Oak Springs Ranch—just a little below Paradise
For Rick and Kim
Tonight, I listen to the sound of a friend’s car as it winds out of the canyon a few miles. When the car lights and sounds crest the canyon rim, the frogs singing from the pond and crickets control the night. The deck is open and the dogs hound off on some scent. Chico grumbles from the deck. This is a place of peace. I search often for such places good for my soul, usually where I can attune my attention towards the ecological. Mostly I like the ecotones of humans and nature, how we meld into it, manipulate it, improve it, destroy it, and alter it, usually all in the exact same place. As the dark covers the oak filled landscape, the goats and chickens are down for the night, even the bees and hummingbirds that gather at the feeders off the edge of the deck are gone now. Rick and Kimberley, who own the place, told me that turtles have taken up home in the pond now; they must have wondered up off the creek to discover it. How amazing for those turtles? Like travels to an alien landscape where something was re-created and it fit their needs just perfectly. They have an algae bloom right now in the pond; Kimberley said it has come and left now a few times. It is hard to say if that is natural, or what should be natural and why at this point. Maybe, the better question is about what harm it might do, why, and why it might be bad? Humans are the great disrupters of cycles; however, maybe it all is part of some larger scheme, not god-like, but geological and evolutionary. Maybe there isn’t a huge difference.
I set up my hammock on the open-air deck that sits about ten feet off the ground with views down the canyon. I have read that our Savannah brain desires long views. It gives us comfort and calm. I know Chico loves to perch and stare out, ready to bark at anything that might move. The two, redbone coonhounds run game trails all day long, treeing bobcats, pushing lions, in love with the jackrabbit, and lusting after raccoons. I am here for ten days, and trying to minimize my time in town. There is little I want right now, and even less that I need, if anything.
I am settling into my new town and new job, readying myself for teaching again. I love what I will be teaching. It is a class based on three major theories that merge into each other: identity, place, and communities. Theories made separate only by our mechanistic research minds. It seems to me we exist as separate individuals only in locations with other people. Even out here, in the remote loneliness of canyon walls, I exist in connection with thousands of other people; the past merges inside of me right now and everyone I ever knew, every place I have experienced, every decision I have made, brings me to this moment. I fade to sleep in the hammock, Chico curled up between my legs, his soft snoring rocking, Ursa Major bounding across the heavens, the hound dogs successful at keeping eternity away until sleep and dreams make the past real again.
In the morning, as the red-headed woodpeckers arrive like missionaries at the door to spread the good word, their exotic caw crosses the canyon, the dogs whine for food, the goats wait to be released again, and the hens mull about lackadaisically, I get up, grab the metal shepherd’s hook, a bucket of grain and a few handfuls of hay as I release the goats and lead them to their daily fenced in area where they work like wildfire to keep the grasses and poison oak down. The golden glow of the morning sun ignites the east-facing rim where a few digger pines meander up to worship the sun. I admire the digger pines, or grey pines as is preferred now. Their confused faith in the sun has saved them from the saw blades cruelty at the corporate level. Good for firewood, only the desperate and whimsical would choose to build with it.
After herding goats, feeding chickens, collecting eggs, and watering the garden, I return to the hammock to read. I am reading a book about water in the US. It is not a happy book. All of my students will read it this next year; the college picks one book each year for everyone to read, and for every teacher to try and adopt in some way into their classroom. The book promises to offer up solutions in the end, but I feel I have read many of these books now. I feel myself sink with each page, sink the way the author describes the Coachella Valley sinking after water tables are pumped dry, “an alarming drop in the earth’s surface,” he writes. The San Joaquin sunk a telephone pole height down, the earth is actually shriveling, like the grapes I picked from the garden. I suppose you might argue that the raisin is quite delicious, but I think you tell yourself that all winter while you wait for the grape again. The contamination of perchorate, MTBE, VOCs, and other chlorinated solvents is daunting. Filters and plastic water bottles are not the solution; the amount of water it takes to produce them is staggering. My choice of reading over and over again contaminate me, I am algae-bloom and oxygen deprivation, the human fecal content in Lake Havasu because everyone living near the lake use septic systems. I am drawn to carry this message. I have a generation of students coming of age, plagued with the message that everything is fucked up. And it sure reads that way.
My ex-girlfriend used to call me paranoid, as I would drive the western states looking for land to buy one day, a place to live where clear and clean water seemed secure. Perhaps it is only a buffer, and I wonder if Ishi, the last member of the Yahi, walked this canyon. As he died of tuberculosis, did he stare up at electrical lights and see the glory of a harnessed sun or the unfathomable-ness of the stars. Did he wish for a life differently, or accept and release?
Each day, I walk the goats down to their pin, and throughout the day, I see goats out and meandering around. Eventually, one day, they all were out. They are escape artists. The herd isn’t staying together. I figured out the fence, except for one small group that seem to be on their own. I think the herd is growing and trying to split. The wannabe alpha male for this group is this one white goat, I call Big Dick, and while he does have a large member, it is actually a name my Uncle used to call me. I’d always wonder how he knew, but now understand better. This white goat doesn’t seem very alpha next to most of the other goats, but he manages somehow. I try to give him encouragement and bolster his ego. I hope he has it in him. In some ways, we carry a part of the goats’ mentality in us. We form our packs, secure a turf, and protectable terrain and begin a family.
Senseless shootings plague the news lately. I hate the way everyone theorizes and assumes. Wait for due-justice of the law and hope for more understanding after more information. I don’t think the blame-game, the offensive or defensive game works right now. Instead, let the experts research what they can find, interview, scour, investigate, analyze, and wait for the jury to decide and the judge’s gavel. People rile up when police in LA shoot someone and are quick to make assumption and carry that assumption back over to a whole system. They seem drawn to claim corruption and conspiracy. Is it a lack of personal faith, fear, or hubris?
After I lure all the goats back into the barn for the night, I am getting it down slowly, bribing them with alfalfa works best. They want the security of the barn each night, but seem to resent the fence too. I tried reason and a real scary black dog to push them into the barn. They resist them both. I think they are complacent and one good mountain lion scare would change their behavior again. It is part of life, but we always seem so upset when it happens. Wild freedom comes with wild death.
I have been using Chico to help me move the goats a bit. He is a cautious coward and doesn’t run fast towards them, but he wants to smell them. He wants to dominate them I think a bit too. They are slowly learning he’s a wuss and beginning to stare him down a little bit, but they won’t go close to him on purpose. A few have reared up to head-butt him and he quickly ducks away. So, next to the entrance to the gate, I make him sit on one side and stay as the goats run between us through the gate. I have learned that bribery is the best form of control for the goats. Put the hay and sweet oats into the barn, wait for them all to surround the fenced in area, carry my red hook and little black dog, and persuade the goats to go inside. I think that me trying to pet them annoys them a bit. The hay and oats are like cheap electronics and credit cards.
I walk back up towards the house and I see Billy, Kim’s brother come down and we chat. We talk often and cordially disagree on a few subjects. I like the conversation and I think he does too. He borders on the paranoia, but we talk about the ranch as fortress sometimes. It has this feel. Owning canyon rim to rim, a good long gravel road that echoes the warning of cars approaching, feels good. Billy talks about times when people have accidently, or inadvertently, or because they were searching for their lost dog, drove down the canyon, crossed through the gate and pulled up to the house. I think a healthy hesitation towards open-arms in some situations, especially at night in the dark, seems warranted. Loaded arms are not always paranoia. Last weekend, the cognitive awakening festival celebrated up on the canyon rim and bongo drums and techno music awoke the night. Billy imagines everyone is out to get him at times, but I appreciate a little bit of cautious paranoia. He imagines people up on the canyon rim spying down on him, taking pictures, recording conversations, and planning an attack.
Billy came out because we can hear noise coming from the southern part of the property. I assume it is the weed growers who leased the property below to grow medical marijuana. I drove to the fence line to see what I could see, but saw nothing. At night, I can hear the radio playing, the laughter of people camping next to their harvest. There is something strangely endearing about it. I have thought about how it would be to stay with the herd of goats all day, to follow them around, to shepherd their safety rather then rely on the fence. Tonight, the music seems louder and Billy walks down closer with a flashlight to check things out.
My roommate back in Chico is an old friend who has found his passion in protecting Second amendment rights. He calls the AR-15 a modern musket. We argue, dialogue, and discuss topics surrounding this often. He has a hint of paranoid conspiracy to him at times, fears the way groups of people move, but I don’t think any person identifies so clearly with one group to allow mass secrets and elaborate plots to sway public opinion in order to sway policy. To him, the Colorado shootings might be a government-planned attack to push gun control policy on the public. I don’t think regulating guns does anything. The numbers don’t add up. Still, if they were never invented things might be better. Ironically, in the Dark Knight Rises, the movie is about an invention that could save humanity, being used to try to destroy it.
I believe in a mantra of educate and not regulate. I am not against concealed weapons permits, but I don’t think that having other loaded guns in a theater is the solution. I believe the problem came way before violent movies or video games. If cops are shooting unarmed people, then it is not education with guns that makes everything better. For me, it is the education of other, about other, and communication with other. Our categorical minds are failing us. We see groups and not individuals. We can’t seem to see how similar we are, how connected we are, how each person is another chance at love, not hate or death.
Lately, after seeing so much negativity, so much unwillingness to work together, so much environmental degradation, economic collapse, greed, and division, I have been in many conversations about apocalypse. I hear Elliot’s whimper of the world shriveling to a raisin and cultural conscious forgetting about the grape. It is a cycle. The millionaire doesn’t get a better grape than the one I picked from the garden today, felt the bitter skin burst open, the sugar of the sun exploding into my mouth, the bitter bite of the jaw, the mouth satiated in saliva. The millionaire tries to never eat the raisin. For me, it is process and seasons and the struggle to improve. Each grape, part of a bunch, part of a vine, with roots wrapped in the earth, roots that seek water, is amazing.
My roommate suggests a Borne Conspiracy where people are brainwashed into being agents of chaos in order to control public perception and pass policy. I think the only conspiracy is that every child is not born within a community that believes the best education for every human equals our best chance at survival, and further exploration. I believe in the potential of the human mind. Steinbeck once wrote in East of Eden, “that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.” It isn’t that the individual is more important than the group, just that each individual in the group is equally important. I don’t know that I could ever even make the blanket statement that you can never kill anyone. My Wing Chun teacher has taught me that there is a time for using Wing Chun, but it is rare and you hope it never happens. Nonetheless, I think I can easily say that killing a person you know nothing about, not a drop of their history, never shared a short moment at the spring, cold water bubbling up from rock, quenching a thirst with conversation, will always point to a major crisis within your life and the community around you. Certainly, mistakes were made to get to that point. We are resilient creatures when the culture allows it. We are a world obsessed with the killer, needing to understand the killer, when we should be consoling each other, re-building our community. In my temple, death always looms; it is part of life. I would never go out and kill every bear or mountain lion I could find. I would not pacify the river or de-fang the snake.
I wake to dogs wanting food again, goats indignant about the regulating gate, and the sun indifferent again. After shepherding the goats to the pen, I head to the pond for a swim. I wade through the soft mud until it is deep enough to let my feet go and float in the water. Yes, each time I feel my body lift off to water I am amazed. How lucky we are to enjoy the water. It is a treat of life to release our bodies from land, to return to a womb, and let water wash. Baptism makes sense each time I hike to a remote alpine lake, a deeply washed hole where the river bends, or the wide-open ocean. My friends’ pond has a cold spring that runs into the pond he created with tractor and dozer. He created a wood slope where the cold water drains into the pond. I swim over to it, open my mouth, and drink. Cold water rushes into me. The watering hole has always been a place of worship, of life, and of death. Everything comes to be satiated. If we are in need to protect land, it is because it has water.
I float on the water with my eyes to the sky. I have very little fear of attack and can allow my mind to daydream. I watch the vultures cross the valley, drop down, and then ride the thermals on the east facing canyon as the sun lifts them up and over to the next canyon. Each canyon is a drain where water washes down mountains and back to sea. Could they be the same vultures I would watch at sunsets on the South Rim of Chico Canyon? It seems like a different life ago when I would watch the sunsets across the valley and vultures come to roost for the night, the wind carrying them above my head each time I went, listening to the wind through their feathers. What an amazing sound! What jealousy I have towards their mobility. Still, humans’ mobility, longevity, and endurance is what makes us skilled hunters. Although we have grown lazy and fat, lethargic and apathetic, in us is the ability to run down game, to hunt as teams the largest animals, to cross, on foot, hundreds of miles. I look at my hands, skin, calluses, and muscles and think that we are evolutionary miracles. I understand why we might think god is within us, part of us, created in that image. And yet, I feel death and savagery too. We are migratory species lost to the trail.
I hear the hound dogs on scent again running down the canyon. They drive the bigger game away. I am sure the lions still cross through, and learn how to navigate when needed. My dog wouldn’t quite work the same way; he is not quite the great hunter. I think he’d draw in the lions. He means well, his heart is in it, and he would go down fighting to the end I am sure of it, but he would expect me to have his back. And I think I would do my best for him. I would wield knife and spear to help him. He seems about as aware as I am when we pull into tight areas, close quarters, some ambush type place. The mountain lion and human are not so different. They know how to be predators. Everybody uses the game trail. It’s the risk for laziness and convenience I suppose. You walk it because it goes right to where you want to go; all share it; it usually heads towards water. I swim out from the pond, touch land again, and walk back to the house.
I believe I am a writer, a scribe to life, a recorder, a storyteller. From poetry to Microsoft word documents, it is an incredible human invention from which to learn about the past, a place to share knowledge outside of our brains. We can be greater than the sum. Our intelligence doesn’t know the boundaries of time. One person does not hold it, not even by all. It exists on some other invention. Libraries amaze me, the books, the aisles of invention. You can feel that even more with smart phones. More stored out there, ready to be used at moments, cataloged in the brain to find it again when needed. We are amazing designers; if we have a spirit, it is not survival, but as a system seeking balance, a system always moving too because we don’t have the intelligence to control it…yet. The system stretches out into the darkness of space. It is infinitely huge. However, part of it seems like luck, luck of survival is the distance our rock landed from the sun. Could there be other elements on other planets, elements we don’t know about? Certainly, higher concentrations of certain gasses, plants, trees, a scattered a varying genetics; it seems so much is possible out there. We keep storing these stories.
On August 6th, 2012 the Mars rover, Curiosity, landed on that strange part of our imagination of hope. People gathered in Times Square to watch the one-ton spacecraft touchdown on Martian land. It is almost unfathomable the science involved in this feat of human invention. 1.2 million people submitted their names to be etched onto a microchip on the deck. Our names, launched out into space to tell the universe we are here. I am in awe. Fuck investment banking, NASA is amazing. Fuck all the wars we fight, fuck the religions that want to hold down science, ignore it, destroy it. Those religions and conservative mindsets are holding us down, trying to gate us in.
After almost a year in space, we landed another rover onto a distant planet. Maybe our movies and the inventions of our imagination make this seem anti-climactic, but it isn’t. It is a thing of beauty. We will not cease to explore, for when we do, we will dwindle into petty fighting and death. A plutonium-powered rover is about to start rolling around that distant red planet (currently about 150 million miles away) helping us understand creation. It is a small probe into the abyss and yet it seems to give me hope. Hope, not for a savior from out there, but savior within us. We work together, all past humans, all the stories, written words, science experiments, pulling the same rope, tugging us forward.
I go to put the goats back away at night. They are mostly mulling about the barn waiting to go back to the safety of their home. I scatter alfalfa out for them, spread the oats, and open the gates. They rush inside to eat. Once they all appear to be in, I shut the gate and watch them for a while. Then, in the distance, I can hear one nay. From inside, another one calls back. I can hear it say, “we are here.” The one in the distant calls again, but it gets closer, and the one inside calls back again. From up the canyon, I hear the call again, however, this time, the one inside doesn’t call back. It is eating. Instead, a different one calls back. In their voice is urgency. WE ARE HERE. It seems to call. From the canyon, “where are you?” For ten minutes this goes on. Where are you? We are here! Where are you? We are here. It gets closer and closer, and finally, there you are. They emerge, five of them from the Manzanita brush and rush towards the barn. I open the gate and let them all in.
The goats are quiet now. They look at me indifferently. I am not their savior. Chico and I walk back up to the deck of the house. I climb into the hammock again. The stars are just beginning to emerge. Chico wants up into the hammock with me and I let him. He quickly curls up at my feet and fades to sleep. I am safety to him. Perhaps, if something attacks the goats they will call to me and I will rescue them too. I think they would expect it, just as Chico would expect me to come to his rescue. And if I couldn’t, if I didn’t, if they died, fang and claw ripping them open, what then? I suppose they would accept death because they have no choice. Sure, we might hunt and kill the offender, build fences stronger, gates bigger, but eventually we would just have to accept the death inside. We learn, we adapt, we try to move forward, both outward and inward, for they are the same. John Muir, a person that explored and hiked the wildernesses of this continent once said, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
I start to grab my book to read, but I stop, put it back down and simply stare at the stars. The book is important. Most books are incredible. And not one book is drastically more important than any other. One book doesn’t have all the answers. They help. They offer up guidance and directions from getting lost out there. From the moon, to Mars, to past the Milky Way, it is a long walk out in that wilderness. Sometimes it feels insurmountable, impassable, impenetrable, but it isn’t. This story has many characters, their names etched to our memories.