Drought Damage

I live at 2,500 feet on my aunt and uncle’s property and more often than not, snow in the forecast only brings disappointment; yet, one night a cold front descended, and at dawn, I awoke with the sun, and seeing a brilliant dusting on pine needles outside my window, I leapt from my bed and put on warm clothes. I luxuriated that morning, taking pictures of all the familiar sights that sparkled as if new.   
Through our greatest luck, my mom planned a visit that day. I called her and told her to come immediately: “The snow won’t stick for long,” I said.
Sure enough, by noon, the snow had melted from the trees and only amoeba-shaped patches remained on north-facing hills. 
“It’s too bad the snow’s gone,” I said to my mom after giving her a hug when she arrived.
“That’s ok, there was some on the drive up.”
“But you should have seen it,” I said. “Everything was at least 100 times more beautiful.”
“It’s beautiful enough,” she said, with her standard measured smile.
“Have you visited the snow this season?”
“No, you know I haven’t.”
“We should find some. I went on a hike through Rock Creek recently. There’s probably snow there. What do you think? Want to go?”
“Sure, but I don’t have snow shoes.”
“I have an extra pair.”
“OK. Do we need chains?”
“Probably, let’s buy some.”
“Have you ever put them on?”
“No, but it can’t be too hard.”
“Ok…” she looked at me skeptically.
We purchased chains and drove up the mountain. By the time we got to Nevada City, we saw snow on the ground. Highway 20 began a steep incline and my mom looked out the window at the snow, which thoroughly covered the ground and trees. 
“I know it’s cliche,” she said. “But this is a winter wonderland.”
We pulled off the highway and wrapped down narrow roads to the trailhead.
“The car is sliding!” my mom exclaimed as we drove down a steep stretch.
“Not that bad,” I said, completely unfazed.
“I hope we don’t get stuck on the way up,” she said.
“We won’t get stuck,” I wasn’t worried, having never driven in the snow. “We’re on an adventure, mom! A glamsient adventure.”
“Whatever that means,” she said.
“You would know if you read my blog,” I joked.
We pulled into the empty parking lot — the best kind at a trailhead.
“Look mom, yours are the only footsteps,” I called when she walked in front of me.
“Yes!” she made S-curves to revel in the novelty.
It amazed me to see her frolic. She is often serious and reserved, but in the snow she hopped and scampered. Effervescence infused her spirit. She patted snow together in her bare palms.
“Don’t throw it at me!” I said.
She threw it at a tree trunk and flashed a smile that I hadn’t seen since before my grandma got pneumonia and died.
“Can you tell there’s a lot of damage here?” I asked.
“Yes, but it’s all beautiful under the snow.”
We came to a blockade — a large, fallen tree that stretched across the entire path.
“Should we turn back?” my mom wondered.
“I climbed over it the other day.”
When we got to the other side, she asked me, “is there snow on my head?”
“A little.” 
She went under a branch and shook it. “How about now?” she laughed.
I laughed along with her. She threw more snowballs at trees. We laughed when she missed her targets.
“Last time we were here, Kitten said the falling trees and branches are because of the drought.”
“Oh, yes. The forest service estimates that 1 in 3 trees in Californian forests have died from the drought.”
“Really?”
“I think it’s an underestimate,” she said. “We will see more damage. It takes years for the forests to return to good health.”
We walked along the creek, a new scenery with the snow, completely different than it had been in the rain. I even lost the trail in one section, although I didn’t tell my mom.
“The aquifers are mostly depleted in California,” my mom continued. “Since the 1930s, big agriculture since has run them dry.”
“That’s sad, mom.”
“Fresno has sunk some 20 or 30 feet because the aquifers below the city are empty.”
“I didn’t know that. Now I guess those aquifers are ruined.”
“It’s almost unimaginable how much humans have changed the earth.”
“Greed and ignorance,” I said.
At the end of our walk, we put chains on my car’s tires. It only took a dozen tries, and constant reference of the instructions, but we did it!
We climbed the hill at a low speed until we arrived at the steepest slope. My Mom gripped her seat while I stepped onto the gas and the car wobbled through slush. 
“Come on, little car!” My confidence bottomed out when I felt the car lose traction. I had no idea what I was doing and it was time to admit that to my mom.
But then — by some strange magic — the tires gripped and took us out of the churned up road. The car felt steady again, slowly progressing.
“We made it, Mom!” I said.
“Yeah,” she sighed, somewhat sarcastically as relief washed over her face.
The next morning, she wanted to leave early to avoid the San Francisco Bay Area traffic.
“You know how it gets,” she said.
“I just wish you could stay longer.”
“I noticed you have a few dead trees on the property,” she said.
“The pine trees?”
“Yes, the tops are brown. A sign of drought damage.”
“Do you remember the giant oak in the middle of the meadow last time you were here.”
She looked as if she were trying to recall her last visit.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “It fell last summer. Did I tell you that story?”
“I don’t think so.”
“One night, I was reading in my room and I heard Shadow making strange noises outside. I called his name a couple times out the window, but he kept going. So I went downstairs and opened the door to see what was going on and there’s Shadow on the fence, looking towards the meadow. I called his name and tried to get him to come in, but he just kept staring towards the meadow and making weird noises. I got kind of creeped out thinking maybe there was something or someone out there. 
“I went inside and when I was halfway up the stairs, I heard this loud, cracking sound and then an enormous thud, which shook the whole house! For a second, I couldn’t move. My heart was beating so fast. I had to check outside, but I couldn’t see that anything changed. It was so dark out and I didn’t want to go past the porch. 
“The next morning I went outside and, sure enough, the giant oak had split at it’s lowest branch — right down the middle. The top half of the tree was on the ground and the rest of the trunk remained standing like a jagged obelisk. Aunt Marika and Uncle Rick were shocked when I told them.”
“Another drought death.”
“I don’t know. It looked like there was a hole and some rotting where the tree split. It looked like insects had gotten in and then water went in the hole.”
“That’s the drought, for you. The tree becomes distressed when it’s not getting enough water, and bugs can burrow into it.”
“It’s natural defenses are down.”
“Exactly.” 
We finished our breakfast and I walked my mom to her car. We hugged and said goodbye, thank you for visiting, thank you for having me, come again soon. We waved as she pulled away.
I turned to the meadow and walked to the remaining chunks of the giant oak. Looking at the thick, moss-covered cylinders, I remembered the oak’s grand stature, a living connection to the past. Surely it had been alive before the United States became a country. Seeing it now, in only a few chunks and pieces, the majority hacked up and hauled away by neighbors for firewood, I remembered my young cousin’s reaction when she saw the tree had fallen. She grew up on the property and knew the oak — felt it’s presence — by the time she could walk.
I recalled her devastation. While my Aunt and Uncle surveyed the damage, my cousin climbed into the tree from the top where it rested on the ground, and walked through its branches towards its base; her face spoke of when her father set up a swing on its thickest branch, and the times she climbed it and found refuge in its branches like a secret hideaway. When she was ready, she found a place to sit, her back to me. She leaned against a branch, now vertical, pointing to the sky. She wrapped her arms around it; I approached her, and heard as the memories spilled softly from her eyes. 

 

The Forest’s Song

I step outside. The sun peeks around clouds to caress the world and welcome me. Unseen doves proclaim the beauty around us. 
Dew rests on the earth; oaks stretch in wild formations. Brown leaves blanket the ground and young grasses grow amongst those that had died in summer. Moisture adorns foliage with drops that sparkle and glitter in the sun. Deer tracks tell me I am not the only one who walks this trail. 
I take a deep breath; crisp, clean air fills my lungs. The distant scent of Linney’s wood-burning stove reminds me that only a few months ago a wildfire raged in these mountains.
I come to a clearing and see a flock of quail, each dressed with its own fancy spots, stripes and bobbling headpiece. They whistle as they run away on speedy legs.
I hear a crinkling sound and see California Towhee kicking up leaves to forage beneath them. As soon as I’m close, they fly away in perfect unison, their wings purring through the air.
Acorn Woodpeckers squawk and chuckle while they perch on tree trunks, wearing tuxedos and red caps, drilling holes and stuffing them with acorns. Their happy, gleeful chucking brings a smile to my face. They must be telling jokes to make work more fun. 
Off the trail, a thick oak branch grows horizontally from its trunk. Seeing that it’s dry and free of insects, I hoist myself onto it, stretch out my legs and recline back. The tree holds me like I am lying in its arm. 
Gazing into the canopy and up to the sky, I hear birds all around me. They rustle in leaves, they fly with fluttering wings. They sing, chirp, laugh, and coo. Each voice joins in one abundant song: the song of the forest.
I could lounge for hours on the tree branch listening, yet I know the forest does not sing for me. The forest needs no outside audience for its symphonies. It is a true and great artist: creating for creation’s sake, creating for itself. 
If the forest is the ultimate artist, how do I compare? What happens when I am the only one who reads my writing? 
I know the answer; I have felt it often. When I am my only audience, I get discouraged. I blame my voice — I call it awkward and uninteresting. My dream appears hopeless. My feelings keep me from putting words on the page.
The oak holds me like a mother. 
“Show me the way,” I whisper. “How can I create like you?”
“Close your eyes,” she says.
I obey. 
Minutes pass and I begin noticing subtle layers of the song. A hawk calls from high. A frog croaks in the distance. A crow caws. 
The forest tells me there’s room for every voice and contributors are never ashamed of their sound — it is the one they received at birth. They need not be melodic, gentle or harmonic to join the orchestra; they need only to be themselves. The song’s beauty is in its rich and vibrant variety. Each day it creates a new score without one thought of who will listen. The forest creates by design — without doubt or self-consciousness. 
Opening my eyes, I look into the tree with new understanding and say, “I will add my voice to the forest’s song.”

On the right, the tree who held me like a mother





Empty holes drilled by Acorn Woodpeckers