Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bear as token

For several weeks now, trails on the mountain have been closed by the Forest Service as fires continue to burn in Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties—most notably, the Station fire, which is now the largest fire to ever sweep through the mountains above L.A. The folks who ‘manage’ the forest worry that if a fire breaks out here, resources will already be critically depleted, so the trails are closed in order to reduce the odds of yet another fire being started up here.

No one is allowed on the trails, and big signs have been erected at the trailheads, in pull-outs up and down the mountain: STOP. NO ENTRY. EXTREME FIRE DANGER. This results in a quietness and serenity on the mountain that is indescribable. For a time, I will hear no loud hikers at 5:00a.m. passing by on the road to the falls above my cabin, stopping to pitch rocks over the side into what they think is a deep canyon, talking loudly of all manner of things, from hating their bosses to their sexual exploits—all of which is heard by myself and whatever neighbors are up at that hour.

With the peace and quiet, the animals come out in record numbers, as do the mountain residents. We sneak onto the trails when we know the rangers won’t catch us. We see bighorn sheep nearly ever day who use the nearly abandoned trails themselves. Turning a corner in the trail, we’re no longer surprised when we see a few ewes, sometimes with a baby or two.

Last Sunday, I heard a commotion outside at 5:30a.m. shortly after I’d gone out to refill a water dish I leave out for birds, squirrels and raccoons. I approached the French doors leading to my deck to try to peer out into the darkness to see what was up—and realized by the sheer bulk of the shadow on the opposite side of the doors that I was staring at the form of a bear. When I switched on the outside light, I saw a beautiful, cinnamon-colored bear strolling around on the deck, sniffing the air around the doorframes. It’s hard to appreciate the size of a bear’s paw and claws until you see him standing on your back porch. Without shouting, I asked him to leave, and he did so.

I celebrated the bear’s visit by walking up to the Sierra Club ski hut later that morning, a journey that takes me a bit over two hours, walking slowly up a gain of 2,000 feet in elevation along a single track trail at the edge of the canyon that feeds the waterfall. I didn’t pass a single soul that day. I sat for a half hour at the hut, eating some hummus and flatbread, tossing tiny crumbs to the jays, breathing in the silence and the scent of sun-warmed pine. Clouds danced overhead.

I walked early this morning, before dawn, so I could stand up near the falls and watch the sky turn pink behind the eastern ridge.

I am grateful that my cabin hasn’t sold, that I am here on the mountain during this time of grieving. I will think of these things today at my brother’s memorial service. The silence of the canyon will come back to me in the midst of my sadness, the soft brush of the mountain breeze against my skin.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round

On my way home from work today I stopped to pick up my mail at the Baldy post office. Along with my Newsweek and another opportunity to donate to the L.A. AIDS Project, there was a large manila envelope with my address inscribed by my own hand—a rejection. The ‘snake story’ was declined by The Sun. Thanks to those of you who read it and raved about it; your words give me the courage to send it out again. I’ll keep you posted.

I wasn’t about to let anyone take my jubilee today, though. The marine layer has been creating quite the spectacular show as I drive to work in the mornings. (See photo at right.) And--I received an email today from Belinda Nantz, a woman who has lived in Catawissa all her life. (Catawissa is where Bertha Gifford lived… in the so-called House of Mystery.) Belinda wrote to tell me that she’d just finished reading Tainted Legacy, that she’d heard stories of Bertha all her life, and that mostly folks said she was the kind of person who just really wanted to help members of her community. She said, basically, that the older people in the community—the “seniors”—had nothing but good things to say about Bertha. I’ve suspected for some time that the further we get from Bertha’s trial in 1928, the more sensationalized the events of those times will become. A few decades back, folks thought she was eccentric. Now there are “ghost hunters” trying to find her spirit roaming around in Morse Mill and postings all over the web about her being a serial killer. What if Bertha never really poisoned anyone? What if it really was all about arsenic in the drinking water?

At any rate, it was comforting to receive Belinda’s note. I thought about it as I walked to the waterfall this evening, the wind soughing high in the pines and the squirrels chattering about where the best acorns are. As I noted in a previous post, it’s been pretty quiet up here with the trails closed. A neighbor, returning from the waterfall as I was headed up, mentioned casually that she’d just seen a baby bear on the trail. We haven’t had bears around for two years. It made me wonder what’s coming next—mountain lions, maybe? Kind of like the snake story—What’s next? Maybe I’ll send it off to ZYZZYVA. Maybe Howard Junker will like it. Wouldn’t that be a kick?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Eternally grateful

Last weekend Grandson Ben came up to spend the three-day weekend with me. In the evening, we walked up to the waterfall to stand in the cool twilight and watch the bats fly over our heads. The mountain has been serene and quiet since the Forest Service closed the trails to hikers. Those of us who are residents are especially blessed during these times, as the threat of fire diminishes and the local wildlife quickly takes over the space the campers and hikers had occupied. On Sunday evening, Ben and I stood and watched a young fox down by the falls, then saw a baby king snake on our way home. And more bats, of course.

All of this was a comfort to me. My brother Dan had gone into hospice on Thursday. His cancer had spread to so much of his body that he was in constant pain. In hospice, he could be on IV drugs. Our last conversation had taken place some days before. I’d called in the evening just to check on him. He was tired and, as we talked, he climbed into bed with his cat, Wilson. “Yeah, move over, cat,” he said gruffly, but I knew he was scratching Wilson’s head or stroking his fur as he said it. From his boyhood days, Dan has always adored animals, and we once had a conversation about how dogs were just people wearing other ‘suits.’

When Dan entered hospice care, I sent emails and Facebook postings out to as many people as I could, asking them to pray for him or chant for him or send positive energy or simply think loving thoughts for him, so that his passing would be easy. That was my prayer. That his passing would be peaceful. I told my cousin I just wanted Dan to “float off on our love.”

On Sunday evening, my other brother, Kevin, flew to Washington to be with Dan. He said he felt compelled to do so. Monday morning dawned beautiful and clear on the mountain. Ben helped me and for hours we cleared brush and cut branches. Apparently my phone had been ringing, but I didn’t hear it.

That morning, a harpist came into the hospice room with Dan. She asked Kevin if she could play her harp for Dan, and of course Kevin agreed. A nurse was in the room as well, and when the harpist began to play, she reported that Dan’s heart rate and respirations were slowing down, calming. She said he must like music because he was responding positively, and he was “peaceful.” The nurse left the room. When she returned ten minutes later, Dan was gone.

Since Dan’s passing, I’ve been walking up to the waterfall every evening, just to sit and listen to the water rushing as it has for hundreds of years. Wordsworth told his sister that, in times of trouble, she should consider the immutability of Nature, how a forest glen or a meadow or a stream could remain the same through the turmoil of countless generations, through war or feast or famine. It was the unchangeable character of Nature that he held onto when the world itself seemed to tilt out of alignment. And thus it is with me.