Life, death and spring

April in the Sierra foothills is the cruelest month -- and the most beautiful.


Gary Kamiya
April 22, 2008 3:00PM (UTC)

The stench hit us right after we climbed up the dug-out steps in the bank, by the bend in the stream where the mountain lion and I surprised each other four years ago. It had to be something pretty big. I walked through the little meadow toward the lake, gingerly following my nose. After 30 yards or so I saw it. A small, delicate white skull, like an overgrown rodent's, with a surprisingly thick spine, 2 or 3 feet long. Nothing else -- no body or legs. A deer. Almost all the flesh was gone, but there was still enough left to raise a powerful stink. We walked on through the young grass, where in a few weeks the lupine and sweet pea would cover the ground with their exuberant bluish-purple and pink and white blossoms.

I'd driven with my mother up to our family ranch in the Sierra foothills to join my brother, uncle, cousin and some other clan members for a work weekend. We were going to clear brush along the edge of the big meadow, hauling out fallen wood, clearing pine needles and debris and cutting down the cedars and yellow pines that were crowding a magnificent avenue of oaks. If weather permitted, we were going to ignite the piles of brush that were evenly spaced out in the meadow. We were looking forward to this atavistic ritual, heaping branches onto the pyres, consuming last year's dead matter, leaning on our McLeods and watching the orange tongues twisting and leaping upward in the cool April air.

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But mostly I was looking for spring.

San Francisco, where I live, doesn't really have seasons. Yes, we have an Indian summer in September and October, a week or two of 80 degree days that overheats our delicate constitutions and causes all the fans in the hardware stores to immediately disappear. It rains a lot in the winter months. And around the time school gets out in June, the summer fog starts rolling in, a giant cotton-candy wave breaking in slow motion over Twin Peaks at 4 p.m. But aside from those minor markers, the seasons are pretty indistinguishable. Most Februaries I can sunbathe on my deck, and I frequently shiver in July. The temperature rarely goes below 50 in the day, or above 70. This city belongs to the sea, not the land, and the sea's seasons are inscrutable.

And I don't really see the signs of spring that are there. When you live in a city, the world is blocked from view. Too many buildings, too many people, too many street lights changing mechanically, too many thoughts changing just as mechanically. Even the moon, that harbinger of mystery, feels like an impostor.

You can exist without spring, but it cramps your soul. It's good to have a place where you can go to watch the world get old and young, live and die. Mine is the ranch.

It lies a shade under 4,000 feet in Calaveras County, which means "skulls" and which an unknown journalist, writing under the peculiar, Mississippi-redolent pseudonym "Mark Twain," made famous when he penned a story about a celebrated jumping frog that some wag stuffed full of birdshot. Calaveras is gold country, but the ranch is too high for prospecting. The property was a double homestead spread, 320 acres, first worked in 1882 by a driven German-American pioneer and his wife who together cleared 25 forested acres for a meadow, using a mule team to pull the stumps out of the ground. He then erected an astonishingly grandiloquent structure at the edge of the meadow, a 55-foot-high asymmetrical barn that may still be the tallest building in the county. The hay from the meadow wouldn't even fill a fifth of this vast structure. He must have built it so high just because he could. The German is long gone but his barn still stands, a great gray monument to his sublime orneriness.

One infamous day, we almost lost the whole place. On Sept. 10, 2001, a devastating forest fire roared up out of the Stanislaus River canyon to the east. When the flames crowned the trees on the other side of the ridge and were visible from the meadow, my mother and my uncles simultaneously decided to tell the firemen, "Save the barn before the houses." Hundreds of firemen from all over the state made their stand, fighting tree to tree on the steep ridge. The meadow looked like a war zone, filled with dozens of fire trucks. We were the last line of defense for the town of Arnold. The battle wasn't won until bombers swept in low and dumped borate on the inferno. It was the last day the big planes could have saved us: The next day all civil aviation in the United States was grounded. My uncle's partner called from New York the next day early in the morning. First she asked, "Is the ranch still there?" Then she said, "Turn on your television."

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My grandparents bought the ranch in 1943 for next to nothing. Land in the middle of nowhere wasn't worth anything then. It comprises a long, narrow valley watered by a creek and most of the two ridges on each side. It lies in what naturalists call the Yellow Pine Forest, also known as the Mixed Coniferous Forest or the Transition Zone, located between the oak woodland of the lower foothills and the higher lodgepole-red fir forest. Yellow pine (also known as Ponderosa) is the dominant tree. Incense cedar, white fir and John Muir's favorite conifer, the sugar pine, the tallest pine in the world, share the woods with slender-trunked maples and stands of dogwoods, which in May dress up in dazzling white. The royalty of our trees, though, are the black oaks. They are greatly outnumbered by conifers at this elevation, but if the world keeps getting hotter and drier, they will become the dominant species. And if there are any human beings left on the earth then, they will probably enjoy them.

The German also planted 20 or so acres of apple trees in three orchards. The old trees still bear fruit, rare and delicious varietals -- King Davids and Spitzenbergs and Winter Bananas and Black Johns -- but they are rapidly dying off. My grandfather, a truck driver who later opened the first gas station in Angel's Camp, maintained the ranch as a gentleman farmer, pruning and irrigating and harvesting. But he died 24 years ago, none of the rest of us have time or inclination, and anyway the trees are nearing the end. Every year, snow in the winter and ravenous climbing bears in the fall crack a few more big branches off the old trees. Their gnarled remaining limbs look like twisted gray hands outstretched to the sky, waving a very long goodbye.

The day we left San Francisco for the ranch was scorching hot for April, and the unseasonable heat carried through the Central Valley and all the way through the oak foothills to the ranch. But the winter rains and snows were not long past, and everything was still green, that deep, fragile green that you wish could last forever, but that fades almost as you look at it.

April is unpredictable, edgy -- the turning month. The apple trees had barely begun to leaf out, the ferns had not yet started their scarily fast growth, and only a few modest wildflowers had begun to appear -- five-spots and red-flowered gooseberries and tiny exquisite white stars that none of us knew the names of. We plunged into the creek-side trail that my cousin, my uncle Bob and I hacked out of the woods a dozen years ago. Winter had been here and left chaos and destruction, and no one had cleaned up after it. Black-tongued trilliums and crimson snow plants, eerie post-winter arrivals, had pushed through the pine needles. A big yellow pine had fallen across the trail and an even larger cedar had fallen below the spillway of the big lake. Chain-saw work. All of the big trees on this steep bank were in danger, more of them falling every year as erosion exposed their roots.

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Years ago Bob had put up a wooden bench by a gentle bend downstream on the creek, a place where he could sit and take in the Sierra summer before heading back to Manhattan and his life as a college professor. Then he found out he had pancreatic cancer and died a few weeks later. The winter after his death, a cedar by the stream came down and smashed right through the center of the bench. Bob's ashes and my aunt Wendy's are buried on the ranch, along with their parents'. When my time comes, mine will join them.

The ranch exists on the boundary of wilderness and the familiar, and you make your negotiations between them. Walking down to the big lake, I saw a familiar form slowly rouse itself on the bank and creak arthritically into the air, at first barely able to get moving, but with each ponderous flap of its heavy wings gaining disconcerting chunks of altitude and speed. We rushed down to the water and got there just in time to see it in full flight, our great blue heron, now soaring high above the far end of the lake. Two herons used to live on the lake. Years ago one of them vanished and never returned, and for a couple of years the remaining heron was rarely seen. When he began to return regularly, it felt like a benediction.

Not for the frogs, though. For them, he's Heron the Impaler. He stands motionless in the shallow water, waiting for a frog to come within reach, and then strikes with incredible speed, driving his heavy pointed beak right through the frog's body. He then leaves the indigestible bits on the raft for us to clean up.

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It's the Great Chain of Killing. We love the fat bullfrogs that the heron kills. They're musical croakers, an indicator species and a link with the romance of Mark Twain. But these old friends are the implacable destroyers of our equally beloved orange and blue dragonflies. And the dragonflies are like mini Apache gunships, swerving with insane precision to devour the tiny insects that dance above the surface of the lake. In the Sierra foothills, you begin to see that beauty is just a surface effect -- below it, jaws are always about to snap shut.

One animal stands at the top of the killing chain: the mountain lion. One afternoon in August I was walking along the creek-side trail when I heard a crunching noise. I looked up to see an enormous male mountain lion staring right at me, about 20 yards away on the other side of the stream. These supreme predators are normally soundless, but I was coming from upwind and walking quietly, and he was thirsty and had to make his way through a maze of fallen branches to drink, and even he couldn't avoid breaking some branches. We stared at each other for a second or two. For the first time in my life I was put emphatically and finally in my species place. If this 250-pound predator, so muscular, lethal and coiled that he might as well have weighed 400, decided he wanted to take me, there would be nothing I could do about it.

The experience was so alien, so unfathomable, that it was hard to believe it even while it was happening. We stared at each other. Then he turned and bounded with massive hydraulic power up the bank, knocking aside little trees and disappearing in seconds. With shaking hands, I went looking for the biggest stick I could find. It was not a relaxing walk back to the cabin.

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The heron settled into one of his favorite perches, a large cedar tree. If the trees at the ranch seem exceptionally tall, it's probably because their cousins next door are the biggest ones on earth. If you climb up to the top of the valley where it narrows and bear off to the left, in a mile or so you come to the rarely used back gate of Big Trees State Park, one of 75 groves, all on the gentle western face of the Sierra, where the Sequoia gigantea, the world's largest living things, are found. A hunter stumbled upon the Calaveras Grove in 1852 while chasing a wounded bear. News of the stupendous trees spread, and entrepreneurs soon arrived, eager to make money off the "vegetable monsters."

They decided to cut one of the largest sequoias down, strip off its bark, and ship it to the east for exhibition. A 19th century writer described how five men attacked the tree for 22 days, "until at last, the noble monarch of the forest was forced to tremble, and then to fall, after braving 'the battle and the breeze,' for nearly three thousand years." He then cheerfully reported that the resulting stump "easily accommodates 32 dancers." An appalled John Muir remarked that removing the bark of the big trees to spread their fame was "as sensible a scheme as skinning our great men would be to prove their greatness."

We didn't skin any big trees, but we killed a lot of fledgling ones. We spent our days clearing brush and small trees away from the oaks, snipping the little ones off with compound shears, cutting the big ones down with a chain saw and pulling the tiny ones right out of the ground.

One day we tried to burn, but the wind was too strong. The flames jumped the perimeter and started making for the next brush pile. My uncle and I had to attack the outlying flames with our McLeods, smashing the burning grass down hard with the flat, heavy heads of our tools in the instant we had before the superheated gusts of wind forced us to back off. We would no sooner kill one hot spot than another would spring up. I got my eyebrows singed. For a minute there was a whiff of panic in the air.

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The day we left, the snow still lay in patches on the far side of the meadow, but it would soon be gone. My cousin had cut through the fallen trees blocking the trail with the chain saw. The stream was running, but we needed one more good rain. The velvety grass was getting longer. In a few weeks the cold knife edge of spring, having only just come, would be gone.

The night before we left, we heard Canadian geese at dusk, barking and snuffling like dogs, and saw them circling the lake before flying away.

On the last day, I walked through the little meadow where we'd seen the deer. The smell was gone. I went over to look at the spot where it had been lying and there was nothing. Something had taken it away.


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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