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Song of Sighs

Published in Terrain; No. 14, Winter/Spring 2004

Song of Sighs, by Joy Greenberg

…and the song of the sigh flew out of the window
and lit in the top of the pine trees.

    — Zora Neale Hurston

A glance through my wall of windows treats me to a scene that has come to typify the winter season as a house finch alights on the nearest toyon and with quick darts, snatches brilliant crimson berries––a New Year’s feast of the common California coastal chaparral plant that lends Hollywood its moniker––and flits off. Further away, a doe lurks behind the finely striated trunk of a now leafless Blue Oak, one of several prized specimens that induced us to select this particular site for our home.

Sensing my interest, the doe thrusts her head upward and returns my gaze––chewing cautiously, twitching her enormous ears toward me, watching me watching her. Above us, storm clouds congregate, reminding that even Eden partakes of an occasional drenching. Some might find these spillings from Thor’s cup inopportune, but I relish them for their ephemeral radiance that coaxes the Bay Laurels to release their spicy fragrance. On more than one occasion I have awakened to the pattering of raindrops on my skylight and been tempted to stay up to listen, finding, like Mary Austin, that “such rains relieve like tears.”

Our bedroom windows look out over an expansive, uninhabited hillside of the eastern Santa Lucia foothills. It’s about as wild as one can be and still live near the city. To attract the many species of indigenous birds, I have erected four bird feeders and four bird baths. The four feeders hang from the eaves of the roof––two each on either side of a suspended ceramic saucer filled with water. The other three baths stand in the center and opposing corners of a ten-by-twelve-foot deck that juts out from my room.

Orchard.The birds begin each morning no matter the season or weather in much the same way. The jays conduct a rousing reveille of check check check to awaken me at dawn, eliminating the need for mechanical alarm clocks. These Western scrub jays, whose beady eyes survey the scene for the presence of feline enemies, are the earliest to appear in twos or threes, boasting their arrival and sounding the forest alarm with a rasping shreek shreek shreek, another of the calls within their distinctive repertoire. Pity the hapless titmouse, chickadee or finch that deigns to intrude upon a scrub jay’s breakfast, for he is dispatched summarily amid a flurry of flapping feathers and raucous remonstrance—“a sort of wintry trumpet, screaming cold, hard, tense, frozen music, like the winter sky itself,” as Thoreau said of the scrub jay’s eastern cousins the blue jays.

Next on the scene are the striking and regal Steller’s jays with their ebony crested heads and shoulders melding to indigo. These lords of Aeolus are the only birds capable of scaring the scrub jays from the feeders with their chastising shook shook shook. Should any stragglers dare to linger, the Steller’s jays send them scurrying with a piercing keer keer, uncanny in its precise mimicking of the red-tailed hawks that frequent these canyons. Although this strategy does not intimidate my cats, it is quite effective with the Yellow-billed Magpies, also omnivorous, who compete with the jays for kitty chow.

Our teen sons deplore the abusive arrogance of the jays, but I find myself admiring their intelligence, agility and hubris. I have seen a scrub jay dart from the feeder to snatch a monarch butterfly a few feet away. Other times I have observed scrubs perched upon a garden hose, using it as an anvil to crack open sunflower seeds. And once, noticing something pecking at the back of a mule deer in the upper meadow outside my bedroom, I grabbed my binoculars to get a closer look, wondering if an “accidental” cattle egret had somehow strayed into Paradise Valley. To my surprise, it was a Scrub jay performing the symbiotic preening and cleaning ritual for the doe.

The dominance of the jays at my feeders is due more to their size, however, than their intelligence. At an average of a foot long, both Steller’s and scrub jays are more than double the size of titmice and finches, which wait in nearby trees for the jays to finish. As soon as the jays leave, the titmice take turns. An all-over ash gray but with a lyrical tee-wit tee-wit tee-wit that belies its drabness, the plain titmouse tends to flit nervously to the feeder, snatch a seed and shuttle it to a nearby scrub oak where it dines alone, enabling others of its kind to grab their rations.

Likewise, the chestnut-backed chickadees hide in the branches of the scrub oak awaiting an opportunity for a quick breakfast. The hues of the chickadees––black caps above white faces and reddish brown backs––and croaked zhee-che-che offer a striking contrast to their cousin in the Parus genus, the dun-colored but sweetly singing plain titmouse. Their behavior distinguishes titmice and chickadees from the house finches and lesser goldfinches that swoop en masse from late morning until afternoon for sunflower seeds, yet allow only one at a time to actually eat, despite there being enough openings in the feeder to accommodate several foragers at once. They remind me of my three sons, who grab and guard large quantities of food whether they can consume it all––simply because they don’t want anyone else to have it.

I live in paradise. Well, technically it’s Paradise Valley, an apt name for a place of such ethereality as to reinforce faith in the divine. It is obvious that whoever selected the valley’s title felt the same way as I, despite the Spanish moniker given to my city, Atascadero, and road, Cenegal. Translated, it means I live on Swamp Street in Mudhole City. But, it is far lovelier than it sounds.

Situated at the central, eastern edge of the Santa Lucias––the “crown jewel” of the southern Coast Ranges––Paradise Valley is a sun-drenched cleft separating parallel, north-south ridges that unite at both ends of a small valley carved eons ago by Graves Creek, a tributary of the Salinas River. Our home is at the southwestern tip of the valley, nestled among the lace-lichen laden oaks, bay laurel, mountain mahogany, ceanothus and toyon which typify this classically central coast California oak woodland.

Sunrise over hills.We chose our property––my late husband Chuck and I––for its abundance of trees and wildlife, and for the nameless seasonal creek that rushes past our home as soon as the first storms arrive, singing its sweet lullaby so long as the heavens cooperate to sustain it, bolstering its bounty of frogs and newts, winding its way to an eventual marriage with Graves Creek. This no-name creek is one of many similar streams dissecting the valley when they awaken from their dormancy in late fall, attracting deer, raccoon, fox, opossum, puma, bobcat, turkey and quail, all of whom seem to be singing the poetry of Robinson Jeffers:

Be glad for summer is dead and the sky
Turns over to darkness, good storms, few guests, glad rivers.

––And for the mountains “which seem to reach to the heavens,” as early explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo noted in 1542, upon spying the mighty Santa Lucias for the first time. I had always wished to live in a place where I might go for a hike without having to get in my car first. Here in Paradise Valley I have found such a place. To exit my back door is to enter my own, private wilderness.

––And for the sky, in all its transitory permutations from daybreak to alpenglow and beyond. As on this wintry day, I watch the smoke-colored clouds roll in furious silence. Yes, the sky, which with its Milky Way presents an evening display as awe-inspiring as that of any other, heretofore unseen by us until our arrival in Paradise Valley where there are fewer city lights to dilute its spectral spectacle. Here we witness Orion, who ascends late above the hills, as though weary and drained by his nightly climbs. And the Crab Nebula in the constellation Taurus, a star in the process of exploding, whose light from its explosion first reached the earth in 1054. It was a supernova then––so bright it shone in the daytime. Even though it’s expanding at the rate of seventy million miles a day, it does not seem to budge, yet it is the quintessential embodiment of evolutionary entropy, like the galaxies that flee into the infinity of darkness.

––And for the rocks: huge serpentinite outcroppings that tumble down the hillside and into No-name Creek. Rocks that sing when the rains come.

The other less sanguine but perhaps most motivating factor behind choosing our little “piece of quiet,” as our then three-year-old son Maceo called it, was affordability. Chuck’s composition “A Thousand Teardrops” had been selected as background music during the 1982 Winter Olympics. NBC formerly programmed athlete profiles called “Up Close and Personal” and had played Chuck’s tune enough times during these so that six months later there arrived a huge check from Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), one of two companies that collects and dispenses the royalties for all performed music.

Country road.As we contemplated possible applications for our newfound wealth, the idea of escaping the cramped quarters of our West L. A. apartment––now bursting at the seams from the additions of our three baby boys––began percolating. We knew we needed to move. There seemed to be no particular reason to remain in L. A. even if we could have afforded its pricey housing. Armed with the belief that he could pursue his music career from virtually anywhere—and a primitive, back-to-nature hippie ideal retained from the early ‘70s when he purchased some riverside acreage in Wisconsin with three friends—Chuck was already a land magnate, or “land maggot” as he liked to call himself. But Wisconsin was not a practical base for someone with both a burgeoning music career that required a proximity to the big city and a wife accustomed to the ideal California climate.

So, with dreams of a more rural lifestyle, we ventured north, stopping at the first spot that was sufficiently tree-laden, safe and cheap. In Paradise Valley we found such a place where we could exchange the unctuous reptiles of Hollywood for far less pretentious alligator lizards and gopher snakes.

Our search yielded five and a half wooded acres backing up against rugged mountains, seven minutes from town––with reputedly good schools and safe parks––and only a 40-minute drive to the airport. Here we could strip away the human façade that usually stands between us and the universe. Here we could create our own universe. Or so we thought.

What we neglected to consider was that not everyone in Paradise Valley wants to keep it that way. Alas, there seems to be no utopia––no place where we may come without the awareness that this is an island surrounded by the machinery and workings of an insane greed. Even in Paradise Valley, we cannot escape the sense of an impending human catastrophe, which manifests itself here as the desecration of nature by out-of-control development.

Chuck often quipped about his hometown Chicago that it would be a great place to live if you could cure the weather, which revolves between tropical rain forest and frozen tundra. Paradise Valley would be perfect if you could cure the people––at least these pirates in power––who seem determined to turn our paradise into another strip “mauled,” overpopulated Orange County. These modern marauders are accomplishing their goals by rewriting the city’s General Plan.

The current General Plan, put in place when the city incorporated in 1979 and amended later, restricts density by limiting the number of homes within a specific area. The developers want to change the plan so they will be allowed to build more housing on smaller lots. Because four out of five of the city council members have ties to real estate development, they are actively pushing through a rewrite of the General Plan which will allow them to build more homes than they are currently allowed, increasing profits for themselves and their cronies in the process. Following a first draft of the rewrite, the local Chamber of Commerce wasted no time endorsing it, crowing about how it will create the “affordable housing” that will attract the “work force” needed to fill the Chamber members’ employment positions––not to mention their personal coffers.

Of course, involvement in land usage decisions which affect a council member’s personal wealth constitutes conflict of interest, but not enough of the voting citizenry seems to care sufficiently to respond to this issue. We are, after all, a capitalistic society, driven by opportunities for personal aggrandizement. Those four council members were fairly elected as representatives of the community, which boasts more builders than any other occupation. Builders earn their livings by construction: the more construction, the more they earn. But at what cost? It poses a classic conundrum.

The first sign of trouble in paradise manifested itself ten years ago, when a previously little-used quarry just down the road from us suddenly became active. Large semis hauling rock used for road construction began lumbering down our only access into town, Santa Lucia Avenue. On several occasions I was nearly run off the road, babies in tow, by these behemoths. I was terrified; Chuck was infuriated and immediately formed a neighborhood group to oppose them. After hiring a lawyer, we discovered that the quarry was operating without the required permits––and the city was knowingly allowing them to do so, greased by a kickback from the quarry owner. Our group sued the city and forced it to curtail the quarry’s future operations.

However, the thrill of victory has since dissolved into dismay, for if the city succeeds in rewriting the General Plan, we’ll be consumed by high-density housing and the concomitant traffic. The developers are waiting like the ubiquitous turkey vultures to get approval for their plans to convert all our open space into housing. They are like E. B. White’s ten thousand engineers who are busy making sure that the world shall be convenient even if it is destroyed in the process and are determined to increase its usefulness even though its beauty is lost somewhere along the way.

A thousand-home complex has already been approved and initiated, despite its failure to conform to current General Plan standards.

This dichotomy of ideals pitting those who wish to develop the town regardless of the consequences against those who prefer to retain the open spaces has totally polarized the local citizenry. On the one side are the old-timers who have lived here their whole lives and resent being told they can’t do the illegal things they’ve always gotten away with, like digging up their neighbor’s property (in my case) or indiscriminately cutting down heritage oaks––those with a diameter greater than six inches. These old-timers seem to think that because they were here first (never mind the fact that the Chumash predated them by many thousand years), they have carte blanche to do as they please, and that such autonomy is their God-given right, even if it isn’t right.

Sunset over fields.On the other side are the relative newcomers like us, who moved here primarily to flee overdeveloped places like L. A. and San Francisco, attracted by the dense, tree-studded hillsides and large lot sizes. The developers say that we are just as much to blame for sprawl as they are––we just got here first and now want to keep everyone else out. They even have a name for us: NIMBYists––an acronym for “not in my back yard.” And they have a point. Can they be blamed for supplying what is demanded?

Fortunately, because physical limitations such as steepness make it impossible to build on much of the terrain, large lot sizes like ours are necessary in much of Paradise Valley. Because of this, the projected construction which was to have taken place on the ten-acre lot adjacent to mine and within view of my bedroom windows has been abandoned, and the new owners have decided to place their house twenty feet off the street, rather than incur the expense of grading uphill through a dense oak forest to a more private and pleasing site. Their reasoning for this decision was purely economical; preserving trees was not a factor. I know this because these neighbors eliminated much native flora, including a stand of Mountain Mahogany and elderberry, and planted every conservationist’s nightmare: a lawn.

To their credit, however, these neighbors did spare their oaks, unlike our neighbor to the other side who––claiming to be a professional landscaper––not only installed a lawn around the exquisite, centuries-old Valley Oak just outside his front door, but dug a trench well over our property line, just inches from No-name Creek, and refused to restore the damage, necessitating my dragging him to court. Months before I had photographed and watched helplessly as a bulldozer thrashed around the root line of this magnificent specimen, despite the supposedly protective fluorescent orange fencing erected in the first place only after I reported him to the city for flaunting the ordinance which demands protection of all heritage oaks. Not surprisingly, this neighbor is one of the biggest proponents of a General Plan rewrite and one who, because of his desire to build all over the city, will benefit the most from such. Now, I watch powerlessly as he slowly waters his arboreous Apollo to death. As John Muir said, “Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed––chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides… God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools.”

And if God cannot save trees from fools, what chance have I? There has existed throughout history examples of this fundamental conflict between ecological doctrine and human cultures, a conflict whose manifestations are most glaring in the Mediterranean region, which was densely wooded before human occupation but is now a treeless desert. Is this a travesty against nature that we are doomed to repeat ad infinitum? Should we simply accept that if the four billion years of evolution demonstrate one thing, it is that humanity is not destined for anything but change, and that every organism continually confronts a galaxy of evolutionary choices?

It is these choices that are so bewildering, so mind-boggling, so paralyzing. I can’t help thinking that if Chuck were alive, he would have handled this unsavory, unneighborly encounter much better than I, for he was an expert at defusing tense situations. I’m not quite sure how he managed it, but he somehow was able to get others to do his bidding without their comprehending that it was not their original idea. Part of this interpersonal flair had to do with Chuck’s remarkable sense of humor and his ability not to take things––especially himself––too seriously. Whatever impending crisis might have loomed before him was understood to be just that: a momentary problem that could be dealt with readily and which was not worth much, if any, upset.

Sunrise over fields.But Chuck is no longer physically present to help me through my impending crises and so I must handle the encroachment of neighbors and developers on my own.

Perhaps it will be through art, as a way of expressing appreciation for beauty, that nature will be saved. Natural beauty has long been the muse of artists, including Chuck. The seeds for many of his compositions germinated while he gazed across the varying vistas of Paradise Valley––a place more reminiscent of his beloved Wisconsin with its climatic extremes than the Southern California we left behind. He also enjoyed practicing his chops on the variety of wind instruments he played––flutes, saxophones and Lyricons––positioned on our deck facing the woods. It was here that he wrote my favorite of all, “A Pause in the Rain.”

With this in mind, I strive to take nature’s cue and live “in the moment” as much as possible. And here I am now as I survey these fleeting clouds which drift like silky gauze through a Maxfield Parrish sky, suddenly exploding into three-dimensional separations of apricot, mauve and turquoise, iridescent, glowing, metamorphosing constantly. Cloud-gazing for me is a visual equivalent of “smelling the roses.” Observing these couriers of a thousand teardrops is ever absorbing, spiritual, epiphanic: through them I sense Chuck’s presence and music. And yet, I am never completely separate from the rest of humanity. As I submit to the ever-changing nebulosity above me, the distant melancholy moan of a train whistle carries through the valley and touches me, reminding that I am not alone. I hear Chuck even in the train whistle.

As Lao-tzu wrote, “The spirit of the valley never dies.” And so it is that Chuck may be physically gone, but his spirit lives on in Paradise Valley, through the sounds of civilization and nature both. Many have described a special harmony with the outdoors that they feel when listening to his music. Our friends Russ and Patricia conceived their child during a visit when they stayed in Chuck’s studio-cum-guest quarters. It’s a magical place, this Paradise Valley.

Chuck’s music was perhaps inspired by nature as much as anything else. He enjoyed living and walking among the mountains and trees of Paradise Valley, so long as he didn’t have to work too hard at getting there. One day I forced him to hike up the deer trail that leads to the top of the mountain behind our home. After huffing and puffing for about 30 minutes, we stopped to gaze out over the verdant hills.

“Now, wasn’t that worth it?” I said.

With his inimical humor he replied, “Yes, but if you could just airlift me here and let me
walk
down it would be better.” Still, he did appreciate nature, however oddly he may have expressed it, as in an early composition: “I’m gonna drive ‘till there is no freeway. I’m gonna go and find some trees. I keep reeling from the feeling: Sensory Overload.”

Yes, Chuck could be moved to song by a beautiful view. I’ll never forget the first time we drove up the road from Lihue to Hanalei in Kauai. As we rounded the last bend before being greeted by a vista of mountains plummeting to the bay, Chuck suddenly broke out into a rendition of “Bali Hai” that was saved from potential corniness by his hilarious falsetto, complete with vibrato. Our friend Nancy, who was traveling with us, and I immediately cracked up, giggling the rest of the way to Princeville. It was only one of many times that Chuck made me laugh so hard I got tears in my eyes. I still get the tears, only now they are not from laughter.

Even though it was mainly scales or the repetitious construction of a melody Chuck might be working out, there was always something soothing about his silvery sylvan songs drifting from our home. Others must have concurred, for following his death, from one of our neighbors came this message: “When we go out in the afternoon and sit on our deck, we will think of Chuck. We will miss his music filling our little valley. We will listen for him in the wind and the sounds of nature.” And sometimes––when the breeze picks up just so at sunset, lofting the lyrical lamentations of the towhees through the canyons of the Santa Lucias, and within the pauses of rain––I hear him once again.

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