Sunday, August 27, 2017

No Fur Kid Left Behind

Can you see her? Little Sugar Plum discovering snow for the first time.

When I moved up to my cabin in Mt. Baldy in 2007, I did so in the company of Boo Radley and Sugar Plum, my two black cats. I still had to go to work down the mountain every day, so my two companions would spend each day while I was gone either down in the basement chasing mice out of the house or up in the loft, where they could watch birds at eye level.

We'd lived there one year when a man who was camping with his daughter accidentally started a forest fire in a canyon below us on a very cold, very windy night. When my neighbor called to alert me to the fire burning several miles south of us, I called in sick to work. My cabin was not in immediate danger, but I worried that if I drove down the mountain, I wouldn't be allowed back up, and there's no way I would have left my cats up there alone.

As the fire pushed its way up the canyon toward my neighborhood, the neighbors kept in close contact, working out exit strategies. There is only one road that leads up and down the mountain, but there is a dirt Forest Service road that goes up to the ski lift and over the mountain, down the far side. We would caravan in our trucks if need be, only leaving if we absolutely had to. We had been advised earlier by the Forest Service that if our cabins caught fire, they would be allowed to burn; no fire crews would be risked to try to save them. If my cabin caught fire, I would lose just about everything I owned except what I could fit in my Tacoma--and the cat carriers took up most of the space.

After several days, though, the Hot Shots and other crews contained and controlled the fire, though there were still some hot spots burning deep in a few side canyons. Before I returned to work, I made sure that if the fire flared up again and law enforcement closed the road, I could still get home. I'd have to walk, and it would take me four hours or so (as near as I could figure), but I devised a plan with a friend who would drop me at the base of the mountain where I could follow the creek trail to the village. Then I could simply walk the road the rest of the way up to my cabin. If I had to walk out carrying two cat carriers down the mountain, I would. No cats left behind....

I promised them that. Every time we had a big storm, friends down the mountain would offer guest rooms and couches so that I didn't have to drive to work or home in treacherous conditions. I would have happily taken them up on their offers had it not been for the two furry individuals who waited for my return every afternoon.

One winter a sudden and severe storm developed while I was at work. From outside my classroom door, I could look up to the mountain, and I knew it was bad. As soon as the last bell rang, I ran to the parking lot, jumped in the truck, and headed up the mountain. By the time I reached the switchbacks (the steep, winding road that led up to the ski lifts and my cabin), the California Highway Patrol had closed the road and officers were escorting drivers down. But I had to go up. My cats were up there. "Not without chains," the CHP officer told me. "We're in blizzard conditions." So I had to turn around and go back to the village to put on the cables I always carried in winter. When I stepped out of the truck in the post office parking lot, I was pelted with freezing rain. (It's a lot like having a Slurpee thrown at you... or a lot of Slurpees all at once... with no lovely sugary sweet flavor.) Still, with the help of a neighbor, we got the cables on quickly, and I headed back to attempt to get up the switchbacks. If I couldn't drive, I would have to walk the three miles, but by then the sun was beginning to set, so I'd be doing it in the dark if I didn't hurry.

The five minute drive took twenty-five that afternoon. Slowly but surely, I wound my way up that icy road. When I reached the top, the narrow road to my cabin was covered in a foot of snow and ice, so I found a safe place to tuck in the truck for the night, grabbed my backpack and started walking.

Snowfall is beautiful, and I love walking in it. But a blizzard includes high winds that whip the tiny ice crystals across your face and into your eyes (even if you're wearing glasses). I tried to trudge with my head down, but doing so caused me to take a wrong turn in the waning light, and I ended up disoriented at the end of a side road that led to another cabin. 'Take a breath and go back the way you came,' I told myself. I did, and it worked. I found the road again, and finally made it home just as total darkness fell. Both cats were waiting for me at the front door--and they nearly fled when they saw me. I was completely covered with ice and snow. But I was home. And we were safe.

"I told you," I said, as they huddled nearby, watching me shed several pounds of soaked clothing, "I will always come home. I will never leave you here."

The back side of my cabin after the blizzard of 2010.

I think what made me feel so strongly about never leaving them behind was watching the heartbreaking news coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. My mom was living with me at the time, and we watched together as Coast Guard and law enforcement helicopters plucked survivors off porches and rooftops, often forcing them against their will to leave their pets behind.

Best Friends, the animal rescue group based in Kanab, Utah, were the ones that organized the biggest concerted effort to go into New Orleans and the surrounding areas just days after the storm ended to rescue dogs and cats that had been left behind. Hundreds and hundreds of dogs and cats. As days went by and the extent of the devastation from Katrina unfolded, I mentioned to Mom that I felt like I should send a donation to Best Friends. "I already wrote a check for a hundred bucks," she told me. "I just don't know where to send it." My mom, my hero. I went online, found the address, wrote out a check myself, and mailed both in the same envelope the next day.

Nowadays, of course, it's much easier to donate, just a couple of clicks.

And we've learned. As you watch the coverage of Hurricane Harvey and the rescue effort now taking place, you will see people being helped to safety--along with their dogs and cats. In all, 600,000 dogs died or were abandoned during Hurricane Katrina. That won't be the case this time, but there will still be a huge need for groups like Best Friends to rescue pets that were left when people were caught away from home when the hurricane hit. I have no doubt that a team from Best Friends is already preparing to gear up and meet that need as soon as they can possibly get to Houston.

If you'd like to help with that effort, it only takes a few clicks to donate. Click on the link below, and it will take you to the Best Friends site. In my opinion, you're a hero if you do!

Click here to donate to Best Friends.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

More Garden (and Wildlife) Notes

A week in the life of a back yard gardener:

Every night a possum sneaks into my tiny back yard and eats exactly one half of one peach. How do I know? Because I pick up the fallen peaches every day. And every morning there is always one fallen peach--one big, beautiful peach--lying on the ground on the far side of the tree, so carefully incised down to the pit that it looks as if someone with opposable thumbs cut in half with a knife. I have never seen Ms. O. Possum. (I had to do a Google search of "What does possum poop look like?" in order to differentiate between skunk poop and opossum.) I did, however, see one of her young 'uns very early one morning in late spring when I went looking for Purrl. Both were in the planter area. Purrl was sitting sedately on the retaining wall, watching the little critter with wonder and amazement. ("Mom--is that a weird looking cat?") The little joey (yep, that's what they're called) was backed up against the neighbor's fence, growling fiercely.

By the way, "possum" has now become an accepted spelling of "opossum," so you folks my age can stop spelling it like this: 'possum. (Further note: According to the Oxford Dictionary, we are still using the apostrophe for young 'un--because it is a contraction of 'young one'--although most spell check software will then redline the "un." Less stuffy wordsmiths simply use "youngun" as the spelling--though they claim only old folks like myself use that slang term. Hmph.)

Around midday Monday I noticed a small mantis on the hummingbird feeder outside my kitchen window. I saw it periodically throughout the day, and again first thing Tuesday, hanging out to wish me a good morning. Can you see it?

I wasn't sure how to proceed, as the feeder needed refilling, but I didn't want to disturb whatever she was up to. Apparently the little diva hates paparazzi, though; as soon as I'd taken her photo (with my iPhone, no flash), she exited.

A couple of days later, when I went to fill the feeder again, there were two very tiny--mantises? manti?--hanging out on the plastic "flowers." When I very carefully the feeder, they climbed capably onto the Mexican Bush Sage and proceeded to blend in nicely.


This actually happened on Tuesday evening. I left Purrl sitting happily on the patio at dusk and walked across the street to ask a neighbor if she needed help loading something into her car. We talked. When I realized it had gotten dark, I hurried back across the street, looking for Purrl in the back yard. No Purrl. I walked into the house through the open patio door to find her hunched over the recently deceased Mr. Rat. Yes, I know, it's another life form that should be honored because-- okay, no, no, no, there are rats living under the house and they're using it for a toilet down there and just, NO. They need to vacate or die. I'm sorry I can't be more Zen about this. Good girl, Purrl-Jam!

But this made me rethink who was eating the fallen peaches. Now I wonder if it wasn't both Ms. Possum and Mr. Rat. Which, during my morning meditation after yoga practice, elicited this imaginary conversation:

Ms. Possum and Mr. Rat are two feet apart in the tall grass under the peach tree at midnight.

Ms. P: This lady is very nice. She leaves these peaches out for us. Also, she didn't let her nasty gray cat eat my Joey a few weeks ago.

(In my mind, the possum sounds very kind and feminine, like a hippie earth-mother or the type of mid-western woman who bakes pies for people in her church.)

Mr. Rat: Oh gawd I've smelled that cat. That thing needs to choke on a chicken bone and die.

(In my mind, the rat sounds like the governor of New Jersey. Don't ask me why.)

Ms. P: Oh dear. That's harsh to say about any living creature. Well, except perhaps for slugs and snakes. But they are delicious! And a girl's gotta eat! Ha ha ha ha!

Mr. Rat: Ha ha ha ha ha! Yeah, lady, I get yer point. Eat all the yard snakes ya want. I don't want 'em comin' down to my resort. We got it all to ourselves down there.

Later that morning, I went out to water and checked beneath the peach tree. For the first time in three weeks, there is no half peach gnawed down to the pit. Such is the circle of life....

After watering, I went out to walk Thomas and heard Mr. and Mrs. Raven calling repeatedly. They're raising two teenagers right now. I feel for them. Although their chicks are almost as big as they are, they still look babyish with their unruly feathers and gangly body parts. The patient couple continues to help them hunt and eat. One day last week, when the temperature was 102, I heard one of the ravens calling repeatedly over the course of twenty minutes or so. I was trying to write, but the loud "SQUAWK!" repeated every ten to fifteen seconds finally drew me away from my desk and outside.

"Raven! What do you want?!?" I called to the rooftops. (By now, I'm not concerned about what my neighbors think of me. I believe I've sufficiently established the odd-reclusive-writer persona.) In answer, one of them (Mr.? Mrs.?) flew down to the street and stood by the gutter, looking my way. Oh. Of course. Water. At that moment, someone's automatic sprinklers clicked on, and run-off began to trickle into the gutter. Suddenly all four Raven family members were in the street, guzzling water.

On Wednesday morning, when I heard Mr. or Mrs. calling, I looked up to see what was amiss this time. Nothing. Mom and Dad were just calling Junior and Junior to breakfast. What was on the menu? A rat, much like the one Purrl caught. When Thomas and I walked up the hill to the corner, I could see the roof of the neighbor's house, the proud parents standing by as one of the juniors tore into the flesh of the lifeless rodent. Again, the circle of life....


One of the recurring themes in Herman Melville's work is the underlying rot, decay and erosion under all things beautiful. (Thus, if you look closely at a rose bush, you'll see the aphids and leaf fungus beneath the blooms.) I see this constantly in the garden. Just look at my beautiful squash plants:

If you look closely at the photo above, you can see a tiny crookneck squash that has formed and now just needs to grow bigger before I can eat it for lunch in a week or so. The squash plants in the photo above the crookneck are zucchini, and while there is a tiny zucchini on one of them, alas, I will probably never get to eat it. All those big broad beautiful leaves are covered with tiny black insects on their undersides which are sucking the life out the plants. Sigh. I worked so hard! I dug out my bottle of Spinosad (a natural insecticide that kills insects in a very fascinating way without harming the other creatures in the garden or the creatures who eat those creatures) and sprayed everything--the zucchini, the crookneck, the tomatoes, the kale and radishes. Arrrgh. Being an organic farmer is hard.

I had to call my friend Harry, who has grown practically everything you can grow in his eighty-six years on this planet, to ask him when I will know when the corn is ready to eat.

"Well, when the tassels are brown and dying and it looks like a fat ear of corn," he said.

Oh. Well. Okay.

My son is visiting from San Francisco. If we'd taken a selfie together this time, I would post it here so you could see my giant smile. But we didn't. So here's a photo of Harry (mentioned above) talking to other writers (about writing--but just imagine him telling you everything you ever wanted to know about gardening):

I'm only growing radishes because my son requested them, so I pulled up a big juicy fat spicy one for him and watched him eat it. "It's good" was his less-than-lavish praise of the thing. "Good" was pronounced in a short, clipped manner, the entire sentence pronounced in less than a second without him making any eye contact. Which led me to thinking about how the pronunciation of that word--as he did, with a shrug in his voice, or in this fashion: "It's gooooood!"--can vastly alter the communication of a thought. I think these things because I'm a writer. I truly cannot help myself. I really did spend some time pondering that one word. Good. So that was good.

I had to pull up the zucchini plants and dump them in the green waste barrel today as they were so very full of the little black aphids I wanted to scream and light the plants on fire.

To comfort myself, I harvested two ears of corn and took them into the house immediately to boil and eat. It was tender, sweet, delicious, and worth all the work I put into it. Yum.

The crookneck squash, so far, is surviving. Fingers crossed. The tomatoes look beautiful.

And there is a pair of Roadrunners--the real kind, not the cartoon kind--hanging out in my neighborhood, which makes me very happy.
PLEASE NOTE: Real roadrunners are about the size of a chicken. They are not the size of Wile E. Coyote.

Note: This post was originally scheduled to go up on Sunday, August 13th, 2017, but in the two days before, all hell broke loose in Charlottesville, Virginia, and subsequently my heart spilled out onto the page in the piece that follows this one.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What Scout said

"Well, Dill, after all he's just a negro." –Scout Finch

During the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping the White woman who tried to take advantage of him in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout's best friend Dill begins to cry uncontrollably. As he struggles to collect himself outside, he tries to explain to Scout that what upset him was the treatment of Tom Robinson by the prosecuting attorney who was "talking so hateful to him" during his cross examination.

"The way that man called him 'boy' all the time and sneered at him," Dill tells her, prompting Scout's short retort above.

"He's just a negro."

I read this novel with my students in twenty-five of the twenty-seven years I taught high school. When we reached this point, which is roughly three-quarters of the way through the book, I'd have them write to this prompt: Is Scout a racist?

Year after year, from 1990 to 2017, I asked the same question. Of course, they were required to explain to me why they believed what they concluded about her. Among individual students, the answers would vary.

"IDK." (Translation: I Don't Know.)
"She can't be racist because she's black." (Some students assumed that because Jem, Scout and Dill spoke with Southern accents, they were Black.)
"She's racist because she lives in the South and all White people in the South were racists back then."
"She's not racist because racists hate Black people and she doesn't hate Black people."

True, Scout does not hate Black people.

But yes, she is a racist.

This scene, this conversation between Scout and Dill, this is the crux of the matter. Tom Robinson is fighting for his very life before their eyes, and Scout attempts to comfort her friend by suggesting he not get too upset since this man is "just a negro."

To Scout, his life matters less than hers because he is Black.

Yes, she is a child, and yes, this is a novel and she's the protagonist, so by the time Scout has had time to process the trial and listen to further discussion by her father and brother, she is already drawing new conclusions about her racist third grade teacher, and by the end of the novel she has come to fully understand why it is "a sin to kill a mockingbird."

But before that... Scout is a product of her family, her history and her community and yes, she is a racist.

If folks grow up seeing and hearing a distinction made between races--between who gets the highest regard, the best jobs, the most convenient seat on the bus--and they emulate that behavior, they are tacitly complicit in the preservation of this learned behavior we call racism.

Time and again in my life, I have had racists tell me, "I don't hate Black people...." And it's very possible that they don't associate what they feel with hatred. But if they hold themselves in higher regard because they are not Black, they are racists.

Because Black lives matter as much as any lives.

This idea that others are less valuable because of their race or ethnicity or geographic origin or socio-economic level is, well, in Dill's words, "It ain't right.... Hasn't anybody got any business talkin' like that--it just makes me sick."

The events in Virgina over the past two days have made me sick indeed, and I know that many of my friends feel the same way. We are sickened by the rage and hate and violence, but we are also sickened by the disparity we continue to experience, even among those who say, "I don't hate anyone." Racism isn't always this blatant. Most often, it is subtle and insidious, which is why it is still so pervasive.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Trouble with Gardening

Down the street and around the corner from me lives a woman who keeps her front yard in immaculate shape, weeding and trimming and cultivating incessantly, it seems. Not to sound pervy, but if pressed, I could pick her out of a line-up of neighbors based on her backside alone--because that's essentially the view I have of her every time I drive by--bent over, pulling weeds, clipping roses.... I've seen her out there after dark, wearing a headlamp, going after--what? Weeds? Snails? I applaud her. The thing is, I could be her.

That's one of the problems with gardening; once you really invest yourself in it, once you begin to see how things spring up from seeds and then grow and change and mature, once you've pulled a radish out of the ground or a green bean or tomato from the vine and eaten it, you're hooked. Truth be known, my love of eating the things I grow is so intense, I could spend all day every day just working on my garden.

I know what you're thinking: "You're retired now, Kay! If you want to spend all day gardening, you can do that!" It's okay to think that. Just don't say it aloud; you're just enabling me.

Because just as video games are for the teen (or young adult... or old adult) who doesn't want to face the world outside, so is gardening for me. I retreat into it. The trouble is, I have this other job, the one I should be spending four or five... okay, maybe two or three... hours a day engaged in. Which job? This job.


In the spring, I pulled all the dead sticks out of the slanted planter at the back of my yard and tossed some bags of Miracle Gro onto the hard red clay. (Quick side note on that: I bought six large bags of Miracle Gro Garden Soil from Home Depot. As I opened each one and spread the soil, I discovered empty taco sauce packets, the kind they give you at fast food places, one in each of the six bags. I took a picture and emailed it to Miracle Gro. I did not find the company representative to be as fascinated by this practice as I was.)

Eventually, too late in the season, really, I threw some organic, non-GMO seeds in the ground. Since this year's garden is entirely experimental (because I'm in a new place), I decided to use the "three sisters" template for planting: four corn plants in a square, green beans outside the corn (to vine up the stalks) and squash outside the green beans. I've never done it this way before. And I'll never do it this way again, but hey, it has been fun watching the result.

The corn came up easily (and my neighbors finally became fascinated with what I was doing, climbing around up in the planter every day). After a few weeks, it looked like this:

Then one night we had a windstorm unlike any I have experienced here before. In the morning, the corn looked like this:

Oh no! I'd worked so hard! I called my buddy Harvey (who keeps a much nicer garden in his tiny back yard), and he came to the rescue, helping me pull the stalks back up and support them with stakes and twine. Whew. They kept growing.

Only a few of the many green bean seeds I planted emerged from the soil, and as soon as they did, they were eaten by snails. Sigh....

Meanwhile, the giant sunflowers I'd planted along the back fence (so my sweet neighbor, Jackie, the one with the five Pomeranians, could see them, and so the birds could have the seeds) jumped up out of their seeds and started heading for the sky. Sunflowers don't close up at night, so if I look out my window in the evening or take Thomas out in the middle of the night to pee, these guys are smiling back at me:

They grew taller than the corn. And they are, indeed, "giant."

Finally, the corn began to form ears. But then I noticed something unusual about the silk; it turned purple not long after sprouting:

So of course, I did a Google search of "Why is the corn silk purple?" and discovered that purple corn silk means my soil is sadly lacking in phosphate. Ah well. This was an experiment, after all. Still... I worked so hard! So, added to my gardening notes for next year: Add phosphate to soil along with Miracle Gro. Also check for more taco sauce packets.

The other problem with puttering about the back yard is that it becomes a major distraction for me. As I write this, I am sitting on my patio. I have moved the table so that I have a view of the garden, including the hummingbird and seed feeders. Right now there are six or eight birds on the feeder or below it on the ground--house finches, goldfinches, sparrows. For the past hour, three hummingbirds have been engaged in epic skirmishes, chasing each other from the feeder again and again--and also performing mock strafing missions over the head of Sugar Plum, my tiny tailless black cat who stalks the yard until one of the Pomeranians sees her and barks excitedly, sending her scurrying back to the sanctuary of the house. I could watch these antics play out all day... plus the Phoebes and other insects plucking bugs from the corn stalks and eating them... and the doves who show up to eat the sunflower seeds the other birds knock to the ground... and the mated pair of ravens who stop by to drink from the bird bath about midday. See? It's all too entertaining. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go lock myself in a closet so I can get some writing done.