The Rains

     Along the 5 freeway, the hills through the Camp Pendleton Marine Base have turned to this odd color, like a fresh, lively brown. But brown is not normally a vibrant color on Southern California hillsides.
     Upon closer examination, these are burn areas that I am passing through, burn areas that are no longer black.
     And then like a fool, it hits me, “the rains!”
     How quickly I have forgotten the unique Southern California cycle of seasons that brings a rainy season late in the year and fresh green growth on the hillsides, when throughout most of the continent winter means barren earth and a period of near-death in the land.
     In this case, green shoots are growing up under the blackened brush to give the hills their odd, vibrant color. How quickly the natural cycle of fire and rain has demonstrated itself.
     With the great constant of cool wind blowing off the ocean’s surface onto land in order to replace the hot air rising in the desert – with that great constant is reversed in the final days of the dry season and the Santa Anas blow hot desert air at gale strength towards the coast, ideal for fires and firebugs.
     Which backwards wind is then followed by the rainy season.
     So it is that the brush-clearing ferocity of the wild fires has already been followed by a set of storms and then by new growth. And it is almost as though the plants and animals know the cycle and are jumping to take advantage.
     At my dad’s old farm, a group of three enormous birds – eagles, it seems to me, with white plumage tipped by blue on the tail and wings – scream in a huge, burnt eucalyptus tree and then tussle, enormous wings banging onto branches, over a rodent that one of them has caught in his beak.
     There are three groups of hunting birds hanging around the farm, the three eagles, two golden-tailed hawks, and a huge, dark-brown owl.
     They are there, having a feast of lapin, because the fire’s incineration of the ground cover has exposed a large population of cotton tails to the piercing beaks and razor talons of the gliding birds of prey.
     At one point, I startled the enormous owl as he perched down near the ground in the creek bottom, and he flapped slowly away through the burnt trees, great wings rising and falling.
     A few of those trees are already sprouting new leaves, bright, green leaves and new sprigs. And to me, it seems like they are racing to take possession of the air space. The first to get there grabs the light, and then grows faster and dominates the trees beneath that must then work for their light and their energy.
     It’s like they know.
     Perhaps predictably, it’s the interloper from Australia that is the most aggressive. The eucalyptus trees are already sending out bundles of new shoots from completely blackened trunks.
     While the poor, native sycamores must wait in dormancy for the spring before their leaves will grow again, ceding in the meantime a great advantage to the competitor.
     I spend a day working with my friend Del and his employee Jorge down in the creek bottom the “bosque” or forest, as Jorge calls it clearing burnt logs and fallen branches. The creek bed is now carrying a small but steady channel of water and the ground is interspersed with green growth, unfortunately including thistles and poison oak. 
     But it is satisfying work to clear the creek bed which, when we are done, is a small, open valley with the black trees forming a set of question marks as to which are dead and gone and which will survive and come back, from the passage of the flames.
     Jorge has become someone that I know and trust and like. He is a young man from an area high in the mountains outside Mexico City, where his wife must walk roughly ten miles simply to receive his phone call once a week.
     He is without artifice or guile, works at a steady and hard pace, and likes to express himself, joining in the conversations at meal time.
     He loves the farm, because it reminds him of home where he has not been for many, many months. And on New Year’s day when I kicked back and watched football up in Pasadena, Jorge said he would rather work down on the farm “para no llorar,” so as not to cry.

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