Of The Hill

A day of life at a small patch of ground in California.

I wrote this story about a patch of land we own in Northern California a while back but never published it. Unfortunately we didn’t quite make it through the recent round of fires and lost some of what we have built up there. I’ve been thinking a lot about this place that has been so meaningful to me for so many years, worrying about how it will change, and coming to accept that change is part of the place. This captures some of what that meaning has been for me. My concern is fleeting enough however; the land will be fine, the nature of the place will come back, and we will be back up there enjoying the place again–perhaps in a new way–soon enough.

There is an oak tree to the northwest of my bed in Pope Valley–a tall, gaunt Blue Oak–that tells time. Each morning, the top-most branch, reaching up to the sky like a finger, glows as the sun works its way to it. The first knuckle of the branch-finger lights up as the sun rises over the range of hills to the east. The second knuckle’s illumination is about where I often wake up. But some mornings my internal clock beats it, and I drowse in bed listening to everyone else that woke up before me.

My first companion in the morning is the Mourning Dove. Their coo-coo-ooo call is like light to my ears for how regularly they serenade the sunrise. Occasionally they alight from their perch with a squeaky flap that seems to wake up the other birds.

The most vocal of the early risers is the Acorn Woodpecker, perhaps the least-serious of all birds. Their call, sometimes a trilling purr, but just as often a laughing “Wakka-wakka-wakka” is only half as silly as their clown-painted faces, with a slicked back shock of red hair and graphic black and white faces. I’ve found their good humor to be a positive start to the morning, reminding me that there are always things worth laughing at in this world. I can just see them in the trees from my bed, they jump from the branches and fall a few feet before flying, the slapstick moment contributing further to their jester-like reputation.

In the autumn, the first light on the oak tree is accompanied by the turkeys, all puffed up and magisterial. The tom leads his flock, strutting and preening for no one in particular; he’s the only male around. The hens clump near him with their more more plain appearance, scratching and pecking at the ground. There is always at least one hen out of the group, the drogue, taking up the rear or perhaps the outcast. These birds are latecomers to the area, while Turkey is native to North America, California was not part of their range. These came from Texas in the 1870s and have since thrived like the rest of us transplants. While the hens make a little noise in their transit past my bed, the tom chortles and squabbles possessively as he passes in case I'm interested in one of his ladies.

The Robins sing like opera divas, and the California Quail’s alert pierces the morning while running wildly across the path next to us. The Mocking Bird has a lot to say but can’t seem to keep his mind on any one topic. The Finch’s feet scrabble and scrape on the roof and window frames as they forage for something in the morning dew.

But amongst all of the birds, the most useful one is the Scrub Jay. I’ll admit that I find their call a little grating, but as the tree lights up further and further down like a gnarly, natural sun-dial, the Jay indicates the temperature. It seems that the hotter the day is going to be, the earlier the Jay starts his interminable squawking. Pope Valley’s natural, noisy thermometer.

When the light hits the bottom of the branches, six feet off of the ground where we have pruned to prevent them as fire ladders, it's time to get up. But some in camp still slumber. While the sun is in the tree tree it hasn’t yet reached the valley below us and there still is a 200 foot thick tendril of fog 100 feet beneath our camp. The fog is like a creek in the sky, running above the currently dry Pope Creek that created this valley. I know I have gotten up too late if the fog-creek has drained back out of the valley. The remnant fog is another indicator of what the heat will be like today–the earlier the departure, the hotter the day.

The best place to watch the fog melt is from one of the property’s older oaks on a little knoll just above camp. We have a little swinging bench mounted in one of its branches that looks out over a prospect of the whole valley. Frank Lloyd Wright said “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it.” From where I sit these mornings, I can see our camp below me with the valley providing depth and the range behind supporting me like a chair back, and I most fully understand his point: “being of the hill”.

The tree with the swing is likely pushing 200 years of age, topping out at nearly 60 feet. It seems like it shouldn’t be standing anymore, growing like an odd bit of modern yard art with a cantilevered 12 inch thick branch shooting straight out from its trunk and running 25 feet away. Its trunk strains against the weight and leans the whole tree in the opposite direction. But, while it seems off balance to me it appears to have found a comfortable home here.

This land is a Blue Oak woodland with trees scattered widely amongst Chaparral and Manzanita in open grassland. These trees are some of the last old growth forests left in California. Saved from the axe because they’re not useful trees. Sometimes the Blue Oak is called Iron Wood for its highly figured cross grain that makes it a monster to split or mill into anything workable. It makes a great dense firewood that burns for a long time, releasing the carbon that it collected over hundreds of years more slowly than its faster growing friends. Will the only old growth trees we have left be the “useless” ones? The gnarled, the hard, the oddball? Perhaps we must Keep Our Forests Weird to hide in plain sight from those seeking usefulness…

These mornings are best spent ranging through your senses. Spending time just noticing things, hearing the birds change throughout the morning like shift workers. If its hot, the sweet smell of the grasses and wild grains warming. If it is cold, the smell of the fire pit from last night still smoldering with a bit of the distinctive scent of Blue Oak smoke. If it has rained, the sound of the creek behind us or down below in the valley running, if it is dry the clicking and popping sound of brittle wild oats as their empty husks heat up.

While there is an old road that traces the ridge–bisecting the property and useful for cars–we have tried to create a network of footpaths, to better connect with the land. Before we started building, we looked where the deer went; they’re lazy–or smart–enough creatures that they tend to find the easiest path between two points. Those deer trails–some very well defined by generations of hooves–made for an easy starting point to cut better trails. We tried to wind between trees and near rock outcroppings, but of course wherever we deviated from the “natural” path the deer just kept up their shortcuts, possibly wondering what kind of creature would waste so much energy meandering around like that.

Our hill is called Sweet Rock, for reasons both silly and meaningful. The escarpment that punctuates the top of the property is indeed a pretty “sweet rock”, running 500 feet in a narrow spine, like a partially buried creature slowly weathering back into the open. But the hill is also made primarily of Jasper, a reddish stone full of iron and made from the remains of a near-infinite number of creatures that fell to the bottom of a lost sea. This stone takes many forms here: picture jasper, that has white lines criss-crossed through it sometimes called writing stone because it looks like characters have been etched into it, or the nearly factory-produced-brick-like blocks of it that have sheared off from the monolith that are perfect for dry stacked walls. Much of it decomposing or weathering into smaller chunks or flakes that shatter easily while on their slow journey of turning into clay. That stone can decompose is a true surprise to the mind which struggles to conceive of the timescales of rocks. 

This idea, that stone is in a constant–if infinitesimally slow–state of movement, is written on the hillsides as well. Our hill is perched above Pope Creek, carved from it in fact. But if you were to speed up the film, to show us a million years per minute, you would see that our valley is almost like sand, the water rushes through, cutting a deep trench. Our steep valley walls–purely temporary–slump back down into the creek, and so it is back at normal speed, with the valley walls creeping down the hill. One of those slumps we call The Bowl, a large round depression that sprinted towards the creek sometime before our arrival, where it came to at least a temporary rest. It is always a little cooler at the bottom of the bowl as the air slinks down towards the creek, drawn to the lower pressure, cooler air of the lake. One of our trails, between the camp and the Outlook of Sweet Rock, wanders across the bottom of the depression and it’s slight coolness is always welcome in summer.

Partway along the middle ridge of the property, overlooking the Bowl, is an outcropping of rock that we call The Cairn. It can be a foreboding place, feeling like a ruin, with a hollow center and high walls around you. You can enter it only from one side and once you are in, you are surrounded. It seems like a fine ambush spot for a mountain lion, or some other creature leveraging surprise. The cairn is craggy, and as the stone further decomposes, trees make residence where they can. A Ghost Pine, one of our more pitiful-looking but resilient trees, takes up the top-most position, it’s roots completely ensconced in the rock. Like reverse petrification, the tree is slowly displacing the stone. 

Ghost Pines are scraggly, grayish, sparse creatures that go by many names: Grey Pine, Foothill Pine, Nut Pine, but Ghost seems most appropriate, for it’s almost ethereal whisper of foliage, and always looking as though it is near death. Another tree without immediately clear modern uses, but it was integral in the indigenous ecosystem. The giant pine cones weigh in at almost 2 lbs and are full of sweet pine nuts that were a common food for those willing to fight the squirrels for them, and unlike acorns, they can be eaten raw. The ghost pine also has very long needles that come in three’s and are 10-12 inches long which make them excellent for basket making. Nowadays, they aren’t particularly beloved, as they can’t even really be used for firewood due to their high concentration of sap and pitch, but that sap was a vital medicine for the local people, supposedly a good cure for arthritis. These trees remind me that usefulness is a perspective and that value is always relative to time and place. And why must everything be useful to me? Productivity is a poor diet for a robust and interesting world.

The Cairn is also one of the homes to another member of our nursery, the California Buckeye. The buckeye often seems to live on a different schedule than everyone else, abandoning the summer before it really gets started. But like all of the natives on this hill, it is perfectly attuned to the Mediterranean climate here. It is one of the first trees to green up in the late winter and early spring, having learned to show up when the water is actually plentiful. Its large bright green leaves are a welcome sign, and its white flowers dot the hillsides. But by the time the oats start to pop, the buckeye has taken on a desiccated quality as that winter water seeps back out of the tree into the dry summer air.

There are a few small Blue Oaks growing in the cairn–in the teenage years of their lives, gangly and not yet filled in–that also provide homes to Oak Mistletoe. This native version of the more commonly known European version looks quite similar, with deep green leaves and bright white berries. Parasites tend to get a bad rap by us humans, but aren’t we all parasitic in a way? The mistletoe taps into the tree to get water and some of its nutrients, but how different from that are we, tapping trees for nuts and syrup?

The Blue Oaks here in particular are hardy trees, evolved to survive in a very tough climate. Their leaves covered in a waxy build-up to prevent them transpiring their hard-earned moisture too soon. They grow slowly and live a long life, but even the best of them come down eventually, sometimes from lighting strikes, sometimes by some other mortal damage that lets water infiltrate the inner sanctum of the tree. Once that core fails, it is only a matter of time before the tree comes down. But the wood of this tree is incredibly hard, and they can last a surprisingly long time with just a tentative shell holding up the whole doomed creature. Once or twice a year–no matter where we are on the property–we hear a booming crack, echoing across the land, as one of those ill fated trees gives up the ghost. The cracking the sound of hard dense wood shattering, and the boom the sound of tens of thousands of pounds of solid sunlight hitting the ground. 

This land, at least in semi-modern terms, was never prime territory or “home” to anyone but rather shared borderlands for many different groups. We are just out of the home territories of the Central Wappo (or Micewal People), the Lake Miwok, and the Hill Patwin (or Wintun), and this land was often used as a shared hunting ground while the more fertile valleys to the east and west were claimed more directly. I rarely take a step (outside of the most well-tread areas) where I don’t consider if someone else has stepped here before. For a moment I wonder what this land might have been like 500 years ago, only to realize that aside from the fences and the meager additions we have made, it would have looked almost exactly the same. I wonder what they might have called the features of the land? Did they feel the same about The Cairn?

In the less flammable months, we cook outside. Preparing and cooking out over fire is a true joy, and not just for pyromaniacal reasons, it is a kind of performance that draws your fellow diners into the act. A fire encourages everyone to cook–to participate. We make a bread, that in the winter months often has to be kept in our laps under a blanket to get it to rise, passing the dough from person to person like an egg we are trying to nurture. We have pit roasted, placing our food on hot coals underground, digging it out together, finding out if it is perfectly cooked or a little charred or raw together. We sit around the fire pit eating, drinking and considering throwing one more thing on the fire; the kitchen that never quits.

But fire is–of course–another side of this land. Recently we have seen almost endlessly devastating wildfires raging out of control. It is in our nature–as makers of places, owners of land, collectors of things, investors–to reflexively deny fire, to turn our backs on it, to treat it as a force that shouldn’t exist in our modern world. But fire cannot be denied, only delayed. Even before the world warmed, fire visited us, clearing the brush and downed trees, adding everything but nitrogen to the soil. The trees and vegetation on this land have learned to live with fire, especially regular fires that move quickly through the savannah. 

Normally I wouldn’t worry too much about the impact of fires on wildlife, as they have evolved to deal with it as well as the land has, but animals have shorter memories than trees, and they have fewer options to protect themselves in a land that has been carved up with roads, houses, dams, fences, and anxious, scared people. We have game cameras throughout the property and after every big fire in the area, we see our most shy friends, the black bears, the mountain lions, the bobcats, along with everyone else, making their way to safety along the convenient ridge road of our property. Where they go I’m never sure, but I hope they find somewhere safe, this place would be greatly worn down without bears and big cats.

Modern American fire prevention is generally powered by cash; cash deployed against the value of an expensive Californian home, or a costly rare-vine grape operation. But our land–like many of our trees and creatures–isn’t valuable in this modern American sense. It’s beloved-uselessness requires that we take a different approach, a more natural path that doesn’t try to fight the inevitable with giant water tanks, constant weed eating, jumbo jets full of fire-retardant, private fire departments or prison labor. There is a degree of acceptance living here, a sense that nothing is permanent, but when has anything been permanent when even the rocks here are on the move? This land is built for fire; but not us, we have forgotten how to live with fire. 

There are very few places left in the world where you are in total darkness, and given our proximity to several cities we are not one of them, but we are fairly removed from the electrical grid and artificial illumination and we are at least uncommonly dark. The skies here are absolutely crowded with fire of another kind, the Milky Way, constellations, planets, comets, asteroids, satellites, all jostling for attention. It takes only a few evenings to come to know the sky, to learn how to address the shapes that we know as constellations. Over time we’ve sought out other cultures names for some of these constellations, or made up our own, The Space Weasel (Castor and Pollux of Gemini), Night Cat, The Whirlpool, The Male Revolving One (The Navajo version of the Big Dipper). But it’s the Milky Way that is particularly stunning up here, wallpapered across the full width of the summer sky. You can make out such detail, realizing that it’s not a cloud you’re looking at but billions of tiny dots, each one a sun.

When we spend regular amounts of time up here, the night sky becomes my alarm clock at the other end of the day. At different times of the year, I recognize when Orion is at the horizon as time to clean up after dinner. When Gemini is just past the the top-most branch of the oak tree by the kitchen it’s time to start packing up for bed. I settle in, considering the projects for the next day, this is the most quiet part of the day, everyone else is tucking themselves in for the night as well. Preparing to wake up and do it all again.