Posts Tagged ‘nature’

Return of the Gray Fox

The gray foxes are back in our Mendocino neighborhood, a meadow at the edge of the forest. We’ve seen them several times, mostly at twilight. They use our low-to- the-ground front porch as a highway. One sat for a long time at the edge of the driveway, observing the meadow. A few evenings ago Tony called me to a back window. On the hill above the wall, a fox was eagerly digging at a gopher hole. A few moments earlier I had seen its mate running up the middle of the road, and soon there were two moving side by side into the thicket. I’ve heard them bark, a raspy single note, like a cough.

Although gray foxes are typically crepuscular, we’ve seen them in broad daylight too. As we were walking across the commons yesterday, not long after noon, a fox dashed across our path with some small creature in its mouth, probably a vole or gopher. It’s likely that nearby was a nest burrow where hungry kits were waiting to be fed.

There’s a nice description of the gray fox, with pictures, in the newsletter of The Watershed Project.

Edge of the Creek

High tide was at dawn. By noon, the breaking waves are far distant, and the creek on its way to the sea has cut a miniature cliff through damp sand. A reflection of sun on water ripples along the vertical face, fluted already by tiny sand-falls. As I watch, more sand avalanches skitter down to where, about half-way to the water, an undulating line with a little thickness to it, like a welted trim, defines where the vertical cliff gives way to a more gradual slope. The damp sand grains bounce off the ridged line and spread out down-slope, coming to rest at about forty degrees, their angle of repose. The scene is a microcosm of the world’s geological processes, the lifting up of land masses, the crumbling away. But what strikes me most is the beauty of it: the rippling light, the fluted cliff, the flurries of sand. I am mesmerized by pattern.

Striking a Balance

A gloriously clear day after the first big rain of the season, and the garden calls. Where to start? I need to strike a balance between our enjoyment of beauty and the garden’s needs. The lavender still gives off its evocative scent, and its color is still purple, a gray-purple, like twilight clouds. But if I leave it much longer the stems will die off. Besides, more rain is due in a couple of days, so soon the soil will be too wet to walk on. The task has to be done today.

Even now, where to cut is a challenge. Snip too high, and each rounded bush will resemble a pincushion. Too low, below where a small gray-green pair of leaves has sprouted, and the stem will die anyway. I don’t have time to manicure each individual stem. I take a breath, grab a handful of stems, and cut.

A flotilla of coyote bush seeds sails by on the wind. Negotiating the balance between garden plantings and native vegetation on this stretch of the Mendocino Coast requires the patience and skill of a diplomat. Coyote bush was here first, and provides excellent forage for the small, seed-eating birds that flock here in the fall. Douglas fir grows here too, and Douglas iris, and blue-eyed grass. Again, a balance. The Douglas fir seedlings have to go if they are close to the house. Iris and blue-eyed grass get to stay. Coyote bush, the most prolific, I allow on the outskirts of the garden. But here where it would crowd out the lavender, no. I reach down and yank out babies from between the lavender bushes.

Dragonfly sighting

Living as we do at the edge of the forest, we share space with many wild creatures, large and small. Many are familiar: the deer and jack rabbits that browse on the hill, the frogs that call from the gutter downspouts, the hummingbirds that argue over nectar-filled flowers. Occasionally, we make a new acquaintance. This week it was a large dragonfly, noticeable for a long white tail and four dark wings that wave like flags.  A little research identified it as an adult male Common Whitetail (Libellula lydia). Its diet is mosquitoes and other flying insects.  An excellent neighbor to have around.

Catching my breath

Countdown to the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, which starts next Thursday, July 29.  Amazingly, I’m caught up for the moment on co-director tasks. Time to take a deep, relaxing breath and think about the wealth of wildlife with which this place is blessed. Last evening, on the hill behind our house, we saw our first California gray fox of the season.  A cottontail scampered out of sight as a pair of angry scrub jays attacked the fox. Later, the stags emerged, two of them, both with magnificent six-point racks of antlers. We’ve been watching the new season’s fawns gradually lose their spots. A jack rabbit family shares the front garden with the quail family. Hummingbirds and bees have discovered an exotic treasure from my native New Zealand: a young Metrosideros excelsus.  It is commonly known as New Zealand Christmas Tree because on the northern coast of New Zealand its spectacular clusters of red flowers bloom in December. Here on the other side of the world, where summer is on the other side of the calendar, it has been brightening our gray July.  We call it by its Maori name, Pohutukawa.

Where the flowers are

It is one thing to know as a fact that high rainfall tallies in California’s rainy season result in more spring wildflowers. It is quite another thing to feel with your whole being that exuberant burst of fecundity.

At MacKerricher State Park this morning the air is misty and the sea is calm. Out by Laguna Point, swathes of Goldfields (Lasthenia chrysotoma) dazzle the eye. Up close, I see that among the Goldfields are patches of Purple Butter & Eggs (Triphysaria eriantha ssp. rosea) whose complementary color makes the gold even more eye-popping. Scattered among them are California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica). Not the orange poppies we coast dwellers snobbishly refer to as freeway poppies, but our own coastal variety, the leaves more fleshy to resist the salt wind, the flowers a prettier yellow.

South along the headlands trail, I know a place where Coast Delphinium (Delphinium decorum) grows. Never more than a foot high, each plant has a head of deep blue flowers that glow with intensity. This year they are magnificent. As I crouch to admire, I remember renewing their acquaintance in previous springs.

This is the way an immigrant learns to belong: to come back and back to a place, to remember its varied moods, to remember where the flowers are.

Before the Light Fails

I have been struggling all week to find words for the emotions stirred by a yellowish twilight that came one evening at sundown, after a day of rain. It does not invoke despair, like Emily Dickinson’s  certain Slant of light. But it does cause me to pause whatever I am doing, to stand at the window and simply gaze.

When I was a child, my mother brought home a painting she had fallen in love with, and hung it on our livingroom wall. It was a street scene in an English village, all somber grays: gray stone row houses on a gray cobbled street that was wet with rain. Uphill from the houses stood a gray stone church, from a window of which shone a rectangle of yellow light. If I saw this picture again today, I might dismiss it as sentimental. But what caught my mother’s attention, and what makes me remember it now, is that the artist captured that moment of otherness as a storm clears, when we see beyond the everyday world, that strange and solemn moment before the light fails.

The Storms of Yesteryear

Intermission at a Sunday afternoon concert, a knot of people take the air in the porch of Preston Hall. “That’s a beautiful sight,” a woman says, pointing to the rain sweeping in across Mendocino Bay. We are all excited. The weather gurus have warned that this rain is just precursor to a series of large storms expected to hit over the next several days.

“Remember that time we we had twenty, no forty inches of rain in one storm?” someone says.

“What about the time that rogue wave went right over the lighthouse?” Point Cabrillo Light Station, a one-story structure with a turret on top that holds a magnificent first order Fresnel lens, sits on a crumbling headland about fifty feet above the water.

“Not over the light, surely?”

“Over the roof, at least.”

Much damage?”

“Oh yes.”

I mention the first time Tony and I came to Mendocino, in 1970. In Navarro River Redwoods State Park, through which you drive to reach the coast, we were fascinated to see a plaque high up the cliff on the side of the road, marking how high the waters had come in the big flood. The date was 1965, I think. The plaque is gone now, but you can still see evidence of that flood. A whitish fungus covers the trunks of the redwood trees up to the waterline. It is particularly visible at night, illuminated by car headlights, a ghostly presence in the blackness of the forest.

The Navarro River still floods in major storms. Everyone who lives here on the coast quickly learns the alternate routes to reach inland destinations. Tree limbs fall. Mud slides. Sometimes all the roads are closed. Sometimes the power goes out for days. We learn how to hunker down. And afterward, we will have more stories.

Of Moons and Tides

New Years Day. the ritual of changing the calendars. I take down the old  Nature Conservancy calendar, with its beautiful wildlife pictures, and hang its replacement,  the 2010 calendar.  I replace the little tide book tucked behind the portable radio on a kitchen counter. My book shows the high and low tides as a wavy line undulating across the days of the month. My moon chart too is visual: for each month, an arching line of moons, their phases making a dramatic pattern of light and dark across the year. I love these graphic images. I love too, that by comparing the charts for moon and tide,  I can see the pull of the moon’s gravity on water, can glimpse the rhythms that make up our world.

The Bat

We made the acquaintance of a California Brown Bat yesterday. He had been hiding in a stack of five-gallon black plastic pots on the porch of my garden shed. Daughter-in-law Diana and grandson Timothy needed a pot for some project, and were startled to hear a loud hiss. Two pots down in the stack, there it was: chestnut brown fur, black feet, large yellow-brown fangs chittering angrily at being disturbed in the middle of the day. (Here’s  a picture by Tom Jolly of a similarly angry bat.) Everyone gathered round to look, an opportunity for a conversation with the grandchildren about the useful role bats play in the environment, and about the possibility of building a bat house to encourage more bats to the property. Very carefully, I lifted the pot and set it on its side in a shady place, so that the bat could escape to some more secluded place to resume its sleep.