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Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Creek Comes Through

Rain and snow in the uplands finally brought Kelsey Creek back to life.

The riparian corridor wends its way through the pear orchards and vinyards of Big Valley providing the last best wildlife habitat for miles. The banks of silt are written over with the tracks of quail, raccoon, weasle, jackrabbit, cat, and canine.

The town was founded by pragmatists on the banks of the creek because of the wealth of water, fish, oak trees, soil depth and fertility. Early photographs show acres carpeted with millions of fish (the edemic hitch), the result of sudden, man-made fluctuations in water level. There may well have been aesthetic reasons for siting the town here as well, because the place resembled picture books of Eden. The spot marks the transition where the mountain creek changes character as it meets the
flat bed of the ancient lake. The lake had long since retreated to its present boundaries leaving Big Valley in its wake as oak studded savanna.

Kelsey Creek, as with nearby Adobe Creek, has served as the working plumbing of the valley. It has been worked hard.
It has been heavily exploited for water, fish, timber and gravel, yet it remains a zone of beauty.

If you are anywhere near the creek most days lately, the whine and roar of off-road vehicles shreds the air. If you walk or ride your horse along the creek, as my neighbors and I do, you might well be spooked by the sudden skidding of tires and the spray of gravel. You might be amazed at the extent of the ORV-caused erosion of the banks and the destruction of the creekside forest. You might ask yourself, "To what purpose is this happening?" You might wonder, "Are the citizens of this town and county unaware of what is happening to their creek, their land, their valley, their country?"

A piece of broken mirror in the creekbed sent an inquiring eye to the sky.

Some guys got their pick up bogged down in the creek.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Walk to Town

A cold front came from the North bearing rain and snow and a pair of red breasted sapsuckers. The sapsuckers perforated
the circumference of a young oak, releasing sugary sap, on which massed small black ants.

The oaks are shedding their leaves more slowly this fall drawing out our leaf management regime.

The pear and walnut sheds, monuments to Big Valley's agricultural civilization look more iconic at this quiet time of year.
Their surroundings are uncluttered by the comings and goings of people and trucks.

The creek has been yoked to the water needs of the farmers for a hundred years and now runs dry for five or six months each year. People over fifty years of age who grew up in the valley remember a year-round creek of summer swimming holes and big spring spawning runs of the edemic fish, the herring-like hitch. Decades of gravel mining have lowered this section of creek bed by as much as twenty feet. In spite of theses insults and the burden of near-continuous off-road vehicle abuse, the creek bed supports a young forest of cottonwood and willow. Quail coveys roost in this riparian swath. Jackrabbits shelter. Western toads and Pacific tree frogs breed. Flycatchers, woodducks and mergansers nest.

The creek is seen as a no-man's land. It's hard to find unfenced or uncultivated land in the valley. So the creek zone serves as a catch-all for refuse, for restless energies, for outlaw impulses.

For as long as anyone could remember the Merritt Road crossing of the creek was a ford, perfectly adequate, and notable if not for its beauty at least for its utilitarian charm. That changed this year with the construction of a bridge which possesses all the soul and scale of a freeway ramp. The thing is a brute urban rudeness at odds with the modesty of the "friendly country town."

A pair of cliff swallows made its nest under the new structure. In the previous season hundreds of pairs had nested in the
steel girders of a creekside, high-roofed shed now removed. Occupying that site is a new self-storage facility. This form of low-slung enterprise has recently become the characteristic and most visible architecture of Lake County.

A cottonwood festooned with mistletoe issued in the holiday trappings of Main Street.

I came unexpectedly upon a sacred space.

The town has its share of landmarks.

On the way back to the ranch I ran into Phil the screenwriter/producer and his horse, Chico.

It got colder Saturday night. Sunday it snowed on the Hopland Grade.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Flocking Together

Yesterday the light on the sweet gum leaves was sensational, never mind that the tree looked like the alien species that it is in the grove of valley oaks. I tend to be a purist about native plants on the ranch, but it is hard to quibble with the renowned botanist who grew up on this place and brought in the exotics two generations ago. There are ginkgos, crepe myrtle, loquats, figs, Virginia creeper, St. John's wort, mountain ash and oleander. It was, after all, a pear operation in the last century. The valley floor's ancient lakebed soil, together with a local elevation of slightly over 1300 feet, was suited to pears. But it's still easy to imagine the valley oak groves which were displaced. I've brought in nine young valley oaks to keep company with the monarchs also numbering nine. We've planted manzanita, ceanothus, coyote brush, toyon, coffee berry and native fuschia, sage, currants and madrone.

The front line of advancing creek waters attracts mobs of red winged and Brewer's blackbirds.
With the return of water and winter, the black bird cacophony will feature large around here.

The ganging up in flocks is characteristic of this time of year. On the lake the coots have formed very tight rafts as have the comorants, diving ducks and white pelicans. Their defensiveness appears based on some shared dread of a menace embodied by the shortened days. We saw one good reason for their skittishness yesterday from our boat. A pair of bald eagles scouted
the multitudes for an easy mark. The waterfowl seemed at their wits' end. As we rounded a tule bed we flushed a flock of more than 3,000 white pelicans, which flapped up into diverging gyres.

We were one boat among perhaps a half dozen on all the sublime expanse of the northwest part of the lake. Inshore,
immense shoals of fry riddled and riffled the surface. The outlying waters of the open lake were dynamic with breeze-driven waves, fast flying ducks, big flocks of California gulls, and Western grebes watching us with one eye, their heads half averted.

A floating corpse turned out on closer inspection to be a grebe drowned by hook and filiment.

As we headed into shore I was so appreciative of the view of largely unspoiled tracts of land and marsh abutting the lake at Big Valley. The boat on its trailer, we were back in the pick up. We stopped to look at the marshy pastures near the county park. The scene looked heartbreakingly vulnerable to the future.