The Mesa Trail

ImageThe ‘Fiddleneck’, or Amsinckia Menziesii, of the California Foothills.

‘The Mesa Trail’ is the title of the eighth chapter of Mary Hunter Austin’s 1903 blockbuster nature book, ‘The Land of Little Rain’. While the whole work focusses on various aspects of California’s Owens Valley and adjacent mountain areas, a region on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range and the controversial source for Los Angeles’ water supply since the 1920’s, ‘The Mesa Trail’ zeros in on the natural features of the lower hilltop zones. As usual, Austin is quite poetic in her manner of expression, always food for (organic!) thought, and I can’t resist quoting a few lines which leap out at me:

‘The mesa holds very level here, cut across at intervals by the deep washes of dwindling streams, and its treeless spaces uncramp the soul.’

‘Mesa trails were meant to be traveled on horseback, at the jigging coyote trot that only western-bred horses learn successfully.’

And of evening: ‘…the hour when the white gilias set their pale disks to the westering sun.’

I must admit to a certain passion for western wildflowers and their habitats. When one has traveled for hours by automobile over winding country and mountain roads, whose twists and turns amaze the eye but often push one’s physical equilibrium and center of gravity to the limit, what a relief it is to stumble out into a roadside field of rocks, dusty soil and spicy-scented wildflowers. To breathe the dry atmosphere, gaze up at the nearly lighter-than-air flight of hawks and buzzards on the upper thermals, and behold a Mary Austin specific landscape. Better than any tablet or powder you can take to settle your stomach. The only problem is that you’ll have to reenter your mechanical conveyance and leave your new-found healing landscape. But the stop was eminently worth it. And here are a few more quotes from ‘The Mesa Trail’, to get you in the mood:

‘From the height of a horse you look down to clean spaces in a shifty yellow soil, bare to the eye as a newly sanded floor.’

‘There is always a little wind on the mesa, a sliding current of cooler air going down the face of the mountain of its own momentum, but not to disturb the silence of great space.’

‘It is not possible to disassociate the call of the burrowing owl from the late slant light of the mesa. If the fine vibrations which are the golden-violet glow of spring twilights were to tremble into sound, it would be just that mellow double note breaking along the blossom-tops.’

One of the characteristic and reliably-to-be-met wildflowers of Mary Austin country is the ‘Fiddleneck’, or Amsinckia menziesii, as pictured at the top of this post. It can flower in January and February, as in the photo, or even all spring through into June. It can be poisonous to cattle and other livestock, if they ingest it in large quantities, especially when it happens to grow among fields of their regular pasture, or has been carelessly mixed in with feed brought in from outside. But its natural beauty fully redeems its less desirable qualities, especially, I’m sure, for those of us who aren’t engaged professionally in ranching. It was named after Wilhelm Amsinck (1752-1831), a German jurist, businessman and politician, who was a great benefactor of the Hamburg Botanical Garden, and Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), a Scottish naturalist who took part in the Vancouver Expedition to the American West and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and who was a member of the party which made the first recorded ascent of the summit of Mauna Loa. The Amsinckia menziesii itself was given its botanic name by the German botanist Johann Georg Christian Lehmann (1792-1860), a Holsteiner of reportedly cranky and difficult character who was a professor of physics and natural sciences and founder of the Hamburg Botanical Garden. He was the author of many scholarly monographs–in Latin, so be sure to brush up your linguistic skills if you plan to do more than admire the glorious illustrations. 

I’ll leave you with one more quote from ‘The Mesa Trail’, to encourage you to read Mary Austin or even to visit her beloved high desert world yourself:

‘Out West, the west of the mesas and the unpatented hills, there is more sky than any place in the world. It does not sit flatly on the rim of earth, but begins somewhere out in the space in which the earth is poised, hollows more, and is full of clean winey winds.’ 



A Break in the Weather


That’s Mt. Tamalpais enshrouded in clouds at the center of the picture. It is 2,571 feet (784 metres) high, just north of San Francisco Bay and a familiar sight to anyone traveling into Marin County from the metropolis to the south. We have a fine view of it from the back of our house, whence this photo was taken a few days ago at evening. I’m told I climbed Mt. Tamalpais at age four with my older sister and very enthusiastic and outdoor-oriented parents, but have only a vague recollection of the event. We were always doing things like that, in any case. I had seen a lot of the Sierra Nevada range, including its foothill areas, and in rather energetic fashion, by the time I had reached adolescence. Though in their mid-eighties now, in their youth my parents were very much proponents–on weekends and during vacations, anyway–of a kind of Rooseveltian ‘strenuous life’. It was great fun, but at this great temporal remove I get tired just thinking of it. 

You can see a couple of patches of the outer part of San Francisco Bay toward the center of the picture. The Golden Gate Bridge lies hidden behind the slopes to your right, which include Twin Peaks, though they don’t appear in the photo. The Forest Hill neighborhood is to the left, the Old Miraloma district is at the bottom of the picture, and if it had been a clear day, and I’d used a telephoto lens, you’d be able to see the green lawns and white neoclassical walls of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. The Pacific Ocean lies outside the picture, but if I’d turned the camera to the left, you’d see the sun beginning to inch its way toward its devouring waters. The branch along the top is of a huge cypress tree which belongs to our neighbor. It’s gloriously beautiful, and I’m convinced it’s the abode of some beneficent spirit which watches over us and protects us in all kinds of ways. But it also collects the billowing clouds of fog which inundate us throughout the year, then hurls them down–in liquid form–with the gale force winds which roll in off the Pacific and drench both house and deck with what amounts to more or less continuous monsoons. The photo was taken during a pleasant break in a spate of bad weather.

Our late fall and winter rains have begun, in fact. I never look forward to them. I always worry about leaky roofs and wet dogs, clogged rain gutters and downspouts. This morning the sun has broken through, however, and the whole place is resuming its Camelot aspect. In between clouds, anyway. Dogs may even get a walk. 


Mt. Davidson Coyotes


View North From Mt. Davidson, San Francisco

Just as the eucalyptus forest which covers much of Mt. Davidson, on the northern slope of which we live, has been given a reprieve by city authorities, a new menace has emerged: coyotes. When we first moved here eleven years ago, no one ever mentioned them, and perhaps they hadn’t yet arrived. Then perhaps five years ago I began to hear of sightings, first in the forest itself, or on the mostly barren eastern slope which faces the rising sun, then later even on neighborhood streets in broad daylight. One neighbor had a bad scare when one of her three dogs found its way into a cave used by coyotes, but luckily there was an exit, out of which the dog was chased when the coyotes realized they had a visitor. I’ve seen one here only once. Our Tibetan Terrier Bika, while lounging on a bed upstairs on a sunny afternoon, suddenly started growling at what looked to me like a German Shepherd on the slope opposite the front of our house, about a hundred yards away. But a quick look with the binoculars showed me that it was no dog at all, but one of the feared feral semi-wolves which have somehow made their way into our forest and begun to call it home. The city has recently posted signs warning residents of their presence, and how to behave should they be encountered. Just yesterday I learned of an elderly neighbor, who has been walking her little dog on the mountain off leash for years, barely managing to rescue it from the clutches of a coyote in the nick of time. I won’t be taking any dogs up there soon.

I don’t mind this self-imposed limitation in a way. Going up on the mountain for joyful walks on sunny days was something I did with our little Bika for years. Now that she’s been gone for over a year, I can reconnect with her merely by remembering her running joyously along forest trails, leaping over fallen logs, scampering happily down slopes covered with dry golden grass and wildflowers, hurrying ahead of me and then turning around to make sure I’d not got too far behind. Those days with her were my own personal Camelot, the mere recollection of which instantly dispels the gloom of the daily realization that she has gone forever from this life. I will keep the woods and mountain slopes for her, I think. And have other adventures with our three new dogs. We are forming whole new sets of happy memories on our own.

A couple of nights ago I dreamed that Bika and I had just settled down on the golden grassy slope, on which we really did sit together in real life, to have a picnic lunch. But then I suddenly noticed a pair of gray erect coyote ears emerge over a nearby ridge, so we quickly collected our picnic things and made a quick dash for home. I have no idea what this dream might mean–my dreams seem always short and uncomplex–but it has stayed with me. I had always promised Bika a picnic on just that slope, but we never got around to it. Perhaps we’ll have it someday in the life to come. Where of course there will be no coyotes to threaten our fun. One weird thing about these particular coyotes, though: I’ve never heard them sing at night, which is something I actually kind of like. At a much earlier stage of my life, when I lived in the foothills about an hour south of San Francisco, the coyotes regularly gave us a concert of wailings and howlings in the night. It was like something out of Transylvania and a gothic tale. Disturbing in a way, but authentic. Perhaps our coyotes here go somewhere else to sleep. And perhaps that’s just as well.

Herrera y Reissig: The Angelus


José Cuneo. ‘Suburbios de Florida’. Oil on Canvas, 1931.

Here is my English translation of a sonnet by the Uruguayan Julio Herrera y Reissig. The Spanish original first appeared in the journal El Diario Español in Buenos Aires on December 16, 1906.


The Angelus

The trembling earth scatters, opens and steams
Like torn flesh beneath the fertile slashing;
The curved plough quivers to the oxen’s beat,
And the bosom of the land bursts forth into life.

More arduous and lengthy than ever the trial…
The woman who zealously prepares the meal
Comes distracted in solicitous mode, imparting
To the child the sweet tepid liquor which cools.

Suddenly to the bell the whole valley responds:
The mother on her knees hides her chaste breast;
The laborer pauses, bares his head, and his gaze

Burns in prayer of entreaty for pious counsels…
The oxen turn toward the bell tower. In the distance
The clamor of the river brings life to the evening.