Sunday, August 28, 2011

Plain Jane

It is not yet quite the end of August, and yet the leaves are already turning color. The buckeyes are the first to go. In a week's time, they have all turned from supple green to curled up brown. Right behind, as if cued by the buckeye, are the leaves of the poison oak vine, still shiny but turning from bright green to hues of orange or dark red. These are the first sign of impending autumn here in the bay area of northern California.

And yet, when I walk down the trail behind my house, what I notice most is the crunch of tan leaves underfoot, and here it is not yet September, the buckeye leaves not yet fallen. These are the leaves from the tan oak, fully brown by mid-summer and already underfoot. Some tan oaks have a few brown leaves amongst the green, many have leaves half brown; some trees stand fully leafless like gaunt skeletons; other have already fallen over onto the forest floor.

A fellow hiker passed by me, an older gent, swinging a pole in each hand as he walked swiftly past me up the steep slope, watching me look at the trees. "Sudden Oak Death Syndrome?" he asked. "Think so" I replied.

The tan oak is especially susceptible to this particular oak disease. SODS is ravaging our northern California forests, leaving skeletal remains of once healthy trees.

The tan oak is kind of a mundane looking tree. One hardly notices the tan oak amongst its taller and more glamorous cousins - sky reaching redwoods, thick Douglas firs, sexy madrones with mango colored skins, sweet smelling bay laurels and mighty California oaks. The tan oak is a "plain Jane" amongst its tree cousins.

But now that they are dying at alarming rates, the plain tan oak is finally quite visible amongst is bretheren. And I wonder - what species will take its place once the tan oak becomes nothing more than mulch on the forest floor?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Hurricane Hype

The powers that be are closing New York City subways tomorrow. Trains and planes won't be operating in the Tri-State area. East Coast residents are hunkering down and stocking up for a week without power.

Some say, the mayor of New York City doesn't want to be caught by surprise, as he was in December when a storm unexpectedly dumped two feet of snow on NYC and the city came to a standstill. Some say, all the talk about the storm is just a lot of hype. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

My dad is taking refuge at my sister's house, where at least he won't be all alone for a week, living on canned beans. My sister has a gas stove, so at least they can cook. And she lives on a main road, which is likely to have power restored more quickly than my dad's house. But, the rain is gonna fall, and the wind is gonna blow, and trees are gonna come down, and the power will surely be out. The only question is - for how long?

My step-mother, who died ten years ago, would have stayed put and toughed it out, even at the age of 83, I am sure of it. "Nah" I can hear her say, "what's a little wind? We'll just stay inside and play Monopoly til it blows over" with a big smile on her face. She wasn't afraid of the weather, ever.

When I was 15 or 16, there was a big ice storm in the middle of winter. My grandmother, who had power and lived in the next town over, offered to let all eight of us come stay at her house until our power came back on. But, no. My mother lined us kids up in front of the fireplace, with the dog, for warmth, while she and my dad took turns stoking the fire throughout the below zero degree night, while we kids (and the dog) huddled next to each other under piles of blankets.

When Mother Nature dumped three feet of snow in a hurry, Mom got out five shovels, one for each of us kids. When it rained and rained and rained, we bailed and mopped and bailed and mopped the basement floor. Our driveway was always shoveled and our basement floor always dry. Need to put in a drywell to help keep the water that always ran down the hill away from the basement? No problem -- Summer project for the teenage boys (and, of course, the dog, whose middle name was "Dig").

But my mother was not afraid of hard work herself. If we weren't around, she would be up to her knees in snow shoveling herself, or bailing the basement, or painting the house, or pulling weeds, or dragging the dead deer up from the back 40 to the road so that Animal Control would come pick it up.

My step-mother, Pat, died ten years ago - exactly ten years ago this month. She died the way she had lived. She died of a massive heart attack, while cutting down a tree, at the age of 73.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Above the Clouds

I am sometimes, above the clouds, quite literally.

Sometimes I find myself in the middle of a heavy fog,with water dripping from the redwood trees like icicles melting in a sudden thaw. At times like these, when I have to drive at 25 mph in a 50 mph zone because I cannot see more than ten feet in front of me, driving home quickly becomes very tiring, like driving in a whiteout.

But tonight, on my way home from work, I reveled in all the reasons I moved up here. Tonight I sped down a gently weaving ribbon of highway, above the clouds. The sun set into the never-ending cotton to the west, splattering the tree tops with an intense orange rosy glow that made them look as if they were burning from within.

Nature is capricious, often bringing us fog and wind and bitter cold But occasionally, nature is generous with her beauty. Like tonight.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


We have an unusual weather condition up here in Foggy Redwood Country. When it the sun is out, it is sunny. When the rain falls, it is raining. And when a heavy fog rolls in, it is dripping.

I can stand in the meadow where the Blue Barn sits, and see the fog swirling above me. The ground is dry beneath my feet. However, a few yards behind the Barn, it is dripping.

I learned something a week ago, when my niece and I visited the John Muir Redwood Forest just north of San Francisco. I learned that our very tall redwood trees collect moisture from the fog on their needles, and then those needles funnel those tiny droplets down the needles to the end of the branch, and then to the forest floor, where they are picked up by the very shallow root system of the redwood tree.

If you walk down our road in a heavy fog you will be drenched in minutes, as I found out the other day, in my jacket that was not waterproof. "Dripping" is like the first few minutes of an approaching thunderstorm. Big, fat drops of wetness falling from above in uneven patterns, quickly soaking the ground. Dry ground over here, puddles over there. The soft patter of heavy drops splatting on the matted forest floor. That is "dripping", up here in foggy redwood country.

In fact, sounds like its going to drip all night.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I Am Not There....

I had an idea for my next blog post....I really did. But by the time I recovered my un-remembered password, my idea had dissappeared into thin air...or wherever ideas go when they vanish like wisps of mist at the edge of a fog bank. Truly, the fog was beautiful on my way home tonight, through the hills of the mid-peninsula, painted pink like cotton candy, pulled apart in thin faint layers against the baby blue of the twilight sky. Quite lovely.

Ah, I remember...I was going to write about a slightly more serious topic - grieving. A much more serious topic actually. This post could also be called "other people's behavior - when its none of your goddamn business".

Sometimes other people's behavior is your business....for instance, when a family member you are concerned about is having a difficult time emotionally, physically, or financially. And even that one is a "maybe". If your adult children have told you to butt out of their business, then its probably none of your business. Unless your aged parent appears to have Alzheimer's disease and is still driving for example. Lets just say this is not a cut and dried issue; judgement is involved concerning each situation.

But, back to grieving. Everyone grieves in his or her own way, in his or her own time, and on his or her own terms. Some people cry; some never do. Some like people around to comfort them; some like to spend time by themselves. Some people like to talk about their grief; others prefer silence. For some, visiting a grave site is important; others feel the spirit of the deceased elsewhere - in a favorite photo, in a favorite memory, in a place special to the deceased.

Personally, I am partial to "place", and by this I do not mean grave site. My mother died when I was 13 and I can count on one hand how often I have been to her grave in the forty-plus years since then. And yet, every chance I get I visit the old neighborhood in Connecticut where I grew up, where my birth mom was a mother to me for 13 years. My 17 year old son died ten years ago; we scattered his ashes in a place he loved, the place where he grew up, in the peninsula hills. Its a long trek to get there but I go out there when I can. I go out there not because his ashes were scattered there, but because this is the place where we lived, this is the place that he loved, this place is where I remember my son best.

What is that poem? Do not grieve for me, I am not there.....

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush.
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
-- Mary Elizabeth Frye

I think my son would understand.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Locked Out

I had been meaning to make a duplicate house key ever since I moved into my new place a month ago. In fact, I was planning to have a duplicate key made the day I dropped my niece Caitlin off at the airport to head back east. I just didn't get it done soon enough.

I suppose it was bound to happen. Lately, I seem to have an adversarial relationship with keys. I often misplace them or forget them or take the wrong set with me. Which is odd, because for thirty years I had the same key ring from college, which I never, ever lost. Until I sold my house two years ago and my keys mysteriously vanished. After that, wham, bad key karma.

I clearly remember the time I got locked out of my dad's house in Connecticut, where I had moved temporarily to wait out the recent recession. My dad was out. It was winter, and bitter cold. I had only ventured out for a minute, to get something from my car, when the front door blew shut. Shut and locked that is, with me on the outside of the door, in flip-flops, a tee shirt and sweat pants, in 32 degree weather, with no cell phone and no car or house keys. And no idea where my dad went or when he would be home.

I tried the other two doors; no luck - locked tight. As I went up the wheelchair ramp from the slate patio to check the sliding glass doors, I slipped on a patch of ice and landed on my knees on the slate, hard. Over a year later, I still have scars on both knees from that fall. I checked the family's secret place to hide the spare key, which used to be in the garage, but the garage door was also locked.

I didn't seem to have any other options, so I set out to meet the neighbors. In my dad's town, there is minimum one acre zoning, with houses tucked away up long winding driveways, which means sometimes you have a long walk just to go" next door". I don't remember trudging through side yard and two feet of snow to get to the "next door" neighbor's house; I might have gone the long way - up my dad's steep driveway, out onto the street, over the hill and then down the neighbor's long and winding driveway. In any case, no one was home. So I trudged on to the next neighbor a little further away. Fortunately, this neighbor was home, and he made me some tea while I called my dad on his cell. My dad, who had planned an afternoon of errands, interrupted his plans and came home to let me in. The neighbor let me stay at his house, sipping tea, until my dad came home.

When I moved back to California, to San Jose, my housemate had the habit of keeping all the doors locked, all the time, even when she was home. This drove me crazy, as I am always puttering in the back garden and I don't always bring my keys with me. Fortunately, I had a great neighbor across the street, who helped me several times when I got locked out, before I got smart and had half a dozen duplicate keys made, which I hid in various places in the back yard.

So now, here I was, up in foggy redwood country, locked out. I had car keys but no house key. Landlord up the hill - not home. Downstairs apartment neighbors - not home. What to do? It was 4 pm in the summer, so weather was hardly an issue. I washed my car, which was streaked with dirt and road grime from my recent vacation. Left the landlord a note to please unlock my apartment. Did some exploring down a backyard trail. Went on a short hike to get the mail at the bottom of the road. Checked my dashboard clock - 6pm and no landlord in sight. I started to think about possible overnight plans. And then, I remembered Barry helping me open the backdoor at my house in San Jose - with a plastic credit card. So I tried it, with my health insurance card, in case I mangled it while squeezing it between the doorframe and the door. After a few tries, the door popped open, much to my surprise.

Such good security we have up here, although not any different than my house in San Jose. However, my landlord is in the process of putting in a locking gate at the end of the driveway. People are gone all day at work here in foggy redwood country, just like anyplace else, and stuff gets stolen up here, just like anyplace else. On my way to get the mail, I ran into a group of people who don't live out here, car pulled to the side of the dirt road, picnic blanket and food laid out on the ground next to the car, even though there is a red "Private Road" sign nailed on a tree at the entrance to our road. These people were probably harmless, but you never know.

Me: This is a private road. Guy: Yeah, we know. Me: incredulous look on face. Guy: We'll be out of here in 20 minutes. I think to myself as I continue down the road: What is it about "Private" that you don't understand? There are six different county parks within a few miles of my house, including the one in my backyard, which has trail access forty feet from where you parked your car and a dirt parking lot across the street. Yet you drive your car and spread your picnic things on a road that you know is a private road. I don't get it.

The group had packed up by the time I returned with the mail, and I assume drove out shortly thereafter. The whole locked out and private road incident made me stop and think. If I can do it, anyone can get into my place with a simple plastic library card. I figure I have two choices - change the lock on my door to a deadbolt, which seems like overkill....or just throw away the damn keys and not bother with locking the doors at all.

I just hope the landlord gets that gate working soon.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

All Grown Up

My 22 year old niece, Caitlin, who recently graduated from college, just spent a week with me traveling around northern California. Before this trip, she had never been away from the East Coast. In fact, she had never even flown in an airplane.

I wasn't sure how spending an entire week with my niece would work out. I have been living in California since before she was born. In the past, I would go back to Connecticut once or twice a year to visit my family, take the nieces and nephew to an amusement park, or the beach, or the movies. The day after Thanksgiving, we would have a "family day" with all of my siblings, and their kids, and play board games, make cookies, and play ping-pong in the basement. But the "kids" were always together - Caitlin, Michael, and Chloe; Chloe and Caitlin; Caitlin and Michael. Caitlin and I never spent much one-on-one time together.

I took Caitlin to see the requisite Golden Gate Bridge and redwood trees and ocean beaches; I could have played tour guide to any distant relative and had an "OK" vacation. But I was pleasantly surprised at how well Caitlin and I got along. Not only were we good traveling companions, we also enjoyed being in each other's company 24X7 for a whole week.

It turns out that Caitlin likes to do many of the same things I do - hiking in the woods, walking along the beach. That certainly helped our vacation compatibility. But in addition, I found that my niece has grown into a funny, intelligent adult who is a joy to be around. We had many interesting conversations, and quite a few hilariously funny ones. And that made all the difference in turning a "nice" vacation into a great one.

Friday, August 5, 2011

California, Here I Come

I remember the first time I visited California. I was 21 years old. It was my first time ever flying in an airplane. The plane from New York to Chicago was enormous, some big jet fuel wasting machine, and less than half full at that. I had a connecting flight to Sacramento. My rock climbing buddy, Greg, was going to pick me up at the airport in California.

Except that Greg thought I was arriving in Fresno, some three hours away. BC - Before Cell phones, you just waited. Sometimes, a long time. I didn't think it was unusual . Finally, I heard my name being announced on the airport loudspeaker "Nancy Emro, please pick up a white courtesy telephone". I did. I was connected to my friend Greg, calling from the Fresno airport. He would just drive to Sacramento to get me. No big deal. I sat down to wait some more.

After he picked me up, we headed in the direction of Rock Climber's Heaven - Yosemite. Somewhere along the way, we stopped for the night. We slept in the car, in the front bucket seats, and finished our drive in the early morning.

I spent a week in Yosemite, camping in tents, climbing during the day, and a week in Colorado, doing pretty much the same thing. Drove back with three other rock climbing pals, in a Volkswagen van, straight through from Colorado to New York, sharing both the driving and back of the van for sleeping. I remember waking up to dawn in some midwestern state, flat as the eye could see in every direction.

My niece is coming to California for the first time tomorrow. From Connecticut. I have sent her tons of travel advice via email - what to do and what not to do at the airport; how early to get to there; what to bring; how much to tip the skycaps. We spoke on the phone last night, and I went over a few last minute instructions.

And then I thought back to my first trip. I made it, certainly not without a hitch, but I arrived safe and sound, without email or cell phone, just a little late to my final destination. Life was simpler then. We didn't have to worry about not packing liquids in our carry-ons, or going through security checks. We slept in the car on the side of the road. Someone actually put a call through from Greg at the Fresno airport to me at Sacramento airport. I cannot imagine that happening today.

And so, I think Caitlin will do fine traveling on her own. If something unplanned happens, as the young people of today say, we will "just deal". The vacation will go on.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Fog

Carl Sandberg was a well known poet, but I don't think he ever lived in San Francisco, and he most certainly did not live up here on Skyline Boulevard. Sandberg wrote a famous poem called "The Fog".

"The fog comes in on little cat feet.
It sits looking over the harbor on silent haunches
and then moves on."

Fog does not come in on little cat feet up here in foggy redwood country. It gallops over the hills and roars through the mountain passes. There is nothing cat-like about it.

From afar, fingers of fog gently grip the hillsides, filling the empty spaces between the ridges, like a giant white-gloved hand creeping over the top of the mountain. But in the thick of it, there is nothing gentle about it. The temperature suddenly drops ten degrees as soon as I start my ascent up the mountain. As I climb higher, the fog races over my windshield like the North Wind itself is blowing it, hard, from behind.

The tiny droplets collect on the redwood trees, and I can hear the drip-drip-drip of the collected water raining down from the evergreen needles onto the matted forest floor.

And then, at some point, unpredictably, the fog simply vanishes, like a wisp of smoke disappearing into the atmosphere.