2010-06-13

Wood Pile

I was weeding down by the wood pile, pulling star thistles and snipping at the doughtier stalks with secaturs when I saw the tail end of a snake. I was, perhaps, 12" or 15" inches away from a pale straw colored almost translucent rattle. When the reality of my predicament dawned, I was not engulfed in fear, but slowly straightened out from my crouch and looked down at the snake curled in the crook of a log that sat on an old 3 x 8 board. Its end was draped on the ground, its body and head curled on the warmth of the wood. It did not move except for a few probing flicks of its forked tongue. I stood admiring it for a few moments and realized that I had been fortunate in stumbling on a very chill member of the rattlesnake family (Crotalus viridis).

Fully adult, its philosophical demeanor suggested that this was Old Man Rattlesnake: not some callow juvenile or hyped up adult that took seriously its National Audubon Society Nature Guide description as "Excitable and agressive". Later in the day I spoke with Ethan Wylie, amateur heptoligist and Zappa fan, who was visiting for the Music Festival. He and Ellary had had a confrontation with a more aggressive rattlesnake the previous weekend in the foothills of the San Gabriels that, at the same sort of close quarters that I had experienced, had rattled (a warning before striking) and essentially barred their way on a narrow single track. They retreated back up the hill.

Perhaps because of the openness of the flat terrain my snake clearly did not feel threatened and having observed me for a few minutes as I worked my way through the thistle patch decided that I was not worth scaring half to death with a shake of its rattle. In the evening we made the pilgrimage to the Libbey Bowl and heard The Ensemble Modern play a selection of Frank Zappa's orchestral pieces along with a few Edward Varese compositions - the latter having been Zappa's symphonic inspiration. The night's music had a portentious nervous energy that seemed in keeping with both these unsettled times and the impending demolition of the venue - and was at odds with the centered gravitas of the rattlesnake who, it seemed, was confident that "God's in His Heaven, All's Right With the World".

Early the next morning as I was scrambling along a dry creek bottom in a canyon west of Bear Creek I disturbed a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) which took flight from an oak and I watched its wide spread wings and mottled grey brown underside as it flew to a further tree.

It's been a quiet few months for wildlife sightings. No more strolls around the pool from our local bobcat, and very few deer after Peter Jump's coonhounds chased a frightened doe across the property early this spring. But we have been seeing rabbits hopping along the gravel border to the house, and a week ago we met two of the Gopher snakes (Pituophis malanoleucus) that we long knew ruled the rocks beneath the cluster of oaks just above and to the east of the house (New Moon 2010 04-21). I was working on the border to the gravel pool terrace and saw a smallish gopher snake writhing its way under a rock. Lorrie was working above, under the oaks. A few minutes later she saw a much larger, fatter snake, perhaps 6 or 7 feet long and perhaps the parent to the snake below.

On Saturday afternoon we drove down the PCH to L.A. amidst beach traffic and, looking over the beaches and beyond to the 2-3 foot swell I was less than usually mournful that I have lost my connection with the Pacific which made up such a large part of my life for almost forty years. Summers were never my favorite beach time, and yesterday it seemed that the cars, crowds and the murky waters of the Bay rendered dismal the entire enterprise of surfing in L.A. When I lived in Manly at the dawn of the seventies, and later Whale Beach and Narrabeen (beach suburbs of Sydney, Australia) I could walk down to the beach. I chose work that gave me time to surf. In my early days in L.A. I lived in Echo Park and wide open freeways on Sundays meant that Topanga was little more than half an hour away. Later in Venice and then Santa Monica Canyon, Topanga remained 'my beach' but the crowd slowly increased over the years and it was always a trade-off of poor surf enjoyed in comparative isolation or good waves jostling with the multitude. At the beginning of this century, after a couple of winters of mediocre surf and my increasing enjoyment of running, I called it quits. Somewhere in there, when I taught at Oak Grove in Meiners Oaks, I enjoyed a few memorable winters surfing at Emma Woods when I stayed over at Besant House, or County Line on my drive back to L.A.

In Upper Ojai, although a good 40 minutes from the beach we do enjoy the marine layer rolling up the valley and few sights are as majestic as an early morning viewing, at around 2500 feet just above Sisar, of a white blanket of mist laying along the 150 with a slim strip of Sulphur Mountain peaking above it.

Like the walk to the beach, a run at my doorstep is important to me. The mediation of a drive besmirches the primal experience of getting on my toes and trotting into the wild. I keep an eye out for snakes, but with the sun barely up and a chill in the air I suspect most reptiles are curled deep under a rock or lurking in a wood pile - like my store of firewood or the detritus of the self-pruning chaparral thickets.

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