Monday, November 25, 2013

From Madrone Berry Hills to Rosehip Gardens: Reflections on a New Home

Last week on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, where we now make our home, we had huge winds that rattled our attic bedroom and seemed to want to rip the roof off in the dark waning moon night. In the morning, in the farm-garden, as I call it, our yard a shared space as wide as the whole city block, with chickens and bees and fruit trees and tangles of herb wild enough for the bewick's wrens to deem them livable, many fruits and seeds were wind-torn from their stems.

 Here, above, are a few, and also a little picture of the diverse bounty of plants that grow in this rich piece of earth in the Temescal neighborhood, in the city of Oakland, in the mild California fall. I do wonder, since this home is a Victorian built in the 1880's, and the lot behind it so huge, so intact, if this is the original land still, which at the time the house was built had been flooded and reflooded with the rich silt from the nearby Temescal Creek, home to numerous groups of Huichun Ohlone Indians, for over 10,000 years (the Bay herself is only about 13,000 to 15,000 years old, before that a rich wet meadow land with the huge Sacramento River winding through to the ocean). I think of that when I put my hands in the dirt, and feel a deep peace.

We were so excited to move in that we came for a night with no furniture, and in the morning, I found a corner on the floor with my tea and notebook, and felt right at home.

Now we have filled the tops of bookshelves with treasures (and in the far corner, very important, a collection of bird books and binoculars for peering out the front windows with, where the bird life in the sidewalk tree is immense)...

And we have made many pots of morning tea...

... and outside in this mild November the kiwis swell, and I take cups of tea at midday, for a break, to sit with the green and rooting beings of this bit of land, to sit with the chickens and the bees and the old whisperings of the dirt below.

Inside these thickets, the bewick's wren makes his home.

The orange tree glows with hundreds of buttery sunset-hued fruit...

... and the tree dahlia, gentle giant who reaches a good fifteen feet into the sky, catches the autumn sun with her (now slightly wind-battered) pink petals.

Cover crops of peas and I'm-not-sure-what else sprung up like a green fur after the season's first rain last week.

From our attic windows, we look into the top of this tall black walnut tree, where a red-breasted sapsucker visits on the regular to tap his careful lines of holes, where the robins trill at dawn. At night, the stars of Orion move past the tippy top branches, and I feel blessed, and grateful, that despite the noise from the highways, and the busy roads nearby, and despite the asphalt and urban-ness that of course comes with moving to a city, that this, somehow, is where we have landed, with a black walnut greeting us each morning at dawn, full of birds.

Kinglets and white-crowned sparrows dart about the rose thorn vines...

... and along with the nasturtiums, the two make me smile and feel full and light, because they remind me so fiercely of my mother's garden, growing up.

A short windy drive up into the eastern ridges that look out over the city of Oakland, and beyond it, the city of San Francisco, and to the north of it, the Golden Gate bridge and the wilds of West Marin, takes one to a long string of Regional Parks (bless, oh bless, the men and women who fought to preserve this open space land, it is a great gift), including Huckleberry Botanic Preserve, tangled with rare manzanitas that grow all over Mt. Tamalpais to the west, but are almost non-existent on this side of the Bay. Their presence here has something to do with the soil substrate, and the violent geologic history of this landscape, and I can think of few nicer things than running my hands over their wine-dark bark.

From here, Mt. Diablo rises to the east, the Mountain of native Ohlone creation myths.

Shale and chert dominant the geologic-soil terrain here, and the manzanitas, magnificent hardy beings (who photosynthesize through the bark, let me just add!) slip their roots right through, thriving in the nutrient-poor conditions that most plants can't handle.

The hazels are already pressing forth tender, downy new catkins.

And the ground below the coast live oaks was thick with acorns, and prickly leaves. I could not resist clambering up the branches and laying with all my limbs dangling off, nose in the moss and bark, finding the support of the tree a balm to the busy city below, a blessed being who I am honored to be able to visit, and clamber through like a gray fox.

It was beautiful, and grounding, to connect in my mind the wild preserve full of manzanita, madrone, coast live oak and bay in the eastern hills above the city to the flatlands, now cemented over, where we live, and where, despite the odds, the ancient Temescal Creek still flows (originating, of course, up in the hills), albeit in culverts below ground. Even though it is harder to sense the connectivity of a landscape when it is covered in roads and grid-blocks of streets, in cars and restaurants and people busily bustling and working and not often going barefoot, when it is so obviously fractured, and in many ways bereaved, for me it is still important to do so, to sing out in my heart the stories below my feet, the stories exhaled from one street tree to the next, all the way to the manzanitas up the ridge.

Above are a few tinges of the red bounty of autumn from this new home— madrone berries from the wild hills down to the rose hips from the garden, and a sprig of bougainvillea from the streets nearby.

And so, there is an introduction to our new home, to the new wilds that I will be writing about and exploring here, not so very far from the fir-surrounded cabin we moved from as the crow flies, but a wholly new place at the same time, with new stories and new streets and a new sense of bustle and traffic. As the very wise and very wonderful Nao of Honey Grove Farm once wrote to me, living in a more urban place can force you to seek and find and cultivate the wildness in yourself and around you, to cultivate seedlings and to talk to birds and maple trees and stars overhead with a new need, a new tenderness, a new gratitude for their presence in the landscape around you that can sometimes feel very inanimate, very cold, very overwhelming. But if we do not also sing up the wild roots of our cities, seeing the connectivity of all land and animals, where, in the end, will we find ourselves, and how lonesome?


  1. Sylvia, so beautifully described! I hope you will be happy here. I agree that living in the city forces you to seek out nature more deliberately. It still amazes me every day how nature thrives in the craziest places... I look forward to receiving the first epistles!

  2. The ability to find beauty and feel at home in the world, on dirt or on dirt covered with concrete, is a gift. A strength.

    Wonderful to read this, Sylvia x

  3. Wow Sylvia, it looks like despite the concrete, you have landed on a fine and downy branch. So uplifting to see all those colours. The palette of autumn is so differently beautiful here. I shall post pictures from our new nest soon, and hopefully become a subscriber to the Gray Fox Epistles too, now that I have an address! Xx