On a recent October weekend we visited a local West County winery. Sitting outside in the brisk air we learned that they, along with their sister establishments, required indoor masking for all visitors and staff. All staff were vaccinated and all visitors were seated outdoors.
Later that evening we went to see the latest Wes Anderson movie at our local Rialto theater and a young employee diligently checked our proof of vaccination before we could enter.
And at a recent music event at our local Hopmonk Tavern, we were asked to be masked while the broad-beamed and imposing bouncer checked our vax status.
In each instance I thanked these employees for holding the line. In each instance they uniformly confessed that they rarely if ever received a kind word.Sponsored
Quite the contrary. Nearly every one that I spoke with had been attacked, screamed at, or abused in one way or another. Some teared up as they related their stories.
As public health departments across the country have become gutted, our service workers and small-business owners who, at times independently implemented and enforced mask, vaccine, and social distancing protocol, have in effect become front-line public health workers.
This is a job which they did not ask for, did not want, were not trained for, and that most definitely was not in their job description.
We may at last be on the verge of being able to experience a public life that feels almost normal. It’s happening despite uncivil behavior. And if we, in fact, succeed, it will be because of common citizens: baristas, and checkout clerks, hostesses and movie theater owners, exercised an uncommon valor.
During the last wind event of the Kincade Fire, I along with a few neighbors had returned to our Sebastopol homes to prepare for any flying embers. All of us had been without power or water for days.
PG&E was in a bummer of a position, I thought. “Sorry folks. We have to turn off the only service we provide. And if we turn it back on, it might kill you!” They were powerless.
I set to cleaning spoiled food from our fridge, raking up possible debris, setting aside additional possessions that I would take if I had to evacuate. As dusk fell and the Diablo wind picked up, I carried a box of perishables through the pitch down to our neighbor who had been running a generator.
While there, another neighbor walked in the door. She had just returned from a shelter. Alone in her darkened home, the stress of the previous days had overwhelmed her and she was having an emotional meltdown. She sat on on the floor and sobbed violently.
We did what we could to console. We made tea. We cooked up an Angus steak that had been on ice for a few days, opened up a jar of olives and braised some chard picked from the garden. We got some food in her. Others showed up. One with a bottle of Japanese whiskey. It became a kind of mid-apocalypse party.
We told our neighbor that she was fine, that she was safe. She was surrounded by powerful people. One of them, after all, even had power. But then I realized that she may have been the most powerful one of all. If not for her, we would all have been sitting alone in our darkened homes. If not for her, we would not all have come together.
A deluge of rain outside, though the air is saturated with a brilliant light.
Perhaps these are not great things, but they are the small matter that is my life.
I intended to reflect this morning on this slightly beyond the midpoint, but instead I found myself texting the son of a friend who sat somewhat bored in his high school history class in Rhode Island.
Why?Because he faces forward.And because I am facing back.And I can’t help but think that he could use an outstretched hand if not from me, than perhaps his future self.Someone perhaps to just assure him that everything is going to be alright.
On most days I work on the creek.Our friends call it Frog Creek, but I call it the Mighty Froggy. I imagine it as having the grandiosity of the Mississippi, the potent history of the Ganges, the raging force of the Amazon.
But it’s really just a little creek that cuts across the property.
And when asked, I tell people that I’m restoring it, but really I just spend a few hours each day carrying about buckets of dirt and stone debris and placing fallen branches against the banks.
I watch how the water flows.I’ve learned a little bit about water and silt.I’m slowly learning the personality and rhythm’s of this little stretch of water and the plants and animals that co-inhabit it.I tell myself that by doing this I am making the world a better place.
Granted, it’s not much.So little in fact, that my wife rightly asks if that’s what I want to be doing with my life.
The answer is, well, no.But it is, in fact, what I am doing.For whatever that’s worth.
On the occasion of his fortieth birthday, Joseph Brodsky wrote
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
Even with an additional 14 years logged, my life has lacked such grandeur.I have braved neither wild beasts nor steel cages.Depending of course on what kind of steel cages to which one might be referring.
Brodsky was born in Leningrad, but I might hazard that he was really born in St. Petersburg, or affectionately known as Pyötr by native born Russians.
His language seems to predate all things Soviet. And his body now sleeps in the San Michelle Cemetery, in the Venice lagoon, in the spit of that city that he so loved, the canaled dream that he ventured to only in winter because it reminded him of some foggy glassine version of the city from which he’d come.
Fitting that the rising oceans will subsume equally his native city and his final resting place.
The summer after he won the Nobel prize I was in Moscow during the optimistic dead center years of perestroika.I was there on a general tourist visa under the auspices of Volunteers for Peace which sponsored non-traditional tourism in the Soviet Union.While there, the organizer, Peter Coldwell from Vermont, fell ill, or broke his back or legs or something, and he had to return home.I was one of the few participants who spoke a bit of Russian so he asked me to assist two graduate students at Moscow State University in coordinating things for the group.
The day after Peter left, however, the students, pulled all 25 of us together.They were exhausted, yet running on a kind of manic energy.They had to apologize.It was terrible, they said, but they had done the impossible.It had taken days, but an opportunity had presented itself and at unheard of pace and through good fortune they had commandeered the necessary papers and resources. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, they tearfully explained, for which they had to abandon everything. In a few hours they would board a plane and they would fly to New York City in America.They were going to visit Joseph Brodsky.
You are in charge, now, they told me.And one sobbed and hugged me as he stepped off the bus.I’m so sorry we are letting you all down, he said.I am so sorry.
On my 54th birthday I wonder about those two graduate students.And I wonder about the conversations that they must have had with the poet.
And I wonder if this in fact even happened, or if it happened in the way that I recall.If our lives are composed of memories and those memories themselves are suspect, then what really do we have left to call our own?
We all are in the process of dying.
I think today of friends who, if not dying, are driving perilously close to the abyss.And I can say for certain that such a vantage, despite its commensurate fear and sadness, promotes a heightened if not unwelcome sense of living.That’s not meant as a consolation because there can be none.So it stands only as an assertion of limited truth.
I think of you all because you’re the ones I want in the room right now.
This morning I also binge listen to my daughter’s music.I listen to her all of seventeen singing on an open stage one of the first songs she had ever written.
She writes far more fluently than I ever did at her age. And I would trade all my future years for the youthfulness and competence and execution of her written voice.
So perhaps if ever there were to be a suggestion of what I’m feeling on this day, fifty-four years from when I was born, it would be this.
And I tell myself as I do each year, I am going to write something for you all.
We have not even moved in, boxes still stacked, the house in chaos.
The Nichols family has come up from Davis and Sacramento and San Diego to help us inaugurate the place.
It’s our new home, but it’s not yet our home. It will be a while yet before it becomes that. What up with the chicken barn, Evan Nichols asks.
We open the french doors and step inside. The group oohs and aahs – the unclad raw wood interior has that kind of impact. Evan’s wife Amy announces that it would make an incredible yoga studio. Evan considers this. I see writing workshops, he says. Mazie can see only the ping pong table. My friends and I are going to hang out here, she says. I declare that I’d rather it be a beer making room. Or perhaps cheese once we get the sheep going. No way, says Anna. It’s going to be my pottery studio.
Evan ponders all this. It’s everything that anybody needs it to be. It’s the Room of Requirement, he says.
In 2000, Peter and Andrea Regan bought a home on Sparkes Road in Sebastopol California. Neighbors say the dilapidated farmhouse was not much to look at. Cramped and claustrophobic, the Regans gutted the place and tripled it in size.
And then, there was the matter of the falling down chicken coop. Built of milled ship timbers, or perhaps from trees hauled out of the Mendocino or Stumptown woods, it hadn’t held chickens in years and was destined to be torn down.
But Peter Regan, through some infusion of resource and energy, did more than keep it alive. He shored it up on new footings. He had it reclad in recovered boards. He added skylights and track lighting and a honey colored floor. It became a playroom, a ping pong room, a secret retreat for his three growing daughters.
The natural tendency is for things to degrade until they become dust. But what of the counterposing force? That thing that creates and is being, well, it’s life itself. And to foster life where there should very well be none at all – why that’s heroic.
It sounds so simple.
But what really occurs in that strange alchemy that we pass off as resurrection?
Jack is still a bit reluctant. Never known a boat builder to plan a launch date before the boat was actually finished, he said. So we recast it as a christening. Today Brett Baer turns thirty. Tomorrow he sets off toward South America. And this boat has become his own personal right of passage.
It’s a year ago, nearly to the day since Anna arrived here and the day Poe died. Back then the plants were dying because we didn’t know we had an irrigation system. The pool was green. The house stacked to the ceiling with boxes. Yesterday? I put in a wild flower / lavender garden in the front island. Spread mulch in the newly reconfigured vegetable area. Wrangled missing chickens. Picked a basket of raspberries. Brett layered in gunwale gray paint in the belly of the boat. And I made a celebratory abalone dinner with three kinds of pasta in the colors of the Peruvian flag. It was absolutely, one hundred percent, the shittiest meal I have ever made. Completely inedible. A great day all in all. And so it goes.
Patience yet. In due time we’ll get to the Boat. We still need to finish with the forests.
The story of the third forest
Once upon a time, through a series of ecosystem successions, great hardwood forests emerged on the eastern seaboard. The first Europeans to experience the woods were astonished at the almost park-like feel – the result of centuries of thinning and burning of the understory by the native inhabitants who each spring would clear the woods to make it easier to track and follow game. The Europeans experienced grassy glades shaded by maples and conifers, their trunks an easy ten feet in diameter.
We all know what happened, of course. Within a couple hundred years all of New England was timbered out – by the 1800’s 98% of Vermont had been deforested and the land turned over to sheep and dairy. A chunk of that wood made its way down to the McKay Shipyards in Boston and Kennard & Williamson in Baltimore where it was refashioned into clipper ships, vessels so strongly masted and engineered that they could cut around Cape Horn with record speed.
These were the ships that carried the miners to San Francisco after 1849. When they set port in San Francisco Bay, their crews jumped ship by the droves and headed up into the mountains to work the gold fields. With no one left to sail the ships back, and the investors and owners left holding the bag, that forest of masted clippers and schooners floated idly amouldering in Yerba Buena Harbor, a nation of hardwood that was gradually dismembered and refashioned into the parlor houses, cribs, gin joints, and Victorian filagreed domiciles that graced the city.
That was until 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18th, 1906, when the ground shook so fiercely that the city of San Francisco collapsed and the gas lines burst into flames. Within days the Great Fire had consumed over 25,000 buildings.
In a strange arc, those wonderful ancient forests tended by the Algonquin and Abenaki, and tendered by hundreds of years Atlantic nor’easters, as well as vast stands rounding Seattle rooted in tons of salmon flesh, came to be consumed in a holocaust at the gateway to San Francisco Bay.
But not all of the wood burned.
Regardless of what forest or what ocean she came from, some of that wood fashioned of steelhead and moutain fiber made it’s way to a spot of land newly parceled out from the Blucher Rancheria in newly incorporated town of Sebastopol in Sonoma County. The boards were stacked on the open meadow on the knoll at the crest of our ridge.
One morning in 1901 or 1902 a few sawyers and carpenters arrived and, through their hands, the Room of Requirement wrought as ocean, and then as wood, in all cases ferrying whatever was into Safe Harbor, entered it’s Third Incarnation.
The Boat arrived here in the Fall, towed up onto the property on an unplated trailer by 80 year old Jack in his one ton truck. Brett and I pulled it by hand the last hundred feet to the Room of Requirement. Opening both french doors wide we ferried her in. And for a few months now she has slumbered. The nights long, the air chill. The cats climbed on her and sometimes we checked in. But mostly she just slept. Jack has visited a few times and on each occasion he’s asked if he could visit her, just to see, just to lay his hands.
Walking about in the Room of Requirement, he’d gaze at her and touch her and he was pleased.
She’s just a Penguin Dinghy, if that. She was built for placid eastern waters and can hardly withstand the gusts on San Francisco Bay. On top of that what’s left of her is covered in lichen. Her stern has been plowed with gashes. What to say? She may be more hole than anything else, but can any absences stoved in upon her negate her right to existence?
All the while Brett has been away out with the wind. He restored a barn in Bolinas, and served at a Vipassana retreat and painted a mural and went to a movement workshop at Tamalpa. He got a girlfriend and got a plan which shifted into another. All good stuff.
The days have started to grow longer. The daffodils and narcissus have come up, the locust is in full bloom along with the magnolias. Spring appears at last to be here. And now Brett has returned home.
Time has come for the restoration of the Boat. The boat that came from Arlo Guthrie’s house. The boat that rotted in Jack’s yard in Marshall for thirteen years. The boat that harkens to an ancient childhood memory that belongs not to me.
Why do you assume any task? Why do you refurbish or refashion anything? Why with all the things yet to be done – rooms still to unpack, months of bookkeeping, gardens to be planted, work work work to be done, have we taken on this project?
But we don’t have an answer. There is no why. We do it because it’s there to be done.
And a faint trust in the belief that beauty near always arises from the foolish act.
Mid-day I went down to visit Frenchie, our neighbor next door who had come home to die. Her daughter called because Frenchie needed to be moved and the daughter wasn’t strong enough to do it.
Frenchie is 88, a feisty Quebecois. Her husband, now gone, was from Montreal. Over half a century ago they had bought their cottage in Sebastopol as a weekend retreat and eventually moved up here. She was a devoted gardener who waged perennial war on the gophers. She held dominion over this area as residents came and went and the old Gravenstein apple farmers grew old and went on. In later years she filled her home with stuffed animals to keep her company. Her menagerie, she called it.
Frenchie lay on a bed in the living room, hooked to an oxygen tank. She still had fire in her, and when prompted she could eke out a yes or a no and a fierce yet gentle smile. You could feel the shimmering though, the giving way: her struggle was palpable. I stayed for a bit, and told her she was beautiful and strong. She was a lovely lovely woman.
It was a beautiful California day that felt to me strangely gray.
That evening Anna and I went to hear Jolie Holland at the Hopmonk. A founding member of The Be Good Tanyas, Holland came out of the Gulf Coast and her musical heritage has broad Acadian roots. I told Anna I felt so fragile, that I could feel Frenchie slipping such that any loss, even the closing of the damn record store in Sebastopol, felt like a sharp abrasion. It just felt so sad. Holland’s voice was sublime and provided some measure of relief, but nonetheless Anna and I were tired and we got in one of those kinds of fights that leave one drained and aching.
I fell asleep at home and awoke at 3 and couldn’t sleep. My chest compressed with that feeling of blank dread. I went downstairs and lay on the couch in the darkness, waiting and observing. I dreamt that I was on my way to Telluride but a snow began to fall and impeded my progress. The ache slowly dissipated. At some point I felt a release and opening up somehow and I fell into a thick slumber. At daybreak the dogs went mad with barking and raced to the windows.
Later Anna came and pulled me from my stupor. We should go see Frenchie, she said. I threw some clothes on and we walked down the road. Her son Louie stood in the dewy yard by the fence. She died this morning he told us. It’s funny, the others had all been dying lately. One 88 year old neighbor just last week. Frenchie was the last to go.
I later explained to Mazie that it’s like we’re a fabric, each person a knot of sentience in an immense dense weave. And as any one creature starts to go, unravel, whatever, the area of fabric around the knot shifts and shimmers and vibrates as that knot is unraveled into the nothingness. The description is of course not quite right, but perhaps close enough.
I lit a candle for Frenchie and let it burn for most of the morning. What is a flame, but the release of matter over time as light and heat and disintered material? A flame, be it life or fire, is again a verb, less a noun than a process. And when the time came, my breath pressed against the flame struggling to hold purchase on the wick. But the energy of the process couldn’t withstand the prevailing force which always is and it gave way and eventually extinguished. How does a flame go out? First there is the sequence of when it waves and bucks and bows. Followed by a brief flare before disappearing. The ember tip of the wick remains for another moment, burning yet before it too goes black. Then the long trail of whisping smoke that unfurls into space tracing designs and patterns until quite suddenly that too is gone. We are left with the dissipated carbon dioxide to be absorbed by plants and in quick cycle returned to life. And the inert stick of wax awaiting the next spark.
A few weeks back, Dr. Daniel Feikin and I sat on our porch and he asked what I would have done if I had learned that a McMansion was slated to go up in the orchard property next door. Would I still have purchased our house?
It was a good question. I still believe that the optimal situation would have been for us to have owned the now gone orchard. And at the time that we lost it, I felt despair and longing and fear of what was to come.
But what did come? If we saw this house for the first time today, we would see a delightful meadow next door slated to become a vineyard. Lovely and quaint. We would not have hesitated to buy this house.
Less than perfect would still be good enough.
But what about the hypothetical McMansion that would have sullied our privacy and views? This house on its own is all that we need and wanted. If something lousy was happening next door, we could have balked and held out and searched for something else. We could have camped out in an apartment for two years. We could have continued to live an unsettled life well into Mazie’s high school years. Our time would have been given over to searching and exhausting real estate drives and questioning and perseverating over manifold possibilities. And whatever we found would have been compromised in different ways. Interest rates would start to rise. The houses would need work. The land would be too big or too small or too wooded. They would have been too expensive or too far from Mazie’s school or the roads too busy. There’s always something.
Years ago I worked for a plastic surgeon in San Diego. I was editing some promotional materials for him and taking forever to do it. I couldn’t stand how sloppy his old stuff was and I wanted it to be perfect. He finally sat me down over dinner at some place in La Jolla.
Andy, do you know why my facelifts come out better than those done by my partner? he asked. Because he aims for perfection, he said. He goes in there and spends too much time trying to get everything right and he bruises too much of the tissue. He makes a mess of it. Do you understand what I’m telling you?
I shook my head.
80% is good enough, he said. Nature will take care of the rest.
Not something you necessarily want to hear from your plastic surgeon. But now twenty-five years, a million miles and a dozen lives later I can see Dr. Manchester was spot on.
Adaptation and survival favor imperfection.
80% of something far exceeds 100% of nothing. Sometimes even less than good is good enough.
As far as this story goes, the boat’s journey began on the back porch of Arlo Guthrie’s farmhouse in Massachusetts. It had sat there for a lot of years. I don’t know how Arlo came to have it or what his plans were. Apparently he doesn’t really like the water.
His friend Jack, though, loved boats. He once took the thing out on Arlo’s pond that was hardly bigger than a small room. And I guess Arlo said Jack could have it.
So Jack drove the thing from Massachusetts to Colorado on a flatbed trailer and the boat pretty much sat upside down on someone’s property for a lot of years and then it was driven down to Palm Springs where it sat upside down for a lot more years. Jack may have floated it in a swimming pool just to see what it was like.
Eventually the boat came to Tomales Bay where it weathered untended to for more than a decade. The gunnels rotted out as well some of the sidings. It had once been a lovely Penguin Dinghy much like a boat that Jack had once owned that had been swept away in the great New York hurricane of 1953.
Just before Thanksgiving my boat building friend Brett was driving down the 1 toward Bolinas when he spied a prickly pear cactus adorned with fruit. He pulled over, got his tongs and gloves and set to gleaning a bag of fruit. He was interrupted, though, by a winsome woman, a complete stranger, who seemed to have materialized out of nowhere.
We need help, she said. We need to save Jack’s boat. She suggested that it was in some sort of imminent danger and that she needed assistance.
Well, I’ve worked on boats, Brett offered. He looked around at the neighboring docks on the bay. Where is it? he asked. I can come over and see what I can do.
The woman looked at him incredulously. The boat’s not here, she said. It’s in Sausalito.
Okay, Brett said. Give me Jack’s phone number and I can call him and I can see what I can do.
The woman became very unnerved. You can’t call Jack! she exclaimed. Everyone wants to talk with Jack. Jack calls you!
So she took Brett’s number and told him to wait ten minutes and the call would arrive.
Which it did. And by the next day Brett was in a Sausalito boat yard listening to a day full of boat yarns and traveling history and loading the boat onto a trailer hitch and towing it to Bolinas. And a few days later he was at our house standing outside the chicken house with a sack of apples in each hand, staring in reverie, wondering what our plans were for the chicken house.
Our friend Evan Nichols the writer had christened it the Room of Requirement. Everyone who stepped inside was possessed by a different overpowering vision. For Mazie, it was the ping pong hang out room. I saw a cider pressing and cheesemaking facility. Evan saw a writers retreat room. His wife Amy saw a yoga room. Anne Harley envisioned a singing studio. The vultures have found it quite useful as a dinner plate.
And Brett saw a boat restoration house.
The room is one and all of these things.
And that’s how last Monday Jack pulled up in his three quarter ton truck pulling the boat. And that’s how Arlo Guthrie’s penguin dinghy came to sit inside our chicken house. And why I will spend a better part of my winter sanding and planing and painting wood.
Because if you do things right, all of this, every bit, is required.
It took three days. But they’re here now in full force. And it’s been quite the party. They circle low and Mango loves chasing them. Even the horse down in the corral down the way became excited. Our neighbor came over and was wondering what had gotten under his skin – he was prancing and snorting, his tail held high. The vultures, however, had been circling and feeding for much of the morning. In addition to the impression of their tremendous mass, what feelings do they incite in other species? The horse was clearly unnerved.
What other conjecture do the birds summon?
They are patient, keen observers. The splayed open body of the raccoon rested on the roof of the chicken house for two days before I noticed the first flyover. It was near dusk and two vultures flew slowly over the chicken house, circled once and continued on their way. They waited another two days before they began to work the body. I wonder how much they observed before they decided it was safe to eat? And do they use the close flyovers to test the animal to see if it’s still alive? Living creatures tend to run and bolt at the flyovers.
They have at least some semblance of cognition and work their food. They didn’t feed on the roof. Instead one of the birds lifted the raccoon corpse off the roof and moved it 7 feet to a spot on the ground where they could easily circle and rest while picking at the flesh. They ate the first side of the raccoon on the first evening. The next morning they rotated his body a full 180 degrees to more easily get at his other side. Later I moved the remains and hanging entrails to the tree outside our house. Within hours they had removed the body from the tree and once again were working it on the ground just outside our dining room window. Do they have a set routine in how they will dismember and eat an animal?
They may be highly social animals that work collaboratively. So far I’ve seen a primary pair that are sometimes accompanied by a third. Only one bird eats at a time. The other two either perch in the tree, on the backs of the garden furniture, or sit on the ground. In all instances they face outward toward the open meadow, watching it seems for any advancing threats. This morning when the neighbors pit approached from the meadow, the feeding raven stopped and joined the other two gazing outward. As the pit advanced, the birds slowly took flight. Two of the birds seemed to have disappeared for the day, while one remained in the tree. When my friend Danny walked outside, the bird descended from the tree and circled the carrion raccoon as if protecting it. Was the bird guarding the food? Or was it taking flight in self-defense? How do they communicate? How are responsibilities divided among the group? Is their a pecking hierarchy?
They may have an acute sense of hearing. I was watching the birds with binoculars from our dining room window. At some point my cellphone sitting on the far side of the room in the kitchen chirped when an email came in. The turkey vulture outside and 10 feet from the house started and looked up in my direction. I know for certain that I would not have been able to hear the phone from outside the house. How to test their audial and visual acuity?
They can quickly discern friend from foe and react accordingly. The first few times I walked outside in their presence they were startled and flew away. They watched, however, when I retrieved the raccoon and relocated it. And they also watched a couple times as I walked in and out of the house without bothering them. It only took a couple passes before they became accustomed to my presence and ignored me. Mango with all his bark and scampering on the other hand, is another story.
Their necks and beaks may have adapted to small prey. Watching the vulture pick flesh with it’s beak, I thought of the vultures on the Mara. The birds there have long extensible necks that they thrust deep into the chest cavities of the wildebeest, elephants, or whatever other megafauna they feed on. North America hasn’t had megafauna for at least 15,000 years and nothing on the scale of what was in Africa. Did different carrion birds evolve different beak and neck structures that would allow them to feed on different kinds of animals? Have carrion birds evolved different strategies for dismembering corpses? I would imagine that an adult vulture has a far keener understanding of raccoon anatomy than I do. They’ve undoubtedly feasted on dozens of roadkill.
There you have it. Twenty minutes of observation and six questions.
And I haven’t even planted the garden bulbs. Or assembled the apiary.
We’re set on a low ridge about 18 miles inland from the ocean. We’re high enough that the ridge holds back the maritime fog and moisture, yet close enough to the coast that we escape the summer heat of the valleys to the east. There’s lots of water. Artesian springs seep out all along on this slope, while atmospheric moisture rides in as fog most mornings.
The San Andreas fault – that neat crack marking where the Pacific Plate abrades against and is peeling away from the North American Plate runs just to the west of us. Coming down off the ridge, you can actually see the gash in all it’s violent beauty. You can even drive into it. As you approach the coast, the rounded hills bunch up like crumpled tissue. As you push out you emerge into the narrow strait of Tomales Bay where the ocean has seeped into the San Andreas. Just across the water rests Point Reyes, slowly calving away from our continent at a pace at which we can actually feel it. I hid out there last month, and from the rocks at dawn I watched the tidal pull and stared back at that old land from which I was then receding.
By another designation we’re in the Green Valley sub designation of the Russian River appellation. We have soft sandy soils. The cool moisture and the more moderate temperatures make us good for Pinot and perhaps Chardonnay, though I don’t know much about that.
Just to the south the ridgeline gives way to a wide channel that draws the moisture inland from the Pacific toward Petaluma. That swath, buffeted by cold winds in the winter and summer, is marked by high undulating grassy hills best suited for dairy and grazing. In the spring it looks a bit like Ireland. That’s where you find loads of goat farms, Bill Niman’s beef, Straus milking cows, the Cowgirl Creamery and a wide range of artisinal cheese makers.
But where we are to the north it’s considered the banana belt – a perfect marrying of temperatures that near anything can grow here. Luther Burbank’s original farm sits about two miles to the north. There he developed hundreds of new varieties of apples, stone fruit, cacti, vegetables, ornamentals and what not. He supposedly thought it was the most perfect growing environment in the world. The land we sit on has grown cherries, prunes, plums, apples. It can support Meyer lemons and blood oranges. Figs and olives and grapes and walnuts. Peaches, nectarines, lettuces, winter brassicas. California oak acorns and redwoods. You name it.
And by yet another designation, the north of us is home to a vestigial group of Algonkian speakers – Yurok and Wiyot left over from the ancient middle incursion onto the continent. They most likely stayed put on the coast while their relatives pressed onward to the east, ultimately populating the entire eastern seaboard. The Algonkians are surrounded by a once heavy population of Athabascans – later arrivals from the third migration. They had come down from the Alaskan interior and the Arctic circle, having left their Inuit and Yupik cousins sometime way back. Resourceful opportunists they filled in the territory in north eastern California. Their De’na relatives pushed further, of course, down into Idaho, Colorado and the Southwest. To the south and east of us, it’s mostly Uto-Aztecan, the domain of the Paiute that ranged into the Sierras along with many of the central valley Sonoran tribes: Colorado indians, the Chemehuevi, Mojave. Some were Quechuan. But most, like the folk down south on the coast – the Kumeyaay, Diegueño, Cahuilla – are mostly cousins of the Puebloans – all folks left behind on the great historic primary migrations from the south.
As for us, we’re living on Pomo and Coastal Miwok land. Back in the day, winters were spent on this ridge line where we now live. In the summer, families and clans settled on the perimeter of what is now called the Laguna de Santa Rosa – the enormous seasonal estuary that extends from Petaluma and the Bay tidal marshes all the way up to the Russian River and Dry Creek Valley. The lagoon is the heart of this place. In the summer, the flat oak studded grasslands extend across the valley to the Mayacama mountains and the delightful hump of Mount St. Helena. In the winter, the tidal reach and flooding extends right up the valley, inundating the land near to the Gravenstein Highway. The lagoon is rich land. Our food comes from there. Literally. For the time being we get our veggies from Laguna Farm – a group of industrious folks who have intensively planted a small area on the edge of the lagoon. Right now we’re getting radishes, kales, chards, brussel sprouts, broccoli, an abundance of salad greens, carrots – most of it hauled out of those wetlands or the areas planted on a knoll adjacent to our house.
I was born in California. It’s my native land. And now after decades away we’ve returned as Californians. I explain to my daughter that this ultimately is the place which we are from. But we also return as guests of those residents that preceded along with all those energies still present. In the morning after the fog burns, I look out the window. The possibilities are manifold. The world sparkles in all it’s glorious frission.
I found him in the morning while walking Mango. He lay on the side of the road at the other end of the 40 acres, his body fully intact. His chest cavity still had a trace of warmth, though rigor mortis had started to set in. Without any real clear intent, I picked him up, much to the chagrin of a waiting turkey vulture that immediately took flight.
I thought he was beautiful. He was heavy, heavier than one might think. Carrying his dead body, he felt something like a small dog. The pelt was thick, and the tail less pliable than it looks. His teeth and claws are predatory, ready to sink into any small vole – or wounded raven, perhaps – that he might happen across.
It all led to the basic question that ultimately faces everything: how best to send him on?
I could bury him, though that seemed respectful only in our world in which we seek to hide the look and stink of death. A waste of a perfectly good carcass, as Kerry Hardy would put it. I could gut him and do something with the luscious pelt, but I felt his native form was too beautiful to render into ornamentation. I could only screw it up. Kerry suggested eating him. Anna, of course, was worried about hydrophobia.
It took a good day for the answer to present itself.
This morning I drew a knife neatly down the middle of his chest and peeled back the pelt revealing the rose bloom of his chest. Lacking animus, his body now existed nearly exclusively as matter. But not quite. His matter still contains resident within a potency. We call it vitality. Enough that other creatures may seek to take it and draw it into their own.
We call this eating. On one side of the divide: sacrifice. On the other, rendered by consumption, it becomes the sacrament and the eater the sanctified.
Isn’t that ultimately what it meant in the transformation of the Host?
I took the body of that poor coon and splayed it on the roof of the old chicken barn out beyond our house. It’s within clear line of sight of our deck and bedroom windows. In a few days it will begin to stink.
If I’m lucky, the neighboring creatures will be hungry enough to overcome the fear of this place and of us. You all are welcome here I say to them. To the ravens. To the crows and vultures. To all the scavengers. I want them to come to this home and feed.
It really is time for me to get on with it. We have a wonderful home. And I’m back in it.
Here’s the invite. If you’re wild, I’ll feed you raccoon.
For the rest of you, I have a table to build. And things to grow. And kill. And render. It will be beautiful and delicious.
Come. You’re all welcome. It’s time to sate the hunger.
One morning I go out at dawn to walk the orchards.
Is this a good place? Is it safe? What life will present itself?
I walk among trees laden with apples. The coastal mist dampens my skin. I imagine Hopi plants and how they would drink this moisture up. Gopher holes riddle the loamy ash colored soil. A civilization of them. I find old walnut shells. And ancient gnarled California oaks bend exquisitely toward the ground. An oyster shell pokes up from the dirt. There’s evidence of artesian springs.
A flock of wild turkeys waddle toward the vineyard. Everywhere I find turkey feathers. And jay feathers. And the horn of a deer. Quail dart among the trees. I see large cat prints. Rabbit pellets. Fox scat. Chickens wander in the distance. The grapes just now are coming onto the vine. A line of does steps up from the hollow. Later I learn that a mountain lion was spied coming up the Blucher creek. I see a few corn stalks volunteering among the Gravenstein apple trees.
I hear the sweet call of the crows. And then, at last, the rasp of the ravens in the fog. Two sentinel redwoods tower above one of the old farmhouses.
These are the beings that govern this place. The LaDukes. Me. My family. We’re all interlopers. We need the help of the others if we’re going to live here. And likewise we have an obligation to all of them. If nothing else, simply to let them live.
Feeling the watchful eyes of all those who protect, I pay a visit to the County Recorder’s office in downtown Santa Rosa.
I’m accompanied by our real estate agent and I want one favor from him. I want to trace back the chain of title on this house we’re buying. Eventually I want to go back to 1848 and the end of the Spanish land grants, but for now I’m just looking for one particular event.
Our prospective house is old. Although it recently went through an extensive remodel, you can still see the outlines of what was once a craftsman bungalow from the 1920’s. But the current owners found in the walls a rolled up newspaper dating from 1893.
I suspect that our house was the original farmstead on what would have been a 40 acre homestead parcel.
You see, I’m the patron saint of all things lost. If you’re inhabiting a house, you’re taking on not just the house of today, but all the past lives of that house and the future ones as well. Everywhere we walk we’re surrounded by ghosts and what are we if we don’t choose to recognize and honor them?
By definition, life is a process of perpetual disintegration. Or rather, it’s persistence in the face of disintegration. Life wants to live. And in order for it to live, we must put ourselves forward as a countervailing force. Life is summoned in the face of death.
In this case, there was once a boy who lived in a sleepy seaside down in Southern California. The boy lost his parents and he watched the canyons and coastal chaparral be chewed up by a tide of development. He dreamt that one day he’d live in a place where he would be safe from loss and protected from those things that diminished life.
And once in Sonoma County there was a farm. The land supported orchards of cherries and nut trees and eventually Gravenstein apples. Over time it was divided up into ever smaller parcels, but by some miracle the orchards were never taken out and the land stayed under cultivation. And all the while an old green farmhouse and it’s inhabitants set themselves on that land and oversaw whatever life went on there.
But it only takes one change of ownership and that will cease to be.
In the County Recorder’s office, I scan the yellowed maps on the wall. You can see the outlines of what were once the Blucher Rancho and the adjacent rancheria. Our parcel now exists on the border separating the two land grants. In hand I have an existing parcel map for our area, showing the house we’re looking at and two smaller adjacent parcels. One is owned by an old woman with the last name Horstmeyer. The other by an elderly lady with the last name Edmunds. Still under orchard, in all these years the land has never been visited by either of the ladies.
Before delving any deeper, I already sense the story.
The county recorder pulls up the chain of title on the computer. She can only go back to the mid-1960’s. But just from that we can see the current owners bought it 10 years ago from a fellow named Robinson. And Robinson bought it from a fellow named Percy LaDuke in 1964. to learn more, we need to go to the map ledgers.
We flip through a large book containing fragile maps until we come to one particular change of title in 1964. We see an original parcel comprised of our house and the two other plots of land. And in lavender pencil, two neat hand-drawn incisions divide the one parcel into three.
I turn to the real estate agent. The two old ladies – they were Percy LaDuke’s daughters, I tell him. When he sold the house, he deeded two portions of the land to them and their descendants. He loved the land. He had to sell the farm, but he didn’t want to lose it. He felt that there was value in land and that the land should go to his daughters.
We now turn to the microfiche. It only takes a bit of searching to find images of the change of title. And there it is. Percy LaDuke selling the farmhouse and in two separate documents he subdivides the property and conveys title to Mrs. Horstmeyer and Mrs. Edmunds.
I can hardly contain myself now.
The woman were already married. That means they were at least in their twenties.
The real estate agent is shaking his head now.
That means the two women were born in the late 40’s. It’s all so clear now. If they were born in the late 40’s, they were early boomers. They were born just after the war. If Percy were selling the house in the 60’s once his daughters were married and gone, that means he would have been young enough to serve. He’d fought overseas and once the war was over, he was discharged, he bought the farmhouse and he and his wife had settled down to raise their family. They’d all grown up here. Once his family was gone, the farm was sold off and divided.
To trace back the chain of title any further, we need to do it manually and the Recorder points us to shelves of dozens and dozens of volumes organized alphabetically and by year.
How do we find the previous transaction, I ask.
You have to go through each year, she tells me.
But there’s little need for that.
I walk directly to 1948-49, pull one book off the shelf and flip to the L’s. We turn a few pages and there we have it. Two contiguous, handwritten entries in black ink. The first registering Percy LaDuke’s discharge from the Navy in Oakland, California. He had fought in the Pacific theater. The second entry recorded his purchase of the farm.
Poe ensconced with a wildlife rehabilitator in Flagstaff. And Mazie and I are camped out in Sonoma California, trying to piece together a new life out here for our family.
We’ve found house to buy. It’s big and green and old and wonderful. But after eight years at Hopi, it’s hard to imagine a life as wild and wonderful and full of serendipity as the one we now have. Is this it? After decades of wandering, are we now settling down? Where’s the adventure in it?
On a Tuesday morning, sitting in the courtyard outside the Sebastopol Inn, I call our friends Kerry and Kristina back home. I’m worried, I tell them. How are we going to make a new life for ourselves out here?
Kristina’s answer is simple. This thing that we need to do is too big, she says. We can’t do it alone. So we need to put it out there, we need to seek out our allies and be available when they present themselves.
As for Kerry, he points out that when driving into Walpi Housing in the middle of a barren desert, would we have ever imagined that it was an ideal spot for building large wooden structures, and butchering a cow, and raising a mess of ravens? Could we have even conceived of the adventures that awaited us there?
Two hours later, Mazie and I sit in the Holy Cow coffee shop in Sebastopol. I’m despairing. Will I be able to talk to the ravens in our new home? I ask Mazie.
Daad, she says, and rolls her eyes in a way to indicate that once again I’m proving myself an embarrassment.
On the wall behind her hangs a large painting of a young girl cradling a crow. And further down, another canvas of an enormous raven perched on the body of a baby. I step up to take a picture of it and an older woman sitting at a nearby table asks if I’m interested in ravens.
She’s read all about them, she says.
Bernd Heinrich? I ask.
Heinrich is amazing, she says and we high five.
I tell her the story of the wash ravens and she tells me about herself. Her name is Maryann Markus. She used to teach, but she’s retired and she’s built herself a studio and she spends much of her time drawing nests. She is fascinated by ravens, she considers them her totems. There’s something I’ve never shown anybody, she says removing a velvet pouch from her purse. Inside, a hematite figurine of a raven. I squeeze it in my hand and rub it and squeeze it again. It’s heavy and has the dense sensibility of a low rumbling current.
She looks at me. It’s yours now, she says. They’re such powerful birds, guardians really. She asks if I’ve met Michael, the owner of the coffee shop and to fellow who did the paintings. She leads me to the back to introduce us.
He’s my age more or less, introspective and gentle seeming. Michael, too, says he can’t get his mind off these birds. He’s been fixated on them a while and keeps working them, making image after image. They’re deep, intense creatures, he says, and we’re afraid to let them into our lives. He says that the image of the baby and the bird scared people, but that they misinterpreted it. I see him as a protector, he says.
I tell him about the raven in our care and how our neighbor killed and maimed two of them. How I was fed up and in a weird way it was a last straw for us. I just wanted to get out of there.
But that’s all part of it, too, he says. You can’t run from that either. He says he hopes our move here works out well and that things take a good turn with the house. Before I leave, he gives me a hug.