Posts Tagged ‘fruit trees’

Strangely Early

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

All that you ask of me tw

All That You Ask Of Me painting by Nolan Winkler

“The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.”  Mary Roberts Rinehart

One of the great pleasures of living in this rural area is that many of my neighbors and friends are avid observers of the natural world. And so in early August when I began sharing my observations that maple trees and fruit trees and blackberry bushes here on the coast in Mendocino were behaving as if it was late September, many folks concurred with similar observations about the local foliage and fruit.

In reading about climate change, I have come upon a number of reports by credible scientists suggesting that those physical indications of what we used to associate with fall—leaves changing colors, fruit ripening, colder nights—will henceforth become much less predictable in terms of when they manifest. Thus fall may come in summer, spring may come in winter, summer in spring, and…will we have a winter this year in California?

That’s an interesting question. We just had our first relatively wet winter in the last five years courtesy of a huge El Niño. The long-running drought in California and throughout the Southwest was barely dented by the glorious but not excessive precipitation. Here in Mendocino, where our aquifers are not directly dependent on Sierra snow, our water supply was much improved.

Now, however, the National Weather Service is reporting a formidable La Niña taking hold in the Pacific. Given this dramatic cooling of the ocean waters, what do the precipitation maps recently released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association say will be coming California’s way in the months of October, November, December, January, February, March, and April?

Not to be an alarmist, but NOAA’s maps indicate that California’s rainfall for those seven months will be Nada. Nothing. Zilch.

Oh what do they know? Well, actually NOAA has been highly accurate in predicting precipitation in California over the last decade, and if these predictions are even close to being accurate, the state of California will soon be gripped by a disaster of epic proportions. And what about right here in Mendocino? According to those NOAA precipitation maps, we are facing disaster, too.

There is a possibility, of course, that Mendocino may receive more precipitation than those NOAA maps suggest, if, and it is a big if, some of the storms predicted for Oregon and Washington extend far enough south to douse us, too. Then our aquifers might be somewhat replenished and the scope of the local disaster somewhat diminished.

Then again, given that no one expected August to be October this year, maybe several massive storms will unexpectedly dump thirty inches of rain on us in November and December. Stranger things have happened. Yes, this is wishful thinking, but wishful thinking may be the best response to a climate verging on chaos and another year of drought looming

“One has to fear everything—or nothing.” Jean Giraudoux

I recently broke my self-imposed ban on listening to or reading any news of the great big world outside Mendocino County. I turned on the radio and caught the end of National Pentagon Radio’s daily news program Only A Narrow Spectrum Of Reality Distorted For Your Consideration.

There were two young women talking to each other about this year’s crop of summer movies. I listened for a moment and decided this must be a special feature of the news program encouraging people of extremely limited intelligence to share their incredibly simplistic ideas with a national audience—some sort of diversity-enhancing show to end the doctored news on a folksy note. In any case, I couldn’t bear to listen and turned off the radio.

Then my curiosity got the better of me, and having remembered the names of the two women, I fired up my computer and did a little research and discovered that one of the women is a regular host of Only A Narrow Spectrum Of Reality Distorted For Your Consideration, and the other woman is that esteemed program’s regular movie critic. And because August is now October, I was not surprised.

“There are three things to do in dealing with a crisis—search for the guilty, punish the innocent, promote the incompetent.” Louis Goldman

Once upon a time there were billions of humans on earth and the biosphere began to disintegrate under the pressure of their personal and collective habits. And so there came a time when much of the earth became uninhabitable and nearly all those billions of humans perished along with many other living things. However, some of those humans survived, and here and there on the earth, plants and animals and sea life began to thrive again. After several thousand years of recovery, the biosphere was healed and the earth a verdant paradise once more.

But humans were no longer the dominant species on earth. Something had changed in their nature during the holocaust of biosphere collapse and they never again aspired to anything more than growing vegetables and fruit, catching fish, making and wearing comfortable clothing and footwear, singing, dancing, telling stories, and traveling hither and yon on foot or in canoes. Since there were no roads or sidewalks, skateboards did not make a comeback. No human possessed any more or any less than any other human, and the few times someone invented a weapon deadlier than a bow and arrows or someone built an engine requiring the burning of fossil fuels, such weapons and engines were ceremoniously destroyed and the inventors required to undergo extensive psychotherapy and live naked for seven years surviving on roots, berries, and small mammals caught by singing enticing songs, after which they were re-integrated into society and allowed to resume wearing comfortable clothing and footwear.

Thus the earth continued to spin on her axis and speed around the sun for a hundred million more years until the Cosmic Metamorphosis began and…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

Late Spring

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

36 and Counting site

36 & COUNTING painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2015)

“No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.” Hal Borland

Nature brought us a treat two weeks ago, a young doe, resident to these woods we own a small part of, sauntered by the north-facing windows followed by two tiny fawns, their smallness amplifying their cuteness. Since then, the doe and her fawns have returned several times, the two babies larger each time, their movements ever more graceful and assured.

A couple days ago, I went strolling in our woods and unwittingly surprised the doe and fawns, the little ones leaping away with astonishing agility and speed, their mother standing between me and them and giving me a look that said, “My nest is near, please don’t come any closer.”

I think I know where her nest is, in a dense copse of thirty-year-old redwoods on the edge of our property, but I will not go looking there and risk permanently scaring her away. We made a decision when we bought this place to leave the land on the north side of our house as wild as can be so the deer and other critters will want to hang out there, and so far that seems to be the case.

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.” Pablo Neruda

On the same day we first saw the fawns, I was sitting in my very high chair at my very high desk at which I sometimes stand to work, when something out my south-facing window caught the corner of my eye, and before I could turn to see what it was my brain fired off the word kitten, for the thing was small and gray and moving with the uneven gait of a baby cat just learning to trot. However, the thing was not a baby cat, but a baby opossum, and though I would not call the adult version of that animal cute, this baby was hella cute, compact and fluffy, the nose already Durante-like in proportion to the body, the tail just getting going in its growth to becoming long and thick, the little animal still more kitten-like than rat-like as are the adults, rat-like in a Dr. Seuss sort of way.

My enjoyment at seeing the baby opossum immediately turned to fear for the baby because our cat Django is a large, persistently hungry, skilled and ruthless killer of baby mammals, especially baby rabbits and baby rats, and I imagined this tiny marsupial would be just Django’s cup of tea, so to speak. So I leapt from my chair and dashed into the living room where I found the voracious beast sound asleep on his tuffet, and I breathed a sigh of relief, though the fact is opossum are a scourge of my vegetable garden, rooting as they do for earthworms in the well-nurtured soil. Go get him, Django!

“Spring being a tough act to follow, God created June.” Al Bernstein

We had a foggy cold May, germination in my vegetable garden pathetic, the baby plants remaining nascent and wimpy for weeks on end from lack of sunlight and warmth—neighbors and friends pale and gloomy and cranky and depressed. Humans, clearly, are solar-powered. Don’t forget to take your Vitamin D.

On the first of June I flipped the pages on our two wall calendars, and as if the weather spirits had been waiting for the name of the month to change, the fog vanished and the sun came out and has been out every day since then—our baby vegetables waking from their suspended animation and stretching their fog-beleaguered limbs to the great giver of life to say, “What took you so long?”

Now every day is like waking to the next frame of a time-lapse nature movie, tomato plants doubling in size overnight, dormant perennials bursting forth with colorful blooms, hummingbirds zipping around the garden in blissful hysteria, zealous bees working the clover, everybody making up for lost time— neighbors and friends rosy and cheerful and kind and effervescent, the gals in the post office giggling, the bank tellers ebullient, the high school girls half-naked again after a month of suffering under hoodies and leggings.

“Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love!” Sitting Bull

We denizens of Mendocino are used to fog and long stretches of foggy days, but May is not usually a foggy month here, not in the nine years I’ve lived here, and not in the experience of several old timers I queried about the odd weather. But one longtime resident, a student of redwood ecology, suggested that our especially foggy May was a reaction to the continuing drought and extreme heat gripping inland California.

To paraphrase him: there have been many droughts in the last several thousand years, some lasting decades and possibly centuries, yet the redwood forests survived. How did they do that without much rain? They survived because of fog, which is what occurs vastly and persistently when hot dry inland air meets the cooler moister ocean air. Redwoods steep in the fog that refreshes their thirsty foliage and coalesces into drops that fall into the spongy duff or trickle down the trunks into the root masses.

Does this mean many more foggy days lie ahead, more than usual? Will May be a foggy month again next year as the great drought persists? We shall see. In the meantime, June is doing a splendid imitation of May, the blackberry bushes between here and town are so dense with blossoms I can already taste the blackberry jam we’ll make from the bounty, and the apple trees seem to have enjoyed cool foggy May, their branches full of young fruit. Still, the ground is perilously dry and we will want to water our younger fruit trees deeply a couple times this summer if we can possibly spare the water.

Funny

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

groovity-poster

Incongroovity painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“While thou livest, keep a good tongue in thy head.” William Shakespeare

We were having supper with friends recently, and somehow the conversation came around to Shakespeare and the news that a number of American universities have dropped the Bard entirely from their lists of required courses for English majors. And the question was asked, “Why should Shakespeare be required reading for English majors in this age of tweeting and texting and unedited garbage topping the bestseller lists and the English language disintegrating faster than the earth is warming?

Then someone mentioned seeing Denzel Washington as Brutus in a horrendous Broadway production of Julius Caesar, a smash hit because Denzel was in the play, though his delivery of Shakespeare’s lines elicited snickers and giggles from his adoring audience throughout the hilarious (not) play—as if there was something kind of cute about a famous movie star butchering Shakespeare. Tee hee.

And that reminded me of a favorite joke about Hollywood: an enormously successful movie star, famed for his roles in bloody senseless car chase thriller detective sci-fi 3-D blockbusters in which he kills and has sex with ruthless efficiency and speaks his few lines with terse tough guy bravado, grows weary of pundits saying he can’t act his way out of a paper bag. So at the height of his wealth and fame, he spends a large part of his fortune and builds a fabulous state-of-the-art theatre in Los Angeles and announces to the world that he is going to play the role of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a supporting cast of brilliant British actors and actresses.

The much anticipated opening night finally arrives, the audience composed of celebrities and critics and drooling fans, and our handsome hero takes the stage and surprises everyone by speaking more than ten words without shooting someone. But the surprise soon turns to horror as the Bard’s poetic lines are clearly too much for the superstar’s untrained tongue (not to mention his leaden ear) and when he launches into the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, the giggles and snickers turn to booing and hissing, and finally the superstar stops mid-monologue, stalks to the front of the stage, and shouts at the belligerent crowd, “Hey, I didn’t write this shit.”

“Experts always know everything but the fine points. When I took my citizenship exams, no one there knew how the White House came to be called the White House.” Hedy Lamarr

One of my great pleasures is pruning fruit trees that have been properly cared for. Alas, that is not the sort of task I am most frequently asked to undertake. No, most homeowners for whom fruit trees are beautiful adornments to their gardens and the occasional providers of fruit, tend to let their trees grow untamed for years or decades before finally realizing something must be done if those trees are ever to be anything more than gigantic wild shrubs; and those are the jobs I enjoy the least and do the most.

For instance, a neighbor called a few days ago and said, “I’m having a guy come to take care of my old apple tree and my old plum tree, and I’m wondering if you could come over and give him some tips. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s a good worker and he has a chain saw.”

“Did you want me to prune…”

“No, I just want you to tell him how to do it.”

As a pruner of trees and an editor of manuscripts for forty-odd years (emphasis on odd) I have come to think of the two disciplines as closely related sciences, and my neighbor wanting to employ my pruning expertise gratis reminded me of myriad acquaintances who have called me over the years and said, “I’ve got this article (or poem or story or novel or memoir) I think you’ll enjoy and I’m wondering if you’d like to give it a quick look and tell me what you think.”

“Did you want to hire me to…”

“No, I just thought you might enjoy giving it a quick once over and telling me what you think. Shouldn’t take long.”

So, yes, I have grown a bit weary of people thinking the things I do for a living are not really forms of work, but rather semi-skillful kinds of goofing around. Imagine calling your plumber and saying, “Hey, Joe, I’ve got a busted pipe I think you’ll find unique in the annals of plumbing and thought you might enjoy fixing it, you know, for free. Just for the fun and novelty of it. Shouldn’t take more than a day or so.”

Nevertheless…picture a massive apple tree with a trunk three feet in diameter out of which are growing seven massive arms, each arm a foot in diameter and thirty-feet-long, out of which are growing dozens of huge branches out of which are growing hundreds of lesser branches growing so thickly there is almost no space between any of them resulting in many of the branches being dead and dying for lack of sun and air.

Now picture an equally massive plum tree, the central trunk of which stands twenty feet away from the central trunk of the apple tree, and imagine that many branches of both gargantuan trees have grown entangled with each other to such an extent that the two trees appear to be a single organism composed of ten thousand interconnected branches employing every ounce of their energy to strangle each other. And imagine that these two trees are standing in what thirty years ago was a meadow surrounded by fledgling redwoods and fir trees that have grown into towering sun-blocking behemoths causing the plum and apple to send up twenty-foot-long suckers in a desperate attempt to access the ever shrinking supply of sunlight.

My heart went out to those two sorely neglected trees, and though I wasn’t being paid for my labor, I decided to do the job and save the old beauties. So I began directing the good fellow with his dull chain saw to cut here and there as I wielded my razor sharp Japanese pole saw, and after a couple hours of excising masses of mostly dead wood we nearly had the two old giants separated. Then, with but one more massive arm of the apple tree left to remove in order to complete the separating of the trees, my neighbor said to me, “I can see you really are an expert at this.”

As a Buddhist teacher once told me, “Beware how easily the rocket ship of ego may be launched.”

Puffed up by my neighbor’s praise, I signaled for the chain saw man to make that last cut. He did so. And for a moment of brilliant clarity the two trees stood apart, and I saw just how I would sculpt each one into a state of arboreal perfection and…

A loud cracking sound gave us scant warning to Get Out of The Way as the massive apple tree came crashing to earth, the old girl having been held aloft for who knows how many years by the deep-rooted plum. In a state of shock and awe and suppressed hilarity, I went to view the root mass of the apple tree and discovered that this colossus, a tree as big as a house, had virtually no root mass at all.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to my neighbor.

“Lots of good firewood,” said the guy with the chainsaw. “Most of it already seasoned.”

My neighbor, clearly deranged by the unexpected denouement said, “Let’s just leave things the way they are and see what happens in the spring.”

“The secret to humor is surprise.” Aristotle

Long ago, I was a teacher’s aide at a Palo Alto day care center for children aged two to five. All but three of our thirty children were from single-mother families, thus the three fathers who occasionally came to pick up their kids were looked upon with awe and wonder by the twenty-seven fatherless children, and I was unique among the teachers (pronounced teachoos by most of the kids) for being male.

One of the three children with a father in the familial mix was Damien, an incredibly cute three-year-old who was not yet talking. Our highly analytical director informed us that Damien’s frustration about not being able to speak, and therefore not being understood, might manifest in a tendency to bite other children, and we should be vigilant about averting such outbursts of oral aggression. Damien may have been a child of no words, but he was a fantastic mime, and his imitations of the postures and movements and facial expressions of the teachoos were the source of daily hilarity among the children.

I suspected that Damien could talk but chose not to for whatever advantages he felt that gave him. In any case, he did not speak aloud within earshot of any of the teachers, and so I related to him as a child who, for the time being, did not talk.

Two of the many recurrent tasks of a parent or teacher of wee tykes are the tying of shoes and the connecting and zipping of zippers, skills most children don’t master until they reach their late threes or older. Thus when we would prepare the kids for going outside on cold days, many laces had to be tied and many zippers zipped. One winter morning, as I knelt before the diminutive Damien and struggled to properly engage the recalcitrant zipper of his jacket, Damien looked down at my fumbling fingers, and in pitch perfect imitation of his father said, “Jive ass turkey zippah.”

Old Pot Folks

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

(This story first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2011)

“How’s your back?” asks Marvin, handing me cash for pruning his fruit trees.

“Pretty good,” I say, lifting my ladder into the back of my pickup.

“Mine’s all fucked up,” he murmurs, looking away. “Can’t lift a damn thing.”

“You need something lifted? I’m good up to fifty pounds.”

“Well,” he says, fidgeting. “I…the thing is…” He frowns. “You want to earn a quick hundred?”

“How quick?” I say, looking at my watch. “I have a couple big apples to get done before dark.”

“Half an hour,” he says, nodding. “Hour at the most.”

“I charge forty an hour for pruning, so…”

“This isn’t pruning,” he says, taking a deep breath. “This is pot.”

“You have a prescription?”

“Two,” he says, beckoning me to follow him. “One for me and one for Candy. Need to empty the old mix and fill the pots with new stuff, but the bags…”

So I follow him to the house where Candy appears on the front porch and shields her eyes from what I don’t know since the sun is hidden behind dark clouds. Candy is seventy-two, petite, with shoulder-length gray hair and a penchant for long skirts and mono-colored long-sleeved shirts. She sometimes wears a brilliant red tie, which sets her apart from the other hippie gals. Marvin is a heavyset seventy-four with bristly white hair, a wearer of suspenders and a smoker of an enviable manzanita pipe. Candy is a batik artist and calligrapher, Marvin a retired carpenter.

“Would you care for some tea?” asks Candy, her accent faintly British. “My sister just sent us some fabulous Darjeeling.”

“He’s in a hurry,” says Marvin, obviously uncomfortable about involving me in their agricultural enterprise. “Can you show him what to do? I gotta take a pain pill and lie down.”

So it is Candy who leads me to the grow house, a well-insulated single-room shed about twelve-feet square, with walls and ceiling covered with aluminum foil to reflect the light of several grow lamps. Twenty black plastic five-gallon pots crowd the floor; the plants having been recently harvested so only a little stump remains in the center of each pot.

“To start, if you’ll empty this old mix into the wheelbarrow and take it out to the compost pile,” says Candy, smiling brightly, “that would be a great help.”

“Where would I find your wheelbarrow?”

“Oh, sorry,” she says, hurrying away. “I’ll get it.”

But she only goes about twenty feet before she turns back to me and says plaintively, “Would you mind getting it? My sciatica…”

I follow her to the garage where the big old wheelbarrow sits beside their big old station wagon, the back of the wagon loaded with large colorfully illustrated plastic bags of organic grow mix concocted in Humboldt County.

“Marvin tried to unload these, but his back…” She laughs gaily. “We’re helpless.”

“How long have you been growing pot?” I ask on our way back to the shed with the wheelbarrow.

“Well,” she says, “we always used to grow a plant or two down by the spring, you know, for ourselves and friends, but we didn’t start doing this whole indoor thing until four years ago when I got laid off at the gallery and we didn’t have enough money to pay our property taxes. Our daughter helped us get started. It was this or lose the place, so…”

Three trips in fifteen minutes from shed to compost pile takes care of the twenty stubby cylinders of compacted root-bound soil; and Candy has me hack up the cylinders with a shovel so they are not so obviously the aftermath of a grow. And it takes me another three trips and fifteen minutes to haul the big bags of grow mix from car to shed.

“These are certainly heavy,” I say, dragging the first bag to the mouth of the room where Candy is waiting to supervise the filling of the pots. “How do you guys do this if you can’t lift the bags?”

“Marvin’s always been able to get the bags here until last time,” she says, handing me a razor blade for slitting open the top of the bag. “But his back is terribly inflamed now, so last time we had to drag the bags out of the car and then cut them open in the garage and scoop enough for a pot at a time into the wheelbarrow, which was all we could lift, and even that killed us. Took forever and we were both wrecked for days after.” She laughs her musical laugh. “It’s insane, but we can’t think what else to do.”

One bag of the pot-specific ingredients fills four of the pots, and in another fifteen minutes I’ve got all the pots full and arranged as Candy wants them.

“You’re a godsend,” she says, giving my hand a squeeze as we walk to the house. “How much did Marvin say he’d pay you?”

“Forget it,” I say. “Glad to help.”

“Oh, but…” She struggles to find the right words. “We would very much like you to help us again. In about two months? Could you? We don’t really know anybody else we can trust.” She laughs. “That is, anyone who can still pick up a fifty pound bag.”

“If you can’t find anybody else, give me a call.”

“Do you grow?” she asks, squinting at me.

“No.”

“Smoke? I’d be happy to…”

“No. I’m a reformed addict, so…”

“Me, too,” she confides. “Marvin smokes for his back, and it so helps him relax and sleep.”

“How do you sell the stuff?” I ask, smiling at the thought of Marvin and Candy consorting with shady characters driving BMWs.

“Our daughter,” says Candy, sighing. “She comes up from San Luis Obispo and helps us trim. We both have arthritis in our fingers, so it would take forever without her.”

“Can she lift a fifty-pound bag?”

“I doubt it,” says Candy, “and besides, the timing doesn’t work out.”

“So she pays you wholesale and takes the stuff back to southern California?”

“She drops some of it with somebody in San Francisco and sells the rest in Los Angeles.” Candy shrugs. “We are blissfully ignorant of the details and wish to remain so. Come in and say goodbye to Marvin before you go.”

We find Marvin in the living room, sprawled on the sofa, his pipe stuffed with glistening bud awaiting ignition. “I got all settled and forgot the matches,” he says, his voice suffused with pain. “Bring me one, sweetie?”

She fetches a match from the hearth and lights her husband’s pipe. He takes a deep hit, holds the smoke inside for a long time, and now, with a marvelous sigh of relief, releases a pungent cloud.

“So…how are the trees?” he asks, smiling at me. “Think we’ll get some plums?”

“The prognosis for plums this year is not good,” I report. “And that prognosis is not specific to your trees. The cold and rain this year coincided with most of the early blossoming, so…but we should have another prolific apple year.”

“You’ve resurrected our trees,” says Candy, putting a kettle on. “You’re sure you can’t stay for tea?”

“No, thanks,” I say, raising a hand in farewell. “A Fuji and a Golden Delicious await me.”

“Did you pay him?” asks Marvin, wincing at a sudden jolt of pain. “For…”

“Yes,” she says, winking slyly as she ushers me out the door. “And he said he’d help us again if we need him.”

“You’re an accomplice now,” says Marvin, closing his eyes. “Thanks so much.”