First and foremost, Anna and I would like to thank everyone for their concern.  We and all the animals are safe and things are temporarily stable. 

In short, it’s kind of like in the olden days when every so often you‘d go outside and see a big fire breathing dragon a few miles away up on the ridge line.  You knew that at least for a little while you might be fine.  But then….  It’s kind of like that.

And for those wanting a little more narrative detail, here you go.  There might be some helpful tidbits for those who find themselves in a similar situation:

Our dog Tierra and I had been in San Diego for the previous 10 days.  On Wednesday, a Sebastopol neighbor called me after midnight (thank you, Toby).  He was out of town, but had word of a blaze that had ignited near Geyserville.  He was worried, he said, about the wind speed on the ridges.  The winds were gusting at 90 mph, driving the flames 200 feet in the air.  The next morning I looked at the weather projections for the coming week and my amygdala went into overdrive.  In anticipation of the current situation, I composed a meticulous multi-paged fire preparedness punchlist, organized by event and threat level, and I emailed the list to Anna.  And yes, in case you’re wondering, Anna’s attorneys could easily put forward the document as evidence if she were ever to initiate divorce proceedings.  

Sick as she was with a bronchial infection, Anna started preparing on Thursday.  She wet down the property (before the well power would go), filled buckets and trashcans with water, schlepped family archives and photos and journals to the steel shipping container (still on the property from when we rented out our house to Tubbs fire victims), loaded the cars, charged her electric car and all devices, etc.

We stayed in intermittent communication. She prepared all through Saturday until the power was cut.  She could not access the internet (even on her phone), but I was able to keep her apprised of the situation and sent text updates from San Diego.  Evacuation warnings were issued that evening. By then I had decided to come home, but couldn’t leave because I had misplaced both sets of glasses. With limited night vision it would have been foolish to drive the 10 hours in the dark.  I lay down at a midnight, but continued to check notices on my phone through the night until the mandatory evacuation order was issued at 4:30 am. 

Tierra and I got on the road.  I figured it would be light by the time I hit the Tejon Pass and I could drive blind until then.  A dear friend texted and said I could pick up some Latvian pirogs on my way out.  I stopped in Oceaside at 5:30 am, scrambled some eggs, placed them on a stack of Latvian rye bread, and grabbed the pirogs (Thank you Raz and Velta Sulcs!).  Most important of all, Raz gave me her glasses (Thank you again, Raz).

Back home, our friend Toby helped Anna carry the remaining irreplaceable items into the steel container.  The thousand dollars of All Clad? Replaceable.  The moldy journal from high school?  Not.   Anna loaded three dogs and three cats into her car.  She left the chickens.  With Jupiter clambering back and forth on the dash, she called for advice on evacuation routes because she could no longer access Google Maps.  I pulled over at the Las Pulgas rest stop at Camp Pendleton and took a look.  The patterns were self-evident. Rather than descend into the line of dead standstill evacuee traffic on the Gravenstein Highway, I encouraged her to drop off the back ridge from our home into Valley Ford from where she was able to quickly make it to Petaluma where one of her patients had generously offered up a one room cottage.   

I continued on up the 405 – fortunately the Getty blaze had not yet ignited. The Central Valley was a sea of dust.  The winds were sufficiently strong to create white caps on the California Aquaduct. 

Dropping in to the Bay Area, the skies were eerily clear and things felt strangely quiet.  Power had been shut off to much of the Berkeley and Oakland hills.  I thought it curious how even close to major situations, life can continue to feel quite normal.

I arrived in west county around 1:30 pm.  With no power anywhere in Marin, I couldn’t get gas, but I did find a zone in Petaluma that still had functioning pumps.

In Petaluma I entered a 21st century climate change version of Noah’s Ark.  It’s definitely not as big as they make it out to be in the Bible.  But we are so very grateful and it is definitely cozy and welcome.  I, along with all the animals and a sick and exhausted Anna, are now clustered together in the small room. We have internet via our phones.  And we’re close enough to home where I can check on our property.

I visited the house last night and it was definitely a little spooky and forlorn. The winds have desiccated many things.  Water and power are off.  A pallor of smoke infuses the air.  I ferried more things to the shipping container and fed and watered the chickens.  Tierra sniffed and explored the perimeter.  I checked adjacent properties for fallen trees.  I found my first edition copy of Stephens Hopi Journals and Titiev’s Study of the Hopi (one of only two type written original copies that exist in the world) and placed them in the car.  After I locked up, I felt like I was forgetting something.  I returned to the darkened house.  I rummaged in the warming freezer and there I found it.  I grabbed the foie gras.

I drove south through the smoky pitch.  By the time I reached Petaluma, the winds were receding.  Anna was passed out.  I crawled into bed.  Tierra jumped on top of me and we fell fast asleep.

As for the current situation:

Last night fire containment slipped from 10% to 5% and the grew from 55k acres to 66k.  Firefighters were battling most of the night to control the blaze in the Foothills Park neighborhood in Windsor (you can see the concentration of hotspots on the Sonoma Incidence map).  They are also working to hold the line at the 101 Freeway.

Depending on the shifting winds, smoke can be pretty bad.  Presently (Monday afternoon) much of it appears to be blowing south toward San Francisco and the Bay.

The biggest present concern will be what happens when the second wind event hits tomorrow afternoon thru Wednesday.  The 50 mph winds will be coming from the north east.  If they carry embers over the 101 it will be a big problem and could spread quickly down the entire Russian River corridor. Our property would be in the path of that event. 

For those who are concerned and want to follow, you can check out the dynamic incident and wind maps I posted on Facebook.

At present, however, we are all fine and any effect has been largely collateral:  At our home, no power and no water.  Lots of smoke.  And us and our animals living in our own private refugee camp in Petaluma.  

For those who know the full demographics of our household, Jupiter, our 18 year old Vermont barn cat (thank you Bruce and Mary Taft!) is napping in the cottage bathroom. Every so often she comes out and demands that we get with the program.  I love having her here because she is the definition of fortitude and resilience.  

The First Feeding

20111222-124051.jpgThe turkey vultures have come to feast.

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. 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.





Where We At?


In broad strokes:

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.


Faultlines: James Acord

James Acord is dead.

I thought of him while sitting on the Sonoma town square.  No reason in particular, really, but I thought I’d look him up.

He committed suicide on January 8th of this year.

Acord was the subject of one of those 60 page New Yorker profiles way back a lot of years ago.  He was a sculptor who ultimately completed only a handful of works:  Monstrance for a Grey Horse, a few reliquaries, and a large portfolio of fine drawings of seedpods and nests and the like.

And yet the breadth of his mind and spirit were immense.  He was at heart an alchemist who sought to transmute base unstable material into, well, something safe and eternal, into something else.  He wanted to build a container to hold the sacrament of our age – nuclear material – and he dedicated decades of his life to the planning and carving of the Monstrance.

He spawned in me my affection for Barre granite – the hardest, most inert rock on earth.  And he gave me faith to at least contemplate the big idea – the vastness of time or the true nature of materials.  For years I’ve had a manila folder with his name on it containing information about him and his works.

I looked him up for some reason in Seattle back in 2001.  He had just returned from a teaching gig in London.  He felt gentle and doe-eyed and a bit forlorn and a bit suspicious, wondering why I wanted to talk with him.  He talked about the bus system and he needed some rides around town, I think.  Something about him felt off – he was living in Pioneer SQuare and he couldn’t quite hold his thoughts together and I realized something had happened to him between the carving of the Monstrance and now.  It was as if the power of those things he was working with was too strong, and in the face of it, unlike that Barre granite, his consciousness had begun to shatter.

Ultimately he lost the strength to carry on.  How strange to think of those hard crystals chiseled by his calloused hands, the malignant grin of the horses skull, of how it will remain yet, carrying forward for thousands of years into time a small vessel of highly radioactive uranium.  One day it will be opened by nature or by beast.  And that transformed material into this world will once again be released.