When you live in the country, you have to get used to people dropping by unexpectedly for a visit and a cup of coffee.
The Annals of Country Life
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.
This pretty grey is a female.
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.
I was tempted to ask for an autograph, but he didn’t seem to be in the mood.
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.
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.
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.
…and making very weird movies in the southern Sierras.
I need a little ornithological help, so I’m reaching out to the kinds of people who read or contribute to Steve Bodio’s site (http://stephenbodio.blogspot.com) or anyone else who might know a little about birds. Or possibly the supernatural.
The property to the south of my place, about a quarter of a mile away, is owned by a guy who lives somewhere else. I think he plans to retire there, but in the meantime he rents out the two little houses, one to a gal who works in town, one to an elderly retired gentleman.
Over the years, working on my property, I have occasionally found golf balls over in that southwest corner of my little ranch: one or two here and there, and not often, perhaps once or twice a year. For several years I put it down to a previous renter with a horrendous slice practicing his swing, but he moved out years ago, and his slice wasn’t that bad. Nobody could have a slice that bad.
Then one day, riding a little used trail on the mountain at the north end of the valley, I found a golf ball under a pine tree. No one could possibly hit a golf ball that far, either with a slice or a hook or straight. The nearest golf course is four or five miles away in a straight line, over a mountain; hell, you couldn’t even shoot a golf ball that far out of canon. Very few people even go up that particular part of the mountain, the slope being steep and somewhat treacherous, so it wasn’t a question of someone dropping the thing.
When I mentioned it to a friend, he speculated that it was probably ravens who, like magpies, are apparently drawn to anything bright and shiny, and who have a highly developed sense of both tool use and play. While that sounds a little peculiar, I accepted it as the only logical explanation I could come up with. I have no idea why a raven might be attracted to a golf ball, but then they probably have no idea why I do certain things.
Starting six or seven months ago, I began finding more golf balls, three and four at a time, and once, seven of them, all in the same relatively small corner of my property, maybe a quarter acre strip.
But then yesterday things took an ominous turn. Cutting a long story short, without even trying, without poking around under trees or walking through the long grass, or straining my eyes, just in the natural course of doing some maintenance, I picked up thirty-two golf balls. Thirty-two! Just in that same small area.
Does anyone have a clue as to what might be going on?
I’ve been thinking about it, and here are the possibilities I’ve come up with:
- The elderly gent who rents the nearest house has slid into senility and taken to stealing golf balls from the courses in nearby communities and towns, and throwing them over onto my property for obscure reasons. There is now a warrant out for his arrest and the duffers at the nearest club have put a price on his head.
- The elderly gent, or the working gal, or both, or some other person or persons unknown is/are trying to gaslight me in some obscure fashion.
- While I am not and never have been a golfer, I do I write for a very elegant golf magazine, The Golf Sport (http://www.golfsportmag.com) and the ravens have somehow figured this out and think they are doing me a good turn.
- The ravens have decided to reclaim the earth and are practicing for all-out warfare. Today it’s golf balls; tomorrow it’s undetonated ordnance from one of the military bases over in the Mojave desert or Nevada. Take that, vile capitalist lackey of the imperialist American war-mongering machine!
The other evening we had one of those picture-perfect, God’s-in-his-Heaven-all’s-right-with-the-world evenings: crystalline air, golden glow, sun setting on the mountains across the valley, no wind, pleasantly cool temperature; ideal weather for barbequing, which is what I was doing. I was waiting for the barbeque to heat up and wandering around the backyard, taking it all in, when I noticed an enormous unkindness of ravens about a thousand feet over my head.
An “unkindness” is the correct collective noun for ravens, though I’m not sure why. As smart as they are, the collective noun should be a “Mensa” of ravens; and with as many of them as there were that evening, I can guarantee their collective I.Q. was considerably higher than that of the man watching them.
But why so many together at one time? Normally ravens congregate in groups of six, eight, twelve, something along those lines, but this was about fifty or more birds, maybe a hundred, for all I could tell, circling elegantly around in a widely dispersed, broken black cloud, not climbing, not moving in any direction other than around and around.
Was it a convention? A political caucus? A union rally? A protest? (Everybody else in the wide world is busy protesting something; why not ravens?) Were they just having fun? They are playful birds—I have watched them take turns sliding on their backs down the snow-covered slope in front of my house—so perhaps this was some kind of game for them, or perhaps they were enjoying the evening as much as I was. But why so many?
I have no idea. I don’t know enough about birds generally or ravens in particular to be able to say what was going on, but if anyone more knowledgeable than I about birds has a theory, let me know.
As soon as the Packers built up a solid, safe lead over the Vikings, I took Pete the Boxer out for a last ramble around the place, to stroll down the road a bit, close the gate, make sure our little corner of the world was safe and secure for the night. It was that magic moment of last glow, a dark night held briefly at bay by a dying sun, and across the valley, high up on one of the mountains to the south I could see the lights of an ATV, first in one area and then another moving light several miles away in a separate area. Those lights, momentarily appearing, then vanishing almost like shooting stars or satellites, gave me great pleasure to see, because I used to be one of those lights a long time ago.
There are no houses on that mountain, nor even roads; just rough two-tracks used by occasional cowboys, Forest Service and BLM employees, and—in season—hunters.
I used to hunt that mountain many years ago. Much of it is private ranch land, but at the top, and over on the far side, are several parcels of landlocked public land, a section or two of BLM here, another section there, that sort of thing. If you have permission to pass through the private property, there is surprisingly good hunting on those various chunks of public land, and back in those long ago days my friend Dave had permission from one of the largest landowners to drive through.
My friend was a dentist, and the landowner was his patient, so perhaps Dave had threatened him with a root canal without painkiller, but for whatever reason, Dave had full run of the place, and he and I would ride up the precarious two-tracks in the pre-dawn dark, and then ride back down again in the same last faint glow of day.
There were—and still are, in spite of the mountain lions’ best efforts—many deer up there, but the remoteness and steepness of the terrain makes the hunter, or at least this hunter, very, very selective. The sheer amount of labor involved after the shot is enough to make you think about just how badly you really need or want that venison.
The first year Dave and I hunted up there, he shot a very nice buck on a broad ledge just below the top on the far side. It was mid-morning, in an ideal spot, only four or five hundred yards from where we had parked the ATVs several hours earlier, and an easy drive down to where the deer was. It was perfect. And so was Dave’s shot.
Unfortunately, if there is one thing you learn in half a century of hunting, it’s that nothing, man or beast, reacts predictably when shot. This buck was dead the instant the bullet hit it, but it jumped forward, stumbled, took two steps, and went down. Unfortunately, those two steps had taken it right to the edge of the slope, so when it went down, it went down and kept on going down and down and down completely out of sight, perhaps a thousand feet ultimately, while Dave and I stood there with our mouths open and our hearts sinking.
We were both young and tough, but no matter how tough you like to think you are, these mountains can be very humbling. When we finally got down to the buck, it was apparent there was no way we could possibly get him up that slope intact, minus a helicopter, so we did a complete butchering job right on the spot, loins, chops, hams, backstraps, everything, boning the meat out on the grass. I had the better pack, so I took all the meat, while Dave took the rack, and we started back up. The slope was so steep that every time I slipped, instead of putting my hand down to catch myself, I would simply reach straight out in front of my face.
I forget now how long it actually took us to get back up, but I know it was dark by the time we got off that mountain. And probably, somewhere down in the valley, a man walking his dog saw our lights and smiled to think someone was having a great adventure up there. Dave sold his practice to his son-in-law and moved north years ago, and I don’t have an ATV, nor do I have permission to pass through the private land there, but I remember that time fondly, and it made me smile the other evening to see the hunters up there, and to wish them well.
One of the great things about living in a rural area is all the wildlife one can see.
I saw my first condor the other day. Well, “saw” is a relative term; technically, yes, I saw a condor, I think, but it was so far away that the only reason I even bothered to look through the binoculars was that it was being harassed by a raven, and by comparison the raven looked like a sparrow, size-wise. Also, I knew the condors were in the area because my friend Dan Bronson (http://hollywood-nobody.com) told me the condors were in this neck of the woods. Very much in his small corner of this neck of the woods.
For those of you who might live in other countries and not be up to speed on the California condor (gymnogyps californianus) it is the closest thing we have these days to a pterodactyl. It looks like a cross between a pterodactyl, a dyspeptic undertaker, and a B-52 bomber, only nowhere near as pretty as any of those. It is America’s largest bird, with a wingspan that can reach over nine feet, and for many years it teetered on the brink of extinction.
And right now would be a good time to point out that those of you who believe global warming is an unprecedented catastrophe caused by man’s rapacity and greed, a catastrophe that will destroy the world as we know it, you will all be pleased to know that global warming should be a definite asset to the condor. If I have my facts right, the ancestors of the California condor were once both common and widespread from the Pacific to the Atlantic, but their numbers (and physical size) became greatly reduced as a result of the last ice age.
Be that as it may, for the last thirty-five years the condor has been the subject of an intense effort to keep the species viable, and they were only released back into the wild in 1991, so seeing one is a big deal. That is, to see them through binoculars is a big deal. For Dan and his wife Sonja, it would be more accurate to describe it as a big ordeal.
That’s Sonja’s photograph above. That’s Dan and Sonja’s gazebo the condors are sitting on. Each condor weighs about twenty-five pounds. Each condor has a prodigious and powerful beak. Each condor has a (pick one) highly developed sense of humor, or a great deal of curiosity, or a catholic sense of taste. The result is that when they come to call, as they did at Dan and Sonja’s, they leave a trail of destruction, with damaged or missing roof tiles, screens torn out of the frames, and—most inexplicable of all—large quantities of caulking around the door frames missing, apparently ingested, but certainly no longer where Dan would like said caulking to be.
The handyman hasn’t gotten to Dan’s house yet, but it looks as if the damage with run to several hundred dollars at the very least.
And for those of you who think I’m just a tinfoil-hat-wearing-paranoid when I say that the NSA has its cameras in all our underwear, consider the following:
When Dan sent me the photograph, and mentioned the damage that had been done, he also asked me, as a hunter and wildlife lover/enthusiast, if he ought to call US Fish and Wildlife to see what he could do to discourage a return visit. I jokingly left him a phone message saying that I had contacted USFW on his behalf and that they had declared his home a condor refuge and were taking his house under eminent domain, and that he and Sonja would have to move. Dan had barely played his phone messages when USFW did in fact show up at his house, the real thing, not an imitation, but not because of me. It seems the tracking devices they put on the birds are so accurate that it is possible to pinpoint an individual’s location to within a matter of feet. Hence the young man who knocked on Dan and Sonja’s door.
Apparently the young man was very polite and helpful; not so helpful that he offered to reimburse the Bronson’s for the damage the birds had done, but helpful in offering suggestions for discouraging the birds’ from lingering, suggestions that included running around and waving your arms and yelling; or running around and banging pots and pans together; or squirting the birds with water. You know, all those things we really long to do and have so much time to do instead of, oh, earning a living.
I would have liked very much to have witnessed Dan’s efforts to be inhospitable to the condors, but I got the next best thing. I happened to be talking to him on the phone the next day, as he wandered around his yard picking up bits of screening and roof tiles that were no longer on the roof, when the condors returned for another feast of caulking material, and the soliloquy that I heard went something like this:
“Yeah, it was really fantastic to see them, Jameson. It’s why I love living up here in these mountains so much. I mean they’re one of the rarest of all birds, so it’s something most people never get a chance to… Oh, wait. One of them is coming back… No it’s, it’s four of them. No! Five, six, seven, eight. There’re eight of them. One of them is flying right over my head, only a few feet over me. Wow! This is cool! It’s an immature one because it doesn’t have the white underwing markings… Oh, no! Oh, shit! It’s landing on the roof. They’re all landing all the goddamn roof. No! Hey! Get out of here! Go away! Go! I’ve got to get the hose. Sonja! Where’s the power nozzle? Go away! (pant, pant) God damn it! I haven’t got enough pressure. I can’t reach them. Sonja! Get some pots, get the lids and start banging them. Oh, no! Don’t do that! God damn it! Go away! Oh, shit! (pant, pant) I’ve got to get the ladder. I’ll call you back.”
Postscript: I just received an email from Dan, an email that is conspicuously lacking in his normal cheerful and chatty style, an email I can best describe as terse. There are now seventeen condors currently circling his house. Either his caulking tastes really good, or perhaps the birds know something he doesn’t, and he and Sonja ought to check their life insurance policies.
I slept with the window open last night and some predator, almost certainly an owl, set off a skunk much too close to the house. The smell was enough to wake both my bride and me, and Darleen—burying her head under the covers—proclaimed bitterly that it smelled as if the owl had taken the skunk directly outside the bedroom window, possibly even in the bathroom. I was tempted to laugh at her, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night on the sofa. My poor little hothouse flower doesn’t know what a skunk smells like when it’s really up close and personal. As, for example, when it sprays you. I do.
While we were still living in Germany, my mother and father had an adventure right out of one of those macabre pre-World War Two books or movies like The Old Dark House, only with a happy ending. My sister and I were away at our respective schools and my parents took a vacation by themselves in England. Somewhere, on some desolate moor or common, on a dark and stormy night, their car died (a Jaguar, natch) and they had to hike across country through a driving rain to the only light they could see. It turned out to be an ominous and forbidding old stone farmhouse, but as soon as the door opened it became considerably less o. and f. The place belonged to a very affable farmer and his wife and five bullmastiffs who all took turns trying to lick my parents to death. The dogs, that is, not the farmer and his wife.
Both my parents loved dogs, but my father in particular thought life without a dog was like a meal without wine or a day without sunshine, and he had a special weakness for the bully-breeds, bulldogs, mastiffs, boxers, and here he was surrounded by five of the bulliest of the bully-breeds. Our beloved old one-eyed boxer had died only a year or so earlier, one of the bullmastiff bitches was pregnant, and the upshot was that long before any mechanic arrived to fix their temperamental car, money had changed hands. Six months later a bullmastiff puppy from the farmer’s “R” litter arrived at the Cologne airport.
Roger, for so the farmer had named him, was an affable, lazy old schmoo. He looked intimidating as hell, but in the normal course of events his attitude was, much like my father’s, “Wherever two or three are gathered together, let’s have a party!” When events became abnormal, however, he became a very different kind of dog. It only happened twice that I know of, but both times he lived up to the bullmastiff’s justly earned reputation as a guardian. For the most part, however, he was just a big old happy-go-lucky slob.
After he retired from the Foreign Service, my father became the director of a small museum out in the country in Virginia, Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights which eventually became the model for our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, so many of which are so flagrantly ignored by today’s administration. One of my chores in those long ago days before security systems and alarms and electronic communication, was to walk Roger around the place late at night, just to make sure everything was safe and secure. Roger and I were ambling down a path not far from the house one very dark night, when suddenly he growled and started to run. Being a Bear of Little Brain, and thinking I was a lot tougher than I really was, I ran after him. I could hear, rather than see, him stop, so I skidded to a stop too, and then I heard a faint hissing sound.
Before I could even process what it might have been, the spray hit me. Hit both of us, actually. The only good thing was that I was so close to the skunk that he only got me from about the waist down. I had to throw away a pair of suede boots and a perfectly good pair of blue jeans. Poor Roger, on the other hand, hand to be repeatedly bathed, and even after all that he had to spend the night on the porch.
They are sweet dogs, bullmastiffs, but not prodigious intellects. One night later that same summer, my parents had long since gone to bed, Roger and I had already done our late-night patrol, and I decided to let him out into the fenced yard for one last leg-lift before I went to sleep. I was brushing my teeth when I heard something outside. It was Roger, engaging in a rematch with a skunk, but unfortunately, this skunk happened to be right by the air-conditioning intake, and a minute later, my father, my mother and I all flew out of the house in our pajamas, my father lighting up the night with a string of profanities that probably still drifts through the woods of Mason’s Neck like phantom fairy lights. It was weeks, and I mean literally weeks, before the smell eventually faded from the house enough that you could walk in there without your eyes watering.
You can see why I’m not terribly sympathetic to Darleen’s grumbling about distant smells drifting down the hill.
It’s hard to know to what extent the rest of the country, or the world, is aware of the drought affecting much of the West, but it’s bad. It’s bad throughout all the Southwest, but especially in California. Like an old vaudeville routine, it begs the question: How bad is it?
Objectively, it is severe enough that there is something about it on the news practically every day. These reports feature colored maps with most of the Southwest in some shade of yellow or red, but with almost all of California shown in a dark and dirty shade of brown, a sort of über-red. A few days ago I drove down to the Central Valley, the salad, fruit, and nut bowl of the world, and the giant electronic billboards normally used to warn drivers to “Click It or Ticket,” or occasionally to post an Amber alert, were all lit up with warnings to conserve water. Some of the farmers down there are actually pulling out their citrus orchards: there isn’t enough water to keep the trees alive. The water in the Sacramento Delta that would normally grow oranges is being withheld for a tiny fish, called a smelt, that may or may not be endangered, depending on who you talk to, a decision made by environmentalists with swimming pools who play golf with politicians on manicured courses in Palm Springs.
Anecdotally, there are almost no cattle no speak of left in the mountains in this part of the state; the herds have all been sold off or shipped north. When I go out to clean the pastures, abnormally short and stunted grasses crack beneath my feet, and little puffs of dust rise up around my boots. Even the hardy, obnoxious, and ubiquitous mustard weed is dry and brittle.
But what really brought it home was something that happened the other day when Darleen and I were trimming branches on some of the trees around the house. I was taking advantage of being forced at wife-point to do chores, and I had turned the hose on very low to water two cottonwoods we planted many years ago as shade trees for the horses. Cottonwoods are tough, double-tough, capable of driving their roots deep into the ground for any kind of moisture, but even they need some help in times like these.
I was doing the heavy lifting, piling up the branches into the bed of my truck, tying them down, then off to the local dump. On the way back, after about the third or fourth trip, as I drove up my driveway, I saw one of those steel-cuts of a deer silhouetted in the shade under one of the cottonwoods. You know the kind of thing: yard art cut out of large sheets of metal in the form of deer or elk or horses or perhaps a cowboy leaning up against a wall, charming or tacky, depending on your point of view and on the skill of the artist doing the cutting.
But this one surprised the hell out of me, because I had never seen it before, and I wondered when Darleen had bought it, how she had gotten it home and hidden it without my seeing it, and how she had managed to get it set up under the trees. The damn things are heavy.
I kept driving closer, my brain addled by heat and work, staring at it, until, when I was only about twenty yards away, it raised its head. It was a very live button-buck (a fawn that is old enough to grow its first set of antlers) drinking out of the well around the base of the cottonwood.
I want to delineate the magnitude of this: It was at the height of the afternoon heat, a time when deer normally stay bedded down in the shade to avoid heat stress; the cottonwoods are at least a hundred yards from the edge of the hill behind the house, where the trees and boulders provide shade and shelter; the hill behind the house is south-facing, and in these mountains, only north-facing slopes have any springs or rivulets. Yet this little buck was so desperate for water that he had come a long way down a dry hill and crossed all that open space in bright sunlight just to get a drink. Not only that, but he was so desperately thirsty that when I stopped my truck only twenty yards away, he only looked at me briefly and then went right back to drinking. He drank steadily for about five minutes, occasionally changing his position relative to the water, but never again lifting his head, resolutely ignoring an idling pickup.
The late Roger Ott, a part Cherokee horse trainer, once told me that the plains Indians used to capture wild horses by the simple expedient of posting squaws at every known water hole. Then the young braves would start to chase the horses in relays. The wild horses of course would run away easily at first, but as the day went on the heat began to build they would need water. The squaws would chase them off the waterholes, and this would go on and on until finally the desperate and exhausted horses would stand in a nervous group, uncertain what to do. One of the braves would walk up with a water bag and give the dominant mare a sip, just a taste, of water from his hand, then turn and walk away. And that mare and rest of the band would all follow.
It’s a sign of how bad things are when animals become desperate enough to ignore their own survival instincts in order to follow an even greater imperative. I suspect we have many nocturnal visitors to the horse troughs down by the barn. And I pray our well holds up.