The Annals of Country Life

Bald Eagle

February 1st, 2016 16 Comments

Bald eagle

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

 

I have seen two bald eagles (or, more likely, one bald eagle twice) in the last three days.

The first time, the poor thing was being harassed by two ravens who followed him, like jackals trailing a lion, for a remarkably long distance. The second time, he was by himself, flying quite low, but flying like an eagle on a mission, an eagle with things to do, places to go, and other eagles to meet. And both times it made my heart leap.

I’m an unabashed patriot. I love America and believe strongly it is the greatest country the world has ever known. It gives me a thrill every time I see our flag flying; I get emotional when I hear the national anthem; I feel a burst of pride whenever I see young men or women in uniform, especially young soldiers in their dress uniforms on state occasions; I even feel proud when I see a photograph of the Capitol Building, though I’d like to wade in there with a bullwhip and a branding iron. But bald eagles especially get to me. In part, this is because they are incomparably, dramatically beautiful birds; in part it is because they are our nation’s symbol; in part it’s because they are relatively uncommon in this part of the world (in twenty-five years I’ve only seen one here on two other occasions, though I’ve been to those places in Alaska where you can see hundreds on a daily basis); and in part it’s because the first one I ever saw was with my father, so I associate them with him.

I was home from college, and I had only recently reached the stage Mark Twain (apocryphally) made famous by discussing how much his old man had grown up in seven years. My father was by then director of Gunston Hall, the museum once home to George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration Rights, and on pleasant evenings that summer after the tourists had left, my father and I would take our drinks and walk around the magnificent gardens, the towering allées of boxwood and lilac, the acres of roses and jasmine and nicotiana, the air heavy with scent and the heat of a Virginia tidewater summer. At the end of the gardens, where the land dropped down steeply to the woods and the distant Potomac, there were two gazebos, and we sitting in one of those one evening when a bald eagle sailed by, skimming over the tops of the trees, below us, so that we looked down on his back and the incredible, brilliant white of his head and tail.

It’s a rare thing ever to be in a situation or place where you can look down on the back of a raptor, and to be able to look down on the back of a bald eagle, our national symbol, while talking to my father just as I was beginning to appreciate what an extraordinary, completely unique man he was and how lucky I was to have him in my life, made it one of those moments that will warm me on my deathbed.

And later, before his untimely and much too early death, my father was able to use that sighting and the fact that there was a nesting pair in the woods at the end of Mason’s neck, to get the federal government and the state of Virginia to join forces and protect much of that land from development. If we hadn’t been sitting there that evening and hadn’t seen that eagle, he might not have been able to do it, and Mason’s neck would now look like all the rest of northern Virginia, a sprawling mishmash of subdivisions and shopping malls, all the unimaginative cookie-cutter development that passes for progress in America these days.

But we were, and he did.

 

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Why Tumbleweed?

January 5th, 2016 14 Comments

Tumbleweed

Photo courtesy of Bing.

 

Not far from my home are a series of windfarms; there are also several houses in our valley that have their own little windmills. Needless to say, you don’t have windmills, let alone windfarms, in places where there is no expectation of a fairly consistent level of wind, all of which is a way of making the point that we are used to wind here. In fact, if you look at a wind map of the United States, where the darker the red the higher the average wind level, our little community is a tiny pinprick of the darkest red the map employs.

So we’re used to wind in this neck of the woods. But we just had three days of the sort of high, unrelenting wind that made me understand for the first time why suicide rates in southern France are purported to rise dramatically when the Mistral blows. It’s one thing to have high, gusty winds; or steady winds that blow all day long and only subside with the sunset; or even the sudden concentrated gusts we call dust devils that are a kind of miniature, localized tornado. (A builder friend of ours was taking his lunch break, seated in the sun with his coat off on a stack of three-quarter inch four-by-eight sheets of plywood when he realized he was about to be hit by a dust devil. He dove for cover and spent much of the afternoon recovering sheets of plywood from a pasture fifty yards away. I just happened to stumble across his coat while I was out quail hunting a few days later about half a mile from the building site.)

But it is another thing entirely to have sustained, unrelenting, forty to fifty mile per hour winds that blow undiminished, day and night, dry and cold, out of the Mojave Desert, piling up every tumbleweed in entire southwestern United States on my property.

The wind has finally subsided down to a strong cold wind out of the desert, but at least down enough that for the first time in three days I have been able to go out and assess the damage. Nothing permanent or too severe, thank God, but it’ll give you an idea of what I’m talking about when I say I had to use the tractor this morning for over two hours just to clear a one hundred yard path along my driveway to our front gate. I haven’t gotten rid of the damned stuff—that’ll take weeks—but at least we can drive out to get some groceries.

I have a list of things I intend to discuss with God when I see Him. I want to know what the hell He had in mind when He created ticks. I want to know what distracted Him so much that He did such a second-rate job of designing a man’s knee and a horse’s digestive tract. And now I want to know if He was sober when He came up with tumbleweed.

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Eye Candy

December 17th, 2015 22 Comments

Deer 011 (Small)

 

When Daniel Boone goes by at night,

The phantom deer arise

And all lost, wild America

Is burning in their eyes.

Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet

Deer 015 (Small)

Another buck (with a consort) taken only about a mile, as the Condor soars, from where I saw the first one. Note how steeply the land falls away in the background; these mountains are not to be taken lightly.

 

Deer 029 (Small)

And yet another, this one only about a quarter mile from the one immediately above.

 

Elk and doe

And finally, a great photo, taken by a dear friend, of a massive bull and a diminutive and very young doe or, more likely, an honest-to-God fawn, keeping each other company.

 

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The Windhover on Advent Sunday

December 1st, 2015 12 Comments

 

The Windhover

To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

 

 

It is not an easy poem, even taken within the context of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ frequently difficult standards, but if you can force yourself to follow the first rule of reading poetry—which is to forget about meaning or understanding and simply read for the music of the thing, trusting that meaning and understanding will come later, on their own—it is one of the most evocative and magical of all poems. And it came rushing back to me (at least the first two lines did, which is all I can usually remember) this past Sunday as I drove home from church.

This past Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday of the season when Christians around the world celebrate the coming nativity of Christ and express their longing for His return. Personally, I think He has overdone His vacation time and He’s long overdue; given the current state of world affairs He knows all too well that we could use a little help here sooner rather than later, but I expect He knows His business better than I and I shall try to bide my time in patience.

But as I approached the turn-off from the hardtop to the dirt road that leads to my house, I saw a dirty and much the worse for wear SUV parked by the field. Two men and a little girl were talking. One of the men was holding a falcon on his wrist. My heart in hiding stirred for a bird and I stopped my truck.

What little I know about falconry comes from reading Steve Bodio’s blog (http://stephenbodio.blogspot.com/ ) and books, and from Helen Macdonald’s (apparently she spells her name that way, with a small “d”) H Is for Hawk, which is to say I know only that it is an arcane and demanding enterprise that takes far more time, skill, knowledge, ability, and patience than I have or will ever have, but so what? I can’t draw a circle either, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a Rembrandt.

One of the men was my neighbor, a young horse trainer, the other was the falconer, and the little girl was his granddaughter. The bird on his gauntleted wrist was an Australian hobby; at least, I believe that was what he said. The wind was blowing hard and I was distracted by the bird—who can look at a man when there is a falcon so close by?—but it looked very much like the examples I have researched, small and fierce and so beautiful, even with its hood on. There is something about birds of prey that I find immensely compelling, and I longed to stroke the proud little breast, but I suspect that, just like service dogs, everyone in the wide world has the same reaction, so I refrained from touching or even asking if I could. Instead, we spoke briefly about the increasing population growth of our valley that makes his falconry increasingly difficult (falcons need a lot of fence-free space) and helped put an end to my quail hunting.  We talked about where to find valley quail and mountain quail and chukar, and then he opened the back of his SUV, and I literally gasped with delight.

The back of his vehicle held a welter of equipment on one side, but on the other side was a low, two-bird stand made of PVC pipe with the bars covered in some kind of carpeting fabric, and on one of the bars was peregrine-gyrfalcon cross, for so he identified it. Unlike the little hobby, with its appeal and charm, this bird radiated the kind of power and authority that would have made any attempt to touch it as tacky and presumptuous as touching the Pope, or clapping Queen Elizabeth on her back. This was a bird that commanded respect. For one thing, it was almost as big as a red-tailed hawk, and even with its hood on it had a regal air, a quality of majesty graciously condescending to slum it for a while.

I was too late to watch him fly either bird (he was on his way home), but even that little glimpse stirred me in ways I find difficult to express. I love living in a place where I can see wild things, and I am fortunate enough to see birds of prey regularly: eagles, both golden and bald; a wide variety of hawks; harriers; osprey; a variety of falcons, including the ubiquitous and delightful kestrel; great horned owls; barn owls; even once a spotted owl and once a burrowing owl; I get to see them all from time to time, and some of them regularly, but rarely close-up. To be within touching distance of something as charismatic as that peregrine-gyrfalcon was extraordinary. Even on a stand in the back of an SUV I could see the brute beauty and valor, sense the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! O my chevalier!

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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.

Elk 002 (2) (Small)

Elk 068 (2) (Small)

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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.

Bedazzled

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

bobcat and Bear 008 (Small)

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

bobcat and Bear 012 (Small)

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.

bobcat and Bear 014 (Small)

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.

bobcat and Bear 023 (Small)

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.

 

 

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