Where I Live

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?

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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.

Making It Work on the South Coast

I don’t think I could have written these words even two months ago because I was still unreconciled to my move to Santa Barbara. This is NOT my home, I would have told you. And then I would begin my rant. Where are the robins to sing up the dawn? Where are the chickadees chattering in the oaks, or the Great-horned Owls hooting at dusk from the eucalyptus?

Nothing was right. Here, it is a cacophony of crows – an unholy chorus – from dawn to dusk. The creek next to this retirement “campus” is dry as a bone, lacking the lush streamside vegetation to attract the spring singers like the Swainson’s Thrushes, Warbling Vireos, and Wilson’s Warblers that populated my beloved Strawberry Canyon.

American Crow. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org
American Crow. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org

Some days, I would imagine sitting on the bench under the sheltering branches of the oak I had planted 60 years ago. Or I would envision myself at the U.C. Botanical Garden, climbing the path up to the Old Roses garden, and to the fence line where I could look up the steep chaparral-covered slope to the bent tree at the top of the hill. Coming down, I would stop to view the Bay in the “V” of the hills. Of course, there would be robins singing everywhere, and the Olive-sided Flycatcher calling from its perch at the top of a redwood.

There’s no cure for this nostalgia other than to acknowledge that I will always look at what’s around me through Berkeley eyes. I don’t want to surrender that perspective. But maybe I could allow myself to consider the virtues of the South Coast, of Santa Barbara where everyone wants to come and visit and — if they could afford to – stay.

A month after I came to live here last September, flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers arrived, just like the ones in Berkeley. The manicured gardens of lawns, palms, and agapanthus beds were just fine with them. They dove into the palms and out again, forever “chipping.” Then a Hermit Thrush took up winter residency beneath the live oaks below my bedroom window. And then a troupe of cheerful White-crowned Sparrows arrived, singing sweetly, but in a different dialect.

White Crowned Sparrow. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org
White Crowned Sparrow. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org

My retirement community is just up the hill from Oak Park, one of the scruffier city parks but with some fine live oaks and sycamores. Sycamores are new to me except for the ones I would infrequently see out around Sunol where they favored the flats near streams. They are the true eccentrics in the plant world – no two trees alike. Gravity often has its way with them, pulling long branches in deep curves that almost reach the ground, while other limbs look to the sky and grow upward in search of the sun. The trunks near the ground are often covered with thick, brown bark that gives way to thin plates of bark that continually shed, revealing patches of pale brown, gray, olive, and bright russet in newly exposed areas. I am always reminded of a pinto pony. The upper limbs — rising high above the companion somber live oaks — are almost pure white, especially stunning against a blue sky.

Sycamores are attractive to birds partly for the opportunities they provide the cavity nesters. The larger holes invite woodpeckers and owls, with the smaller holes attracting House Wrens, nuthatches, bluebirds, and many others. Certain species of hummingbirds gather the down under the leaves to line their nest, while those winged beauties, the tiger swallow butterflies, leave behind eggs that become the voracious caterpillars that find the big palmate leaves to their liking.

 

Sycamore Limbs.
Sycamore Limbs.

Mission Creek, considered the only perennial stream in the area, borders the park. But this part of the creek, a mile or so from where it enters the ocean, is always dry this time of the year. Only once during this record dry winter did a good rain fill Mission Creek with a wild white-and-tan froth of racing water. From its bank, I could hear the torrent rearranging rocks in the creek bed. The next day, the flow had slowed to a few reflective pools connected by a trickle of running water. One day later, the water had disappeared – gone! And it’s been dry ever since.

I walk down the hill to the park most days, crossing a bridge where I often stop to examine the placard describing how the creek bed has been restored by removing tons of concrete that had acted as a barrier to the passage of the endangered Southern Steelhead Trout. In better times, the fish might have entered the creek from the ocean during winter storms, ascending the creek to spawn in the upper watershed where water remains year round. But not this year. Even the upper watershed in the Botanic Garden has been reduced to a few stagnating pools, with only the thinnest trickle of water in certain places.

Sometimes I drive up into the foothills to visit the Botanic Garden, which like the one in Tilden Park is devoted exclusively to plants native to California. The upper part of canyon has its share of live oaks, small bays, and towering sycamores, but none of the dense riparian vegetation to attract the streamside breeders that fill Strawberry Canyon with their joyous songs.

Many of the birds in the south coast canyons are the ones you might expect to see inland in the Bay Area – Acorn Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatch (instead of Red-breasted), Phainopeplas, sometimes Canyon Wrens, and Wood Pewees. Stellar’s Jays are seldom seen in the lower elevations. Swainson’s Thrushes pass through in migration, only breeding in the rare streamside where the vegetation conceals this shy bird that mostly reveals its presence through its song.

Acorn Woodpecker. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, www.wingbeats.org
Acorn Woodpecker. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, http://www.wingbeats.org

Today I visited such a place – Atascadero Creek in nearby Goleta, which is tidal below its check dam. But above the dam, its fresh water section supports a jungle of willows, cottonwoods, a few small live oaks, and the first Big-leafed Maple I’ve seen since coming south. I heard two singing Swainson’s Thrushes, several Wilson’s Warblers, a singing Black-headed Grosbeak with a begging juvenile.

Here at the retirement place, House Finches continue to build nests on any flat surface and the Lesser Goldfinches empty my feeder in a day. But the Orange-crowned Warblers, which sang until a week ago in the park, have ceased singing, confirming that the summer doldrums will soon be upon us with few surprises in the bird world and the uninspiring sequence of daily fog and sun.

Time to look to the local beaches, where shorebirds are beginning to move along the coast. Shorebirds, mostly gray or brown during the winter, are my weak link. With my Sibley open, I’m trying to bone up on leg length and color, beak differences, feeding habits. Best idea is to find a walking companion more knowledgeable than I.