Sunday, February 28, 2010

On a full moon after the rain

Great horned owls hoo-hoo in the trees across the street. Their deep, resonant calls echo through a canyon of hills surrounding our home.

The moon shines full on a landscape sodden from recent rains, two inches in a matter of hours last night.

We sit at the foot of a reservoir that has been mostly dry these past few years and is probably little more than half full now, even with the wet winter we’ve had so far.

Gov. Schwarzenegger warned not long ago that if we had one more dry winter, water conditions in California could become “catastrophic.”

I’ve celebrated the several storms that have swept the California coastline these past few weeks, keeping my fingers crossed that the dam containing the reservoir would hold and that mudslides in the state would be few.

So far, we’ve been lucky.

We’re still not entirely in the clear, but we can breathe a little sigh of relief that rationing water this summer will be much less likely than it was even a few weeks ago.

I knew this storm would be the one to get us. It rained all night. Two inches wouldn’t ordinarily make a whole lot of difference. But the ground is already saturated after weeks of heavy rainstorms. We found two feet of standing water beneath our house today.

I woke up to a cryptic email this morning: “Here are some websites to check out while you await the tsunami.”

I wanted to get outside and check the rain gauge, see what, if any, damage or flooding was caused by last night’s rain. The last time someone warned me about a tsunami it was my daughter calling me on the phone at 10 p.m.

“Dad, there’s a tsunami coming.”

“That’s not funny, Anna,” I responded. “Do you know what time it is?”

“I’m serious, dad. There’s a tsunami.”

I’ve since learned to take such warnings more seriously. Realizing this morning’s email was a tongue-in-cheek warning, I went online and checked the news, and learned of the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Chile today.

A tsunami advisory had been issued for the entire Pacific coastline.

For some reason, the hooing of the great horned owls makes me feel at ease, even after I’ve gone to bed for the evening. In the middle of the night, they call from different locations around the hills, flying between cypress, pine, redwood and eucalyptus trees.

Sometimes, they seem to call from just outside the bedroom window. I don’t mind. I like hearing them sounding the hills as they hunt, or mate; I like knowing that they can cut through the night with deadly precision and silence, stalking their prey.

The great horned owl is a formidable bird of the night. Its powerful talons grip and tear, its wings beat like clubs, and its beak is razor sharp. 

I heard my neighbor Claude rummaging through his garage outside this morning, cursing and tossing planks of wood.

I went outside and walked up the hill to scan for slippage, new openings in the earth, where rainwater might have rushed in and caused erosion. The great horned owls spend a lot of their time on this hill.

A steady stream of runoff flowed from the next yard over, Teresa and Tim’s place, and down through Claude’s backyard, dropped a few steps and into the back of his garage.

“Damn it!” I heard him say.

I like this neighborhood because we’re the last out post where the wilderness meets the edge of town. Only five houses on the street, which dead ends at the bottom of the reservoir that ascends nearly 200 feet above us and opens to miles of wilderness.

Osprey and eagles occasionally soar hundreds of feet above the dam. Flocks of migrating birds pass overhead nearly every day.

The enormous earthen dam was built in 1961, with a capacity of more than 40,000 acre feet of water (enough to cover 62.5 square miles in water a foot deep). That’s a lot of water.

I try not to imagine 40,000 acre-feet of water crashing down the valley, which is shaped like an enormous toilet bowl.

If the dam ever breaks, a wall of water will swish around the hillsides, flushing everything in its path—houses, trucks and trees—down to the ocean barely a quarter mile away.

From the ocean side, a sizable tsunami would come into the valley and do essentially the same thing from the other direction.

With the dam towering nearly 200 feet above us, it gives us the illusion that everything’s fine. We can’t see the enormous body of water behind it. Out of sight, out of mind, except when it rains.

I think about it every time we get rain. I think about the hills sliding down on top of us in one huge wall of mud and debris.

The owls don’t talk much during the rain, but tonight it’s clear. The bright full moon throws its bluish haze over everything; it drips in through cracks in the curtains and lights up the room.

There’s plenty of food for the owls, which will carry animals two to three times their weight; they’ll eat rabbits whole, take out skunks and raccoons, and occasionally snag a dog or a cat. Their hoo-hoos give me a feeling of reassurance. The system works.

The runoff had piled up in Claude’s garage. Water had soaked several pieces of choice wood he’d stacked on the floor. We pulled the good stuff off the floor and he dried the place out as best he could.

We followed the flow of runoff and traced it back to Teresa and Tim’s place. She came out to investigate.

“Hey,” Claude started, “I was thinking of putting a few sandbags down to keep the water from your yard running into mine and into my garage.”

“You’re getting water?” she responded.

Her husband came out and the four of us watched as the water pooled near some of Teresa’s flower pots and then ran down into Claude’s yard.

“I could probably dig a little trench right here,” Claude said, stepping past her flower pots and to a low spot that ran between their yards and away from his garage.

“Or,” Teresa’s husband suggested, “we could just move some of these pots and see if that helps.”

“I’m not moving those,” she shrieked.

“Why not?” Tim asked.

“It’s just going to open up a whole can of worms,” she complained, “and I’ve gotta babysit the grandkids today.”

She made such a fuss about it, I walked away thinking: “You wanna see a can of worms, try looking into Claude’s garage.”

She was so unwilling to be inconvenienced. Tim, her husband, later moved the pots himself, allowing the water to flow freely away from Claude’s garage.

Claude finally got the place aired out and dried up a little bit.

The owls have been quiet for a while, and now the cat fusses to be let outside. I don’t worry about the owls attacking our cat. I’m more worried about the coyotes. The rain has stopped for now.

The surf pounds in the distance and the surges of ocean water from the tsunami ceased hours ago.

Claude and I rode our bikes down to watch the ocean before the sun went down. A crowd of young people danced and teased as the water lapped at their feet. Tomorrow I’ll finish pumping the water from underneath our house. §


  1. November Surf by Robinson Jeffers

    Some lucky day each November great waves awake and are drawn
    Like smoking mountains bright from the west
    And come and cover the cliff with white violent cleanness: then suddenly
    The old granite forgets half a year's filth
    The orange-peel, eggshells, papers, pieces of clothing, the clots
    Of dung in corners of the rock, and used
    Sheaths that make light love safe in the evenings: all the droppings of
    the summer
    Idlers washed off in a winter ecstasy:
    I think this cumbered continent envies its cliff then.... But all seasons
    The earth, in her childlike prophetic sleep,
    Keeps dreaming of the bath of a storm that prepares up the long coast
    Of the future to scour more than her sea-lines:
    The cities gone down, the people fewer and the hawks more numerous,
    The rivers mouth to source pure; when the two footed
    Mammal, being someways one of the nobler animals, regains
    The dignity of room, the value of rareness.

  2. Mr. Jeffers' fine poem reminds me of the many winter storms I've weathered along the Big Sur coastline when truly November's "great waves awake and are drawn / Like smoking mountains bright from the west…"

    In fact, the waves yesterday were just like that.

    For some reason, blogspot seems to want to mash the lines of Mr. Jeffers' poem. To see it as the lines of his poem were meant to break, visit this link

    Thank you for the poetic response.