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Creek Running North

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November 14, 2003


And so winter begins. Last weekend, after spending far too much time at a work-related board-staff strategic planning retreat - the very name is soporific - I drove home through the dark and pelting rain. Drivers slowed to a safe and sane 65 per. Mist rose off the pavement. Once safely at home, I saw the garden had perked up as if watered with espresso.

Gary Nabhan tells of a conversation about rain with a Tohono O'odham farmer. Nabhan listened as the farmer talked about the difference between rainwater and well water. You can keep tepary beans alive on well water, but they prefer the rain, he said. The plants just do better. An inch of rain will do the same job as ten inches of water from the pipe.

My plants have abundant water from the pipe, but still the yard was starting to look a little ratty. Now the place looks like a photo shoot. It's odd to use the word "exuberance" to characterize slow-growing plants like agaves, but that's the word that comes to mind.

My neighbor Henry says it's the diatomite. The whole hill is made of it. It lets the rain soak in quite ncely, then feeds it out drop by drop to thirsty plant roots. It's like having one of those automated watering planters, except that this one actually works, doesn't kill plants with wet feet, doesn't clog or break. The live oaks on this hill are all less than 50 years old: some of them look like grandfathers. If there were a county fair competition for growing live oaks, Pinole would win handily.

Ferris, who lives next door, points out that even in this arid part of California the bedrock on our hill - in our hill? - shunts the rain into a hundred little springs. These are generally a nuisance to homeowners, paved over and culverted and nonetheless coming up as wet crawl spaces or odd puddles. Water lands on the broad, flat top of the hill and soaks in, following unknown weaknesses in the petrified Miocene sediment, until it bubbles up to erode your retaining walls. "Did you know you've got a well on your land?" In fact, I hadn't known. "Next time I'm there, I'll show you. It's filled in, but I can put my foot on the exact spot."

I've been having a lot of conversations with the neighbors this week. Our neighborhood has been aroused this past week by plans to put a 17-unit transitional housing complex for the homeless on the church grounds immediately behind our house. On my return from the Mojave, I found myself in the thick of potentially nasty local politics. And then the rains came, and the neighbors came together - conservative and liberal and apathetic, Black and Asian and Latino and white and gay and hippie and redneck - in a convivial spirit of accord. And it rained again, and we started talking with the church and city about solutions all parties can be happy with. With any luck, the city will vote Tuesday to forestall the project as envisioned and give us all a chance to work it out together.

There's still room for discord, and plenty can go wrong before Tuesday. Even after that, it'll be a long hard slog - but that's what you have after a good rain.

This morning, Zeke pulled me toward a neighbor's Japanese maple. It takes me an hour and change to walk him nowadays: new friends in the neighborhood want to talk. Today was quiet. Brilliant crimson leaves were scattered across the road like origami cranes. The air was thick and cold.

Posted by Chris Clarke at November 14, 2003 03:43 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Good luck on the vote...

Japanese maples are an iffy prospect here, but I still think I'm going to plant one someday, in a sheltered spot, because I love them so much. "Origami cranes" -- what a beautiful, perfect image.

Posted by: beth at November 15, 2003 06:27 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I love your geological metaphors, Chris. Thanks for this post, and good luck on the neighborhood contROVersy.

The sumacs around here are almost all fiery red. The leaves are not quite like origami cranes, but almost. It made me pine for the northeast.

Posted by: Pica at November 15, 2003 07:30 AM
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Hope the neighborhood decision goes your way or at least some wiggle room appears. Good luck!

Posted by: fredf at November 17, 2003 10:12 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs