Little Foxes

They appeared just west of the clump of oaks and rocks behind the house. Nuzzling each other atop a rock, viewing the scene, looking at the house, looking, perhaps at Lorrie and me seated at a table eating supper. It was that hour before twilight, when the full brightness of the afternoon has departed - the sun having fled the scene - but there's still enough light bouncing around the empyrean for it to be considered day. The magic hour. Supper time.

Two little foxes: but first, the thought that they were feral cats, one of which I had seen earlier in the day. Then, bobcats? Until they sidled apart and displayed their tails. Tails! Baby mountain lions? By the time they sauntered off the rock, behind the toyon, brushing past the poison oak and began wandering up the path, their full, glorious vulpine nature emerged - the foxy little faces, pricked and pointy ears and silver bushy tails edged in black that seemed to float in the air behind them.

It has been a while since we have seen anything much in the way of wildlife on the property, but a couple of weeks ago I heard a very distinctive bird call one morning. A piercing run through the register, beginning with the top notes. A downhill glissando. And loud. Once heard, never forgotten. A couple of days later Margot mentioned that she had seen and heard a canyon wren....meant nothing to me, Margot sees all kinds of birds of which I am oblivious. Last week I heard the call again and saw the singer sitting on the huge boulder just to the west of our front door, a lithic mass that I sometimes think of as our 'Ayers Rock' - that red Australian monolith that features so prominently in the dreamscape of the Anangu.

Our rock is sandstone and is composed of buff tones; the little song bird belting out that glissando was a dark rust color that better matches the ruddy tones of what is now called Uluru as it glows in the evening light of the Australian outback. The bird was, of course, a canyon wren (Catherpes mexicanus) and the  description of its voice, "gushing cadence of clear, curved notes tripping down scale: tee tee tee tee tew tew tew tew" confirmed the visual identity, "rusty, with dark rufous belly..." (Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America).

I deputized Lorrie to be our in-house ornithologist a while ago, and she has fitfully accepted the challenge. She uses the Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds - Western Region and riffles through its pages at breakfast. Last week she identified the annoying little birds (formerly known as LBB's - little brown birds) who flutter about our eaves, as house finches. The male of the species boasts a little red on crown, breast and rump, the distaff side is a dreary, plebeian creature.

Just last Friday we attended Allen Bertke's presentation of his photographs of local birds at the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy offices. Allen is a true birder, although of fairly recent vintage, and takes remarkable photos of the local species. We, meanwhile, are flat out trying to remember the names of the basic, background avian presence of thrashers, towhees, hawks, quail and (now, we know) house finches. Occasionally, we delight ourselves by spotting comparative rarities such as the black pheobe and the white tailed kite.

Last night I woke to the sound of three owls (it seemed) triangulating across the chaparral hills - short, single hoots across the dark expanse, sonic signalling amidst the chthonic wildlands. Barn owls perhaps? We know the call of the great horned and the tremulous burble of the screech owls, these haunting calls were neither. A little while ago, returning from a meal in town, at the foot of the grade just past Boccalli's, a ghostly B-1 bomber of a bird buzzed the Land Rover and through window and then the sun-roof, we saw the white undercarriage of a barn owl gleam against the dark sky and overhanging oaks. They are out there: and last night a coterie was encamped somewhere within owl call.

Our resident family of deer are gone, spooked by the mountain lion who claimed one, at least, of their number (Love Comes to Koenigstein). The coyotes have not returned, either in my dreams or in the local chaparral (Coyote Dream). The bobcats (Bobcat Magic) have gone walkabout and even snakes are thin on the ground. We have seen a couple of racers and a baby gopher snake and last Monday while I was working in the office and Alex was weed-wacking in the back yard I received a text from him: " Five foot snake outside your bedroom, under a rock now". That got my attention.

It turned out that the rock in question was at the foot of the oak knoll as it drops down to the gravel pool terrace, placed against the slope with an excavator some three and a half years ago. While the family of gopher snakes that lives beneath these oaks was much disturbed by the building of the house adjacent to their home, the spaces beneath these additional rocks piled against the knoll have provided them with generous room additions. The snake, this recent afternoon, had indeed retreated from view by the time I got on the scene, and once I was reassured that it was not a rattler, Alex and I resumed our respective tasks.

Our lives are wreathed in bird life, framed by the chaparral and enlivened by the presence of wild animals. Our location in the urban wildland and our intention have made it thus. We replaced a home set in the suburban, beach-side idyll of Santa Monica Canyon with a rural loft - a barn-like house in the Topatopa foothills. This is a setting which I have, perhaps, fetishized. I have also made rules. Making a home here has been a design exercise and design, both architectural and landscape, is, as I understand it, enriched by the creation of bounds.

In this environment, the development of a framework in which to make aesthetic decisions, has taken on a kind of pantheist imperative. I have introduced no non-native plants onto the property and have expended time and treasure in trying to remove those non-natives that are already here. We try to make room for the wildlife, and are tolerant of it all - even rattlesnakes and marauding mountain lions. We are trying to have our wildlife experience while avoiding the traumas that this environment can inflict on callow homesteaders such as ourselves.

We are taking a Franciscan position of 'suffer the little foxes unto me', rather than the Solomonic stand of "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes...". I always thought of foxes as carnivores, but apparently they enjoy snacking on grape leaves, or at least did when the Song of Solomon was written about 1000 B.C.E.

Our raised vegetable and herb bed - a world unto itself and thus given a pass on the non-natives directive - has no vines (or lettuces). We have learnt through hard-won experience to plant only spicy greens and pungent herbs. We Urbanites are slowly learning to coexist with the Wildland.