Friday, July 31, 2009

The Serpent's Redemption

My faithful few followers, I have been unfaithful myself in updating my blog, but only because I have been working on another piece of writing (and spending delicious moments sitting in the swing on the front porch, reading Pat Conroy's soon-to-be-released South of Broad). So--this essay that has been rattling (oh ha ha--an interesting choice of words) around in my head for a year has finally been completed. I wanted to share the first three paragraphs with you (not the entire essay, as it is 5,000 words--14 pages double spaced). If you are truly interested in reading the essay in its entirety, I do need a couple of people to find the typos that I'm sure have eluded me, so email me at and let me know; I'll email you an attachment in MSWord. And do let me know what you think of this little bit....

It is ironic that one of the common names of Crotalus Oreganus Helleric, a type of rattlesnake found in the Southwest, is “diamondback,” since most of us, when diamonds are mentioned, imagine something rare and strikingly beautiful, not a creature we think of as diabolical, quick to strike and deadly in its intentions. The name refers to the pattern of color on the snake’s skin, though the Arizona baseball team which uses the diamondback as its name and mascot certainly hopes to conjure the same intimidation we feel toward the character of the snake, not its color.
Indeed, rattlesnakes are plentiful in Arizona, and one can never be too cautious.

A case in point would be that of Erec Toso, author of Zero at the Bone. Toso, a university professor, is seemingly a man of great humanity, who loves dogs and cats, his kids and his wife, and who tries to live peaceably with all creatures. He describes in his book, however, his experience in walking across his yard one evening at dusk, returning from a summer swim with his boys, his foot rendered all too vulnerable by the sandals he wore. Even in the torturous grip of pain, as doctors huddled around his hospital bed discussing whether or not to amputate his putrid leg, Toso forgave the snake.

I read Erec Toso’s book shortly after moving to a cabin in the San Gabriel mountains of California, where Southern Pacific rattlesnakes live among the rocks and boulders, and I found myself ruminating on this moral dilemma we find ourselves in when we seek solitude, a place outside the pale of hectic, everyday populations. I came to the mountains to escape the noise, litter and cruelty that comes with living too close to Los Angeles. But here in the mountains there are other threats, and if I am encroaching on the “wild” aspect of wilderness, shouldn’t I simply accept my role as the intruder and suffer the consequences? I did not know if, like Toso, I could be so forgiving, and I found myself obsessing on the threat of snakes… which is probably what saved me.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Where's Jeff Corwin When You Need Him?

This morning’s hike took me into Bear Canyon, probably the most beautiful canyon on the mountain. The single-track trail follows the creek for awhile, meandering deep into the canyon which is shaded by huge oak trees. Eventually as it winds up a few switchbacks, there is a short section where bright green ferns grow to the edge of the trail. This is just south of Bear Flat, a wide, beautiful open meadow, which is the habitat of many different kinds of birds.

On my way up, I kept my head down most of the way, my eyes scanning the trail back and forth, back and forth, making sure there were no rattlie-snakes enjoying the cool of the shadowy trail, so I almost missed seeing a Cooper’s hawk. It must’ve been munching on something on the ground—probably a snake—as I heard a sudden flutter of wings and looked up in time to watch the hawk swoop up into a tree nearby. I stopped to admire him, telling him aloud how beautiful he was, and then I saw a second one a few yards away. I stood there chatting for a few minutes, then finally turned to continue up the trail, which is when I saw the hiker and his brown and white, freckly faced dog coming down the trail.

“Didja see a bobcat or somethin’?” he asked.

“Oh no,” I replied, “just a couple of Cooper’s hawks,” and he looked at me as if I might have been in need of medical aid for heat stroke. Yeah, I get that a lot. Still, he allowed me to admire and pet his dog, and then he was off again.

When I reached Bear Flat, I sat for awhile, eating a granola bar and watching the mountain bluebirds (not to be confused with jays—these are little), wrens and nuthatches flitting in and out of the spring that bubbles up there. Then I headed back.

I’d only gone fifty yards or so when I heard a commotion; jays were squawking loudly and some bird whose distress call I didn’t recognize was screaming over and over. Whatever dire event was unfolding, it was happening far below me on another section of trail. I started to quicken my pace to try to get down there. But that’s when I saw the snake.

It was a handsome rattlesnake, all coiled nicely around himself on the side of the trail, his head raised just slightly. Oh dear. I had stopped within a foot of him. I backed up slowly, then stomped my feet to imitate some mastodon-sized creature coming down the trail. The snake turned his head to stare at me with his left eye, flicking his tongue out to taste the air.

“I’m a huge predator!” I told him, to no avail. I knew he couldn’t hear me anyway. So I moved carefully back up the trail, looking for a very, very long stick. I probably could have gotten past him, but I didn’t want to leave him there for the next hikers coming up the trail to find. I found a stick, and walked toward him. Then the commotion below began anew and I glanced over the side as I heard something very big in the underbrush down there. I couldn’t see it through the trees, but I could tell by the sound that it was large. On the way up, I’d seen deer pellets, but it was more likely some predator, creeping in to take advantage of whatever nasty circumstance had befallen the screaming bird. It was while I was looking over the side that the snake uncoiled and began moving.

Thank goodness he was moving away from me, not toward me, because I had not been paying attention, and he’d gone a couple feet down the trail, and a couple of feet in my direction would have put him right at my shoes by the time I looked. He was about two feet long, with an inch-long rattle, I noted, just for those who will ask.

As he moved off the trail and into the dense fallen leaves, I skirted past (as he gave me one lethargic half-rattle) and headed home. A few hikers passed me on their way up, and I warned them of the snake, most thanking me, though one man laughed loudly as if I’d told him a joke. All in all, it was quite a lovely walk.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

How to Make a Sandwich in the Summertime

Bake your bread the day before. Since you’re making your own, you can add a bit of molasses for flavor and extra iron (yes, daughter, I hear you), and of course throw in at least a cupful of rolled oats. Make several small rounds so that you have extra to drop off with the neighbors; you never know when you’re going to need a favor, and if you’ve given them fresh baked bread, you’ll never hesitate to say, ‘Hey, I need a small favor….’

Before you start your sandwich, brew some tea and set it aside to cool. Fresh brewed iced tea in the summer. Ahhhhh….

Carve off two slices of bread and pop them in the toaster to warm up. This will also refresh the fresh-bread-out-of-the-oven aroma that permeated the house yesterday. While they heat, cut some slices of that lovely fresh mozzarella from Trader Joe’s, and slice up at least one quarter of a ripe avocado. Thin slices of tomato are critical as well, but the tomato must have come from a friend’s garden, or your own, or at least a roadside vendor—no hot house toms!! Spread some butter on the warm toast, add the cheese, tomato, avocado and some alfalfa sprouts or micro-greens or fresh spinach leaves or…? Dust with sea salt and close.

Pour your tea in a tall glass with lots of ice. Take your sandwich and tea outside to sit on the back deck. Take your cat with you. As you eat, watch the stellar jays gather in the trees overhead. The crust of your bread will be crispy from the toaster. Try to catch the pieces as they crumble off and toss them out into the yard for the jays. Watch the little cat’s bottom wiggle as the jays swoop down to snatch the bread. Listen as the jays’ squawks are echoed by family members far off in the canyon who fly in to get in on the action. Peer far up into the tall oaks and try to spot the Cooper’s hawk that keeps complaining about the disruption of his daily chipmunk hunt. Laugh at the goofy woodpeckers who’ve arrived dressed in formal attire—tuxedos and bright red party hats—only to find that there’s nothing here for them to eat. (Oh, I know how that feels!)

Save the last bit of bread crust to break into pieces and toss around the yard, just to watch the little kitty go crazy as the jays swoop and squawk and steal from each other. Stretch your legs into a warm sun spot and think about taking a nap, the most delicious dessert for a meal of this kind.