by Stacey Warde
We get lots of European and Asian travelers this time of year, when summer morphs into fall and rain-starved Californians look expectantly to the season’s first downpour.
The tourists cruise excruciatingly slow along winding spectacular Highway 1, the coastal route through Big Sur; hordes of them park along viewpoints, at the cliff’s edge, laughing, taking pictures, peering down into the vast sun-burnished Pacific, then hop into their rental cars and RVs to hog the road again.
If you happen to be on the road at the same time it’s an agonizing slog behind a train of tourists who have no clue about pulling over to let others pass, or how bad is our drought or the state of the union.
Invariably, they pass through Cayucos, our little hamlet by the sea. I meet a Japanese man at a coffee shop in town who stops for the sights. “What is, ‘Wingnut’?” he asks, pointing at a “we have the right to refuse service” sign behind the counter.
I spin my index finger around my ear, “Crazy.” I show him how a wingnut works, spinning an imaginary one around my finger. “They’re spun tight.”
He laughs as though he gets my drift, and nods repeatedly, “Ok, ok, ok,” he says, heading quickly for the exit, “thank you!”
“I might have given him a few more examples,” I say to the barista, thinking of a few politicians, gun kooks, mass shooters and deniers of climate change, “but I don’t know if he would appreciate them.”
I spend most of my days alone, working in the orchard, a quiet working retreat away from the flow of tourists and the brutish world of American politics and wingnuts.
A lone hawk screeches in the gray distance overhead, obscured by the canopy of avocado trees under which I labor. A large dark avocado, a late ripener, drops heavily, clunking through the leaves and branches above until it plops to the ground with a thud. I’m glad it doesn’t drop on my head. It’s plump and weighty and I know how much it hurts to get bonked by one.
The only sound besides the hawk, is the breeze sweeping dry leaves along the ground, and brushing back green leaves in the trees. I stop to listen. The harvest ended several weeks ago, only a few ripe stragglers remain, like the one that just fell, hidden from view from a flush of new growth.
The leaves tremble in succession from one tree to the next, as warm air whooshes through the orchard like a twirling, invisible dancer. More fruit falls in its path. Plop, plop, plop. The season has turned ghostly. It’s fall in California, even though most days it still feels hot, dry and summer-hardened.
An abundance of lime-green bulbs, about the shape and size of small pears, grows on the trees, the promise of a new crop, next season’s harvest, food for avocado lovers, provided all goes well, no frosts, wind storms, or pestilence, and a winter full of rain.
Another winter without rain, however, will turn this semi-arid region of extreme drought into a desert with devastating crop losses, catastrophic fires, and panic for nearly 40 million residents competing with their straws for less and less of the less-than-half-full glass that remains of the state’s water.
Days like this, without the shortening and lengthening of shadows, time stands still; it’s hard to worry about shortages, difficult people, and lumbering RVs in the bleak white blanket of a thick marine layer, harder still to imagine this place without water, the only way these trees will survive or produce more fruit.
This morning’s cloud cover, the first heavy bit of moisture we’ve had in weeks, will soon give way to blue sky and sun. Until recently, however, there’s been little to no marine layer, unusual for coastal weather, the hot dry easterlies prevail, blowing like a furnace down the mountain passes and through the valleys, raising temperatures to record levels.
“This feels really unnatural. When’s it going to finally rain?” I hear people ask.
“Soon, I hope.”
Tourists—and some residents—seem to have no clue how dire things are.
Late October, and it’s still ungodly hot. Whether it’s unnatural I can’t say but the ongoing heat and sun have sucked whatever moisture was left in this drought-stricken land a long time ago, leaving plant and animal parched for precious water. Sightings of coyotes and mountain lions have become more common as they come down from the hills to search for food and water. Dried up reservoirs give the best visual of how bad it is.
Signs posted along rural roads in Paso Robles wine country tell another story, “DRY WELL.”
In some places, we’re drawing water from the Pleistocene era. Yet, we still must contend with billionaire water smugglers buying up properties in the north county so they can suck up, bottle and ship elsewhere what little of our water is left so they can get rich. I take a long draught from the bottle of well water I carry with me in the field. Like all the other critters, I’m thirsty. I’m lucky to drink from a well that still runs. I refuse to buy FIJI Water.
The sun’s intensity frightens rather than warms with its penetrating rays. I’ve already felt the knife to remove three melanomas, a skin cancer that will kill if left untreated. And these were borne from days of exposure when the sun felt—and probably was—much less intense.
Now, the sun itself cuts, its rays slashing through fiber and filament, making it unpleasant to bear more than a few minutes of exposure, as if the sun might actually make an incision and draw blood. I’m lucky to be working in the shadows of an avocado canopy that spreads out over several acres for which, thankfully, there’s still enough water to irrigate, and cover enough to stay sheltered from the direct sun.
As we head into the rainy season, all the prognosticators point to a potentially record winter with wetter-than-normal rainfall, fueled by what has been billed as a “Godzilla” El Niño. The above-normal temperatures of the Pacific Ocean will pack our winter storms with a powerful punch, driving a flow of moisture and rain like a machine, dumping buckets as they go, forecasters say. We need the water and the snowpack to lessen the dire state of its lack in the region’s worst drought in 1,200 years, according to those who have studied the phenomenon. But even Noah’s flood, apparently, won’t fix the drought.
Farmers fret as water shortages threaten to destroy field crops and fruit-bearing trees, and land sinks from an overdraft of groundwater in the Central Valley, while rich celebrities sitting pretty in LA and the Bay Area pour tens of thousands of gallons of water on their estate lawns and gardens.
The rationale, presumably, is that they will pay the fines and rate hikes, no big deal, they’ve got plenty of money. But what happens when there’s no more water? What good will their money do then? It’s a mindset that never ceases to amaze me, the “la-de-fucking-da” attitude toward precious resources like water.
Before the West’s major water projects, many driven by greed, land values in California, where there wasn’t any water, were cheap, even beachfront property. But land grabbers like William Mulholland fixed that, securing millions for himself and his friends in one of the state’s most ambitious and notoriously crooked water projects to develop the San Fernando Valley and LA basin. Water wars are nothing new here.
Only the promise and supply of water can keep us alive, let alone wealthy, and from cutting one another’s throats.
For sure, as I might have informed my Japanese friend, we have our share of wingnuts in this country and, like the rest of the world, they’re either politicians or religious or angry young men intent on killing, or scientifically challenged, many with their own radio shows, unable to fathom the potential devastation—extremes in weather, for example—from climate change, and who for no other reason than lack of an educated and critical mind don’t know the difference between civil law and religious superstition.
I wonder how so many seemingly intelligent people, Americans especially, since we presumably value a good education, can be so easily fooled by the crooked and the small-minded, giving precious time, energy and money to mean and vicious people and causes.
The GOP, for example, is in disarray, hobbled by the mean and nasty, ultra-right wing rabble, mostly members of the so-called Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives, attempting to hijack the government, threatening at every turn to shut it down. I don’t understand or like this kind of thinking—if you can call it that—from hijackers and so-called “freedom” fighters. Yet, I encounter them nearly every day—not only in the news but in the coffee shops, bars and workplaces here at home.
“How come you have to be such a fucking liberal?” a local farmer and freedom fighter once asked me during a political talk. Not long after that, he cut off my water supply to a field I was tending on his farm. I begged him for water as the heat of summer intensified and the plants began to wilt and fruit was forming but going bad. He refused, the ripening fruit fell off, and we lost our harvest and all of the income from our hard labor.
I’d rather be a liberal than someone who sabotages another’s labor or livelihood on the basis of politics and grudges, unless of course I want to start a revolution, or recklessly meddle in other people’s affairs, or become a hater and a fool, of whom we already have plenty. Only the wicked, as I understand, seek to destroy what another has built to provide for himself and his family. Only a fool will try usurp what is not his to own or possess.
In many ways, I live and work like a hermit, mostly alone with plenty of—maybe too much—time to think. I like being physically active. It gets my mind off things, and that’s a saving grace out here. Still, the mind will play tricks. Maybe the world isn’t all quite as bad as I imagine, not as long as the sentient and wise prevail, who nonetheless appear to have been purged from the planet.
The only reliable witnesses to truth in this era are the modern court jesters—Steven Colbert, Jon Stewart, Matt and Trey and now Trevor Noah—the wise clowns and fools on network television, who aren’t afraid to mock and laugh at the pretenses and posturing of those who wish to put on a show and wear the emperor’s new clothes and get promoted by real fools.
Meanwhile, I’m feeling beat up from my labors, lower back complaints, hips, feet, neck and shoulders and try not to be too discouraged. But an even deeper hurt speaks to me: Where do I belong? Where’s my home? What happened to my country?
A lone plane passes overhead and the wind brushes through the leaves again. Two hawks soar silently above the southeastern hills, taking updrafts, diving, circling back, climbing, climbing, and circling closer and closer until they clip wings as they swing past each other in the late afternoon breeze, an aerial dance all predicated on food and water.
Through the long rows of trees, in the tunnel of green they form, I try to follow a light path but seem to carry a heavy burden. Imagine living fully present, I think, fully engaged. How would that look? What worries then? What difference would it make? It’s all I’ve got, really, to keep from falling into a pit of despair thinking of how far we’ve fallen as a “free” nation, where people will as quickly piss in their water as drink it.
I enjoy seeing my hometown through the eyes of tourists who pass through and look with wonder upon the beaches and ocean that surround us, who are curious and wonder, “What is, ‘Wingnut’?” They keep it fresh and real.
For the first time since late last winter, I hear the sound of a tree frog in the orchard. They’ve been so quiet in the dried up creek at home. Last winter they were so loud one had to raise a voice to be heard. If and when they return, the roads will be slick and wet and the road to Big Sur much less traveled, and Godzilla will be pouring down his fury upon us. §
Stacey Warde is a farmhand and publisher of TheRogueVoice.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In parched, sun-baked California, buyer beware
by Stacey Warde
I bought a cheap pair of plastic sunglasses, made in China, at the Cayucos Super Market several days ago, a purchase I’ve come to regret.
In less than a week, they broke. Of course.
The white “Made in China” small print along the inside of the temple piece began to wear off in less than two days.
The frame cracked the next day and by the fourth day the flimsy dark plastic eyepiece fell out.
Not my best purchase.
I bought them becuase the sun bears down hard lately, harder than feels normal this early in the season, mid-April, and summer still officially two months away.
Pollens and dust from swirling, drying winds fill the air. Clouds of tiny bugs drift across the dusty ranch road. They fly into my eyes whenever I drive the quad to get to the orchards I tend as a farmhand. It’s annoying as hell, and hazardous to boot.
Additionally, my eyes have been light sensitive, they hurt and they’ve been watering. When I put on scratched-up safety goggles or get sun screen in my eyes, I can hardly see sometimes. A new pair of sunglasses seemed essential.
I might have known better. Buyer beware.
It feels like summer already. It’s so damned bright, and hot. We’ve had above-normal temperatures for weeks now, and little of the precipitation this parched country so desperately needs. The governor has put restrictions on water, demanding reductions in residential use.
Farmers and corporations, apparently, are not subject to the same restrictions. Blame and finger-pointing have begun in earnest; last week, it was Nestle® who was most at fault, and this week, environmentalists are to blame for the historic drought.
The dust on dirt ranch roads kicks up much more easily now, and hangs in the air longer, like a faded earthen curtain, blinding and choking, slowly drifting with the breeze, moisture and water obscured from sight and becoming more scarce.
Ticks and snakes have come out, predators and pests are more prevalent. The coyotes sneak closer to drink from the dwindling creek in front of my cabin. They nabbed a neighbor’s house cat recently.
I heard the shrill and sudden scream of the cat in its final desperate act of defiance. Wrong place, wrong time that night. Tooth and claw, foolish cat. The kill couldn’t have been very satisfying for the coyote. The cat was scrawny, no contender, and had snuck out of the house, where it was safe, and went down to the creek.
“That’s what they do,” a friend tells me of the coyotes, “they sit near the creek at night and wait for critters to come drink.”
The night cry spooked me. I thought a bobcat or young mountain lion had screamed. It pierced the night, fierce and defiant, even for a scrawny animal.
When I flashed my light across the creek, I saw the coyote chawing on the victim’s feline remains. I threw a rock at the prowler and it dashed off into the darkness with its prey.
My neighbor was grief-stricken. “She shouldn’t have gone out there,” she lamented. “She never had a chance.”
As water becomes more scarce, we’re likely to have more run-ins with predators risking rocks, ranch rifles and shotguns to get their food and drink.
Some say the unusual brightness and intense sunlight are evidence of global warming, or of fallout from the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, or of a government conspiracy to spread mind- and weather-altering chemicals in the sky. Whatever it is, it’s rough on the eyes.
Barely two days after buying my new sunglasses, I noticed the flimsy dark plastic lens on the left side popping off the rim.
“Good thing I got these for eight dollars instead of the fifteen they wanted on the sticker price,” I thought.
I had plowed through the pastic-wrapped, toy-like sunglasses on a bottom shelf near the handkerchiefs and beach items and over-the-counter medicines, eager to find a protective cover for my eyes.
“Oh, these’ll be OK, only four dollars.” My eyes, tired from age, and watering from excessive light, wind and dust, missed a digit on the price tag. The nice lady at the cash register, seeing my difficulty, offered them to me at the cut rate of only $7.99 instead of $14.99.
I knew better the moment I touched those shitty, toy-variety sunglasses, that they were worthless, absolutely worthless, and I bought them any way.
At first I got mad at the country of origin—there wasn’t any manufacturer’s label, just a price tag. “Fuck you, China, for your cheap consumer ‘goods!’” And: “Fuck me for being dumb enough to buy them!”
I’m working in the avocado orchard today, tending 1,300 or so trees, irrigating, pumping thousands of gallons of water, installing injectors with their chemical magic to keep dying trees in production, cutting out deadwood, and pulling up suckers and sprouted seeds.
It’s unseasonably hot and dry again. I’ve put on my new sunglasses, and that helps against the intense brightness of the sun.
We’re one of the lucky few growers in California. We still have water. This season’s crop of avocados looks promising and we expect a favorable yield, so long as the water supply holds out.
Just over the hill, however, barely a mile or so distant, a friend who also farms avocados has already heard the gut-wrenching sound of gurgling from one of his pumps, indicating that his water source is running low.
“It hurts like hell,” he says, “to watch what you’ve worked so hard for just wilt away. But what are you going to do? You can’t fight mother nature.”
Some growers have begun trucking in water but that’s an expense few can afford.
The green from what little rain we got this season has begun to fade and turn shades of yellow and brown; drying grasses appear the way they usually do at the beginning of summer.
The rolling golden hills of California…are not such a pretty sight right now. It’s going to be a long, hot summer.
Trees have been cut down, stumped and painted white. Pests have turned up, attacking weakened trees and fruit, and will continue to be an issue as water turns more scarce.
The great California drought of the new millenium put a significant stamp on this county’s agriculture in 2014, according to the ag department, reducing yields of avocados. The drier weather was good for strawberries, though, which topped even grapes as the highest yielding crop in a region that prides itself on wine.
The wine industry, meanwhile, continues to suck up the lion’s share of North County’s water. How much more water can be squeezed out of the ground is anyone’s guess but when it does finally run out, we’ll have plenty of wine to drink.
The world-class desal plant in Cambria is a last resort as a home water source but some people still complain about and fight it, arguing they’ll pay more for their water rather than contribute to farming water from the ocean or brackish ponds. But how much will they pay when traditional water sources run out?
“This is bad, really bad,” people keep saying.
Nonetheless, even with water restrictions and hills turning brown, residential landscapes, the little slices of heaven we create to insulate ourselves from the cruel world, manage to stay green. As long as water continues to pour out of the taps, homeowners seem to think, what’s to worry about?
In the Central Valley, meanwhile, the nation’s breadbasket, some water-starved growers have shut down operations and unemployment among farmhands has skyrocketed.
One of the benefits of working out here is the lack of distractions from meddlesome and self-important boobs whose only apparent goal in life is to make money, or sell something, regardless of its value.
Not to say there’s anything wrong with making money or selling goods and services but some people I know—and avoid—think only of turning a buck, would sell you a bucketful of dogshit if they could, and tell you what a great value you’re getting.
I despise those people, the crafty, who lack integrity, whose only motivation is to make a fast buck, the hosers and posers, the merchants of cheap and worthless goods, whose only real interest in you is how much money they can get out of you. I avoid them whenever possible. They’re scum.
Then, there’s my farmer friend whose wells are going dry, whose one great joy in life is to put food on people’s tables. He takes pride in growing quality organic produce, and is glad to provide something of value, something that actually improves the quality of people’s lives.
If more people thought the way he did, we might not be subject to cheap imitations and bogus, worthless consumer goods, with which this culture, thanks largely to slave-labor countries like China, more than eager to supply them, seems to have overrun itself.
While eating lunch in front of Ruddell’s Smokehouse in Cayucos, friends of mine brought up the subject of U.S. indebtedness to China. [Disclosure: The smokehouse is a sponsor of The Rogue Voice.]
“What’s going to happen,” asks one, “when they finally decide to collect on their debt? Will the U.S. be able to pay? And, if not, what will China do, invade us?”
“I doubt it,” I say, “but if they do, the only thing that will save us will be places like this, places that haven’t succumbed to selling cheap and worthless goods.”
What drives this dependency on cheap goods? Low wages? A lackluster economy? The so-called recovery from the Crash of 2008, from which many still suffer, is being hailed as the “low-wage recovery,” meaning basically that jobs don’t pay enough for workers to survive.
There was a time when, perhaps a fool’s errand, I thought I could avoid buying anything made in China. That seems almost impossible now. §
Stacey Warde is publisher of The Rogue Voice.
by Stacey Warde
As a farmhand, I spend a lot of time in the orchards that border cougar country in rural coastal central California, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
There are frequent sightings, from ranchers and people who live out in the wild, which surrounds our little beach village, Cayucos, “the little town that time forgot,” and, although I’ve had the good fortune, so far, of avoiding direct contact with one of these mountain lions, I’ve met far worse predators in the hills they roam.
A recent posting of a photo on Facebook from a neighboring farm showed the clear M-shaped padding of a California mountain lion’s paw.
“Holy shit!” I commented.
That’s so close, I thought, in cougar time, just minutes away. That beast could pounce and I’d never know it.
It happened not long ago in Orange County. A competitive and sponsored cyclist hunched over a broken bicycle chain in the Whiting Ranch wilderness area took a crushing bite to the back of his neck, as is the habit of cougars on the prowl for easy prey, and was dragged off the path and into the brush. He got eaten.
Not long after that, the same lion, apparently, dragged a woman cyclist by her head into the brush, but an alert friend grabbed the woman’s leg, fended off the lion, and saved her friend from certain death.
Authorities found the previous cyclist’s body partially buried nearby after tending the traumatized woman, and discovered a healthy 2-year-old male lion, weighing 115 pounds, lurking in the shadows, standing guard over his earlier quarry. Sheriff’s deputies shot and killed the lion.
The proximity of the cougar’s print to my workplace made me reflect on the many days I’ve spent alone in the middle of the avocado and orange groves, out of shouting range, hunched over, concentrating, as the cyclist, on the task at hand, oblivious to predators. And believe me, they’re out here.
I’m an easy target for a hungry lion.
Lately, I’ve spent most of my work hours in and between the rows, in the deep dark middle of a forest of green avocado trees, pruning, trimming suckers and deadwood, tending irrigation lines that provide water and nutrients, enjoying the fresh air and serenity of the outdoors.
It’s quiet steady work and I like it. It keeps me fit and no one bothers me, I go at my own pace. I’m alone. No office politics or subterfuge, no irritating phone calls and needless interruptions. I just go, and occasionally pause to observe the leavings and scat and rustlings of previous visitors from the surrounding wild.
I have the run of the orchard, which plays host to a myriad of beasts small and large. Wild boars, piglets, skunks, turkeys, deer, quail, coyotes, bobcats, squirrels, rats and quite possibly mountain lions.
I’ve seen all the creatures in both orchards, with the exception of mountain lions and wild boars, which is fine with me.
“Yeah, well, they’re out there,” says the ranch boss, stating the obvious, when I mention the image of tracks posted on Facebook, “but they’re mostly looking for deer or…” he hesitates, “…sheep.”
Sheep means domestic, which means close to home, next to the orchards. And there are plenty of deer in the orange grove, which means plenty of food for mountain lions. I see deer lounging in the shade between rows of large leafy green trees, tails twitching, ears alert, keeping watch, bolting into the brush when they see me.
The boss’s remark only slightly assures me.
“They’re mostly nocturnal,” he adds of the big cat. Small comfort, I think.
Now, throughout the day I keep close watch over my shoulders, frequently peering up and down and between the trees, searching for signs of life other than my own.
I’m somewhat clueless about the otherworldly stealth and elusiveness of these incredible creatures that cover huge swaths of ground in a day. Generally, they tend to shy away from encounters with humans. As development creeps into their range, however, encounters become more likely.
I imagine that I could fend one off with my long-handled cultivator, which has sharp heavy metal tines at one end and give the effect of a claw. I carry it with me during my treks through the orchards, twirling and spinning it like the wood staff I learned to wield as a weapon through years of aikido training.
I’d throw myself into the combat with that or with a much longer, extended pruning saw that I also carry and which cuts sharp.
Experts advise those who may find themselves face-to-face with a mountain lion to make themselves big, throw up their arms and yell and make lots of noise, the opposite of what we might want to do instinctively, which is to run.
My landlord, no chicken-hearted individual, a rancher known for his daring, who pioneered big wave surfing with his friend Jerry Lopez on the North Shore of Oahu, told me of an encounter with a cougar during the night that had him crawling under his vehicle for protection.
He had pulled up to a watering station on his ranch, just a few canyons down the highway from the orchards where I work. It was dark out and he did not see the animal. As he was about to adjust the valves, he heard a blood-curdling scream from the beast not 10 yards away.
“I’ve never been so terrified in my life,” he said, explaining why he crawled under the four-wheeler instead of bolting. “I was shaking in my boots.” After slipping away, he returned the next day to find the lion’s kill on the other side of the tree where he’d been standing.
I stretch with my long-handled cultivator and breathe and feel the earth beneath my boots and know that I’d last about two seconds in such an encounter. My only consolation, I tell myself, and believe as much as possible: At least I won’t go down without a fight.
Still, I strive to be vigilant and know that sooner or later, if it’s not the mountain lion, something else is going to get me. It’s going to get us all, whatever you’re afraid of, it’s going to get you. I’ve accepted that, even if daily I protest loudly against it. Being alone, mindful of the risks, ever watchful, I’m constantly reminded of my mortality and the shortness of life. Against the odds, I plow forward, lunging against the rocks and hardness of clay, which will eventually pull me down, while I scream: “I have a right to be here!”
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but it’s end is the way of death.”
I read that the other day as I was thinking about the mountain lion prowling the fields nearby, wondering about its range and whether it might ever come into the orchard, and why was I still laboring as a farmhand. I read it on the marque of the community church downtown, a quaint, Third Street edifice that gives food to the poor on Wednesdays and serves a community dinner at Thanksgiving. The quote is from the book of Proverbs in the bible, calling into question our ability to choose aptly, calling out our need for guidance and protection. Whatever way one chooses, no matter how right it may seem at the time, it’s end is determined by forces beyond our control.
You may think you’re wise and doing right, but God—and the harsh determinist nature of the universe—is the final judge of that.
The sign irritated me at first but I kept thinking about it: Am I on the right path? Do I belong here in the orchards? In this town? What guides me through these uncertain days where there are predators in the field? Am I making wise choices? What is the end of “my” way? What is the end of “anyone’s” way? What’s next?
It doesn’t look too hopeful, at least not from here, not yet. I’ve been working in these hills and fields since 2008, when the economy drew near collapse, altering countless lives, including mine, putting millions on notice that nothing is secure, not your job, not your life, not institutions you trusted with your hard-earned savings, not your investment in real estate, nothing. I found farm labor one of the few viable options. Everything that I’d known until that point had been completely altered, or disappeared entirely, jobs, opportunities, the future….
I gave up publishing, one of the hardest hit industries during the near-collapse brought on mostly by Wall Street bankers who traded in and got filthy rich off of bad loans, and took to the local farm, exposing myself to an entirely different way of life, one that is full of unique hardships: dust, molds, chemicals, heat, exposure. It’s wild and wonderful out here but it doesn’t pay well, barely a living wage, and there are plenty of risks. I live from one paycheck to the next. I chose this path because it was the only one available at the time. So far, I like it yet keep wondering, where’s the beef? Where’s the real money, the real security?
Now, five years later, entering into my “golden” years, as so many millions of other hapless boomers, I wonder how my choices will play out: This is the way that has seemed right to me, staying here, building ties, getting grounded, hoping for a better future, even if my budget allows me to take only one day at a time.
Another day whips by, I keep watch over my health, critters in the wild and ill-tempered men, and wonder: What are my options and opportunities? With no retirement, no savings? What’s next? “Hi, I’m Stacey! Welcome to Wal-Mart”? That option certainly seems like death to me. But what real options are there for the millions of Americans like me displaced forever through the greed of Wall Street bankers selling fraudulent loans?
I could get eaten by a mountain lion. It might be better than alternatives like poverty, cancer, a head-on collision on Highway 1, or worse, encounters with some local ranchers, bullies at the corporate office, or men in suits. Every day I think about the shortness of life, about possibilities and how I might live more wakefully. The cougar has helped me with that.
I seek the companionship of those who have been touched in an honest way, who’ve been broken and humbled, rather than jaded and embittered, by their experiences, who know their limits and yet keep aiming beyond what they know, without losing their sense of what is possible and humane. Life is short, as we’ve heard so often, and so, between the mountain lion and choosing a path, I’ve been thinking a lot about how quickly time passes. At 55, I’m not so young any more.
“I’m an old man!” I’d yell at the mountain lion. “You don’t want to eat me! I’d taste like shit!”
Turkey vultures and red tailed hawks, a golden eagle, circle above, lifted by updrafts from the surrounding hills, which are barren and rocky. The trees, thankfully, are merely green with leaves, buds and new fruit, and nothing lurks in them.
I scan the ridge lines and arroyos, searching for movement in the dry weeds and grasses common to the coastal sage region after years of drought.
About a year ago, the ranch lost a sheep to a mountain lion.
I was drinking coffee with the boss, going over the day’s work plan for my solo duties in the orchard, when he blurted, “Oh yeah, and watch out for the big cat!”
It took me a moment to register the “big cat” part of his comment. I was heading out the door when I realized what he meant. I turned to face the boss, “You mean, mountain lion?”
“Yeah, got one of our sheep last night.”
“Should I be carrying a gun?” I offered.
“You can if it’ll make you feel better but you’ll be all right.”
I spent that entire day creeped out by the possibility of crossing paths with that nocturnal sheep rustler.
I encountered a mountain lion once in the wild of coastal northern California while camping on a sandbar on a creek between towering redwoods.
I had just tucked into my sleeping bag next to my wife, who was already sleeping. We rested beneath a tarp I had rigged into a lean-to so we could look up at the stars and stay protected from the moisture of nightfall.
The coals were still burning hot on the campfire I’d built in the sand at the opening to our shelter, keeping us warm. A full stack of deadwood I’d gathered in the forest stood ready to stir the fire again in the morning chill.
I had dozed off when I was awakened by the quick flip-flapping sound—splish, splash, splish—of a duck’s webbed feet, scooting along the creek just below the sand bar.
I thought nothing of it until, seconds later, I heard the slow deliberate steps of a man walking up river. My watch showed just past 1 a.m.
Who would be walking upstream at this hour?
I grabbed my flashlight and shined it on the creek below where I’d heard the steps, and saw the unmistakable sleek shape and brown coloring of a mountain lion not 30 yards away. It stood frozen in the unnatural light, its legs stuck like posts in middle of the dark creek.
The duck had long ago disappeared. Dinner escaped into the forest night. For whatever reason, call it a fool’s curiosity, a death wish, the need to hail the beast, I whistled at it like a bird.
The animal turned to face me and began to walk across the creek.
“Oh fuck!” I yelled.
[For every “Oh fuck!” I’ve blurted, I wonder how different my life would be if I had shouted, “Oh yeah!”]
Fortunately, perhaps it was instinct, I had already jumped out of my bag before turning on the flashlight. I was on my feet, standing next to the pile of dead wood I’d stacked for the morning fire. I tossed several large pieces of the dry wood onto the hot coals and they burst into flame with a suddenness that startled even me. I shouted loudly through the fire, “Yeah!”
The cougar turned quickly away and ran back into the forest across the creek.
“What’s going on?” my wife asked sleepily.
I told her what had happened.
“Sometimes you’re not so bright,” she said, turning to go back to sleep. I sat by the fire for as long as possible, restless and unsettled, feeling stupid.
Now, as the shadows grow long, I’m keenly alert to any signs of intruders in the orchard. I watch for tracks, scat, and anything that would warn of the presence of a mountain lion.
The boss’s “Well, yeah, they’re out there” keeps playing through my mind. I spend less time crouched beneath the trees and more time looking over my shoulders, listening for crackling leaves and twigs, basically any sign of life in the darkening grove.
I’ve attuned my ears to the presence of raptors winging overhead in search of prey, the whoosh of air from their wings swooping like a phantom past the tops of avocado trees. I’ve developed an eye for signs of coyotes chewing on irrigation lines and pigs pushing up leaves in search of food.
I’ve spotted deer and bobcats, wild turkeys and the remains of skunks shredded by predators, perhaps a great horned owl or coyote.
The orchards teem with wildlife.
Experts advise against solo ventures into the wild. A good way to protect oneself from harm is to travel with a companion. I don’t have that option and rather like working alone in the orchards.
It feels right most days. Still, I often wonder what I’m doing here, thinking that I might do better for myself, and long for the editor’s chair and wish for another chance to publish a magazine (where lions of another sort can be confronted, even tamed).
In the five long years since the so-called Great Recession, I’ve worked in the fields, picked up side jobs in landscaping and window cleaning, pushing wheelbarrows and climbing ladders. I’ve been mostly a laborer and work hard for my money. At my age, that’s no easy feat.
The lion doesn’t frighten me half as much, however, as the vultures on Wall Street, who were mostly responsible for the crash of 2008, and some of the people I’ve met here, who have their own predatory habits, which are more insidious, I think, than the much-maligned cougar.
I’ve witnessed beauty here that few ever get to see, and I’m grateful for that. There’s blight out here too, but mostly it’s fresh and clean, the air swept cool from coastal breezes, the land tended and watched, scrubbed by sun and drought.
Water is a precious resource in this dry, semi-arid climate but there seems to be plenty of it in this part of the country. It can vary from one canyon to the next, though, and not far from here farmers are hauling truckloads of water and paying lots for it to keep their trees alive.
We haven’t had that problem in this canyon yet and hope that we never will. But if the drought continues, the worst on record, as it has for these many years, it could get ugly.
I’ve seen ugly when a farmer gets stingy with water. I suffered the loss of a full season’s harvest of blueberries because we were refused water from our supplier, a long-time farmer.
Green berries about to turn color, promising a well-deserved bounty, fell off the plants by the buckets full. The plants went dry and we lost our harvest, and possibly thousands of dollars.
I pleaded for water long before it got so bad. “You of all people, a farmer, must know how important it is for me to harvest those berries and get them to market,” I argued.
“Well, get yourself a water tank,” he said after a moment.
“Just let us have some water to get through the harvest,” I said, “and then we’ll get out of here.” He did not want us there.
I don’t know to this day what we did to turn him on us. Once, he said: “How come you have to be a fucking liberal?” Maybe it was political as much as it was personal. I thought he was a good guy, a good Christian who attends the church whose marque warns of the perils of the paths we choose.
“Oh yeah, he’s a straight up guy,” a person I admire, a local businessman, once said of him. I thought so too until he put me out of business. Now, he refuses to acknowledge me. There are worse predators in this town than mountain lions, people who call themselves Christians, people who love to hate, people who refuse to give you water when you need it.
The way of death really belongs to them. Frankly, I’d rather be eaten by a mountain lion than make friends with someone who is more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing and goes to church. That’s the choice I want to make, the path that seems right to me: Steer clear of predators, hypocrites and trouble.
I heard a story once about a hunter who was tracking a mountain lion in the hills not far from here. He found himself going in a circle after a while and then got a creepy feeling. He turned on instinct and not 15 yards behind him was the very lion he had been tracking.
Maybe it’s a true story, maybe it’s not. But it shows that we are never far from trouble if we go looking for it.
For now, as I say, I like working alone and keeping vigilant watch in cougar country. §
Stacey Warde is publisher of The Rogue Voice. This article is adapted from an earlier version that appeared on his blog.
I’m 70 years old and flunked the written DMV drivers test. I didn’t bother to study for it and felt I knew the answers and flunked it badly, a disgrace for a guy who’s never been in a wreck and hasn’t had a ticket in 25 years and drove a cab for three years. You’re allowed to miss three out of l8 to pass. I missed six. I was handed the DMV manual and told to study it and come back when I was prepared.
I put it off in a couple weeks. I was intimidated by the complicated, purposely deceiving questions and felt persecuted by the bureaucrats trying to trick me. I am easily deceived and confused these days. My mind is no longer acute. My confidence has waned. Still, I read good books and ran a literary journal and have been told I can maintain an intelligent conversation with educated people, especially in bars after a few drinks.
I browsed the manual the night before driving from Cayucos to San Luis Obispo, Calif., 20 miles away, on a day I also play basketball in a gym there at noon—a priority in my life. I arrived early at the DMV and instead of taking the test right away, sat and studied the manual for an hour, infuriated that those sadists accumulated l00 pages of bullshit to absorb and remember.
Feeling doomed, I accepted the test from the same woman who’d flunked me before. Almost immediately, on the second or third question, I was fulminating at multiple choices that were seemingly the same but worded again to trick a person with a perfect driving record who should’ve had his license mailed to him instead of experiencing this humiliation. I was muttering and cursing in the little enclosure, avoiding answering certain questions, answering the few easy ones, then returning to the ones confusing and deceiving me and pissing me off. I ended up trying to use my common sense and instincts and handed the test over to the same woman, who immediately began checking off wrong answers.
I again missed six. I was grinding my teeth.
“I could take this damn test ten times and flunk it,” I railed at her. “This test is designed to trick me. I’m a good driver. No wrecks, no tickets, perfect. What am I supposed to do now, for Christ’s sake?”
She was not one bit ruffled from my fusillade, whipped out information on a computer and handed me a sheet of paper—a date to take another test, along with a renewed temporary license.
“Some people have problems with the written test,” she explained. “Just show up at 8:l5 and you’ll take it orally with another group of people who have the same trouble as you.”
She briefly scrutinized me. “You’ll do fine, sir.”
Well, I was so rattled I showed up a week later on the wrong day, waited in a line 30 minutes before discovering my idiocy. I went and played hoop, a person competing against men half my age, can sink a shot from 22 feet, out-smart my opponents, and flunk a simple drivers test a l5-year -old could pass in a breeze.
I showed up the following morning. Right off I recognized my fellow flunkers. A middle-aged native American with braided hair and a scowl sat beside an obese white woman. A white-haired lady frantically studied the DMV manual and fretted. An employee in the hive behind the long lines yelled out at her: “Mrs. Russo, did you report in?”
She peered up from her manual. “Uh…yes.”
“Okay, Mrs. Russo!”
A rotund woman around 40, perhaps Latina, also studied the manual. Her sweatshirt displayed a row of a dozen booze bottles followed with the words, l2 STEPS—THERAPY WORKS. A white-haired man with a neat goatee, dressed preppie in a red sweater vest, arrived, peered around, sat down, peered around, stood, gazed around. The woman in the hive yelled, “Mr. Webster, have you reported, sir?” Mr. Webster reported. So did I. I sat back down. A tall, stooped, white-haired man, at least 80, checked in, using a cane. He was morose. A young wild-eyed girl with hummingbird energy checked in. I sat clenching my teeth, knowing if I flunked this test I should probably turn myself into social services and question whatever I was doing day to day. A middle-aged woman led in another geezer, this one in worse shape than the white-haired man who stood against a wall grumbling.
The woman in the hive yelled very loudly at us: “ALL THOSE TAKING THE ORAL DRIVERS TEST, PLEASE FOLLOW ME!”
We all stood and followed her into a room with a long table and padded chairs, the kind of place you see in movies where corporate henchmen grill and terrify sycophants. Mrs. Russo was disoriented and struggling with her chair. I quickly pulled it forward and seated her. She thanked me, panic in her eyes. “I’m no good at taking tests,” she confessed. “I never have been.”
“Me neither,” I said, not telling her I once aced tests in college.
The tall, white-haired geezer was told by the woman in charge to sit down, but he seemed too pissed to do so. I pulled a chair up for him and he nodded at me and sat down, and Mrs. Russo righteously declared, “There’s a gentleman in the house.”
I glanced at the Indian man beside me. His ball cap indicated his tribe. He was still scowling.
The lady in charge handed us a sheet of paper with l8 true/false questions and two extra sheets with street signs. The first question, which she delivered very loudly, was, “True or false? If you come to a flashing red light at an intersection, you slow down to see if it’s safe, then drive through.”
The white-haired geezer couldn’t hear her. She walked over to him and screamed out the question. “Christ,” he muttered, shaking his head. “False. Anybody knows that.”
“Please, sir, do not repeat the answer out loud!” She was not angry.
“Okay, sorry,” he muttered, grimacing.
The blanks for questions 5 and 6 were blacked out. When we came to these questions, she said, “The answer to question number five is on your sheets of road signs! The first question is, which sign is a ‘one-way street’? Place the number five beside that sign.”
I found an arrow pointing one way with the words “One Way” on it and placed a 5 beside it. The goateed guy on the other side of me was confused. So was the lady with booze bottles on her sweatshirt. The lady in charge patiently went over the question with them. Somehow this tolerant woman made it through all l8 questions. We made for the door, the Indian out first, me behind him. In line, the old white-haired geezer was behind me. He was very tall. While the gloomy Indian was being processed, the white-haired goat seemed to loom over me. His lip curled up to reveal a false teeth sneer.
“This whole goddam thing, the goddam test, it’s a goddam crock of shit,” he told me.
“You got that right,” I agreed.
“I’d like t’ find the assholes made up these tests and wring their goddam necks,” he added.
“You’re not alone,” I told him.
“Hell,” he growled. “I was a goddam cop for forty years. Never had a wreck!”
“LAPD?” I asked.
“Naw. St. Louis. My hometown.”
“Hell,” I said. “I’m real familiar with St. Louis. I used to work on the riverboat, the Delta Queen, on the Mississippi. We docked down by the arch.”
“That was my territory. For twelve years!” he exclaimed. “That was a rough area. We cleaned it up.”
“St. Louis is in the World Series,” I said.
Before he could answer, a man in another line down the row, said, “I was just in St. Louis and saw a playoff game. The Cardinals won. I’m from St. Louis, too!”
The old goat said, “I was a motorcycle cop.” He pulled out his wallet and withdrew his old police ID card and showed it to me. It was from the l950s. Patrick Riley. 25 years old. 6-foot-4, l80 pounds. A handsome young officer with those uniforms with a strap over a shoulder. “I came out here fifteen years ago. I’m 87 years old. I got quick-bowel syndrome. You think it’s fun driving from Paso Robles and back, taking these stupid tests when I might crap my pants, for Christ’s sake!”
“I hope that doesn’t happen to me,” I said. “I’m 70, still playing basketball…”
He squinted at me. “Why, you don’t look a day over 50.”
“Thanks, sir. I was beginning to think I’d lost my looks as well as my mind.”
He grinned. “Me, too.”
I was up next. I handed my test to the same woman who tested us. I watched her breeze through, never checking off any wrong answers. Perfect score.I lingered to see that the old ex-cop geezer with quick-bowel syndrome and a constant grimace passed. He did, but didn’t seem any more relieved than when he came in. Walking out, I saw Mrs. Russo, at the end of the line, biting her lips, clutching her test. I felt as if a massive cloud had been lifted from my being. For the time being….§
Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, which he shares with his dog, Wilbur. He’s a regular contributor and founding publisher of The Rogue Voice.