Friday, May 27, 2016

A Week in the Woods

Grades submitted, desk marginally less messy, and the semester finished, I made one of my too-infrequent trips to northern California for a week.  The timing was perfect, because although heavy, late spring rains kept us in-doors part of a few days, the weather was beautifully cool and the foothills were in bloom.
Accustomed as Las Vegans are to sirens and helicopters, it was a pleasure for us to awake to splendid tranquility, clean and cool air, and the sounds of birds and the distant flow of a creek fed by the best rains in some years.  Even the recognition that I was being observed as I awoke--by a nervous deer peering in the window—made for a nice start to the day.
The forest was very visibly alive, and having been rejuvenated by the rains, set about working its own magic on some desert-dwellers in need of succor from heat, pollution, and a dearth of physical and social infrastructure.
Elusive pileated woodpeckers drifted between the trees, calling as they moved.  Flights of doves swept across open areas of logging land that a year ago had looked like wastelands, but are now becoming lush clearings and lively meadows.  Deer occasionally erupted from bush to dance down slopes, turning intermittently to check our progress before crackling deeper into the woods.  Frogs flopped into the creek as we passed their hideaways.
It was one of the best seasons for wildflowers I’ve seen, and some of the new meadows were carpeted by blue, purple, and yellow flowers, over which hovered bees and dragonflies and hummingbirds.  Higher up, the skies were the preserve of red-tailed hawks, vultures, and once, on a cloudy day, a skein of geese that wove in and out of low, grey skies, their calls marking their movements.
From the living room and front porch we tracked the progress of anxious squirrels, cautious deer, and energetic black phoebes.  The most regular entertainment consisted of a gang of turkeys that shuffled back around the house each evening to roost in pine and oak trees.  They provided us with much amusement as they worked their way up the hillside to lessen the angle of their ungainly flight into the trees.
Occasionally a particularly ambitious bird, dissatisfied with its first perch, would launch itself even more daringly toward the upper reaches of towering pines.  They generally arrived safely at their new destination, but occasionally overshot or overbalanced, and crashed in undignified fashion back to earth, having to begin the process again.  In the morning—like clockwork—they made their awkward descents to forage for some 14 hours.
The recent rains muddied the ground and allowed us to see who else was using the forest tracks.  Deer and turkey were the most common neighbors, but foxes, mountain lion, elk, and bear also left evidence of their passing.
One day we were lucky enough to round a corner in the forest and see a large black bear drifting casually along 50 meters ahead of us.  Although it didn’t turn, it almost imperceptibly quickened its pace, its power and grace visible beneath a rich brown coat in the sunshine cutting through the trees.  The bear swung right at a logging road junction and had gone into the thicket by the time I turned the corner.

At the end of our week we made our way back to Las Vegas, pleasantly surprised that temperatures were only in the mid-90s.  Thanks to the generosity of a friend and colleague, our plants weathered our absence in good form.  Fortified by a week in the woods, I’m back in my UNLV office.

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