Empire Mine State Park

There was an arson arrest made related to the fire that broke out near my house and my mother’s house. We live in the foothills of Northern California and fire is a very real danger here.

We are still watching the details of the fire, as it is still an active incident.  We are still prepared to evacuate.  With regard to the arsonist, I’m very sad that someone set fire to our neighborhood and Empire Mine State Park. I say this as I listen to more sirens drive by.

Empire Mine has been my morning walk and my happy place for the past three years. It is my community park.  It is my place of nature and peace. I have hiked every trail more than once. More than twice. More than ten times.

Empire Mine State Park is the place where I get my steps. It is the place where I listen to Mozart or Joni Mitchell or Eminem, depending on my mood. It is the place I take friends and family to show off the beauty of my neighborhood. I have met humans and dogs there. I have met squirrels and lizards and deer. I smile every time I pass by a fern or a wild flower or an interesting leaf.  I have watched trees grow there. I have marveled at the colors in the park.  Lately, I have loved the green and the yellow and the crimson.

I took my mom for the first time last week.  We walked from Penn Gate (an entrance mostly used by locals and horse riders) to the visitor’s center.  I gave her the three-penny tour and told her that I’d show her the rest of the park in the coming weeks.

Right now, I don’t know how much of the park is left.

There is a bridge in the park that my wife and I cross on a regular basis. I usually make her stop and kiss me when we cross the bridge.

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It smells like pine and dust and grease and something like linseed oil.  It smells a lot like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.  We cross it every time we walk through Empire Mine State Park. I’m not sure right now if it is still standing.

This year, in the spring, at the back of the park, my wife and I paused to watch bumble bees going wild amongst the sage. There were purple flowers for days and an incredible buzzing. It was so alive. Yesterday, as I walked through that part of the park, I caught a whiff of the sage drying in the autumn heat and I smiled for the changing of the seasons.

I still don’t know the extent of the damage but my heart breaks. My heart breaks about the fire and it breaks that someone could have been so careless or mentally ill or downtrodden or desperate to unleash such an expense on a community.

I don’t know enough of the details to be mad or vengeful or heated. I don’t know that any details will ever make me feel mad or vengeful or heated.

I feel sad. I feel really sad right now. And, based on the initial reports about damage, I’m probably going to feel sad for a really, really long time.

I have taken pictures almost every day for the last year. This is my park.  This is my heart.  This is my place.

Pictures:

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*If you feel inclined to do something, please donate to Yubanet.com, our local fire-safety website. ($2 is fine. $200 is nice too. Donate what you can. There is no auto-renew and no additional obligation.) Yubanet has kept so many people aware and safe in times of devastation. The site in run by an incredible person and is the go-to communication when it comes to fire danger: http://yubanet.com/subscriptions/

My Shelter Pet

I will never forget the day I met Sophie. I was having a really shitty day at work. By the time I took my lunch I wasn’t hungry anymore. It was the kind of day where I just couldn’t be around people any longer. When I left the office, I drove up the road in the opposite direction of my usual trajectory. I drove away from the cafes and restaurants and toward a more rural part of Sacramento County. I drove along a road bordered by telephone poles and dotted with manufacturing warehouses, in between unkempt fields of dry grass and awkwardly placed parking lots. I drove until I found a parking lot that I could turn into and turn around.

I pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Sacramento County Animal Shelter. There was a woman in her truck in the parking spot next to mine and she was crying into her hands. I got out of my car. I thought about knocking on the window and offering her a tissue but, as I approached her car, she looked up at me and she shook her head slightly. It was the kind of crying that demanded solitude. I could tell that she had come to her vehicle to be alone. I felt so intrusive about pulling into the spot next to hers and getting out of the car that I decided to walk around.

I had never been to the Sacramento County Animal Shelter before. It looked like a prison. There were chain-link fences surrounding the building and I could hear various-sized dogs barking from the inside. I think I walked in the front door only because there was no other place to go.

There was a long line of people in the lobby and there were large binders with volumes of missing animals on a table in the back. I started thumbing through the binders. They were excruciating to go through. One of the posters read, “Family dog of five years-missing. Our children are heartbroken.” There was another flyer about a cat that needed medication to survive. Each poster was terrible and sad in its own right.

The staff at the shelter was doing all they could do to help the line move along. It was a difficult sight. There were people looking for lost pets. There was a man surrendering a pit bull mix, choking back tears as he met with an animal control officer. There were kids running around the lobby and screaming. There were a few of us just standing around, meandering. At one point, a young, boisterous black man boomed over the crowd announcing, “If you are here to look at the adoptable animals, the puppies and cats are through this door and the larger breed dogs are down the hall.”

I walked through the door.

The puppies were cute. All the dogs were cute. There were puppies and there were smaller breed dogs as well. Some of them were quite older. They barked and yapped and tried to get my attention. There were fluffy dogs and wire-haired terriers. There were white ones and black ones. There were mopey dogs and dogs that were excited. Some came right up to the cage fence next to the hall and stuck their noses through the fencing, almost as though they were begging to get out. Mostly, there were a lot of Chihuahuas, some of which were standing in the far corner of the shelter cages, just shaking and looking at the wall.

The kennels and bedding looked clean but the kennels smelled like shit and bleach. It was an outstanding smell, something that could hardly be washed away. There was a clear smell that indicated an attempt at cleaning and it made the overall smell choking and terrible.

I moved past the small dogs and into the cat kennels. As a cat owner I was surprised that the stench was quite a bit more tolerable. I had expected the tin-like smell of cat pee. Instead it smelled like medicine and plastic. It was almost minty, like someone had been burning a scented Christmas candle. There were cats in cages four-cages high and maybe nine-cages across. Every cage was full. There was every kind of cat that a person could imagine. There was even one of those hairless cats, wide-eyed with giant ears, all wrapped up in shelter towels and shivering.

At the end of the hall there were two little girls meeting with an “adoption specialist.” There was a dad standing along the wall, watching with a satisfying grin at their joy. Both of the little girls had fluffy kittens in their arms. The adoption specialist kept asking the dad, “Are you sure?” He kept nodding.

The cat section had its own little folding table with two mid-forties female volunteers. Both women were likely lesbians. They had short hair and wore printed vacation tee-shirts with cargo pants and thick sandals. They had a lot of clipboards in front of them at the table and several small stacks of paperwork. One volunteer shuffled paperwork as the other one tried to manage the kitten girls.

I continued to browse the “cats available for adoption.” It was a mostly quiet endeavor, except for one black-and-white, short-haired tabby who kept crying and putting his paws through the bars. I put my hand out and let him grab one of my fingers and mew. “It’s okay,” I said. “You are very cute. Your time here will be short.” He looked at me hopefully. I wasn’t in the market.

I turned the corner to the “big dogs” hall. There was an isolated section of cat cages on my left that I didn’t pay much attention to. I could hear the big dogs even before I went through the doors.

The big dogs were a difficult sight. Many were losing hair and pacing. Some were howling at the ceiling. There were a lot of Shepherds and Pit bulls. There was a Black Labrador that had just been admitted on a call. I could tell that he was lost and missing his family terribly. There was a lot of Animal Control Officer activity in the large dog room and I just wasn’t comfortable. I headed back to the cat room.

As I walked into the hall, I noticed the section of cages that had been roped off. There were about forty cages but only three of the cages had cats in them. The rope had been set aside and there was a young female animal attendant looking at empty cages in the corner. The attendant didn’t notice me. I looked more closely at the quarantined kitties.

That’s when I saw Sophie.

She was sleeping. She didn’t see me. Not at first. But I saw her. She was tucked all the way in the back of her cage. She looked like a chocolate-faced, fluffy, milk-colored rug. And then she opened her eyes.

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I believe in love at first sight, but in very limited circumstances.

I don’t think that love-at-first-sight can completely exist between humans. For humans, love is a verb. It is a commitment that takes action and time. It may start with a feeling or an attraction, but love cannot be sustained without constant attention.

This is not true with humans and their animal companions. I have heard more love-at-first-sight stories between humans and their pets than from any other source. Sometimes you just know.

For Sophie and I, it was undoubtedly love at first sight.  When her blue eyes met mine, there was no turning back.

I met Sophie ten years ago. She was a little older than a kitten but was still very small. I looked up at the attendant wistfully and said, “I’d like to adopt this cat.”

She replied, “You can’t be in this section. These cats aren’t up for adoption.”

I planted my feet equally apart. I said firmly to the attendant, “I need to adopt this cat.”

The attendant explained that my cat had been left on the porch of the Sacramento County Animal Shelter in the middle of the night in a shoebox with the lid taped shut. Because she had been surrendered anonymously, the shelter had to keep her for three days in case someone came to claim her. After three days, the cat could be adopted.

The attendant could tell that I was horrified. I can’t remember if I was more horrified that my cat had been left in a shoe box on a porch or that she might be taken home by another family. The attendant leaned to me and whispered, “She was probably dropped off by a breeder. She looks like a pure bred Himalayan but she is pretty runty and she has something wrong with one of her eyes.”

I came back that afternoon and stayed with Sophie until the shelter closed for the night. I came back the next two lunch hours and afternoons. I ignored the ropes in the roped-off area and walked directly to the cage. I petted Sophie with two fingers through the bars. The animal officers and volunteers could tell that there was nothing that they could say to me that would convince me to leave so they just pretended that I was another volunteer.

The volunteers told me that adoption was first-come-first-served so I got up at 4am on the third day and drove to the shelter to wait outside until it opened. I was the first person there.

By the time the shelter opened, there were about 20 people lined up outside. I walked quickly to my cat. I walked directly to the cage that she had been in for the past three days. She wasn’t there. I turned around and searched the other cages. I panicked.

When I found her there was a family looking at her. A little girl was poking her fingers through the cage as a little boy squealed loudly, “I don’t want a stupid cat.” I grabbed the clipboard on her cage and took it to the two women the in thick-strapped sandals at the folding table. I handed them the clipboard and said, “This is my cat. I’m ready to adopt her.” They smiled. They had seen me those past few days.

I filled out several pieces of paperwork. I answered questions about indoor/outdoor cats. I vowed never to declaw a cat. (Of course.) They asked about children and dogs. (None.) At the end of the survey, I handed over my answers. I stood nervously. I shifted my weight to each foot as I watched them judge me. The two women reviewed my questionnaire and smiled. They looked up at me.

“She is already fixed. You can take her home today.” One of the women said.

“Now?” I asked.

“Now.”

They put Sophie in a cardboard carrier and I walked past the small dogs out to the shelter lobby to stand in line. There were already several people in line and the lobby wasn’t much different from my first impression. There were people thumbing through the binders. There were kids running around. There were people with dogs on leashes waiting in line. It was loud and smelly.

I didn’t care. I had my cat.

I stood in line waiting to pay the adoption fee for my cat when I noticed the woman in front of me. She had a beagle on a leash sitting next to her sitting and wagging its tail across the linoleum and looking guilty. She intermittently smiled at the beagle and occasionally threw the beagle a dirty look. I remembered her long brown hair. I mostly remembered her eyes. It was the woman from the truck in the parking lot.

“Is this your dog?” I asked gleefully.

She looked at me and remembered me.

“Yes. This is the asshole who ran away from the dog park.” She smiled in a way that kept her from crying. “This is my damn dog.” She laughed. I laughed too.

She asked, “What’s in the box?”

“My new cat.” I said. She winked at me.

When it was my turn, I put my cardboard box on the counter and handed over my paperwork. That day, I paid $75 to adopt my best friend.

Why You Should Care About California’s Drought, Even If You Don’t Live In California

No one can overstate the incredible seriousness of California’s drought. There have been signs dotting the I-5 freeway, a freeway that traverses the central corridor of California, for a few years now blaming congress for California’s “dust bowl.”

The California drought is incredibly serious. California’s dust bowl isn’t the result of decisions made by congress but it is an issue that warrants political and community discussion. Water is scarce in California and it should make more than a few ears perk up.

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The Central Valley, which has the reputation of being California’s most “fertile” farmland is actually a desert that has been irrigated by delta water and aqueducts in order to force food to grow. It is a terribly inefficient use of water. For more than a century, we have cultivated the hottest and dryest part of California in order to feed California and the rest of the United States. For many, many years, this technique has been working.

This year may very well mark the year that growing food in the desert of the Central Valley is no longer an option. California is running out of water. And soon, the United States may be running out of food.

According to California’s government agriculture website, “California’s agricultural abundance includes more than 400 commodities. The state produces nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. Across the nation, US consumers regularly purchase several crops produced solely in California.” In other words, one out of two of every fresh fruit, nut, or vegetable that you put into your mouth came from California. Much of your favorite produce, like an artichoke or a basket of grapes, are grown primarily or solely in California. They’re delicious and they may soon be gone. If we can’t grow it, you can’t eat it.

As a resident Californian, I’m doing my part. If it’s yellow, I let it mellow. My household and I have cut our water usage by at least 40% this year and we were not big water users to begin with.  I was impressed to see that almost every Californian has let their lawn go brown. But, for many urban and suburban people, the loss of their lawn has also meant the loss of household gardens and the death of urban fruit trees.  Water is in short supply and California’s abundant food supply is shrinking in unthinkable ways.

Lake Oroville  (credit: California Department of Water Resources)

Lake Oroville (credit: California Department of Water Resources)

Unfortunately, for food production in the US, it’s not enough for Californians to simply stop flushing their toilets for number one. It’s not enough to stop watering lawns or take shorter showers. Nearly 80% of water usage in California goes towards growing food. Nearly 80% of water usage in California is agricultural. The dispersement of water usage in California needs a creative makeover.

But water conservation also needs the help of the people. We need the rest of the United States to get involved. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Stop buying bottled water, especially from Nestle. Bottled water comes from clean, natural resources, usually at the expense of the taxpayer and almost always at the expense of the greater good. Nestle has a water packaging plant on the Sacramento Delta River, one of the most important watering holes for California Agriculture. There have been protests staged at Nestle water plants but there are no signs of them discontinuing their water grab. If consumers stopped buying Nestle water, it could help.
  1. Advocate for farmers and big-ag to use more water-efficient mechanisms when watering crops. Be a champion for farmers and help them to use new technology. Help farmers access new technology by advocating for tax breaks and grants when farmers switch to water-saving mechanisms.
  1. Support small farmers and eat local. Eat what your local farmers grow. Avocados are amazing. I won’t lie to you. Avocados are one of California’s greatest and most delightful exports. But they are usually grown in large, industrial settings, like almonds and many other crops. And they aren’t grown in most of the rest of the United States. Small farms and farmers use less water than industrial farms and large-scale farmers. Many small farmers use their own wells and water and have technology in place to conserve. Talk to the farmers in your neighborhood and eat what they grow.

The California Drought is something that every American should be worried about and it is something that every American can do something about.  Please help us.

Taking Stock of What Matters

We have a shed in our backyard.  Over the years I have tried really hard to downsize and get rid of the stuff that isn’t useful or helpful.  My partner and I have gotten rid of a lot of unnecessary clutter and we have downsized quite a bit.  My partner is far better at getting rid of things than I am.  I’m very sentimental.

I have boxes and boxes of pictures, letters, scrapbooks, and memorabilia.  My mother kept nearly every drawing I had ever made for her from the time that I could hold a crayon.  When she retired and moved, she dropped off all of her boxes at my house, as if I didn’t have boxes of my own.  Recently, I have tried to narrow down the boxes.

In early 2014, I went through every single box in the shed.  I organized the memorabilia. I put stuff in specific boxes.  I didn’t get rid of much. I have tried to make sense of the boxes.  I have a hard time throwing away anything sentimental. But I moved stuff and organized it.

Our shed is full of stuff. We have canning supplies and tools.  We have large dishes for family gatherings.  We have camping gear and seasonal items like space heaters and sleds for the winter and pool-noodles and house fans for the summer.  We have boxes of seasonal decorations. I like to decorate the house for the holidays.  It’s a lot of stuff.

On New Year’s Day of this year, I threw all of the holiday decorations back into boxes and threw the boxes into the shed.  Since then, I have had a post-it note on the fridge that reads, “Clean out shed!!!”  If I have needed anything from the shed in the past seven months, I have crawled over boxes and miscellany, moving things around and shuffling boxes to the back, only having consideration for things I needed at the time.  It has gotten worse and worse.

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Yesterday afternoon, a fire broke out in Nevada County about ten miles from our house in geodesic distance, or, “as the crow flies.”  We were about thirty minutes from home when we saw the smoke in the distance.  It was big.  I could tell it was bad and I could tell that it was close enough that we should worry, if not for ourselves, then for our friends.

The fire is being called the Lowell Fire and it is serious.  It’s in a canyon and it is hard to contain.  Fire lines are being held for the most part but some fire lines have been broken and firefighters have gotten hurt.  California is dry and there are winds preventing the fire from being contained.  It is serious.

Many of our friends have been evacuated and some are still on alert and ready to evacuate.  According to the CalFire website, the fire is only 5% contained.  We are not in the clear and things are very, very scary for a lot of people right now.

My friend Michelle had to evacuate with her husband and family and is staying with friends.  Her house is very much in harm’s way.  She posted, “Imagine that you have 2 hours to boil down 21 years. What do you value? High school yearbooks? Nope -well not mine, but certainly my kids kindergarten art and pictures pre-dating grey hair. But the lovely leather couch and the cherrywood table and all the other crap I collect did not mean a thing to me. I left it easily. I have what is important. My boys and my hairy annoying dogs!!”

Let me be clear:  I am not saying that losing a home isn’t devastating.  Losing a home and belongings to a fire is a million shades of devastating and something unimaginably horrific.  Many of the people in my community are facing tragedy right now.  It is undeniably scary.

So many people in our community are facing devastation and so many people in our community have stepped up.  There are evacuation efforts.  Local Veterinary Clinics have offered boarding. Local horse clubs and livestock owners have offered to haul and home goats, sheep, horses, and cows in order to get them to safety.  Many people have offered guest bedrooms.  Many local businesses have offered services.  We are all trying to do our part.

 

I cleaned out the shed today.  After worrying about friends and the Lowell Fire, we got more bad news.  Just after 11am today, a grass fire broke out three miles south of us.  Based on the wind direction, we were suddenly in the middle of two fires.  The fire south of us was extinguished and mopped up quickly but it put a lot of things in perspective.

For all the prepping and preparedness that I would like to think that I’m a part of, I wasn’t prepared for a real evacuation. Truthfully, no one is really prepared for an evacuation.

I spent most of my morning going through my shed and prioritizing boxes.

 

Today, my wife and I picked out the things from our house and shed that we would save if we had to save them.  Our list was fairly short. Our list was made in order of importance. I put it under a magnet on the fridge.

It read:

Pets, 3 cats (cat carriers, pack cat food, see about litter and boxes later.)

Important papers (IDs, passports, bank stuff, birth certificates etc.)

Family pictures (9 boxes labeled in the shed)

Computers (for pictures and writing)

Clothes (what we can carry)

Books (Signed copies and what we can’t replace)

Memorabilia (wedding and vintage)

Camping gear (just in case this might be long term)

 

That was it.  Nothing else.  Nothing else mattered.

And it has made me think a lot about my life.

I have taken stock.

Tidying Up: Discarding

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I’m already failing at following the directions in Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I’m stubborn and headstrong and I have a hard time in general following directions or listening to authority. Marie Kondo instructs her readers to complete her book in its entirety before embarking on the journey of tidying. I’m only on page 105 and I’ve already started to get rid of stuff.

Marie Kondo states that, “If you put your house in order properly, you’ll be able to keep [it] tidy, even if you are lazy or sloppy by nature.” She says that people who follow her method don’t “rebound” back into being slobs. If I rebound and become messy again, I take full responsibility for not following Marie Kondo’s directions exactly. Kondo states in her book that if you follow her directions honestly and precisely, you will never again fall into untidy habits and rebound to once again become an untidy person.

My partner read the whole book and has been serving as my gracious guide. I read the book up to the point about discarding clothes, books, and paper. I promptly started discarding clothes after I read the part about getting rid of clothes. I didn’t really believe Kondo when she said that her clients fill ten and twenty garbage bags full of clothes to get rid of. My partner and I managed to fill ten bags.

After reading the part about books, my partner and I filled 17 large boxes with books to haul away. I’m not even sure why I had kept so many books. Sometimes I would tell myself “Oh, I’ll read that later.” But even the books I knew I never would have read, I had kept for years. My partner and I got rid of nearly 1,000 books, about two-thirds of our total collection. Using the method of determining to keep something by whether or not it sparked joy left us with about 500 books.

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We aren’t yet organizing our remaining books. Marie Kondo is specific that we are supposed to discard first and then decide where to put things. Getting rid of books and clothes that I didn’t need, and never would have used, has brought me joy. The process freed up a lot of my space to focus on the things I love and will actually use. Discarding gave me the freedom to let go of clutter and to bring forth the useful and joyful.

Getting rid of papers has been a different experience entirely.

Tidying Up: Part 1, The Recommendation

Last week I bought a book titled The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. If you haven’t heard of the book, you are probably wondering why anyone would buy a book on such an awful subject with such a pretentious title. Anyone one who knows me would be surprised that I own such a book.

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Last week at a dinner party, I ran into an acquaintance whom I’ve done some volunteer work with but don’t really know that well. While we were both getting a glass of wine, I asked her how she was doing and we exchanged a couple sentences of small talk. Then she told me about this book. When she talked about the book, she lit up in a way that reminded me of how I felt the first time I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. She truly gushed about the book. Her smile was contagious. She was so sincere that it never occurred to me to question how someone could fall in love with a self-help book about organizing and cleaning house. I wrote the title down and vowed to thumb through the book the next time I was at the bookstore.

I heard on NPR the next day that Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the guys who wrote Freakonomics, had released a new book called When to Rob a Bank. I knew I had to have it and that a trip to the bookstore was in my immediate future. I called our local bookstore and asked them to set a copy aside for me. Then I googled the book about tidying to see what the cover looked like so I wouldn’t miss it during my trip to the bookstore.

I found a link to the book at Amazon and used the “look inside” feature to “thumb” through it. I was surprised to find that the book had no pictures. I was expecting a Feng Shui coffee table book for the new millennium, something pretty and approved by the next-generation of Martha Stewart-types with lots of large pictures that might have been featured in Real Simple Magazine. There were just pages and pages of words.

“Well forget it,” I thought. “If I can’t just thumb through it, I’ll just check it out from the library.”

I went to my library’s catalogue online to request a copy of the book only to find that the book had 40 holds. 40 people were waiting to read a book about tidying. WTF? When I tried to check out Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in December there were only 26 holds.

I called the bookstore back and asked them to set aside a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.

Good Dirt: Part 2

If someone had told me ten years ago that one day I would be thankful for a steaming pile of horse shit, I probably would have thought that the person was being very mean. Yet here I am today. I am totally thankful for the steaming pile of horse shit (and goat turds and alpaca poop and worm castings etc.) that is the smelly pile of healthy, organic dirt I had delivered to my driveway.

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Good dirt is amazing. It smells good in a weird, earthy-farmy way. It’s dank, dark and beautiful. It has the appearance of moisture and health, even when it’s dry. Good dirt is complex.

Bad dirt is easy. It’s easy to understand. Every gardener knows when they have bad dirt. The ground feels hard, and it’s hard to dig into. The dirt looks ugly, often clumpy. It’s usually light, dry and cracked. Sometimes it smells funny. Weeds thrive in bad dirt but vegetables and flowers are weak and wilted and never have much success.

I know bad dirt. The native red clay in my region is perfect for building cob homes. It’s terrible for growing vegetables. The native soil can be hard to nourish or replenish. The history of the Gold Rush in California didn’t exactly leave the land in a good condition.

I live in the Sierra Foothills, just a few miles from the historic Empire Mine. According to the California State Parks District, “between 1850 until its closure in 1956, the Empire Mine produced 5.8 million ounces of gold and 367 miles (591km) of underground passages.” Basically, there is a vast network tunnels under my house and below our town that, if stretched end to end, would measure about the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles. (Or, if you are more familiar with Europen geography, the tunnels would stretch a little more than the distance from Paris, France to Frankfurt, Germany.) This fact sort of terrifies me.

Unfortunately, gold wasn’t the only thing that the Empire Mine produced. When the mine excavated all of those tunnels, sorted out the gold, and pulled out all of that dirt, it also pulled out arsenic, iron and mangenese. Subsequently, a lot of the land in the foothills is contaminated from the history of mining. Where arsenic isn’t detectable in the soil, iron and mangenese may be present and creating an environment inhospitable to gardening. For much of the people living in the Sierra, good dirt is hard to find.

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We have regularly done soil tests and, while we haven’t found any detectable contaminents, our PH isn’t great and our nitrogen levels are unbelievably low. I honestly can’t believe we had so many tomatoes last year.

Good Dirt: Part 1

The dirt in my backyard is hardened clay. It’s terrible. Not only can I not grow anything in it, I can hardly stick a shovel in the ground on a wet day. I’ve been trying to reform my soil for two years and nothing has helped. I finally gave up and ordered good dirt. Good dirt is like gold.

My dirt arrived today. It came in an F450 Dump Truck. I think I could smell the dirt before I heard the truck pull up to my house.

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I ordered the amount of dirt based on the measurements of my raised beds. They told me that 2.5 cubic yards should do it. Then they told me that the delivery fee goes down the more dirt that a customer orders. 2.5 cubic yards and 4.0 cubic yards costs nearly the same amount because the delivery fee gets reduced. I went with 4.0 cubic yards. I had no idea what 4.0 cubic yards of dirt would look like. I might have over done it.

I’m used to hauling things down to my garden. My friend Eldon delivered wood chips to my next door neighbor and we shared them. I had to walk up my steep driveway and down the street to pick up the chips and wagon them back to my garden. It me took nearly 30 trips and it was exhausting.

The dirt guy delivered the pile of dirt right next to my garden. I thought that filling my raised beds, hauling dirt from the side of my driveway into the garden, was going to be easy. It turns out that dirt can be a lot heavier than wood chips. I might have over committed.

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Even though the dirt is heavy, and hauling it isn’t any fun, I keep thinking about the rewards. The dirt I ordered is really good dirt.

I ordered exactly what the dirt store recommended. I told them, “I’m just growing vegetables.” (It’s an important clarification for Nevada County. For a small town area, we have an abundance of dirt stores. And it’s not because everyone is growing vegetables.) They understood my request and I took their recommendation.

The dirt they gave me is mulchy and feathery and dark. It smells like a combination of hot days on a farm and a good, long hike. I’m sure that there will be some city folk who can’t relate, but for us country folk, the smell of good dirt is absolute heaven.

I know that this is going to be a different world for me. I know that good dirt was necessary.

Raised Beds: Part 1

I have been adamantly opposed to raised beds. I wanted to be a steward of the earth. I wanted to make the soil better. I wanted to care for my plot of land and tend to it.

I’m not sure why I got it in my head that I was supposed to put up with my terrible, clay soil, and toil year after year to try and make my soil into something it’s not.

Last year we dug holes into our planting beds. We decided to plant vegetables and we filled the holes with organic compost, treating the plants that went into the holes as though they were in pots. They didn’t produce.

I have heard every anecdote about soil amendments and I have tried every remedy. I tried adding piles of moldy leaves and working them into the soil. I tried to add ground-up pine bark. (We have plenty of that stuff up here in the foothills.) I tried to add steer manure and horse poop and chicken poop. I added compost and coffee grounds and tiny ground-up pieces of oak. I have tried everything sensible. My partner and I have worked and re-worked our soil. We have made zero progress.

For the past few weeks, I have been walking by the local continuation high school and noticing the changes they have made in their “garden.”

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The “garden” at the local school used to be a south-facing dead lawn, full of risomal crab grass and a small field of over-grown weeds. A few weeks ago, the school started digging up parts of the lawn. It looked like a misguided science project. They totally killed the lawn. It looked like shit.

Then they put in raised beds. They put in raised beds on top of their shitty, dug-up, dead lawn. The kids at the high school made these weird 7×3 boarders with wood slabs about 10 inches high. The raised beds were improvised and derelict. They looked shoddy at best.

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Then they added dirt to the beds. And vegetable starts. And suddenly they looked better than anything that I have ever seen. I was completely and utterly jealous.

Magic Bees

Beekeeping isn’t what it used to be. If you ask any old-timer in the beekeeping business, he or she will tell you that, in the past ten years, beekeeping has become much, much harder. It used to be fairly easy. Not too long ago, a beekeeper could throw bees into a hive in March, add an extra box (called a super) in May or June, and walk away until August when it was time to harvest the honey. That’s just not the case anymore.

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Bees are struggling. Between disease, pesticides and mites, entire honey bee colonies are dying en masse. Much of the bio diversity that bees desire for food, and need for a balanced diet, has either been covered in Round Up, or is gone, after pollution and over-use of the land have left fields barren.

Bees rely on a revolving door of forage for their food. They will travel 2-3 miles from their hives to find the nectar and pollen that they want. Here in the Sierra Foothills, bees usually start with the manzanita, then move onto the stone fruit blossoms and wildflowers, then the blackberries and so on through the summer until the star thistle in the fall. With the increase of radical weather, many of the flowers that bees used to rely on for sustenance have become scarce or have started blooming at the wrong time. This year, the stone fruit trees flowered February after a heat spell. The wildflowers started coming up in March. Then it snowed in April.

Today, if you pass a yard of beehives along a country road, you are likely to see upside-down mason jars on top of the hives. Beekeepers who wish to keep their bees alive have started to feed them sugar water as a supplement for when the usual nectar flow has dried up.

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I lost my last two hives at the end of 2012. After several weeks of very cold weather, and some snow, we had a few mild days. When the thermometer hit 74 on December 27th, all the bees left the hive to look for food and “use the bathroom”. (Bees won’t go in their hive.) Since nothing was blooming and there was nothing to eat, the bees starved and the colony became weak and died. If I had been a better beekeeper, I would have put pollen patties in the hives to give the bees something to help them though the winter. Some lessons are harder than others.

We didn’t buy more bees because we knew that we would be relocating. I didn’t want to start a new yard and have to move it. I didn’t really clean out the frames or bother to remove the wax. Sometimes wax moths will come into a hive and lay eggs, creating an infestation. We get enough days of freezing that, as long as the equipment is kept outside, it’s not really a problem. I kept my eye on the equipment.

We moved in July of last year and I piled up the beekeeping equipment next to the shed when we moved in. It stayed there until last week, when I finally started to clean up all stuff we had piled up next to the shed: tomato cages, bee boxes, gopher wire, irrigation equipment, planting pots etc.

Last week, I went through all of my beekeeping equipment. I checked the frames for moths and mold. Everything looked good. There was even a little honey left. I moved the bee boxes against the fence under the fig tree and set up a hive just to see how it would look. I wasn’t really sure about the location but it was a good temporary home for the boxes until I could find a permanent place to put them and get ready for bees next year.

I have made a significant effort to plant bee-friendly flowers in my garden this year. I have been planting native flowers along with some culinary plants that bees enjoy. I wanted to be prepared for when the bees get here. I want my garden to be healthy for the pollinators.

Yesterday was the third day of a heat spell. During this time of year, if beekeepers don’t regularly check on their beehives, and add extra boxes to make more room, the bees will hatch a new queen and the hive will split into two—the new queen will stay behind with half the colony and the established queen will travel with the other half of the colony to find a new home. When the queen and half the colony leave, this is called a swarm, an image popularized by Winnie the Pooh as a cloud of traveling bees.

Yesterday afternoon, my orange cat was outside on the porch and started to meow like crazy. He is usually pretty vocal but this was something different. When I opened the door, he darted to the edge of the porch and sat upright, staring off towards the fence. I checked his food and water and both were full.

“What is wrong with you?” I asked him.

And then I heard it. The faint, low hum of buzzing.

I looked towards the place that my cat was staring, over at my stack of bee boxes. My jaw dropped. There were bees everywhere, but mostly, they were covering my bee boxes. A wall of them. A swarm of them. They were clamoring to move in.

I called my friend Janet Brisson of Country Rubes Farm, a well-known beekeeper and supplier of bee equipment. I explained the situation and asked her what I should do. She asked me if it looked like they were walking into the boxes. I told her that they were, they were slowly filing into the frames inside the boxes. She told me to do nothing; The bees were moving in.

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 I spent all of yesterday afternoon watching a swarm of bees inhabit my bee equipment. They didn’t go into the hive that I had set up. They, instead, went into the left over boxes I had leaned against the fence. This morning, I got up before dawn, put on my bee suit, and moved the boxes of bees to the neatly stacked hive that is now buzzing under the fig tree.

I feel like the luckiest beekeeper in the world. I have spent all morning watching my magic bees buzz in and out of their new home.