Wild and Free

Friday: I drove home yesterday in the twilight with the Topa Topas wreathed in cloud. There had been patchy cloud in the morning, but as I left the property around ten the sun briefly made an appearance. That was it for the day. No rain, just low, soft clouds drifting through the landscape or occasionally swirling around hill tops or submerging the crowns of oaks. In short, a cloudy day.

This morning I awoke to light rain falling on the roof - barely audible, and its shedding, in soft drips, from eave to gravel. It cleared briefly around daybreak, enough to tempt me into taking my morning run but by the time I was on Sisar Road the rain returned. Now, mid morning, it continues.

The big aesthetic pay-off on a rainy day, for me at least, comes in the darkening of tree trunks. Close by, the green of the oaks is shinier, made more intense by the rain; beyond, the grey undertones and the sage grey-greens recede into a smudged chaparral monochrome; but it is the chaparral tree trunks and their filigreed branches - that the wet turns to charcoal - that give the chaparral its rainy-day oomph, its graphic amplification.

A flock of yellow rumped warblers (Dendroica coronata) are fluttering, close to the ground, swooping and jinking and providing low level animation to the scene. Flashes of white at their grey-black wings and breasts are like ice-shards fallen from the sky while puffs of yellow at their throats and rumps punctuate their plumage (their common name is Butter butt).

 The luminosity of the sky, such as it is on this grey day, is reflected on the horizontal faceting of the newly unearthed yellow-wet sandstone rocks that scatter the site: absent new back-hoe turmoil these will slowly patinate with rock varnish (the fusion of eons of dust onto the rock surface) and be embroidered with lichen. Over time their color palette will slowly recede into somber chaparral tones.

Meanwhile, under a ledge of exposed rock, still mostly yellow and brown, in the slope below the cluster of oaks near the house, a bobcat has settled in for the morning sheltered from the worst of the rain. Almost motionless, it is magnificently camouflaged. It stares intently at Lorrie and me, then when Lorrie checks on it later in the morning, its eye-lids are heavy and it is nodding off for a snooze. Around lunchtime it leaves, sauntering up-slope through the deer weed (Lotus scoparius) where Lorrie catches glimpses of it until it is over the crest of the hill.

I left for Los Angeles mid-morning in light rain and my thoughts turned from the sphinx-like bobcat to the watershed upon which our house is perched. We are a part of the Santa Paula Creek watershed, at its western edge. Somewhere a little west of the Summit, perhaps around Hall's apricot ranch, the land tips away and surface drainage contributes to the Ventura River. Sisar Creek is on the cusp and at one time contributed to the westerly river. Now it receives tribute from Bear Creek then, at St. Thomas Aquinas, it links up with Little Santa Paula and they together become Santa Paula Creek which joins the mighty Santa Clara River just east and south of Santa Paula Airport.

Wild and free, the river continues west towards the ocean and disgorges south of the Ventura Harbor. Predictably, Juan Batista de Anza (The Sage Gatherer) and his expedition camped on its banks in February 1776 on their way north and observed 'geese, ducks, cranes, and other fowl'; in this detail at least, not much has changed. I followed its course for a while on the 126 before heading south on the 118 to Saticoy and then jumped on the 101 to Las Posas. This maneuver takes you from the northern edge of the Oxnard plane to its southern termination against the tail end of the Santa Monica Mountains where their north face and the flatlands drain into Calleguas Creek (Camarillo Brio).

On Las Posas, where it seems, room for the road is only reluctantly given up by farmers who plant almost to its edge and where, in the wet, mud quickly migrates from edge to road, the rain, mud, road and sky merge into a leaden scrim. It's a bleak scene: farm-worker's cars parked on the verge are painted brown by waves of muddy spray from passing traffic; off in a field there is a fuzz of white thrown off by sprinklers ironically adding to the sodden mess. The water will find its way to the creek, slip beneath the P.C.H., flow on to Mugu lagoon and then inject a brown plume into the ocean.

To the south and running all the way to the Seebees' rifle range, north of Mugu Rock, is a wetland: part of a classic ocean, beach, dune and wetland succession running a half mile or more to the west flanks of the Santa Monica mountains and disturbed only by the ribbon of road. On this day, as on many others over the years, I pull off the highway and take a pee next to the barbed wire fence which protects the wetland, and watch the muddy rivulets twine amidst the sedges and saltbrush.

For nearly twenty years I lived on a street named for a prodigous pouring of concrete by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930's. The naming of West Channel Road memorialized the encapsulation of the creek that runs out of Will Roger's State Historical Park and into the ocean at the northern tip of Santa Monica. Our house was built on an erstwhile delta - the point at which the creek would have widened during winter into a tangle of rivulets meandering over the flat bottom of the canyon, each finding its way to the ocean, digging through the low dunes in concert and then depositing their silt, rocks and debris a few hundred yards out into the ocean creating, over the ages, a beautiful fish reef and surf break.

All that ended with the WPA channel project - putting bread on the table for some but finally destroying a beautiful canyon, the fish reef and surf. All that is left of its pristine past are the fine gravel soil (Mining Gravel) a few sycamores and the watercress which still grows in the concrete creek bottom.

Sunday: Now, on a property that this wet weekend is contributing inches of rain (about 6 so far) over its twenty seven acres, to the Santa Clara River - via Bear Creek and its eastern tributary (which, when I checked this morning is flowing lustily for the first time this year) I am happy to contemplate the water's unhindered voyage to the ocean in creeks and river, mostly, still, wild and free.