Friday, February 14, 2014

Singing in the Rains of California

Oh my dear, sweet readers! Some brave, sturdy clouds have at last made it through that great Ridge of High Pressure, and over the past two weeks they have brought us small rain (and then a big rain, of which I shall tell!) like a thousand little glinting jewels strewn through the nasturtium leaves. 

The first morning of wetness—only a couple days after I wrote here of the Drought, in a fit of despair!— barely coaxed the dust to settle, but it coated the clovers and the dead raspberry canes with a silvery glow, it seduced the smells held too long in the leaves and grasses and dirt and tree trunks and even the asphalt roads out again, so that as I road my bike through the morning to my dance class, I kept inhaling, inhaling, until I thought I might pass out with the sweetness of it (and a tad too much air!). 

And as if they had been on the edges of their loamy seats all this time, seemingly overnight, the tiny green ones began to pop, beginning at the edges of the paths and lanes. The sky looked cleaned, somehow.

I had been afraid, deep down in my heart, that maybe nothing would grow this year, that no new leaves would come out— no elderberries! I was half weeping already at the thought, though I know, I know, it is not the worst of the concerns brought by a drought—but the dear fecund cleavers, the fierce nettles, the hardy blackberries, they positively danced, even with their scant half inch of water.

I went walking in Point Reyes, along the Muddy Hollow trail, to visit with the red alders, and the new nettles—I had feared there would be none!—and a special grove of alders that grow close and pale, where the tule elk pass, rubbing their antlers on the bark, where the bobcat moves, out of sight of human trails, coming down from the scrubby hills where she hunts the voles, the gophers, the small birds, like this darling fox-sparrow above, of whom I've been seeing much recently—it is a subspecies known as the Sooty Fox Sparrow that winters in the Bay Area from farther north, and what a sweet gift it is to get to meet them! (For beautiful photos of this bird, see here. I can't seem to quite get over the sweetness of those speckles.) Once, last winter, a wildlife camera (which I helped set up with Felidae and a tracking group called Catscapes, since we tracked bobcats and cougars) near this special grove of alders caught a shot of a lone mountain lion, passing gracefully at dawn. This is a special place, a place of old magic. When I visited it last, it was so brown and gray and dead I felt tight and a little sick in my stomach, a panic beginning to rise in the back of my throat at the hot sky, only blue, empty of clouds, desert dry. But after even two days of scattered rain—so little, in fact, that I heard people joking that the poor clouds were trying hard, but they'd quite forgotten what it meant, to rain— the land began to move, like my own spirit did, and throw its whole heart up toward that water.

I tell you, those weeks of stark blue skies were so unsettling to me (downright awful, though everyone kept saying the weather was so gorgeous—and it was, in its way, in the way any jewel-bright thing is beautiful, but somehow too bright) that after that first speckling of rain, just enough to wet the streets, when the skies finally changed, I positively drooled over the clouds. I've never appreciated them so much as that first day when I noticed them again, big sculpted creatures migrating the skies, nomads from far over the ocean, far over the mountains, changing form as they travel but also somehow always themselves. 

I spent half an afternoon gaping at their shapes, up in our attic windowseat, which I've since renamed the Cloud Window in their honor.

I brought my knitting, and my tea, and my watercolors, and basked in the cloud-light.

They are a gentle relief, clouds. Sometimes the sky is too big and too blue and too bright, and we need clouds to wrap us, to darken our days so that we may slow, and quiet.

At long last, just a week ago, a bigger cloud mass moved in. It came all the way from Hawaii— I shall never think of clouds the same again, after all of my slightly obsessive weather-researching, the clouds great intrepid travelers of our seas and skies, coming thousands of miles, trying to keep the rain held in their bellies—and, dear readers, it was a downpour.

I'd been so grateful for any wet at all, even the tiny gentle drops; any is better than none, I said, but those small tastes of rain wer making me long for the thrash of storms, the release of those clouds, breaking open upon us, torrential. I was filled with memories of big childhood storms, or storms when I was sixteen, and newly in love, and wandering out in the torrents.

Last weekend, that great creature, a Storm, finally visited us.

The radish seeds in our garden burst up through the mud.

The new raspberry leaves gathered, and pushed out.

The cleavers went rampant.

The birds came out in droves, shaking their feathers with what I can only call glee in all the wet, puffed and gloating like this towhee, and like I was, sitting out in it with the raindrops falling down my nose, a mad wet laughing sight, I have no doubt, to my neighbors, holding my hands up to it all.

I went for a walk to the lovely apothecary around the corner from our home, just to have an excuse to walk in it, and came back with the new-blooming violets which I discovered grow in patches right across from the beautiful hawthorn tree I found some time ago growing boldly from a sidewalk.

I tell you, the first true rain got me into a quite a flurry of joy. I put the milk on the stove, I melted chocolate, I filled up the silver chocolate pot, I ascended the ladder to the Cloud Window, I reveled. Really, there is no other word for it. I was meant to be working at the same time, and I did (a little) but mostly I drank a whole pot of chocolate and opened all the windows and grinned.

I anointed my chocolate-shot teacup with a beautiful elixir purchased from my friend, the lovely Asia Suler of One Willow Apothecaries, called White Sleigh, made to stir up all the magics of winter. It was the perfect thing, as this rain, I think, was a magic of the highest degree.

Raising a cup to the rain!

The next day, my love and I set out for Mt. Tamalpais, the beautiful Bay mountain where we both grew up. On that day, Mt. Tam received ten inches of rain— much more than Oakland's 2 inches (the mysteries of microclimates!)— and we were out beneath them, drenched to the bone within about 30 minutes, and laughing wildly. I did not bring my camera—if I had, it would have been ruined! And it was the sort of day no camera should touch, because the heart holds it all. It was a day of frothing rushing creeks, spontaneous waterfalls, getting down on hands and knees in the mud to exclaim over new pedicularis blooms, the trilliums nodding under the weight of raindrops, their white petals going transparent, the foam coming out of the redwood trunks from so much water (sacred stuff, it must be, redwood foam!) Simon has a keen eye for oyster mushrooms-- I never seem to see them until I am three feet away-- and so we came home with several large ones from logs fallen over rushing creeks, from the front porch of a woodrat nest... jewels made from rain and dead wood.

The only photo I captured was the aftermath, as we dried off at Simon's family home up the redwood canyons—and somehow, it turned out like this, capturing the feeling of that gushing rain better than any straight image could have.

I visited the creeks of Mill Valley later on with my father, and while I have no photographs, let me tell you, they were rivers, muddy and flooding and higher than I ever remember them. We stood behind the park where we all used to come and skip rocks when I was small, and crooned at that rushing muscular ribbon of water.

In the East Bay hills, the soaproots are now positively bursting, and the deer know it too. They seem to have munched almost every bunch I've seen!

At long last, not just the sides of trails but whole hillsides are starting to shudder and glow with green grass.

What a blessed sight it is.

New wild cucumber vines have appeared, as if out of nowhere, as they are wont to do.

And last years wooly blooms are at last put to rest.

Everywhere the raindrops look to me like the most precious of pearls, more beloved to my heart than any gem could be, because they coax each seed open once more, and my own heart too.

And bless her, my old friend Nettle, she seemed to laugh at me, and then stung all of my hands in scolding, saying—how could you ever doubt me? I will always return.

I know that California is still in a severe drought. Our rainfall is minimal compared to previous years. I know, the ever cynical News Folk tell us to not celebrate too soon, we still need another ten inches or so to be "normal,"but only two weeks ago, they also said that the High Pressure Ridge wasn't going to budge— and then, this, this miracle of flooding creeks.

So I am hoping, and I am bowing down to the rain, and I am bowing down to the cloud caravans that brought it from far over the ocean. We love you,  I want to say to them, we raise our hands to you and kiss each raindrop-world that lands, a gift, in our palms.


  1. Such wonderful news! I rejoice with you!

  2. My Dearest Sylvia,
    This is an exquisite post. I shall never see a cloud in the same way again, from now one they shall be "nomads from far over the ocean...." what a marvelous metaphor. Oh, how I am celebrating right along with you! Gus and I are splashing in the puddles up north, as we too finally have rain, that much needed sky water pouring down all night long, bringing the thaw and the spring and the sweetness. And then, I must thank you for your words, thank you for writing with the soul that you do about the things that matter, about the things that matter so very much and can be so easily forgotten in these modern times. I think the nettles love you all the more for wondering if they would be able to return, for holding the beloved earth in your heart, as she holds us in hers. Thank you Sylvia, on behalf of all of us, for loving the rain and the nettles and the clouds and the mountain lions. It is an honor to know you my dear friend. Bowing down to the wise woman that you are.

  3. what a wonderful post....and what great timing. i am knee deep in snow in iowa. i know spring will come but it is hard to believe that my beautiful little garden will be bursting soon. it seems quite content sleeping under the snow. for now i live like my cats......searching for sun and moving from window to window. keep the green scenes coming. :)

    i received my first story last month and i cannot thank you enough. what a tale you can spin! looking forward to the next mailing.


  4. Your writing entrances me!! We live in the redwoods of Boulder Creek, and have also been rejoicing at each raindrop. May the skies open up again soon! (tonight, I hear) xoxoxoxo

  5. Yay! Lovely to hear of the resilience of nature after the hard always, some will not survive, as during long winters here, but what joy to all who have made it through when the green time comes, all the more precious for the drought times that went before. Rain and wet earth and leaves have the loveliest richest fragrance. The clouds are the heroes!

  6. I hope that by some blessed gift of nature, the rains continue apace there. Last night here, north of you, the rains drummed the roof so hard it kept me awake ---dropping two inches in the night. Believe me, I kept thinking "Go south, go south ---wet down California before the summer comes!"

  7. I am reading this post weeks after your garden was soaked with so much rain, but still the smells and sighs and mists are as fresh as new birdsong! Thank you Sylvia, for all of your gorgeous, prayer-filled words. (And for weaving White Sleigh into your own personal brand of rainy-day magic. I'm honored!) <3