Nancy Keele lives in one of the cottages referred to as a Southview villa. Unlike most residents at Samarkand who have either a balcony or a small patio, Nancy has both a small front yard and a rear garden which includes a handsome Canary Island Date Palm where she raises her Epiphyllums.
As told to Phila Rogers (SamNews September 2022)
When I look out into my beautiful gardens, I can’t help but think of my mom, and her influences on my life. She gave me my first two Epiphyllums (“Epies”) and put me on my first pony. As I grew older, to help me develop talents, she agreed to take me horseback riding monthly if I practiced the piano daily.
As an adult I fell in love with the Epies; my collection numbering above 100 before my move to The Samarkand.
I fulfilled my dream of having a horse by owning a 13-acre ranch on San Marcos Pass where I bred, raised, and trained Arabian horses. I exhibited in many shows throughout California.
I was the Choral Music director at Santa Barbara Junior High, and at La Colina Junior High School, where I was also involved with Music Theatre productions.
My front walkway garden is lined with Epidendrums, Cymbidiums, and succulents. However, the Epiphyllum “stars” are in my back patio garden. In nature they grow in trees; I grow them in nursery pots. Blooming season is in the spring (March through June).
For many of us August is the vacation month. It is the last summer month before school begins again. We always headed for the mountains toward the end of August when it was often the foggiest time in the Berkeley Hills. It was less than a half-day’s drive to reach our vacation lake in the high Sierra.
I hope this story about our vacation will prompt you to remember your summer vacation, and maybe even write about it. Your family will love it.
When I learned that the Caldor fire last August had veered south, sparing Angora Lake, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Had it taken a near miss to remind me of my 70-year devotion to this high Sierra Lake? A day later, Judith Hildinger, who with her brother Eric, runs the Angora Lakes Resort took the photo from her paddle board of a beautiful male Wilson’s Warbler sheltering in the mountain alder. Even though it was still smoky, I asked her to take more pictures around the lake’s edges because I wanted to write a long-overdue love letter to Angora.
I’ll start the photographic journey at the alder thicket next to the beach. The thicket had always been a safe place for nesting warblers in the summer. Not being able to penetrate the thicket from the beach, the best I could do was to push my boat as close to the shore as possible before being warded off by the wiry branches. I dropped my oars and sat listening to the small bird voices.
Beyond the mountain alders, an even denser pygmy forest of huckleberry oak, flows down the steep slope to the water’s edge. The huckleberry oak is the only high elevation oak in the big family of oaks, the most populous tree family in California. The huckleberry oak’s thin, flexible branches allow the tree to sprawl prostate over granite boulders. In a region of short summers, the acorn takes two autumns to mature. Once ripe, the little acorn is a favorite food of chipmunks and other small rodents.
It’s been years since I struggled up that slope to the ledge with the dwarf conifers where we had buried Don’s ashes. There was no other place he would have wanted to be.
It was a late afternoon in October when we arrived at the lake. The cliff and lake were in shadow. The cabins were boarded up and the boats stored away. I was anxious to be ahead of the first snow. It would have been next spring before we would have access again.
After tucking the ashes beneath a dwarf conifer on the first ledge, the girls and I returned to the beach. Jim stayed back as he grieved for his lost father.
Around the corner from the oaks come the cliffs which distinguish upper Angora Lake from most other lakes. I always think this massive wall must be at least 10,000 feet high but in reality it reaches less than 9,000 feet, about 1,500 above the lake level. Sometimes even reality goes out the window when I think of Angora. Since I’m unable to travel any longer, Angora remains fixed in my mind and my heart and I want to get it right.
The cliff faces are streaked with chartreuse and dark brown lichens. By releasing an acid, the lichen slowly ingests the granite. Wherever there is a little soil in a crack, a seed or spore may take root producing delicate ferns or flowers. Further up on a face, a stout juniper with long ropy roots, has taken hold and found a home.
From the top at Echo Peak, the cliff descends to the lake interrupted only by occasional narrow ledges each with a miniature garden of quaking aspens, grasses and clumps of mountain ash with its vibrant red berries. Only in the driest years does water fail to trickle into the lake as miniature waterfalls. Often in late August a snow patch clings to the edge of the highest ridge.
One of the family rituals was to watch the rising sun first ignite Echo Peak with its golden light and then the sun slowly slides down the face to the lake level. I am always amazed how sunlight restores color, animating whatever it touches.
Just around the corner from where the cliffs end, a small grove of mountain hemlocks thrive in the cool shade. The hemlocks love the snow and winter. They often grow where the snow lasts the longest. John Muir wrote that if you were caught out in a blizzard, climb under the hemlock branches which reach down to the ground, and you will be sheltered.
I can’t remember the details of this north-facing shore of the lake. Of course there’s Frog Rock, the rock islet with its single tree. The steep slope of rocks and trees behind culminate in what we simply call The Ridge.
Ah, there’s something else about the ridge that allows me to stray off course. On a morning maybe sixty years ago when I was preparing breakfast on the wood stove with the door wide open, the roar of an engine startled me and I looked up to see a heavy-bodied two-engine plane skimming the ridge and dropping down over the lake, releasing a cloud of water filled with young trout. The plane pulled up abruptly and headed northeast toward Desolation Valley, delivering fish to other lakes.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes, near the cabins at the east end of the lake is a seasonal creek which links Upper and Lower Angora Lakes. When we were there in late August, the creek was usually dry, but I always enjoyed the sheltered ravine populated by some nice flowering shrubs like the Western Serviceberry and Western Spiraea. I liked to bring along a plant book for the satisfaction of giving a plant a name which always seemed to make it a friend.
One cabin, alone, occupied a space just south of the creek with a level place in front where you could pull up a boat. Though the cabin was too small for a family, I loved its separateness. It was one of the old-style cabins with a drop-down front which reminded me of my desk at home that concealed some of my treasures.
When the Forest Service revealed its plans to put in a campground on the site, the cabin was hoisted up on logs and eased across the creek to join the other cabins. Either the Forest Service came up short on money or the entreaties of people like us to leave the lake alone prevailed.
The other cabins were built side by side on a level area which may have been the glacial moraine formed during the time when glaciers scooped out the depressions which later filled with melting snow becoming the two lakes and the pond. When I think back to how this beautiful amphitheater, its cliffs, waterfalls, and peaks were formed, I wonder what the future holds. In a drier and hotter climate will the lakes become meadows or disappear altogether? And will the landscape, succumbing to fires, lose its conifers and become brush land or oak savannah? Will we have to ascend to 10,000 feet to find the Sierra we once loved?
I just looked at a random collection of photos taken by visitors of some of the handmade sign’s advertising: “The World-famous Lemonade;” “Angora Lakes Resort has been operating since 1917.” One photo showed a smiling Effie Hildinger, the original proprietress, who rode in on mule back in 1924. And a brown and yellow official Forest Service sign informed visitors that this is Angora Lakes Resort, National Forest Lands in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
My particular affection is for a cabin called The Lodge where we would have weekly slideshows in the summer. It was furnished with a well-used upright piano, chairs of various vintages and a loom. I spent many afternoons sitting on the small porch in the warm afternoon sun listening to various musicians — most often Gloria Hildinger on her flute, sometimes Jim Hildinger and his violin, and occasional visitors like Jan Popper on the piano and a cellist from Fallen Leaf on her cello.
And will I ever forget that early morning when Jim pulled his big speaker to the open doorway and filled the amphitheater with the glorious strains of Sibelius’ violin concerto.
Sibelius would have loved this place.
I sometimes walked the road down to Lower Angora Lake where occasional avalanches descending the steep slopes below Angora Peak would knock down a tree or two, blocking the road. I was always eager to visit one of the big red firs where the chartreuse, fragrant wolf lichen clinged to the ruddy bark. You can find the lichen mostly on the north side of the tree, just above the line where the trunk is free of snow. Lower Angora, with its scattering of cabins, lacks the dramatic setting of the upper lake.
Up the short hill is “Our House, ” the house where the Hildingers and their two young boys lived through winter in the 1930s. I remember one story where they would troop down to the ridge and holler down to the caretaker at Fallen Leaf Lodge and he would holler back. That was the social activity for the day.
“Our House” was distinguished by the aspen trees which grew close around the paned windows. The cabin was alive with dancing light when the leaves trembled in the slightest breeze. After lunch we would lie on the bed, listen to the voices of the kids below on the beach with the sparkling water reflected on the underside of the low eave.
I’m thinking of windy nights. The wind would come in gusts that sounding like an approaching freight train with spaces of eerie silence between. With our headboard against the single wall, we wondered if it would hold.
On this south-facing slope, the shrubs are very different from the mostly deciduous ones that grow in the protected swale along the creek. Just below the deck of “Our House” was a mountain chaparral garden composed as if by the most talented landscape designer. Several species shared the same slope – a low-growing silver-leafed plant called snow brush (Ceanothus cordulatus), a stunning bush Chinquapin with shiny yellowish leaves, more golden on the undersides with a spiny burr that encloses two or three seeds. One afternoon I discovered beneath the dense cover a hard-to-find bird I had never seen before: a Green-tailed Towhee.
It seems all paths led to the beach when our kids were little. The sand was a granular granite with sparkles of mica like that of the parent rock. The beach was narrow when the lake was high, usually in early summer, wide in the late summer when the lingering snow banks on the ridge had melted. I liked lying on my back and watching clouds moving over the peak toward the east. I speculated about whether a cloud would make it across my field of vision before dissolving. Fair weather clouds are generally short-lived.
It was at the beach that kids won a rite of passage – swimming across the lake and back. The reward was dad saying they no longer had to wear a life jacket when in a boat.
The other rite was to climb up the steep slope to the top of Echo Peak and then hollering “Echo” down to listeners below. As I recall, the reward for the climb was a cold glass of fresh lemonade.
We didn’t discover Angora by accident. It was a carefully engineered plan by my parents who once stayed at Angora when meals were served in the dining room by Jim and Effie. Once Jim went into the Army, the cabins were provided with modest cooking facilities, and the dining room was closed. My parents went elsewhere returning only for our inauguration.
We arrived in the afternoon, my parents greeting us at the doorway and my mother giving me instructions about how to be a good housekeeper, Angora style. “NEVER let any food particles go down the drain!” and with that, they departed down the hill in Jim’s truck as we would do for many years until our nest was empty.
Though our traditional week was the last week of August when the Berkeley Hills were the foggiest, we visited twice at other times for a day. Once was in June – spring in the Sierra when the meadows were wet and green and birds sang everywhere. Angora was transformed by robin song. By late summer, we were left with the harsh voices of Steller’s Jays and the chatter of squirrels and chipmunks. Toward the end of our stay, Clark’s Nutcrackers called as they began moving down from the higher mountains ahead of winter.
Probably the strangest visit to Angora was the first day of the new year before the arrival of the winter snows. The lake before us was frozen and the sun was about to set behind Echo Peak. Once the sun disappeared, we were cold. But what detained us was a deep growling sound coming from across the lake near the cliffs. What was that? Bear, mountain lion? Feeling unwelcome in this unfamiliar Angora, we hurried down the hill until near the Lookout ridge we regained the sun. Later, we learned we had heard the scrapping of the ice against the cliff. Maybe the sound was distorted and amplified by the ice itself or by the cold, deep water below.
Usually after a few days of being under the lee of the cliff, I was ready for some distant views. Walking down the hill to the pond and the big flat area open to the sky, I could see to the south the familiar shapes of the peaks around Carson Pass. The tall Jeffrey Pines are widely spaced. From the upper branches came the clear, three notes of the Mountain chickadee and the somnolent buzzy song of the Western pewee which always made me drowsy on warm Sierra afternoons.
On those days when my mind gets stuck on negative thoughts, I leave my apartment and walk down to the Native Plant Garden. Sitting on the bench, I listen to the soft gurgle of the water flowing out of the top of the sandstone boulder, knowing that in a few minutes birds will arrive for a drink or a bath.
My eyes follow the green slope of plants to the far edge of the garden where a row of dark green California Live Oaks separate us from Mission Creek at the bottom of the hill.
This is your land, our land, and the plants that supported the generations who came before us. Oak acorns ground in stone mortars produced the staple food for the Chumash Indians. I look up to the high mountains to the cliffs of sandstone like the rock in front of me and to the areas of gray-green plants many of which grow in our garden. And then the sky, always the sky, and I am deeply comforted by this enduring landscape.
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When webmaster George Dumas pushed the button to publish “Summer Doldrums,” I suggested that we take a month off as nothing much was going to happen during the summer months. Then, on the morning of June 24 I woke to a day that both felt and looked different. Cumulus clouds were heaped up against the backside of the Santa Ynez mountains and flotillas of small white clouds with lacy edges stretched across the sky. Listening to my weather radio, I learned that a monsoon brought violent storms to the Los Angeles basin and the surrounding mountains.
Monsoon season most often occurs in July and August and brings most of the annual rainfall to the Southwest. We were experiencing the edge of the first one today.
Most monsoons occur when the hot summer sun heats up the land and the wind shifts to the south drawing up the moist, unstable air from the Gulf of California or the Gulf of Mexico.
Along with rain came strong wind gusts and even some hail in Los Angeles. The electrical storms produced an estimated 3,600 lighting strikes, one igniting a brush fire in the Tehachapi and another tragically striking and killing a woman and her two dogs who were taking a morning walk along the San Gabriel riverbed. Fatal lightning strikes are rare with this being the first one of some 20 occurring each year.
Only the northern edge of the monsoon reached Santa Barbara. I spent the day outside with my camera, my eyes always on the sky. The air was silken, not too humid without any of that sharpness we associate with the typical onshore flow from the ocean. It was the kind of day that makes you feel like a different person.
Now, at almost 4 PM, the show is mostly over. The heaps of clouds over the highest mountain ridges have withdrawn or simply melted away leaving behind a few cloud fragments.
Although failing to bring us rain, the monsoonal visit was a delightful change from the usual coastal weather.
It’s been several weeks since the Summer Solstice, but the days grow shorter so slowly at first that you’re not apt to notice. Because of the earth’s tilt toward the sun, the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer at a latitude of 23.5 degrees north. The Tropic of Cancer passes over Baja California as it circles the globe, or more precisely, over the small seaside town of Todos Santos, an hour’s drive north of Cabo San Lucas where a planted stick casts no shadow.
Because of the slow heating of the land by the sun, the highest temperatures will be several weeks later in mid-July.
Within the Arctic Circle, at the Summer Solstice, the sun will shine for 24 hours while darkness will prevail at the south pole.
Over the millennia, various cultures have celebrated the Summer Solstice in different ways. Here in Santa Barbara we have a parade with imaginative handcrafted floats, bands (emphasis on drums ) and costumed dancers moving to the beat. For me, butterfly wings glowing in the sunlight epitomizes summer.
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June’s entry is an expansion of my monthly column (“Nature’s Note”) in “Sam News,” our in-house publication.
Space is always limited while my blogs are as long as my loyal webmaster, George Dumas, has the time and patience for converting my words into the WordPress format. It’s no secret that I am no fan of fog. But now with my declining eyesight, my world is enveloped in a perpetual haze and on foggy mornings we’re all in it together.
It’s only on the clear days that I know how much I’m missing. But at 93, I am every day grateful for a good mind and the ability to express and feel gratitude for what I still have.
It is through song and call note that I now recognize most birds. And I’m helped along by general body shape, where and how they are feeding and whether they prefer the ground or trees.
Even without my disability, it behooves me even if I don’t love fog, to at least learn to appreciate it by understanding how fog is formed and its likely behavior.
Today is June 1st. We are halfway between the two foggiest months of the year which locals call May Gray and June Gloom. When the prevailing northwest winds pass over the even colder ocean, the air condenses into tiny droplets producing the fog.
But it’s not as simple as that. In the northern hemisphere, the earth rotates counterclockwise (the opposite in the southern hemisphere). Because of this rotation, wind blowing from the northwest (our prevailing summer wind) curves to the right. As the wind curves to the right, it sweeps off the top layer of water causing the upwelling of the deep, colder water. When the relatively warmer wind passes over the cold, upwelled water, fog is formed.
This rotation, called the Coriolis Effect, has a profound effect on tides, bodies of air and even the behavior of storms. It causes our rainstorms moving in from the Pacific to rotate counterclockwise, so that the winds of an approaching storm, blow from the south.
Depending on the topography, fog can put on a dramatic show. In the Bay Area, fog building up like waves over the Sausalito Hills spills over the lee slopes. Unimpeded, fog moves like a river through the Golden Gates, the only complete break in the coastal hills. To the north and south the fog seeks out gaps in the hills as it moves inland.
When the fog enters the Bay through the Golden Gate part of of it aims for the Berkeley Hills. The rest turns left drawn irresistibly toward the heat and low pressure over the Delta and the Sacramento Valley. The fog is often accompanied by strong cold winds that are notorious in summer afternoons rushing through the canyons of tall buildings in San Francisco.
And there were those mornings in Berkeley when the fog stayed low and my hill rose above it like an island in a gray sea.
The fog varies in its extent. It can spread far out to sea. It can be a narrow ruffle covering just the beach or it can be drawn far inland by the warmer temperatures. It may flow at night into coastal valleys, and in foggier periods it will surmount coastal ranges, visiting even inland valleys.
Most days the fog will retreat offshore by midday, but other times the marine layer persists for days on end seriously depressing the spirits.
Meteorologists call this cloud type status. It’s usually made up of rather smooth layers of clouds that can sometimes meet the ground. The fog can either be “dry” or it can produce drizzle especially under trees, enough to register in a rain gauge. We need any moisture in this semi-arid climate of ours where longer periods of drought are a part of climate change.
Even though I seem to thrive on those days which begin with sun, I am now gratified, while still in bed on a windless dawn to hear the drip, drip of condensed fog falling off leaves and needles.
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Tom Ginn and his wife Sherry moved into Samarkand in July 2011 from Los Gatos, a leafy residential community south of San Francisco. Before retiring Tom had worked as a software engineer. He was already a serious amateur photographer using a top-of-the-line Canon.
Along with recording the life of the family, including a son and daughter, he was also adding landscapes to his collection. “I haven’t shot a roll of film since 2003; digital photography and the computer give me so much more versatility,” he says.
But those who know Tom appreciate his outstanding patience as he waits for just the right shot to produce a memorable portrait of an elusive insect, a butterfly with its erratic flight or a shy bird as it comes to the bird bath.
The first bird photos were taken over several months at the bird baths behind Ann and Bob Allen’s duplex, located over the fence at the southernmost end of the EastView apartments. The duplex, Oakcrest, has the ideal birding location, sheltered by oaks up the steep slope of Oak Park.
The birds are drawn to the area by Mission Creek and its forest of sycamores and Coast Live Oaks. Ann has arranged a welcoming collection of shallow pot bottoms filled with water, surrounded by mostly potted native plants. When it’s hard to find a good variety of birds elsewhere at the Samarkand, you can count on being rewarded at Ann’s bird baths.
When a large sandstone boulder (over the fence at the top of the Native Plant Garden) became a bubbling bird bath, the birds had a second choice for their drinks and baths. The first group of photos is in Ann’s garden, and the second larger group is at the “Bubbling Fountain.”
The birds are identified by species accompanied by a few comments. Some of the photographs have been made into greeting cards and can be purchased at the Samarkand gift shop.
(1) White-crowned Sparrow. A group of these sparrows spend the winter in the Native Plant Garden often singing.
(2) Immature White-rowned Sparrow. In April the group flies to Northern Alaska where they nest in the dwarf willows before returning to our garden in October.
(3)(4) Townsend’ s Warbler. Another winter bird with especially bright plumage.
(5) Orange-crowned Warbler. Year-round bird.
(6) Cedar Waxwing. This lovely bird is a nomad traveling in flocks from place to place in search of berries. They are sometimes in the company of Robins.
(7) Group of Cedar Waxwings. In the spring they will head north to conifer forests where they will briefly breed before heading back on the road again.
(8) Nashville Warbler. An uncommon visitor.
(9) Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A small, energetic bird who reveals his bright crown when agitated. He is another of our winter residents
(10) California Towhee. A big sparrow who is a year-round resident.
(11) Yellow-rumped Warbler. Developing its breeding plumage before heading north.
(12) Hermit Thrush Another winter resident who heads for the Sierra in the spring to sing its glorious song.
The sandstone fountain, we call “Bubbling Rock” in the foreground overlooks the Native Plant Garden.
(1) The Anna’s Hummingbird is a year-round resident and the largest of our local species.
(2) & (3) Adult, female, and immature Lesser Goldfinches.
(4) Orange-crowned Warbler. Several breeding pairs sing almost continuously above Oak Park at Samarkand in the spring.
(5) Male Dark-eyed Junco. Juncos, who nest on or near the ground, are one of our most abundant species.
(6) Male House finch(L) and Pine Siskin appear to be comparing stripes.
(7) Like the crows, jays are members of the Covid family with similar aggressive ways.
(8) A wet Orange-crowned Warbler revealing its orange crown feathers.
(9) A titmouse will occasionally build a nest in a bird box.
(10) Male Lesser Goldfinch, one of the most abundant year-round birds.
(11) Probably an Allen’s Hummingbird or possibly a migrating Rufous Hummingbird.
(12) Four Nutmeg Mannikins. They are escaped cage birds which have successfully naturalized.
After a rainless January and February, we were excited to learn that a storm was moving our way. I read that it was being carried down the coast by our old friend the “jet stream,” that fast-moving river of air moving from east to west which circulates around the globe often delivering weather systems to our coast. Or at least it used to.
The possibility of a storm deserved a morning sky watch. Soon after sunrise, I stepped outside on my balcony and aimed my camera at the sky and would continue to do so at hourly intervals until noon. As a long-time sky watcher (or storm watcher) in the Bay Area, the evidence was not encouraging.
Though winter storms generally form in the Gulf of Alaska and move down the West Coast, the winds that accompany them blow counterclockwise, so approaching storms are preceded by winds from the southeast. This morning the wind blew consistently from the northeast and was cold and dry, rather than moist and mild.
What I loved about most winter storms was the buildup that preceded the arrival of the storm itself. From my Bay Area hilltop house, I could scan the horizon from the south of San Francisco north past Mt. Tamalpais to Sonoma County. Not much escaped my attention.
The classical winter storm usually begins with high cirrus clouds often in fantastical shapes like wispy feathers. The clouds spread across the sky from north to south. At some point the wind begins, fluky at first before settling into gusts from the southeast growing in strength as the clouds thickened and lowered.
After years of living in Berkeley, I knew the wind direction without looking. An early October storm carried the strong, acidic odor of cooking tomatoes coming from the Heinz catsup plant in southwest Berkeley. If the wind was blowing from the northwest, it would carry the strong petroleum odors coming from the Chevron distillery in Richmond.
In Santa Barbara, where I have lived for 10 years, I smell mostly the odor of cooking tortillas and the scent of flowers. Sometimes the alarming smell of burning chaparral tells me there is a fire in the mountains. When the wind blows from the northwest during in the long summer, the air smells vaguely like ammonia or slightly salty of kelp drying on the beach. It feels heavy and damp.
I’ve often wondered why I am so exhilarated just before a storm. I dash around, bringing in outdoor furniture, rolling up outdoor shades and tying them tight. Hankering for the feel of soil, I plant that final sixpack of pansies ahead of the rain.
Now I’ve learned the likely cause of this joyous energy – negative ions. Negative ions associated with clouds and wind facilitate the transfer of oxygen to the cells. No wonder I’m so exhilarated. After a storm has passed, denied this extra oxygen, I descend into what I’ve always thought of as a post-storm slump.
None of this energy was associated with today’s morning’s storm watch which began with a few isolated clumps of white clouds and a wind that never shifted around to the southeast. Instead of the air warming as it usually does with an approaching storm, the wind rattling in the dry foliage was cold and odorless. By noon the clouds had mostly disappeared leaving only a few shards to help color the sunset.
Later I learned that the storm track was inland, bringing a dusting of snow to the higher coastal peaks while delivering generous, dry fluffy snow to the Sierra. I was disappointed after high hopes for a good rain, but I did enjoy the variety – a welcome relief from the still warm air from sunup to sunset.
TWO BOOKS FOR THE SKY WATCHER
The first book, sumptuously illustrated with clouds from around the world is titled: “The Cloud Collector’s Handbook,” by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. It is the official publication of The Cloud Appreciation Society. The Brits do love their weather. Some photos and descriptions are of familiar clouds. One is so rare you have to travel to the north-east corner of Australia to see it.
I blame this long lapse on the Pandemic. Being restricted should have had the opposite effect. With few distractions, wouldn’t I have wanted to write? It appears I was absorbed by the drama — the suffering and deaths, the stories every night on television of the terrors of intubation, of patients having to die alone, and families for fear of catching the disease prevented from being at the bedsides of loved ones.
As if this wasn’t enough, what was happening to our democracy under a “leadership” where lies always prevailed over truth.
But as a lover of nature, nothing equaled the horror of my beloved earth being irrevocably changed by a new climate, where the west shriveled under an ever hotter sun where rainfall came in bursts or not at all. A lover of clouds, flowing streams and the beguiling scent of the first few drops of rain at the beginning of a storm, I was a lost soul unmoored from everything I held dear.
Today is February 10, 2022, the second day when the thermometer topped 84 degrees and when less than a tenth of an inch of rain fell during January, considered one of the rainiest months. After a December of generous rain (almost 10 inches), we thought this was a good start to a good winter.
I try to write something every day. I’m committed to writing a nature column for our retirement facility’s monthly newsletter. I make uninspired entries in my nature notebook. I have kept these notebooks since the 1980s when I lived in the Berkeley Hills in a house with it’s view over the Bay. The open land next to me provided a generous helping of natural events. What I write now is a cursory almanac of when I got up, the current temperature and weather forecast. At least something. To both deepen and elevate my thoughts, I had resolved to read a poem every day, but of course I haven’t.
I still have my moments of joy like this week when the brilliant observations in Rebecca Solnit’s “Orwell’s Roses” shook me awake enough to write some passages in my notebook with the bold black pen I now use.
Though I’m not sure it belongs in my Santa Barbara blog, I was inspired to write a heartfelt piece about Angora Lake as yet another forest fire ate its way up the western flank of the Sierra Nevada. It might be worth publishing if only to jog the feelings of readers about their mountain retreat.
I wrote my first blog eight years ago when I was 83 years old and had just moved to Santa Barbara into a retirement community.
As I had sold my home in Berkeley, there would be no going back.
The first blog was “Making it Work on the South Coast.” The last written two years ago was titled “The Best for Last,” about Santa Cruz Island which gave me an opportunity to write both about my parents and my experiences on the island. In those intervening years, I had moved to a more agreeable apartment within the complex and had participated in the development of a Native Plant Garden in an area just below my new apartment. And I began a book – a compilation really, of the blogs and shorter nature pieces written for our monthly newsletter.
I used for the title “Best for Last” suggesting that this final period of my life in Santa Barbara was just that, though I still nurture deep reserves of nostalgic memories of the Berkeley Hills where I had lived most of my life. (Available through Amazon or at Chaucer’s, Santa Barbara)
With the help of a talented designer, I created a book that others thought more highly of than I did. I have always felt that what I wrote was less than what I was capable of – if only I could reach deeper.
Now I am ninety-one. I read, poke about in the native garden, or often just sit outside and listen to the birds. Like a native Santa Barbarian, I worry about frequent dry winters. But I am deeply frightened about Climate Change and how persistent droughts and heat on the South Coast and elsewhere, will affect those who follow us. Will my children, grandchildren and now five great-grandchildren know the joys of green winters and flower-filled springs and a sun to seek out, not one to hide from?
I recognize the lugubrious tone of my writing, but these are lugubrious times when our lives have been transformed by a virus – covid-19. We read about Ebola, grieved for families but took comfort in knowing that this was on the African continent, and that our own horror, AIDS, most often affected others, unless we happened to have a gay son. I was born 11 years after the Spanish Flu, knowing about it mostly from a photograph of my mother, a pretty young woman in her volunteer nurses’ uniform with a red cross on her cap.
Six months after my birth, the world was plunged into the Great Depression and then World War II. Now it is our turn, first with an epidemic, coronavirus (or covid-19), which we barely understand, followed most likely by another Great Depression. As I often do, I have retreated to nature and to birds. But with my flagging energies I am seldom out in the field, or rarely stirred to pursue a hidden bird with an unfamiliar song. I let others do my birding. I accept a mostly vicarious life by reading the postings of local birders – vigorous men, mostly, middle-aged women, who like certain botanists, are “my kind,” what ever that means
We are mostly isolated on our campus, with meals in plastic bags hung on our doorknobs, and no visitors permitted. Most people are wearing masks which makes even my friends unrecognizable. I escape occasionally by getting into my old Scion car and meeting family members at a park for a stroll. Classes and programs are online on our in-house television. My life isn’t so different except when I think about it. As long as my family and those dear to me stay well, I will remember to be grateful.
With businesses closed and most people staying at home, freeways are almost empty, and the air is brighter and cleaner than most people can remember. Wild animals, often unseen, have taken over Yosemite Valley and Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
In one of those beautiful ironies, while most of us have “sheltered in place” the birds are on the move in unprecedented numbers. It appears that Oak Park and our knoll where Samarkand is located are not on one of the migratory corridors. A recent report on my list serve, where local birders post what they see, one young man stood in his driveway for almost an hour, head tilted back, watching an extravaganza of swallows, swifts, loons and kingbirds.
Daytime migrations are unusual. Most birds migrate at night when the air is cooler and quieter, using a combination of navigational aides like the position of the stars, the magnetic fields, or polarized light. At daybreak, most song birds rest and feed and at dusk set off again. Certain birds make marathon flights over water and will need enough stored fats for the journey.
I have often wished I lived in a quiet place far from towns and airports where I could hear the special calls that migrating birds use to keep in touch with one another. Yes. quiet, and truly dark nights where I could see stars beyond counting.
Other birders are reporting unusual numbers of passerines – Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers, Orioles, warblers, and others in the high state of excitement that defines the time of migration.
I move away from my computer to rest my eyes and to see if I wrote anything interesting in my journal. My journal often receives my most intimate thoughts.
Dear ones on your strong wings With even stronger intent. Are you fleeing this diseased planet? But you too are a captive of gravity With lungs which need oxygen. Mars would never do.
Early November The resident hawk Repeats its urgent calls. Where is the rain? The temperature is above eighty. Night falls with red skies Color caught by the high cirrus clouds Too thin for rain.
With darkness comes The cricket stridulations, The final notes of the fading season
After midnight I step out on my porch, Looking high to the south. Orion waits, trailed by Sirius, The hunter’s faithful dog.
Venus will soon separate itself from the rising sun And before month’s end will shine alone In the eastern sky.
Once I’d imagined spending my final years In the town where I was born In a tiny house of my own design One room only With alcoves for bathing, sleeping, fixing tea A steep roof with a skylight or two A generous porch under a sheltering eave High in the Berkeley Hills,
But instead, my final years Will be spent in Santa Barbara in a spacious apartment One of many apartments For elders like myself, Close to family, a hedge against loneliness.
The geographer in me Wants to tell you That Santa Barbara is located At the southern end of central California. Maybe 50 miles below Pt Conception Where the coast bends inland Thanks to the San Andreas Fault Flexing its muscles. So now the coastal mountains run From east to west, and most confusing of all You look south if you want to see the ocean.
For me, the ocean has always been to the west, And the direction of the setting sun Where if you sail far enough You’ll bump into China.
The high Santa Ynez Mountains to the North shield the town from certain cold draughts. But in downpours, the mountains Shed all manner of debris From silt to sandstone boulders As big as cars.
Now as an amateur geologist, I’ll tell you that this knoll I call home, is surrounded By flatter land referred to As an alluvial fan, Crossed by creeks that Only show up when it rains.
Locals brag about the mild climate Forgetting about those vehement moments Of gale-force winds Called sundowners. Or what about the microbursts Which have been known to knock a plane Out of the sky?
And there’s nothing mild about my landscape. Never still — it twists, heaves and cracks. Worse, it is said that all the commotion Is bringing Los Angeles ever closer.
Once we were covered by a warm sea With dinosaurs wandering the shallows. Later mountains rose up, Full of seashells.
Now it seems that our future is drought.
I look out the east-facing windows Down into Oak Park with its Pale limbed-sycamores and faded foliage.
It’s a peoples’ park With mariachis on the weekend Shouting children, Birthdays with piñatas Quinceaneras, sometimes a funeral
Look up to the first ridge To St. Anthony’s towers And to the two rosy domes Of the old mission.
Higher yet is the bulk Of the Santa Ynez mountains and the conical shape Of my mountain – Montecito Peak See how the angled sun Deepens the canyons.
Slide your eyes sideways To where the mountains Slip into the blue line of the sea.
Now face south Over our native garden Bordered oaks from the park To the silent creek bed. I look for hummingbirds, bush rabbits and worry about coyotes
The east hills, called the Mesa Holds off the fog Until after dark, when the hills are breached.
Oh yes, my garden off the front door The narrow porch of a garden, Hung with red geraniums And softened by pots of ferns
I lie in my bed beneath the windows Hoping for wind to move the chimes. I lift my head at dawn. Do I see the silhouette of the mountains Against the lightening sky?
Or are we cocooned in the fog That drips from trees Almost as welcome as rain.
And what is the first bird this morning? The clink of the towhee The querulous wren The sweet ring of sparrows’ song?
Now you are hearing the voice of the birder Leaning on every song In the absence of good eyesight.
Acorn woodpecker, flicker With strong beak and loud call, Or the relentless caw of the black crow, Boss of the neighborhood?
Will I be lucky enough To have an owl’s hoot rouse me In the early morning hour?
I feather my nest With a down comforter Books, Bouquets of pungent sage, Baskets of lichen.
How do I finish this short tale? A day ending, I suppose. With the dark coming on by five A tale of rain arriving?
A gusty wind from the southeast Testing itself.
In the early morning hours Between midnight and dawn The rain falls I smell it first And then sweet fragrance of hope
Could this be The beginning of a season Of abundant rains Enough to end the drought?
COMING IN THE SPRING: The Best for Last: The Nature of Santa Barbara by Phila Rogers. Includes the blogs and a number of short pieces.