July is just around the bend of our country road. Up here at the 4000-foot elevation, we're under an umbrella of tall pines, and it's the hard start of fire season. Some of you might remember that we were evacuated last fall when the Caldor Fire threatened thousands of homes throughout our niche of the Sierra. When we returned, we confronted evidence of how close the fire came to our quiet neighborhood that's home to more trees than people.
Powdery ash dusted our property. Black orbs the size of golfballs were scattered on our deck – large cinders from the fire that had flown on the wind and landed – many carrying live embers. We pictured them floating onto our roof, our 100-foot-tall cedars, and landing on wooden decks – each one carrying a spark. But still, we were safe and only facing some cleanup and repairs.
We live across the street from a winding trail through the forest that leads to a much-loved lake and recreation area. None of the sprawling hillside has been thinned for fire safety. Many nearby neighbors ignore the call to make properties 'hardened' for fire. And there are so many acres of public lands that it's not humanly possible for crews to thin and treat it all.
After the evacuation was lifted, many families listened to the siren's call and put their homes on the market. The fear of losing homes and possessions propelled them out of the mountains to the relative safety of lower elevations. We never considered leaving, and I want to tell you a bit about why.
It's well after dark, and I'm out in our backyard looking up at an inky sky that glitters with rhinestone stars. The Milky Way stretches above me in an arc – like a road that might lead to another world beyond my imagination. On the southern horizon, I see a golden moon, its peaks and valleys etched like a topo map floating in space. It's deeply quiet; even the birds are nested down and waiting for dawn. I remember the last evening we'd spent in the valley – dining outdoors with a friend. Walking back to our car, my husband and I looked up. Not one star to be seen in an artificially illuminated sky, and the moon was a sickly pale version of the one that hovers over our mountain home.
The next morning we leash up two supremely excited small dogs and walk a winding route through our neighborhood. Homes are built on large lots – mostly a third to a half-acre. Pine trees stand like sentinels, giving people a sense of privacy and freedom. It's a hilly path that gives us a couple miles of exercise and a chance to breathe in sweet, clean mountain air. I remember stopping to give my buddy Murphy a chance to sniff at pine duff that clearly indicated the presence of something fascinating – like a squirrel or a coyote, skunk, rabbit, or a flock of wild turkeys. I listened to the sound of – nothing. No planes in the sky, TVs blaring, machines running. We walked our two miles and didn't once encounter a car driving on the street. It was quiet, like the breath of a sleeping infant.
Home to breakfast with a small table that looks out on a vacant, treed lot and a street that carries more
walkers than cars. From this ground-level watch tower, we're entertained daily by a wide variety of birds and fat squirrels whose visits are encouraged with full feeders. Occasionally, we glimpse a special critter like deer or an eagle. There are also mountain lions and brown bears that prowl mostly at night. And this year, I had a ringside seat to magic. Two Steller Jays built a nest of twigs under the eave, atop a drain pipe above our kitchen window. I watched them make repeated trips until it was time to sit. The female warmed the eggs, and the male flew back and forth with food for his mate and extra twigs to add to the nursery. A few weeks later, when mom and pop were gone, I spotted two tiny yellow beaks popping up from the rubble nest. And day by day, I saw more of them until one morning, they stood up on spindly legs, flapped their tiny wings, and made me happy for the rest of the day. Within a week, the nest was empty, and I started spotting the youngsters at my feeders, their new feathers shining like blue lapis in the sun.
Some days, we take longer hikes – out our front door, across the street, and down the steep hill. The path we walk leads to Jenkinson Lake, a beautiful spot that's serene on weekdays and bustling with campers on weekends. But our path is a local secret and always quiet. Weeks ago, we heard a rumbling down in the ravine that abuts the path, where a tiny stream runs in the springtime. A chocolate-brown bear was scampering up the hill on the far side, eager to escape from humans and schnauzers. On another hike to the lake, a large red fox made an Olympic leap across our path and vanished into the woods.
These everyday occasions and personal moments with Mother Nature explain why so many of us remain in our mountain homes, despite a close encounter with her most lethal weapon. It's the sounds, the lack of sounds, the being snowed-in with a woodfire for comfort, watching dogwood trees explode with blossoms, finding the damp footprint of a mountain lion in the morning. It's a silent agreement to accept both the blessings and the perils of our chosen environment.
Thanks for being with me as we travel times good and not-so-good together. I appreciate and value your attention. Please contact me with your responses and ideas - I love hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org !
.... And I want to share an exciting update about the bronze monument I'm making to honor the Heroes of the Caldor Fire - I'm working with a fundraising platform to raise some $$ over the summer to pay my foundry costs - So I'll be including a link to that ongoing effort ....
(C) Darby Lee Patterson
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