Monday, December 2, 2019

An Image and Its Story - November 2019

I am a day late for last month's "An Image and Its Story" - this is what a Thanksgiving weekend does to you. I guess you can relate.

I was almost finished with my morning walk around the lake and on my way to my car when I came upon these two. The moment I stepped off the trail out of the woods I had seen them, but since from that perspective they were only silhouettes against the sun I wasn't quite sure what exactly the second "person" was - yes, I had first thought it was another human being (and I wasn't the only one - a lady who came towards us while I was taking the picture told us that she had first thought the woman was sitting there with her boyfriend!). The closer I got and changed my position to the sun I could finally see the dog and had to chuckle inwardly. But then immediately the photographer kicked in and I thought what a great photo this would make, so I asked the woman whether I can take her picture from the back with the dog by her side. She readily agreed. Unfortunately the dog didn't look straight over the lake like its owner but turned its head because there was another dog approaching (with the "boyfriend"-lady). However, when I saw the photo I thought no matter what, it was sweet and I just loved this moment of a human-dog friendship. There was so much tenderness and love between the two - this picture easily made November's image.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Buckeye Seeds

When I was a child growing up in Germany I would gather horse chestnuts (conkers) when they fell to the ground in autumn. Even as a young child I loved the shiny reddish-brown color. We would bring the conkers home and use them for crafts project. The tree itself - a European horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) - is a very large majestic tree with white or red flower spikes in the spring - a stunning sight along the streets and in parks.

The Northern California climate doesn't allow horse chestnuts to thrive here. But we have a different tree that is related to it.

The California buckeye (Aesculus californica) is native to California and southwestern Oregon. Compared to its European relative it is rather short and almost has an umbrella shape. The flower spikes that appear in the spring after the leaves have emerged are white (with just a hint of light pink) with bright orange pollen. The entire tree is covered with these flowers and is quite a sight!

After the flowers are gone and we get into summer the tree does something remarkable: in order to survive the drought of the long summer months it drops all of its leaves and waits for the winter rain. However, the tree will develop its fruit in late summer that ripens in fall. It is sitting in a leathery capsule that hangs from the bare branches.

Slowly, those capsules will split open. I have read somewhere that this is the reason it was named "buckeye".

And then - in November the buckeyes will fall to the ground, either still sitting in the capsule...

... or popping right out of them. Their color is lighter than their European relatives, with reddish hues. It's a beautiful warm and earthy color, fitting for autumn.

The tree is poisonous in all its parts including the nuts. Some animals eat them if they don't find anything else, but usually they go unnoticed and just make new buckeye trees.

There are several buckeye trees at the lake and every autumn I check when the buckeyes will drop. This year they started to fall just last week. I gathered up three of them to bring home and use for decoration; the rest I left where they dropped. However, whenever I am at the lake I take a short detour to check how many more have fallen.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Where the Wine Grapes Grow

Just like in 2017 I have a difficult time finding my "normalcy" again after our latest emergency. I struggled with that back then and I do it again right now. I've finally unpacked all the evacuation items, realizing that I packed less than last time. For example, I could leave behind all the scrapbooks because I had scanned them since the 2017 wildfire. Obviously I learned a lesson or two.

Anyway, I decided to get back to blogging, hoping to ease back into my "normal" life. I was thinking of the Alexander Valley north of town which was at the center of the Kincade Fire, our latest big wildfire. It is a beautiful valley with the Russian River lazily meandering through it. Vineyards stretch out to the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains with majestic lone trees, mainly old oaks, standing either at the edge of the vineyards or right in the middle of them. Back roads pass the many wineries and restaurants that serve farm-to-table food.

The Wappo who with the Pomo used to live in the Alexander Valley prior to Spanish colonization call the valley "Unutsawaholmanoma"  which translates to "Toyon Bush Berry Place". Viticulture started back in 1843 when Cyrus Alexander began to establish vineyards in the area with vine cuttings collected from Fort Ross. The valley has become a renowned wine growing area, and AVA (American Viticulture Area) status was established in 1984.

The wine grown and produced here is truly delicious. The Cabernet-Sauvignons are top notch, but my personal favorite is the Zinfandel - for me it is THE California grape. It is a rich wine with a dark red color and flavors that explode on your tongue - I can't believe I'm writing this at 8:30 in the morning! I sure look forward to my glass of Zin tonight (probably from an Alexander Valley vineyard).

Despite the wineries that bring quite some tourism and therefore traffic to the area on a weekend, the valley has retained its sleepy agricultural character. It's a pleasure to trundle along Highway 128, a quiet back road, with a stop at Jimtown (a deli and a church) to grab a sandwich. The Mayacamas Mountains can be seen from anywhere in the valley with the peak of Mount St. Helena towering over them.

Today, Alexander Valley is the largest and most fully planted wine region in Sonoma County. It is also one of the warmest areas in Northern California during the day, but at night experiences a wide diurnal temperature variation (the variation between a high temperature and a low temperature that occurs during the same day) that offers cool climate conditions. This enables the Alexander Valley to grow a wide range of grape varieties. No wonder you can find so many wineries here.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

An Image and Its Story - October 2019

Before I go on to my photo I want to let you know that the Kincade fire is 70% contained. Almost all of the 190.000 people who have been evacuated have returned to their homes. Power has been restored, but some homes are still without gas. Almost 200 residences have been lost in the fire and many more structures destroyed. My heart breaks for those who have lost their home - while this is on a much much lower scale than back in 2017 when we lost over 5000 homes in Santa Rosa alone, it is awful for the people who did lose theirs.

Once again our community came together to help and support. The warnings this time came early and in an orderly manner - evacuating so many people within 24 hours is not a small feat. Our law enforcement did an excellent job - and the 5000 firefighters who helped containing this very large wildfire (more than 77,000 acres) and put their lives on the line are simply amazing and deserve all our gratitude.

A few days before this stressful week I came home from my grocery shopping. I had parked the car in the garage and wanted to take the bags out of the trunk when I saw this guy right across the street from my house. He was lying there at the edge of the driveway in the woods, relaxing in the sun. He stared at me, but never tried to run away even when I was crossing the street to get a closer look with my camera. Maybe he thought "ah, that's the lady with the wonderful salad buffet" (= my front garden) and knew that I didn't pose any threat to him.

About ten minutes later my neighbor drove up this driveway in his pick up truck and stopped when he saw the buck on his property. Even then, the buck didn't move a muscle - as if he knew that we would never harm him. His message was clear; "this is my place".

And rightfully so.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Déjà Vu

Many of you have sent me emails, messages through Facebook and Instagram or commented on my last blogpost asking how we are doing in our current wildfire. Thank you so much for thinking of us and checking in. So here's a brief update.

We are still home and we even have power. With that we belong to the lucky ones because many are without power and even more had to evacuate. The wildfire started last week at The Geysers, a very large geothermal field. The fire, called the Kincade Fire, quickly spread, threatening Geyserville and the beautiful Alexander Valley. On top of the large fire there were extremely strong winds in the forecast for the following weekend. Last Saturday morning at approx. 11:00 the massive mandatory evacuations started and so far about 186,000 people have been evacuated - the biggest evacuation ever in the history of Sonoma County. Everything has been very organized - the evacuations were ordered in phases, beginning with the towns of Healdsburg and Windsor which are closest to the fire. They quickly were extended to the west of the county to the coast which is a huge area, much of it densely forested with small towns and villages in between as well as vineyards and only small winding roads - a nightmare if people had to get out there with no time and in panic. Then even the Northwestern part of Santa Rosa was evacuated.

The night from Saturday to Sunday was restless and intense with constantly new Nixle alerts coming in. I got up shortly after 4:00 am since the fire was getting too close for comfort. We had already packed the car on Saturday and were ready to leave any minute if we had to.

So far we have stayed put since our area is not under mandatory evacuation order. We are on alert and a bit on edge. The air quality has become very poor since the smoke is making its way down here. We have the air filter running inside and only go outside if necessary, wearing N95 maks. The winds over the weekend were wild and scary as predicted with the result that the fire doubled in size and is only 5% contained. Today, with winds having died down and expected to pick up again tomorrow, the firefighters are aggressively attacking the wildfire and I hope they will be successful. We are deeply thankful for the endless and tireless efforts of our firefighters and first responders - they are the true heroes.

This is a very bad déjà vu of the October 2017 wildfires when entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa burnt down. Many of the rebuilt homes or houses currently under construction are in the mandatory evacuation areas. I can't even begin to imagine how these people must feel right now.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

October Day

October is my favorite month, autumn my favorite season, and one of my favorite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote one of my favorite poems about fall (I know, this sentence has a lot of "favorites"!). I have written about it here before, but I never seem to find a translation that I really like. At my high school library I found the poem in a translation by Robert Bly which so far I like best, even though it is not always 100% accurate. I think translating poems in a different language is one of the most difficult things to do.

The poem is called "Herbsttag" in the original which translates to "Autumn Day", but I am fine with "October Day".

Oh Lord, it is time. It was a great summer.
Lay your shadow now on the sundials,
and on the open fields let the winds go!

Give the tardy fruits the hint to fill;
give them two more Mediterranean days,
drive them on into their greatness, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house by now will not build.
Whoever is alone now will remain alone,
will wait up, read, write long letters,
and walk along sidewalks under large trees,
not going home, as the leaves fall and blow away.

I am not quite happy with the word "sidewalks" since Rilke was using the word "Alleen" which is very difficult to translate into English. But look at both the photos on top and at the bottom - that's a kind of Allee. Whenever I read this poem (I don't even have to read it since I know it by heart) I think of this place - the long island in the Neckar, the river that runs through Tübingen. How many times have I walked here, sat on a bench reading and came here with my old film camera (these photos are slides I took in the 80s and 90s with my trusted Nikon EM). Every season was wonderful here, but autumn was especially delightful.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Days Without Power

Wildfire season is year-round in California by now, but fall seems to be the most dangerous time when after the summer everything is bone dry, humidity is low and the winds pick up. Great conditions for devastating fires like the ones we experienced in October 2017. However, those fires as well as the horrific Camp Fire last year in November were started by power lines that PG&E, our gas and electricity provider, neglected and failed to maintain over many years. As a consequence, PG&E now opts to shut off power to its customers as a preventative measure instead of putting those power cables underground (too expensive for those CEOs who love to line their own pockets).

Last week on Wednesday - ironically exactly the second anniversary of the October fires - our power was shut off early in the morning at 3:00 am. In the days before when we had been warned about this intentional power outage the Geek and I prepared for the days without electricity - the car had a full gas tank (gas stations were shut down as well and I had no desire to get stranded in case we had to evacuate because of fire), we had filled up the freezer with gallons of water that froze and provided some extra cold, cooked some food in advance that could stay fresh safely in a barely cool fridge and had enough back-up power to charge our cell phones and flashlights.

Many schools were closed including the high school where I work as well as the Geek's company. We spent Wednesday mainly reading, knitting (I, not the Geek), walking, chatting and taking naps. In the evening out came the camp stove and we cooked simple meals, accompanied by delicious wine.

Thankfully the weather was still warm, gorgeous fall days - but we were wondering about the wind. There wasn't any. But the wind was the reason the power was shut off...

Unfortunately it wasn't quiet. Some of our neighbors had turned on their generators, and our next door neighbor who had the loudest of them all let it run throughout the night. How annoying! We had to sleep with our windows closed which I hate and we could still hear it. No wonder I didn't sleep very well that night, even though it was pitch dark. Instead I lay in my bed wondering how I could have hot coffee in the morning. You see, I only have whole coffee beans, but my grinder is electric. Totally useless! But then it dawned on me - I still have my mom's old-fashioned hand cranked coffee grinder! I also have an old hand filter that I found the next morning at the very back in one of my kitchen cabinets. I could make coffee!

It was the most delicious coffee I had in a long time.

After two days we got our electricity back. Many people were mad at PG&E, complaining on "Nextdoor" and just whining. I can understand that a power outage is awful when you need electricity for your health or have small children or your own well (I'm not talking about businesses here, only residences); mostly it is an inconvenience because we are so used to have electricity to ease our daily tasks. No Internet, no TV and only spotty cell phone service seem to be quite horrible for many people. I wonder how long we would last if there was a more permanent power outage, for example after an earthquake? All the whining wouldn't help. Being prepared, however, gives us a fighting chance.