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.







Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Journey of a Japanese Pagoda



In 1999, when we were still living in Germany, the Geek had to go on a business trip to Japan. He had a free weekend during that trip and beside some sight seeing he also looked for little things he could bring back to us. Among them were two small concrete pagodas that I loved to use as decor among the flowers on my balcony.

When we moved to California, thinking we would return after three years, the pagodas went to storage. Since after those three years we decided to stay in the US and had received the Green Card, all our belongings were shipped to the home we lived in at that time - the Brookdale House.

You can see both of them sitting on the ground - as you can imagine, I wanted to take a photo of Ginger and only years later, when I was looking for it, discovered that the pagodas were in the picture.


I remember having them sit there for quite a while before I made up my mind where they should go. They first went into a container with some plants.


Finally, they both went into the ivy that was growing in one corner of the backyard. They were hard to see after a while.



Eventually they had almost completely disappeared under the ivy.


When we moved out of the Brookdale House, they ivy had taken over and the pagodas were hidden somewhere beneath it. In all the chaos of moving I had totally forgotten about them. Only a few weeks later I remembered them, but by then it was too late to go back to the house and ask the new tenants whether I could look for them in the backyard.

The Brookdale House burnt down during the October firestorm in 2017. Three weeks later, when we went up to our old home for the first time after the fires, we got the permission to enter the property. We walked around what was left of the house (it wasn't much) and recalled where everything used to be in the house. We also went into what used to be the backyard. Of the beautiful redwood deck only parts of the concrete foundation remained; there was a stump of the plum tree that my friend Jo harvested every fall; a skeleton of the persimmon tree. This tree used to be in the midst of the ivy, but nothing of the ivy was left. Everything was burnt.

But then... when I turned around I saw this:



I first couldn't believe my eyes and thought I was hallucinating. One of my pagodas had survived the inferno! I never found the second one, but I was over joyed (and crying) that this one was still there.

Since it was mine I took it with me. For the longest time it was sitting on our dining table. Sometimes I turned it around - it had a "beautiful" side (in the top photo), but it also had the telling side with the burn marks.


When spring came it moved outside into one of the big flower pots.


Finally I moved it into the garden, right beneath a young vitex. Over the months it has changed its color and looks more terracotta now. It will never live among the ivy again.


Tomorrow, Wednesday, October 9th, is the second anniversary of the 2017 firestorm. It is ironic that we have very similar weather conditions again and as a preventative step our utility company will shut off the power over a large part of Northern California. The outage will start tonight and last at least until Thursday evening, but restoring the power can take up to five days. If you don't hear from me, you know why.


Sunday, October 6, 2019

An Image and Its Story - September 2019


September flew by in a rush. We still have a lot of new textbooks to process in the high school library and have to deal with the "regular" tasks a busy library brings with it. The German School has started again; I have a bigger class than last year, and I enjoy all of my students.

We had some pretty hot days in September when temperatures climbed up to 105° F - too hot for me. Fortunately that happened during my days off and I could spend my time at the coast where it is considerably cooler. I went up to Gualala again, had a lovely long walk along the Gualala Point Bluff Trail followed by a mug of delicious mocha in a little café on the cliffs. On my way back I stopped many times along Highway 1 to take photos and just enjoy the views over the vast ocean and the steep cliffs.


The pampas grass is found everywhere along the coast where it grows on the steep cliffs. It is rather invasive and unfortunately crowds out native species, thus lowering the biodiversity. However, I still like the looks of it in fall when it is tall and shimmers in the sunlight - simply gorgeous when back lit!

This is one of my favorite stretches of Highway 1, between Bodega Bay and Fort Ross. The road - that is not very wide I have to add - hugs the steep hills that fall into the ocean, with sharp bends and curves as well as steep climbs. You can see a small part of it to the left side of the photo. It is a very popular road with tourists which is no surprise, but also brings its own problems - the most apparent one inexperience in driving roads like this, especially in a RV. However, up here north of the Golden Gate we don't get as many tourists as for example in Big Sur further south, and I'm thankful for that. There still is a lot of untouched nature to be found, and every time I drive along here I feel blessed and grateful to live in such a wonderful part of our planet. The cliffs, the rocks, the ocean, the sheer wildness of it all truly appeals to me.




Sunday, September 29, 2019

A Cabin in the Woods



Since we didn't take any trip over the summer, I suggested to the Geek to spend a weekend further up north at the coast. A friend of mine had told me about a cabin where she had stayed 15 years ago and a short Google research revealed that it was still there. St. Orres in Gualala (pronounced wa-LA-la) is a hotel with a very good (and prohibitively expensive) restaurant - and they also rent a few cabins further away from the hotel for an affordable price. I called them and was delighted how friendly they were. I booked one of the cabins in the woods (they also have a couple "ocean view" cabins, but the ocean is behind the trees by now) and a week later the Geek and I were on our way to Gualala, which is only a two hours drive from here on Highway 1.


We got the same cabin my friend had 15 years ago and it seems that nothing much has changed since then apart from a few updates. We had a nice big room with a sitting area, a private bath and the deck in the redwoods.

It was a charming little place.


 The bottle of good red wine wasn't a service from the hotel. We had stopped at Annapolis Winery on our way to Gualala and bought this bottle after a nice wine tasting.


The view out of the windows into the redwoods.


The deck certainly was my favorite place...

Everything was thought through so well. All kinds of utensils on top of the refrigerator like coffee maker, plates, silverware, napkins, wine glasses; they even provided a corkscrew! An emergency light in case there was a power outage or some other more serious emergency (we are more familiar with those now).



Talking about emergencies: since the coast has ratty cell phone reception at best, there was an old fashioned pay phone in the center of the premises. There even was a phone book!


The premises were pretty, too. The hotel is built in what I call "Russian" style, and so were some of the buildings here as well.




But the best part was the breakfast. It was brought to our door every morning in a box and had fresh fruit, homemade bread, an egg dish, orange juice, homemade granola and milk. We ate it out on the deck and felt very pampered.




I don't think this was the last time I spent a weekend here.





Thursday, September 19, 2019

A Thousand Suns



At the end of summer the sunflowers are still going strong, painting a smile on our faces with their brilliant happy color. I used to grow sunflowers in my garden, but stopped doing that since the squirrels always "killed" them and I didn't like those empty stems stretching into the sky.

But entire sunflower fields are a different story!

While we drove through Turkey last year in July we saw many sunflower fields, and finally we stopped on a little dirt road and took some pictures of this wave of yellow suns.





There were so many fields - and they were huge. They stretched over the hills and down to the water, covering wide areas of land. It was quite the sight.


Where there are sunflowers there are birds and the air was buzzing with the sweet voices of hundreds of birds. Unfortunately I didn't have the presence of mind to make a short video and capture this. I also love how the faces of the sunflowers follow the track of the sun - we were standing just in the right position for the pictures above, but not for some below.




It's amazing how far one can see the yellow color glowing in the distance.

A thousand suns. (well, probably more...)