Bald, black-cloaked, he hunches over and ignores the circling crows, who tease and chatter insults as he unwraps a rodent sandwich. Gone when I return, next afternoon he roosts on the sidewalk as if waiting for the bus: blinking, silent, passive. A neighbor says they used to hang out in Nellie Gail, where you have to be a member of the homeowner's association to ride the horse trails or at least pay up; but the wealthy denizens of that former ranch didn't like the bad element and pushed them out of the neighborhood.
On Point Reyes 500 miles north, say, 13 years ago, I saw a flock perched noiselessly over a sea cliff. As I gingerly stepped across the rain-charged grass, they remained suspiciously still, as if I'd stumbled upon a drug deal. Though it's likely he has simply come down from the wintery mountain to vacation in warm suburbia, this stranger on the street corner seems similarly up to no good. He's the first I've witnessed since that sketchy encounter in '92.
I'm not sure why we assign human attributes to animals; maybe we're so related that we see ourselves in their behavior. But it's a bummer buzzards get such a bad rap. The California condor, an older cousin of the turkey vulture, remains mostly behind bars. Estranged family members down south have had trouble, too -- though it was nice to learn they saw a little freedom yesterday.
The Pacific from here to Santa Barbara has lately spit out oiled birds. Perplexed scientists offer the survivors a free bath and a return ticket offshore. At the same time, giant squid have slopped onto the sand DOA in Orange County, and public dissections in Dana Point reveal few clues. These may be separate mysteries or one combined. Those in the know have eliminated "natural seepage" from possible postulations. What a relief! All nature needs is another black mark on its sketchy rap sheet, even if lately the whole thing's a frame. The squid, some think, have traveled from South America to replace a predator paucity in local waters. Sharks and the like have little space between nets and kayaks to do their thing, and poachers have helped push down populations cuz jaws look cool on the wall and shark fin soup is dee-licious. Why the squid have lately turned belly up is anyone's guess at this point.
The oil sludge has a source either undiscovered or unreported by a slippery conglomerate. Men have dug down into the primordial muck to suck up dinosaur guts and run them through internal combustion engines for so long -- and in so many places -- that we can't even figure out which pipe has burst. Well, we gotta drive, ya know. And often.
The tsunami human toll now tops 225,000, an enormous blow to millions of families. Still it's increasingly clear people could have avoided most of those deaths by not covering every island half a foot above sea level with hotels and trinket stands. Also heeding well-documented precedent and getting the heck back from suddenly water-absent beaches might have helped. Nobody rightly deserves to be washed out to sea, but, really, how embarrassing.
Meanwhile the California super storm a couple weeks ago takes the blame for broken sewage lines, and raging rivers of filthy city flotsam have turned the ocean into a bacterial porridge. Surfers ride in peril, children risk life wading, but it's not overpopulation's fault, or non-existent urban planning. It's all that rain.
Wait, the sun's about an hour from the sea, but still the scraps of wild stitched and mottled seep with rain. The trail has narrowed at its pit and grows so steep I run along, shifting weight from stone to clay. Beyond the city's patchwork, snow deflects the afternoon: mountains here? And underneath a half-lit moon, high above the wires in a long-forgotten sky, the white turns pink. Puddles left from yesterday draw brazen bugs and skittish prey (I can only wave the flying ones away). And then I stop to keep from sliding, since the path has evened out; eye-level with a raven: black back shining, circle widening, underneath, returning to the canyon, he settles in the brush. Preserved, reclaimed; limestone segues into sage, cactus, crippled oak, this narrow snag of nature, wrong shade of an old frayed thread, retouched. See.
Where I drive to get out of here, rumor has it catfish roam above the asphalt, deposited in the middle of the street by swollen lakes. Helicopters hover overhead now that the rain has stopped, to capture footage of the vast mud puddle forcing people to drive three miles out of their way. The news brief before "The Simpsons" claims that Laguna Canyon Road is under water, but it's not true. That section of the fabled route leading Charlie Chaplin and Bette Davis to their cottages by the sea -- a narrow byway lined by sky-brushing eucalyptus groves and California oak -- no longer exists. Last summer I watched orange-vested men break it into pieces and build a wide replacement somewhat higher off the ground. This improvement isn't finished, but it is --more accurately-- what has flooded: the brand-new four-lane highway connecting the twelve-lane freeway to the eight-lane toll road. The former, 20th-century Laguna Canyon Road sits in a big pile, gray chunks of history forming a temporary dumpsite. But it's not as bad as it sounds. The new design, they say, is better all around.
Roughly 30 years ago when rainwater cascaded and leaped from the roof gutter, in heavy white drops that splat on the driveway and melted away, I called it popcorn. The way it bounced and arced in all directions would have, I guess, reminded a child of the sight and sound of popcorn's slow-motion spectacle, back in days pre-microwave.
I hear the same sound outside my bedroom window now. The low accompanying strings of wind above my high ceiling are like the afterthought of a master furiously conducting the percussion of his winter symphony. I don't watch the local news and don't know the width or length of this storm. Should I? Above this hillside acreage of apartment homes, the backbone of a coastal ridge could, conceivably, crumble into pieces. Who knows? Maybe mud is moving my way. A seven-year-old wouldn't know the difference, he wouldn't care; he would only delight in the energy a storm infuses into his small world.
In Southern California, rain like this is so infrequent I can remember specifically the last time -- eight years ago this month -- when bewildered businessmen built sandbag levees on Santa Monica Boulevard, and BMWs floated down the same river as shopping carts.
That may be happening now. I should find a link or two.
I think about all that money pouring toward the region like a steady rush of water. As it collects in pools and reservoirs, some overflows and relocates where it doesn't belong, spills into places not meant to have so much. I wonder what will happen to all this liquid cash? I guess what doesn't saturate the bank accounts of governors will backwash into the abysmal sea and dissolve. This area has needed money before, but it took a rare -- though not unprecedented -- natural "disaster" to tap that deep and profligate well. The snap and spectacle of this endless news flash distracts from countless thirsty causes unreported by the popular press. With charity earmarked to help out people who linger in a perpetual self-inflicted crisis, nothing will go to those who need it most. I used to see a shaggy, skittish expatriate of this region living in Los Angeles years ago; she moved to Cincinnati and managed to have a child, the first birth of a Sumatran rhino in captivity in 112 years. This makes our country home to four members of this dwindling family, lonely representatives of a species drowning not under waves of water, but under a tide of human ignorance.
I hang my hat these days up the hill and across the street from Laguna Audubon, built by award-winning creekbed fillers and giant lego stackers. A headstrong corporate hodgepodge "preserved" half the land only because they could not glue condominiums to a 90-degree cliff. The houses and whatnot have an inch or two between them, crouched flat in the ravine or perched close together like beige pigeons on the mesa overhead. A wide swath of asphalt pours down from the top to the bottom; this is the north end of Aliso Creek Road, ending at El Toro. Anyway, the tiniest one-bedrooms sell for over $320 thousand; I know because I toured one last spring. It was about 600 square feet inside, looked like the shadowy lobby of a dentist's office and made my brain itch. All of Aliso Viejo, the master-planned community over yonder, is like this: "wilderness areas" scattered amidst cinched-up architecture, all light pastels and cream walls, SUVs, dog parks, adobe churches and towne centers (they add the "e") and, incredibly, bike lanes. I don't know who slipped those past the muckamucks, but thanks.
The collective child in our heads
gains exit through our fingertips,
wildly developing an illicit web
of quiet rage.
Wrapped inside such warm cocoons,
we sleep awake,
trapped within this cyber stage
content, alone, "communicating,"
distracted from our age.
And yet the welcoming refrains
create abstract online alliances;
these encounters, so unlikely,
so remote, in any case,
are like the stars we seem to think
we could carve right from the sky:
a thousand light years from our eyes.