Pitch Perfect

We may still associate Beginnings, Middles and Ends with fairy tales and the human span, but life all around us argues for a less linear view of the Universe. This second year of weeding I have abandoned my Cartesian mindset, embraced the recursive and transcended the lessons of Sisyphus. Along the way I have learnt to recognize California goosefoot (Chenopodium californicum).

The west meadow runs parallel to the gentle slope upon which our house now sits; at the top of the rise is an oak grove and at the bottom the confluence of Bear Creek and the eastern seasonal stream. When we purchased the site, the asphalt driveway ran safely over the seasonal stream via an Arizona crossing, past the Edison pole that brought power to the well and then stopped short, with obvious intentions - but no County requirement - to continue up-slope. Just before its termination, there was a path that headed west creating a fork with the incipient driveway acting as the eastern branch.

The driveway now continues to the house and the path has been further established by both the truck trips to the compost pile (Sinology) and the scattering of chipped laurel sumac along its length. Midway to the top is a flat area where our 200 tons of rocks - unearthed from the benching excavation that created the house terrace - were stored and later removed (Stoned). To the west of this area is a band of chaparral that then descends steeply to a riparian habitat along Bear Creek. To the east is the path and beyond that sage scrub, then a slope up to the rocky chaparral covered spine which runs between meadows. When the rocks were removed we were left with a reasonably level area of dirt, scraped clean of vegetation: a petrie dish awaiting the germination of post-1769 non-natives!

For that short period when the bare soil had been greened but the true horror of the weed infestation had yet to be realized I thought of that patch of dirt as my cricket pitch. There are 22 yards (a chain) between the wickets of a cricket pitch and while the outfield would be uneven in width it was more than adequate for a game of bush-cricket. The pitch (I imagined) would run east west because although I liked to think the area was flat the prevailing slope was very definitely in the north-south direction and a pitch with the same orientation would give a wicked advantage to a down-slope bowler and cruel handicap to the chap toiling up-hill; but before the summer had truly arrived the cricket field disappeared under a mantle of mustards and thistles.

Over the summer the weeds dried, shed their seeds and became a dense thicket of canes. Last weekend was spent in raking, hoeing and pulaskiing my way through the brittle thistle stalks, the re-leafing mustards and dried grasses and dumping the airy mass on the dense, dark, warm stew of last spring's weeds that is now the compost pile - situated just to the north of the erstwhile, imagined cricket field.

It was exhilarating to reveal the natives amidst the dross: great drifts of deer weed (Lotus scoparius) are emerging that presage the revival of Sage Scrub; poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is beginning to leaf out; wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus) is vining promiscuously and at the edges of the disturbed soil, California goosefoot has established itself.

Lorrie, anxious to begin her program of domesticating the chaparral close to the house cleared the mixed border (the east face of the spine closest to the house) of dead twigs and grasses and then moved onto the banks of the seasonal stream where ferns face east and the bright green foliage of California everlasting dot the west facing slope. Lurking at the ready, close to the ground, are the serrated, basal leaves of the dreaded thistles - still a little too young to yank from the ground.

Up slope, a little east of the stream, she trimmed back the toyon and holly-leaved cherry and hacked away at the dead branches of......three scrub oaks (Quercus dumosa) that had been hiding in plain sight; awaiting, apparently, the kind ministrations of an elf (or its earthly minion, Lorrie) bearing a pair of loppers. They form a small grove and are delightful to behold - the typical oak (in Spanish, chapporo) of the chaparral almost at our doorstep. Towering above them to the west is the magisterial grouping of oaks (Quercus agrifolia) that seem now crass in comparison with these delicate multi-trunked, tiny leafed denizens of the Elfin Forest (Brand 'X').

A close reader of this blog may have discerned in its author a level of enthusiasm for California and its 'signature eco-system', chaparral (Richard W, Halsey). I was pre-sold on this native wilderness long before we built a house in its midst. Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain, Shipping News) had long written about Wyoming before deciding to build her dream home in 670 acres of wetland-grassland-shrublands where prowl elk, mountain lion and, apparently, the neighbor's cattle. She began building her house in 2003, just a year before we bought our first land on Koenigstein, and her experience has not been a happy one.

After two years of construction with recalcitrant builders, seemingly constant 70-100 mph winds and massive cost overuns she stayed just one year in the completed project driven out of her home by the discovery that the road into town was not plowed - rendering her a prisoner of the snowy wastes for five months of the year. Despite her love of the land she came to understand that this place she called Bird Cloud, sited atop a precipitous cliff overlooking the North Platte River "never could be the final home of which I had dreamed". (Bird Cloud, Scribner, 2010)

Building in the wildlands has a degree of difficulty that we in no way approached with construction of our house in the Ojai hinterlands. We built at the Wildland/Urban interface - where we have a foot in both worlds and access to a broad, and broadly competitive range of trades and services. If there are similarities between Bird Cloud and the project we sometimes call Rock Fall they exist in the attempt of both endeavours to replace a whole range of Urban experiences, social propinquities and opportunities for diversion with the compelling presence of the natural world. That presence demands a high level of tolerance for the cyclical nature of being. It offers not a linear experience of progress, moving ever forward, but a glimpse instead, into the eternal verities of the natural and spiritual worlds.

Like the snows of Wyoming the weeds will surely return: the mark of our spiritual progress - if there can be such a thing - is the extent to which we abandon notions of ultimate triumph but nevertheless enjoin in yearly battle confident that we can, at the margins, make a difference.

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