Warm Breeze

At six o'clock one morning early in the week the waning gibbous moon was bright and still high in the western sky. Venus, like a faithful acolyte, was subtended below. To the east, the sun had yet to climb over the rim of the world but was already brushing the clouds that hung above the silhouetted ridge a deep apricot....

The October full-moon has been an powerful presence. At night, the gravel pool terrace is washed a pale grey and the moon lights the chaparral trails on my morning run. The days have been hot; Tuesday it was 108 degrees farenheit mid-afternoon - the warmest day of the year. Already the sun has made a great deal of progress on its journey south and these autumnal heat-waves make a mockery of the passive solar strategy we incorporated into the house: sun ventures into the southern windows three or four feet by the middle of the day and then streams in obliquely as it moves west later in the afternoon.

If we were in Wyoming, that heat would be welcome, here in Southern California it just adds to the cooling load for our HVAC system which kicks in around 2:30 and stays on until 5. Wyoming? you say. I've just read Annie Proulx's new book, Bird Cloud, about the adventure of building a house at the foot of a 150 foot cliff in the Wyoming rangelands. Based on an early revue, I wrote about it in Pitch Perfect. Over a couple of days this week, I consumed the whole thing.

We have long complained that Ojai has no new book store. Back in the day (the mid nineties) there were two: Elio Zamati's 'Local Hero Bookstore and Cafe' (In Search of a Shaman's Lair) and Mitnee Duque's 'Ojai Table of Contents', from whom I would order books while teaching at Oak Grove High School. To fill the void, Bart's, the well-known, and famously outdoor used book store, has now opened a new book section (in one of the enclosed rooms). It was there Lorrie saw and purchased Proulx's new book.

Proulx's major environmental challenge was the cold. Her architect, Harry Teague, a widely acclaimed and environmentally sensitive Colorado professional working in an up-dated vernacular style is customarily a very 'safe pair of hands'. The house he designed for Ms. Proulx, however, is a leaden lump which looks in my imagination and with some accounting for scale, like a pile of the maimed and crumpled buffalo which were, in centuries gone by, driven over the precipice by the local Ute Indians. Perhaps that was the intention, but the house also suffered from his lack of attention and was cobbled together by a local band of closely related builders and landscapers Proulx dubs the James gang. The interiors can best be described as highly redolent of the 1970's.

Teague does provide the requisite south-facing windows and specified hot water radiant heat in the concrete slab. The client does not complain that the house is cold, although the temperature can drop into the minus thirties in Wyoming, but she does mention it being sometimes uncomfortably warm in the summer. There is no mechanical cooling. In Wyoming all that south facing glass pays dividends from late August on, and the radiant slab seems to do the job. As I have noted (Cool Morning, Full Metal Jacket), the long lag times inherent in radiant heating make it a poor match for Ojai's very changeable winter temperatures.

Her story of the building of the house and its shortcomings take central place in the book but Proulx is, above all else, a writer informed by the rhythms of the natural world and her observations of the bird life on her 637 acre ranch provide a constant coda to the primary narrative. Prairie falcons, bald-headed and golden eagles, ravens, vultures and pelicans are some of the larger birds that she watches wheel and glide in the thermals of the cliff-face. Our lives at Rock Fall are similarly enriched by the cross stitch of birds that weave in and out of the chaparral and the hawks, vultures, crows and ravens that trace looping threads across the sky.

The evening and night skies in Upper Ojai are populated by night raptors, but they are largely hidden from us. Dawn and dusk provide the best opportunities to see them. Earlier in the week, as the light was beginning to fade and the evening had taken on that ashen monochrome that hints at the coming darkness, three owls squabbled in the sky directly above me. Two great horned owls called to each other as they flew in close formation harrassing the third, which I took for a screech owl. The smaller owl tumbled away finally recovering its equilibrium close to the ground where it fluttered off towards tree cover.

The next evening, arriving home in the dark and stopping the car low down on the driveway to close the gate for the night, I heard the whooping of a great horned owl and saw that it was perched atop the last power pole on our property before the supply goes underground. There is no love lost between owl species; perhaps the great horneds are muscling in on their fellow strigiform, the screech owl, to whose nocturnal warbling we have become accustomed.

Proulx sees mountain lions, elk and bear on a regular basis, and has located her house on a site rich in archaeological evidence of Native Americans: the foundation slab excavation uncovered charcoal evidence of an ancient fire-pit and by presumption a pit-house. In my primordial dreams.

There is no indication of ancient settlement on Rock Fall. The closest known Chumash settlements are Sis'a, located along Santa Paula Creek, in the area now occupied by Thomas Aquinas College (Woman of the Apocalypse); ?Awha'y, on the lower north facing slopes of Sulphur Mountain in Upper Ojai (The Land Speaks for Itself) and Sitoptopo (literally, the carrizo (giant rye) patch) - somewhere north east of Ojai, and presumably in the Topatopa foothills. There are no lithic scatters on our chaparral patch, no debitage, and no points, hand-axes, metate or manos.

But this morning I saw a herd of a mule deer, ten or more, take flight over the old honor farm pasture, a noble stag silhouetted against the dawn sky. Yesterday, in downtown Los Angeles, I ate lunch at Mas Malo, a Mexican cantina in a glorious domed space which formerly housed Clifton's Silver Spoon Cafeteria. In the interests of architectural research, I went up to the mezzanine where Seven Grand, a hip whiskey bar, is outfitted in huntsman plaid and features a score of stag's heads on the wall.

They look better on the hoof. At dawn. With a warm breeze blowing across the mesa infiltrating the morning's chill, and a still bright moon high in the sky.

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