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Wednesday, December 2, 2015


A slash pile burned on Thanksgiving Day.

The migraine headache I felt coming on during the blaze, and which prevented me, a few hours later, from partaking in the ritual repast, may have been precipitated by the conflict I felt about burning this pile. Winter sparrows sheltered within it. Torpid lizards whiled away the colder months. In Spring, quail nested in it's shadowed depths. It seemed an altogether favorable feature of the place until THEY came along. THEY being California ground squirrels. I did not want to erase this habitat, but the ground squirrels made me do it. And I blame them too for the heavy dose of carbon released into the clear atmosphere that day. 

After twelve years of avoiding our three acres, the ground squirrels finally decided to invade from all sides. They discovered the security of the quince bushes but they were gaga over the slash pile. I knew they were up to no good when I spotted one carrying a precious quail egg in its mouth.

California ground squirrels are notoriously hard to trap or shoot. The wary beasts seem designed to boost the fortunes of the manufacturers of the heavier poisons. Naturally, we could never employ poison on our land, not wanting to risk the collapse of the food chain of rodents, snakes, hawks, owls, coyotes, bobcats and the other players.

Yet ground squirrels had undermined and partially collapsed the ranch house a few years before we bought the place, requiring the Bensons to replace the entire foundation with new piers. Now the squirrelly beasts were proliferating with abandon and worrying the whole landscape with their borrows. They had again worked their way under the ranch house and the out buildings. It had become clear why the Bensons had kept such a clean ranch, two thirds of which was meticulously tilled earth.

Along comes the wildlife-friendly present owner. The back field is allowed to go un-mowed for the benefit of bees and bugs right up until the early August pear harvest, when, in deference to our pear-growing neighbor, we finally acquiesce and it is mowed down to dry stubble. Who can blame a pear grower with a lucrative contract to provide unblemished fruit to Costco for preferring her orchards free of interloping grasshoppers and voles, two varmints who allegedly shelter in our luxuriant field?

But has the regime of delayed mowing, accumulating brush piles, restoration of native vegetation and conscious re-wilding really increased the abundance of invertebrates and vertebrates?
It seems doubtful. In fact, the numbers of quail, thrashers, snakes, frogs, toads have all been sliding in recent years, admittedly the probable consequence of prolonged drought and general warming rather than of the encouragement of native vegetation, but still these animals were inarguably more numerous on the clean furrowed ranch in days of old.

The inevitable result of the ground squirrel invasion was to be a raging inferno which might suffocate them in their labyrinth. Certainly a few lizards went up in smoke too.

A cottonwood caught the light, perhaps in its apotheosis before the shallow-rooted being is swept away by the swollen winter waters of the creek.

Frosted docks in the mouth of Kelsey Creek.

Canada geese, quietly marshaling forces for eventual world domination.

Beneath an antique gingko.

Sunrise on a frosted mono-crop of new hay in a ground squirrel-free zone.

Frosted field with quiet animals.

Japanese maple, magnificently wondering how it came to be growing under a canopy of California Valley Oaks.

I was drawn to the silent lake. 

Camouflaged goose hunters were disembarking on the morning following the Hunters Moon.

A mattress dumped at the lake.
Rafts of coots in their thousands agitated the waters of Soda Bay below.

Nest boxes collected for the winter. Only four had been colonized last Spring -
two by bluebirds and two by tree swallows. The bluebird babies on the first try were devoured by jays.
 On the second attempt the eggs failed to hatch, it being too hot as summer commenced.

Orchard road. The annual pruning begins.

Leaf management entails much smoke.

Tule geometry as seen elsewhere in the paintings of J Johns.

Willows by the lake begging for a competent plein air painter.