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December 28, 2003

Branta canadensis

Today's was a second consecutive morning of hard frost. Rime coated the grass, dandelion leaf edges, the roof of the truck. Turning the compost pile, I stopped and heated my ungloved hands in its microbial warmth.

The firewood and brick pile next to the compost has become a hobby for Zeke: a couple of mice have taken up residence. They seem unafraid of him, scampering across his field of view just out of reach of his bared teeth. They are fat and sleek, wild gray-brown, and impossibly cute. This morning, I could see the steam coming from their nostrils.

The compost has a holiday scent to it today, courtesy a spent six-foot Douglas fir and our new electric chipper-shredder. On the afternoon of the 25th we built a fire in the driveway, invited a few friends over, cooked paella al fresco and shredded a few ceremonial branches. I took care of the remainder of the tree yesterday. The shredder smells of conifer sachet.

There are few things as satisfying as working in a garden when the air is at 30 degrees F. If nothing else, you can find a feeling of accomplishment in the warmth you generate inside your clothing. Yesterday morning it took only a few minutes of lopping branches off the dead tree and feeding them into the shredder to bring the blood to the surface of my skin.

Likewise with today's compost pile. By the time it was fully mixed, Douglas fir needles and guinea pig cage bedding and weeds and scorched paella scraped from the pan, I was warm enough to stand in the shade, watching little gray feet scrabble on mossy brick, and wonder if I should unbutton another layer of shirt.

And so I found something else to do before going inside: planting some fritillaria bulbs I'd neglected for some months. The last few weeks of rain stuck the soil to my Japanese garden knife as it delved the herb bed: one bulb after another toppled into three-inch holes in the muck, right side up, ready to emerge in a few more weeks.

On the fifth bulb I heard them and looked up, and it took a moment to realize that my eyes weren't being deceived. It was geese all right, a quarter mile up or more, and a lot of them. "Becky, come out here right now!" We stood in the yard and counted. There were probably three hundred, perhaps as many as four hundred, spread across the sky in a broad arc, heading east for the shallow water of the Sacramento Valley.

Two hundred years ago this would have been an unremarkable sight near the bay. "Can you imagine," I asked, "what it would have been like to see that many geese and not think it an amazing thing?"

Becky chuckled at me. "People are probably looking at them right now and not thinking that."

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decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs