the television playing. For a moment I was confused and thought he might be listening to Fox News, but then I realized he probably surveys the house regularly and has something else on his mind.

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Meet Little Bear, an eleven week-old Australian shepherd pup of infinite charm and almost as much mischievousness. Now you know why we never allow our dogs out by themselves and unattended.




The Annals of Country Life: Unexpected Visitor Division

June 2nd, 2015 12 Comments

Snake 005 (Small)

When you live in the country, you have to get used to people dropping by unexpectedly for a visit and a cup of coffee.


He’s Back…

April 20th, 2015 11 Comments

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…and his disposition has not improved.


Backyard Visitors

March 17th, 2015 10 Comments

Bobcat 003 (Small)

Bobcats are fairly regular visitors to our backyard, but we recently had two different individuals, about a week apart, very close, who were gracious enough to allow me to take some photographs of them. The fence is an old sheepherder’s fence, but you can see the top of a white T-post in the foreground that marks my property.

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This pretty grey is a female.


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This sandy-colored boy (yes, most definitely a male) was so close to the house that in my delight at getting a photograph, I forgot to zoom in. You can see the top of my chain-link dog fence in the foreground.

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I was tempted to ask for an autograph, but he didn’t seem to be in the mood.

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Since I have rabbits and ground squirrels galore on the hill behind the house, I don’t like to discourage the bobcats. They are capable, very capable, of killing a corgi (I was once called in by the local police department to identify the killer of cattle dog-cross about fifty percent bigger than a corgi, and the killer was most definitively a bobcat), but we never leave our dogs outside unattended, so I prefer to give the cats a chance to hunt. It does both of us a lot of good, though I suspect the rabbits and the ground squirrels may feel somewhat differently about the arrangement.

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I invited him to stay and try his luck, but he didn’t seem to have a terribly high opinion of me, Darleen, or the human race in general. I’m not sure I blame him.


Conserving Water in California

March 7th, 2015 18 Comments



Of all the unpleasant sensations a man may experience in this vale of tears, one at the top of the list is doing something, all by yourself somewhere, and suddenly knowing with absolute certainty that you are not alone. And at no time, in no place, is this sensation more unpleasant than when you’re using the bathroom.

If you live in America, you are well aware that California is the throes of a severe drought. In the interests of doing my bit to conserve water, I usually step outside to pee. Darleen and I live in a relatively isolated rural area. My closest neighbors, one to the north, one to the south, are each about a quarter of a mile away, and in each case their homes are hidden by the folds of the hill behind my house. When I step outside near my propane tank, I know I have absolute privacy.

So it was a singularly unpleasant experience to be standing outside, doing my little bit for water conservation, to suddenly have that instinctive primal sensation that I was not alone. My immediate reaction was to look down the driveway. It’s at least a third of a mile, perhaps more, in a straight line to my front gate, and nowhere, along any part of that winding drive, was there any sign of life. From my front gate to the hardtop is another half mile or more, and there was no one there either. There was no one in the pasture to the south, and no one in the pasture to the north.

Then I looked up the hill.

It’s a remarkably steep hill, a sort of open savannah stood on end, grassland dotted with oaks and studded with random boulders, with good visibility in most places for over a hundred yards. And there, about fifty yards away, gazing impassively down at me, was a bear. A very large black bear.

For those of you who live in cities and have only seen bears in zoos, ambling lazily along behind protective fencing and entrapping moats, fifty yards may seem like a nice, safe, comfortable distance; you might even think that is too great distance at which to observe a bear.

For those of us who have experienced a bear’s tender mercies, up close and personal, in the wild, unconfined by fence or moat or fear of man or dog, fifty yards is a clear violation of what psychiatrists call “my personal space.” And for those of us who have painful firsthand knowledge of just how fast a bear can move (faster than a Quarter horse for over a quarter of mile), fifty yards is much too goddamned close.

And there I was, anchored, as it were, by the business at hand, and with the wrong gun in said hand, and too small a caliber at that. Or, as Dan Bronson unkindly said later when I told him what had happened, “That’s not when you want to be holding a squirt gun.”

I think I’ll find other ways to conserve water.


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