Weekly Photo Challenge: Jeffrey Pine Contrast

One of the amazing things about working in wildland fire is the landscapes produced by such a powerful elemental. Fire has long been a part of our western landscapes as an agent of change. Sometimes the change is subtle, but in the case where people are involved, that change can be drastic.

In the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, natural occurring fires have been suppressed as long as Europeans have settled the land. Unfortunately, that means a build-up of forest litter and what we in the business call ‘fuel’: down timber, branches, and other vegetative debris. It all burns.

During what is called a crown fire, often the very forest burns. This is what happened to a patch of forest near South Lake Tahoe in 2007 during a wind-driven firestorm. The spring after the fire, I went into the denuded forest to take pictures of the damage and rebirth. The photo above showcases the dead Jeffrey Pine trees*, their blackened branches reaching for the bright, blue sky for the last time**.

* A-Z Archive: “J” Photo

** WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: Contrast

Free Pass Giveaway

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...

Writer’s Digest if giving away a pass for the San Francisco’s Writer Conference that is coming up NEXT WEEK: Feb 16th – 19th, 2012.  I can’t justify the cost, but free?  Hell, yeah, I’ll call in sick.

Anyway, even if you wanted to go, and had the money and time to go, it is sold out.

So, check out the give away here.  And good luck!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Between

Between Snow Banks

Truckee, California is one of the coldest locations in the lower 48.  Hard to believe, seeing as I just wrote California after Truckee, but it is true.  The numbers do not lie:

The top ten spots for the most number of days with the lowest temperature in the contiguous US between 1995 and 2005:
Location Days of Lowest
Temperature in US
Stanley, Idaho 398
West Yellowstone, Montana 337
Gunnison, Colorado 170
Truckee, California 161
Alamosa, Colorado 142
Saranac Lake, New York 128
Jackson, Wyoming 109
Berlin, New Hampshire   92
Fraser, Colorado   91
Wisdom, Montana   91

Courtesy of the this website.

We lived up in the mountains for almost 20 years, and though some winters were harder to get through than others (see photo above), we wouldn’t change a thing. If you ever find yourself driving over Donner Summit, take the time to visit the Truckee/Lake Tahoe area. It really is one of the Jewels of the Sierras.

West End Beach, Donner Lake, Truckee, CA

What happened to the cows?

UC Davis water tower

I’ve tried to figure out my feelings towards what happened last week on the UC Davis campus.

I am a UC Davis alumni.

The UC Davis campus sprawls on almost 800 acres on some of the best farm land in  California.  During the five years I spent there, I learned, worked, and rode my bike all over the place, and the one impression that was undeniably seared into my brain was this:


The countryside and small town that surround UC Davis are quite peaceful.  I never felt unsafe there, even at 2am in the morning walking back from a drunken party.  Some of the activities that one learns to appreciate while attending UC Davis is the annual Picnic Day where at you can bet on the precise location a cow will poop next.

Oh, to be sure, there is thief, rape, and other nefarious crime on the campus, just like anywhere else in the world, but the scale and severity pales in comparison.

That’s exactly why I choose to attend that school.  I grew up on a farm, and UC Davis seemed like a bigger version of my farming community.  I had contemplated going to UC Berkeley, but after visiting the Berserkeley (not a typo) campus during a random sit-in (some protest I can’t even remember now), I realized that UC Davis was more to my liking.

Think about that.

When I first saw the footage of the UC Davis police attacking the students during an Occupy UC Davis event last week, I thought, damn – what’s wrong with them kids?  That wouldn’t have happened when I went there.  My fellow students protested peacefully.  Why didn’t those kids just do as they were told?

They did.

The students had dismantled their tents.  Only a few stayed and they were removed – nonviolently! – and arrested.  Things got bad when the remaining students sat down.

Yes, folks.  That’s what they did – they sat down.  This crazy, and obviously dangerous, move on the student’s part prompted the police to use a level of force that, frankly, stunned me.

We are not talking Oakland here, folks.  Or UC Berkeley or New York, where one might expect that students might ante up the level of violence simply because of the nature of the place.  The kind of students that are attracted to a campus like UC Davis are…pastoral.

There was no reason for the campus police to visit such violent measure upon kids that were sitting down.  Not throwing stuff.  Not yelling in the cop’s faces.  Not destroying anything.  They were just sitting down.

Think about that.

My America

Over on SFFWorld.com there’s a discussion going on about US Tropes.  It’s spilled over to American culture and culture in general.  The whole thing got started by this writer who ranted against the American big-box story mill called Hollywood and how it influences all stories told throughout the world.

The whole thing got me thinking about my culture.  Just what is it?  Do I have one?

I am, technically, I suppose, a Texan-Mayan-Mexican American.  My mother is from Texas (really, a country of its own), but she’s from a bitty town called San Ygnacio where I never met anyone that spoke English.  Many a Christmas was spent down by the Rio Grande, looking across at the Mexicans on the other side.  It never occurred to me that “over there” was a different country with an entirely different culture.  Because I grew up in Fresno, California, San Ygnacio was completely foreign to me.  I figured Mexico was the same – the same as San Ygnacio.

My father is from Mexico.  No where in particular in that country, just Mexico.  His family had always been nomads, working the land where ever they could – didn’t matter which side of the border.  As Mayans, my father’s family adhered to a mix of indigenous spiritual beliefs and a literal, fire-and-brimstone kind of Christianity that pretty much required that they remain outcasts where ever they went.

Mix in a strong passion for the American dream and you have our family – one big cake mix of Spanish-descent Texan attitude, Mayan-Mexican ingenuity and indigenous baggage, along with an icing of vanilla-California-Republican hard-working overachiever.

I remember after a particularly large quake in the 1970s, my Mexican grandmother warned us to heed our parents lest the earth crack open to reveal the Devil coming up from the fiery depths to claim us as his bride.  Told to us while we watched a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

My Texan grandfather taught me how to skin a snake and rabbit, and how to say my first complete English sentence: “Preddy darn good.”  He also thought I was crazy because I didn’t want him to kill the lambs we had for Christmas dinner every year (I’m a vegan).  Whenever I would complain (read: hang on to the lambs neck till they pried my sweaty arms away), he’d look to my mother and say, “What’s wrong with her?”  He always thought that living in California did something strange to our brains.  He never failed to point out my behavior as proof that we should all move back to Texas.🙄

Once I left home for college, I completely embraced California culture.  I didn’t do it on purpose.  It just happened.  I was too busy working through college and racing on the U.C. Davis Cycling Team.  I had a lot of friends who worked hard on minority rights and I would support them when I could, but keeping up my Latino culture just wasn’t a priority for me.  Then I moved to the mountains (think: a sea of white – snow and people), and my work became my life.

How could it not?  I was working on a forestry crew that left me dead tired at night and all we looked forward to was fire season: when we would get the chance to set the forest afire and get paid for it.😀

I ended up meeting another left-wing vegetarian who miraculously had very similar views on politics, religion, parenting, fun activities, monogamy and just about everything else.  I ended up marrying a Scottish-French, COMPLETELY white guy from New Zealand with an accent so heavy my mother said, “He’s more of a wet-back than your father!”

Well, yeah, my hubby had a larger body of water to cross to get here, didn’t he?😉

So what makes me American?

I don’t know.

I live here.  I work here.  I care about this land and the people around me.  In the end, that’s all that really matters.

The other day, we went north, up to a little town to attend a tour of a geothermal energy plant.  The power plant was taking advantage of a small parade the local town held every year in celebration of spring and oranges (strange combination, I know).  Anyway, while we waited for the tour bus, the participates of the parade moved along the back road we stood on.  A contingent of Mexican and Mexican-descent horse-riders went by on Spanish jennets with elaborate costumes on both the riders and horses.  Many of them held American flags, and spoke Spanglish.  While they pranced on by, a lady on a bike sped along beside them tooting her horn.

I couldn’t help but feel a tug of recognition.  Now that’s California.

Allergic Rhinitis

Ah, in gentler times, it was called hay fever.

Well, when I was a kid, that’s what we called it.  And it was treated with a hot shower and an afternoon off from mowing the grass.  (Yes!)

I’ve always had hay fever, and I pretty much knew I was allergic to grasses, so when I moved to Davis, CA to complete my undergraduate degree, I stocked up on Chlor-Trimenton and, later, Claritin.  I pretty much spent my entire late teens and early twenties drugged.  Looking back, I should have truly been drugged, then I could have at least had a good time.  Nevertheless, despite sneezing, blowing my nose, and feeling drowsy all the time, I managed to compete on the cycling club, finish my degree, and generally behave like a normal human being.

Sierra Nevada
I used to live here (Image by rheauchyr via Flickr)

Upon moving up to the Sierra Nevada, I realized I didn’t have to live my life in fear of a breath of fresh air.  Though the things I am allergic to live up above 6,000 feet, there’s a significant amount less.  So much so less, that I no longer needed over-the-counter allergy medication.


I got into hiking, running, mountain biking and whatever else I could do outside.  I had my moments, but, overall, my respiratory health was much better in the high, dry air of the mountains than down here in the California valleys.

We live in Santa Rosa, California now.  At 164 foot elevation.  Near the ocean so we get lots of rain.  And there are LOTS that grows here.  Especially, grass.

Now I live here
Now I live here (Image from GeoImages Berkeley)

But, I had 20 years in the Sierras.  Somehow, I forgot just how horrendous allergic reactions to tiny, itty-bitty, plant SPERM CELLS could be.




Every shallow breath I take induces a sneezing, wheezing, or coughing fit.  ARGH!!!!

I went to see an allergist earlier this year.  I thought, I’m gonna be proactive.  I’m gonna find out what I’m allergic to and take allergy shots to build my tolerance up.  This summer might be bad, but I’ll weather through and next year will be better.

Turns out, I’m allergic to a few things.  Here’s the round-up (rating 1-4 refers to the size of the welt the allergen induces in the skin test, 4 is the worst):

Right Arm, Allergy Skin Test
Right Arm, Allergy Skin Test
  • 4 – Grass (they don’t say which, they just list GRASS, as in all grasses)
  • 4 – Alder
  • 3 – Sycamore
  • 3 – Mulberry
  • 3 – Elm
  • 3 – Olive
  • 4 – Cottonwood
  • 2 – Walnut
  • 3 – Oak
  • 3 – Eng. Plantain
  • 3 – Maple/Elder
  • 2 – Birch
  • 2 – Ash
  • 3 – Dock
  • 2 – Willow
  • 3 – Juniper
  • 1 – Privet (take that! – nasty Privet!)

    Left Arm, Allergy Skin Test
    Left Arm, Allergy Skin Test
  • 3 – Acacia
  • 2 – Lambsquarter
  • 2 – Care/Pigweed
  • 3 – Sage/Mugwort

And…wait for it, it’s a good one:

  • 2 – Dog

What the freak!?  Dog?  I’m allergic to my dog?

The only things I am not allergic to, on the range of tests given, are dust mites, milk and cats.  Nevermind I could have sworn I was allergic to cat, the experts had spoken.  The allergen serum ordered, I started my shot schedule.  Because I’m allergic to so many things, I get poked friggin’ SIX TIME A WEEK.

I could show you the welts those shots produce, but I have your lunch to consider.😉

Basically, my life sucks at the moment.  The pollen is so heavy in the air I can barely breathe AND I’m getting shots each week of the very same allergens.  I’m dying.

I finally had to call the allergist and ask him to do something.  Thank the powers that be (I know, I’m an atheist, but times like these…), there’s prednisone.  Of course, that comes with its own scary side effects, but at least, I’ll be able to breathe, and my bike ride into work won’t turn into a race between how fast I can get there and how much snot I can produce.

And my dog just got skunked again.  I’m not complaining.  Really.


Homeless People

Redwood Gospel Mission Homeless Shelter
Redwood Gospel Mission Homeless Shelter

I’ve meant to post about homeless people.  I see homeless people every day I ride into work.

I see them at other times, too, but they are much easier to ignore when you are in a warm or air-conditioned car (depending on the season or time of day).

I’m new to homeless people.  Or, rather, having to suffer homeless people on a regular basis is new to me.

Don’t pshaw! me.  Don’t think you’re better than me because you have empathy for these people.  Because you don’t see them as they, but rather just a sad part of  you.  To assuage your guilt, you give to charities, your church, or whatever.

But I suffer the homeless.

I breath in shallow breathes as I ride underneath the Fulton overpass, murmuring a quiet good morning to the man who sleeps, farts, bathes, ejaculates, and defecates among the river rocks.  A man I call ‘The Troll’.

My heart aches to see a woman waking upon my passing.  The whoosh of my cycle wheels startle her, body jumping to attention, eyes wide and scared.  Her fetid sleeping bag laid out next to the path flaps open as she emerges.  Not even 8am and I’ve ruined her day.

I ride quickly by the camp of three to six men.  Half hidden beneath a tangle of tarps, their voices rise with the sun; fighting for attention, supremacy, food, and shelter.

Popping off the bike path onto Pierson Street, I turn.  Speed past the dance studio and teen center, cross the railroad tracks, then stop at the corner of Sixth and Wilson, checking for traffic before moving on.

If I’m late, the crowd is gone.  Either inside the shelter, or off to find a corner of a park to occupy the day.

If on time, they stand against the side of the shelter catty-corner from me, patiently awaiting their turn to enter and break their night’s fast.

If early, they are milling about the intersection, shouting a greeting or curse to the people who will listen, to the people who matter, to their kin.

For the most part, they ignore me.  And I try to ignore them.

But it’s hard.