Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Turkey Talk

In the 1980s we lived beside a creek in rural Northern California. The property had been part of a Spanish land grant but was now small farms and open rolling hills. For my daughter's 13th birthday we planned an overnight with her friends. It was June and the weather was warm and sunny, so a delicious meal and a bonfire on the beach by the creek would be perfect. My mother bought us a turkey at the local supermarket in her town, about 35 miles from where we lived. We picked up the turkey and other supplies and started for home.

Almost immediately we smelled something awful wafting from the back of the car. The turkey was rotten! We went to the store and bought another turkey right away. But what to do with the ripe turkey?

My then-husband decided the turkey would make a great science experiment. He took it to a fallen log that crossed over the creek and hung it naked on a protruding branch. He was curious how long it would take for a raccoon, skunk, fox or bobcat to carry it off. With luck, a mountain lion might come by.

Instead, early the next morning our landlord and a surveyor passed the log with the turkey dangling from it. We chuckled, wondering what they made of it. However, they just waved as they passed our cabin and went on by.

About three days later our landlord's wife and I stopped to chat. At one point she said, "Oh, and I explained to Roger all about the turkey." Fascinated, I asked, "What exactly did you tell him?"

"Well, he came home and mentioned that he had seen a turkey down by the creek. I said, "Oh, the neighbors have all kinds of birds. It probably just got loose. He said, 'No, Jo, this turkey is dead, plucked and hanging from a log over the creek.'

"So I told him, ' Oh, Roger, you know Patricia's a gourmet cook. It must be a unique method for marinating the turkey. I'm sure it will be delicious!'"

Hmmmm, maybe, but not for us.

Back to the science experiment, we heard numerous loud fights down at the creek as the animals fought fiercely over the turkey, but they couldn't dislodge it from the log. It took a week for some critter to drag the now very strong smelling turkey from its perch and into the woods. Although we don't know which family had a true thanks giving meal for their hard work, it wasn't ours.

As for the birthday party? A great success.

Friday, November 21, 2008


This week the weather in Santa Cruz has been too beautiful. Sunny and 85 degrees – unusually warm for our Coastal community. Forget the valleys; thanks to the offshore winds, it has been warmer here along the Coast. Visitors have swarmed to the beaches and everyone is turned out in shorts and tank tops to enjoy the balmy weather. So what's so wrong with this idyllic picture? It's mid November!

I grew up in Northern California. While it's not unheard of for us to have soft, warm days in November, we're talking 70 degrees warm, maybe even 75, followed by chilly nights and mornings. And this would be unusual as more typically the storms are rolling in at this time of year, at least that was true when I was a kid.

As a child I listened to my grandparents from Cleveland talk about winters in Pasadena. My grandfather was an estate manager for a very wealthy family who summered in Ohio and wintered in Pasadena. My grandfather sent home postcards from Pasadena to my father, postcards featuring beautiful groves of oranges and gorgeous winter scenery in sunny California, adorned with Poinsettias, a symbol of near-tropical California holidays. In fact, the Poinsettias were grown at the Paul Ecke ranch in Encinitas, south of Los Angeles and shipped all over the country. Gorgeous tropical flowers arriving in the frozen Midwest December made California even more exotic. Oh, and then there were the gift trays of dried fruits with celluloid picks to lift each piece from the basket. And boxes of dates from the desert. California was a veritable Eden.

In the 1920s my father and grandmother took the train across the country during the winter to visit my grandfather and revel in the crystalline clear days where Mount Baldy looked like a short walk away from the streets of Pasadena. My father said that Pasadena in those days was paradise.

It was a common perception at the time that it rarely rained and that California winters were in the 70s and 80s. While this was almost true in Southern California, it was true enough for winter-weary folks living in East Cleveland. After all, 65 degrees in February is very balmy if you're dealing with –10 degrees and Lake effect snow.

Sadly, in the last twenty years, the weather has changed dramatically. Rains rarely come to Southern California now, and when they do, they arrive as torrential downpours causing flooding and massive erosion. The Santa Ana winds still blast the Los Angeles basin in the autumn, with hot, dry, desert air under pressure that roars down canyons and triggers huge firestorms exacerbated by the drought. The pines are now riddled with boring beetles a side effect of the dry weather, making them weak and vulnerable. Fueled by fire igniting the equally dry chaparral, they explode like Roman candles.

And what about Northern California? It's warmer here too and the rains come later and end much earlier. Late November or early December isn't unusual for the first real rain and some years it's over as early as March. We have far less fog as well. Heavy and moisture-laden, it nurtured the redwoods through the long dry summer months. Now we have warm and fairly fogless summers. In June this year over 2000 fires burned after a dry lightning storm ignited our forests and meadows from far Northern through most of Central California. Since 1999 the average number of acres burned in California annually has been over 7,000,000! Some years more than 9,000,000 acres have burned.

I want to bask in the summery weather, to celebrate the sweet heat of the late Indian Summer, but I can't fully enjoy it as it makes me so deeply uneasy. No snow falling in the Sierra, our reservoirs running low. The trees are now stressed here in the northern part of the state, just as they have been for the last fifteen years throughout the entire Southwest. When commenting about the weather to friends, their responses are much like mine. Sure it's beautiful, but how can we fully enjoy it as old daily heat records are broken constantly, not just in November but in nearly every month? Whether manmade or natural, the weather is changing alarmingly fast.

Sunny California. When I was a child people in the Midwest were envious, assuming that Northern California was as warm and inviting all winter as the more famous Southern clime. Now they rarely comment about our sunny winters. Instead, it's about our fires and how could we live in a state that burns from June to December. A sad commentary for our once golden state.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Better Than A Lava Lamp

Okay, I'm old enough to remember when lava lamps first came out. I never owned one but I definitely found them a source of great entertainment, especially after a drink or two.

Now I can tell you that as cool as they are, they don't stand up to the real deal!

On the evening of October 24th I went to the village of Kalapana on the Big Island to the Kiluea lava flow. I wasn't sure I could actually watch the pyrotechnics as I'm extremely sensitive to sulphur dioxide. Didn't want an asthma attack to ruin an otherwise thrilling adventure.

"Not to worry," I was told. "The steam, sulphur, ash and other gases drift north to the Kona Coast." I certainly can attest to that as most of my stay in Kona was clouded by vog. Bouyed by this news, I was ready!

We arrived not long after dark. As the show runs 24/7, you can go at any time, but it's far more dramatic from sunset on. The park requires all visitors to have individual flashlights; headlamps are even better. After parking the car, we followed a path that leads over the lava to the prime viewing area. This means walking over pahoehoe lava, the smoothish kind, along with razor-sharp a'a' lava, jagged shards of broken lava. There is a designated path with yellow errors leading visitors to the prime display area. The walk requires a certain level of concentration as there are treacherous sinkholes and crevices everywhere, none of which would be fun to encounter head-over-heels.

After fifteen minues of thoughtful navigation, we arrived. My hosts threw down blankets and set up a tripod and camera. The photos in this blog are the work of my host, Conrad Mertel. You can also go online to http://www.letsgo-hawaii.com/volcano/lavaflow.html to see the most current map of the lava flow. As of this writing, the map is for October 24th, the night we were there.

Activity varies night-to-night. We drew a lucky card. People who went two days later saw hardly anything. In our case, we could see a thin flow of red magma moving down Kilauea from the Royal Gardens subdivision, which has been completely overtaken by the lava. The lava disappears into vents, reappears further down, then drops into a long vent before surfacing to pour over the cliffs into the sea.

My hosts took a boat trip recently that goes out before dawn and gets relatively close to the cliffs. This provides an unparalleled view of the display. However, it also means breathing a lot of gas and ash. According to them, the water reaches temperatures of 800 degrees Fahrenheit. This night, the waves were breaking on the cliffs with a large spray upward, creating massive clouds of steam, ash and gas, which fortunately really does blow Northwest.

Periodically we could see rocks and boulders burst into the air at the edge of where the magma surfaces from the vent. I can't come up with a better word than spectacular to describe the beauty of the lava flow, the waves, and the billowing clouds.

There was a secondary show, one I hadn't considered until I looked up. Because there are no lights and because there's no point in having flashlights on once you're settled, there is no ambient light to interfere with the planetary exhibition, showing simultaneously in "Ampitheatre B." The sky was enormous that night, clear and bright, the kind of perfect you see at the planetarium except that this was the real deal. Shooting stars arced across the sky and the Milky Way stretched forever.

We sat quietly for nearly two hours, joined by a crowd of equally awed viewers. Better than television, and with no movie houses outside of Hilo, this is a prime source of entertainment for both tourists and locals.

Walking back over the desolate lava fields, a few ferns poked up through the cracks, the first plants to emerge post-eruption. Then I noticed something scurrying across the lava -- cockroaches! Of course! Cockroaches can survive just about anywhere, even at the ends of the earth.