Tag Archives: seasons

354. Cattle Junkies

This morning (May 3rd) they moved the cattle toward their high pastures. Where I live, that movement normally happens twice a year.

Here in the foothills of the Sierras, we are coming to the end of the green season, in a year that was unseasonably wet. For five or six months every year the hills are covered with lush grass and cattle. The rest of the year is dry, burned brown, and mostly free of livestock. Most of the cattle that disappear in May migrate directly to your local grocery store meat counter. Some of the mothers and calves which will provide next spring’s herds move up the mountain to summer pasture.

Mostly, this is by trucks hauling specialized trailers. You see them everywhere on the roads and in the fields during this season. But one local rancher still holds a biannual cattle drive. I get the impression that some the herders are paid hands, but most are volunteers. After all, if you were a cowboy, or worked cattle from your pickup truck and wished you were a cowboy, wouldn’t you jump at a chance to join a cattle drive? Even if it only lasted three days?

They pass only a short distance from my house, and my wife and I never miss an opportunity to watch.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Oklahoma. Twice a day from age eleven until I left for college I was in the close company of cows, and I miss them. My wife just loves animals of any kind.

What does this have to do with A Writing Life? If you were Truman Capote, probably nothing. If you were Gore Vidal — well maybe. After all, Vidal worked for a time for his grandfather who was Senator from Oklahoma. But probably nothing; Vidal, like so many writers, was an urban type.

I’m quite the opposite, and the natural world permeates my writing. While I will never write an Andre Norton pastiche about herding frawns across Arzor (a statement Norton aficionados will instantly recognize), watching the cattle go by is likely to inspire me to rush to the keyboard. Like I just did.

I took these pictures, and picked those which would leave place and people unidentifiable. We all like some privacy.


“Post”script, May 17: By coincidence, the second herd of the spring drive went by about six hours ago.

348. Spring

        Friday was Cinco de Mayo. Since I don’t post on Friday, I have placed this note here.
        Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day are opposite sides of the same coin, as I explained in 115. St. Patrick’s Day with Juan O’Malley, last year. I also had something to say about racial identity in 144. Who Said You Were Mexican?, on Cinco de Mayo, a year ago today. I don’t want to repeat those posts, but you are welcome to click and visit.

Now, today’s post, beginning with a quote from Cyan:

For the colonists, the world that loomed beyond the perimeter fence was a fearsome enemy. Cyan’s climate aggravated the problem. The colony was situated in the region of spring — or autumn, depending on your psychological makeup. But it was neither spring nor autumn, and as the year wore on there grew up an unhealthy expectancy. Minds and bodies geared to seasonal change had a gene deep awareness that spring had been prolonged past its time — an awareness that slowly changed to a deep, unarticulated dread.

In Cyan, I made a great deal out of the lack of seasons, because seasons are so overwhelmingly important on Earth. Of course, people who were born and lived all their lives in Hawaii or Tahiti probably look at that claim and say, “What the heck is he talking about?” But most of us know.

Here in the foothills of the Sierras, half the year is harsh, brown and dry. The other half is green, and during that rainy seasons wild flowers not only come in profusion, but they also come in order.

First comes miner’s lettuce, with tiny flowers in the center of large, circular leaves. Not impressive as flowers, really, but a life saver for the the vitamin starved miners during the gold rush. Then comes Blue Dick. Now don’t blame me; I didn’t name it, and it is lovely despite its name.

The lupine come early middle and late, in a variety of colors. When my wife and I first came to the foothills, we learned most of the names, but now we mostly just look and enjoy.

What has this to do with writing? It’s the way I choose to live, and the places my characters go are mostly places I wouldn’t mind accompanying them.

Today (April 24) my wife and I drove to one of our many favorite spots. It’s late in the sequence of things, but the white lupine haven’t quite reached their peak.

In New York City today, there are writers inhabiting dim, smoky bars, gathering material for their next novel. More power to them. I couldn’t take it.

For me, I spend my green winter going out twice a week to see how the wildflowers are coming along, and gathering material for my next novel. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

337. The Year Without a summer

The Little Ice Age (yesterday’s post) was vague and questionable in its outlines and origin. The Year Without a Summer was precisely delineated, and there is no question of how it came about. It was the result of volcanic activity.

There is, however, a smaller mystery. In 1808, a very large eruption took place, but no westerner saw it. It is memorialized in ice samples from Greenland and Antarctica, and scientific detective work places the eruption somewhere between Tonga and Indonesia. It began a period of northern hemispheric cooling.

Then in 1815, the largest and most destructive volcanic eruption in human history took place at Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia. The explosion was heard 1600 miles away. (Krakatoa, a better known eruption in the same region in 1883, was less intense.) Between the mystery eruption of 1808 and the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815, the second decade of the 1800s became the coldest on record. 1816 became known as The Year Without a Summer.

(As always seems the case with science, nothing is simple. 1816 fell within the Little Ice Age and was also associated with a low in the cycle of sunspots. If you really want to understand, I suggest a Ph.D. and a lifetime of study. That will give you some answers and a cartload of more sophisticated questions.)

The Year Without a Summer was disastrous. Crops, which had already been bad, probably because of the 1808 eruption, failed. Famine was everywhere in Europe, followed by typhus. There were massive storms and floods; an estimated 200,000 died in Europe.

In America, the northeast was hit hardest. Frosts continued through the summer. In August ice floated on Pennsylvania rivers. Snow fell in June in Massachusetts. Food was scarce and in 1816 there was no way to move it from less affected regions to those hardest hit. That year and shortly after, masses of northeasterners moved to the midwest, swelling the populations of Indiana and Illinois.

The event left echoes in literature. In 1816 Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, J. W. Polidori and others were storm bound together in a villa overlooking Lake Geneva. A contest of writing ghost stories ensued. Byron wrote a fragment, which Polidori later turned into the first vampire story (The Vampyre), Mary Shelley began what later evolved into Frankenstein, and Byron also wrote Darkness, a long poem inspired by the lightless days.

Here is a bit of that poem, which brings back memories of those old science fiction stories from my youth when the glaciers moved in to destroy humanity.

The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,
And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame

303. Local Color

dscn4367I first saw California in 1969
on my honeymoon. A year later, my wife and I moved here temporarily while I waited to go into the Navy. Then came four years in southern California, stationed at the naval hospital inside Pendleton. Then a year in Chicago for a Masters degree, then back to the central valley.

It took me twenty years to get used to the climate and to feel truly at home.

I became a writer, more or less full time, then eventually, a teacher. I never stopped writing, and about ten years into my day job – which I had for twenty-seven years – I wrote a novel based on my teaching experiences called Symphony in a Minor Key. I presented the Christmas chapter in December of 2015.

Driving around yesterday I saw the first almond blossoms of the year, and it reminded me of that novel. Within a week, the entire central valley of California will be alive with blossoms, California’s brief efflorescence of spring before the long, harsh days of summer. We have seasons, they’re just skewed early.

Here is a brief almond blossom excerpt.


For the next two days, Neil’s afternoon class moved as smoothly as a well oiled bearing. It was amazing what the absence of one child could do.  When Saturday rolled around, Carmen took Neil for a ride without giving him a hint of their destination.  She had packed a picnic basket, and she set a course that circled northward across the river, then eastward toward Riverbank.

It was February eleventh.  In the midwest, there was a foot of new snow on the ground, but spring had come to California.  Almost overnight, the almond orchards had come to full blossom.  Everywhere Carmen took him, the trees were covered with pure white flowers, and already the wind was shaking the first of them free to cover the ground like a fragrant snowfall.

They stopped half a mile up a dirt orchard road.  Carmen spread a blanket under the trees, in a patch of sunlight.  It was just too chilly to be quite comfortable, so after they ate they put the food away and wrapped the blanket around them as they waited out the day, encircled by ten thousand acres of flowers.

302. The Drought Has Broken

dscn4470What is weather to a writer? If you live in the city, it might invoke a passing mood,. Beyond the city, where I live, it is everything.

I grew up on a farm, living in the glorious outdoors sixteen hours a day for half the year, and the other half freezing my #%*# off six hours a day milking cows. Weather was everything. Through the middle of my life, when I lived in cities, weather was mildly interesting. Now I live on three acres in the Sierra foothills, and weather is back with a vengeance.

I posted a picture at the top. This is an fold in the hills which is dry ninety percent of the year, and recently has been dry all year for half a decade. This is what it looks like now.

The drought has broken. Grass is green and knee deep in my yard. Yesterday was Valentines Day or, as my wife and I call it, the first day of spring.

That began as a joke. When we first came to where we live now, I bought her a tomato plant and we planted it together on Valentines Day, with high hopes and no expectations. A few months later we were eating tomatoes from it.

It doesn’t always work that way. In another year, a hard freeze on April 15th killed everything in the garden. Taxes and a hard freeze on the same day — it seemed appropriate. Life is like that in the real world. Sometimes you get the bear; sometimes the bear gets you.

If all this talk of green grass in February is making you jealous, take heart. By May, the rains will stop and they won’t return until winter. When you are having a picnic in June, on green grass under the trees, with cool breezes, here in the foothills it will be a hundred degrees with dry brown hills in every direction. The rattlesnakes will be carrying their canteens again.

But for now, the drought has broken. The grass is green, the weather is clement, and the lakes are full. And my novel Cyan is due out this summer, after the long dry spell since Jandrax and A Fond Farewell to Dying.

The drought has broken. Finally.


I have to offer a PS to my metaphorical connection of our breaking drought and the end of my publishing dry spell. Three days after I wrote this post for today’s release, the Oroville dam about two hundred miles north of here, hit the national news for excessive water and a failing spillway. Be careful what you ask for.

291. Menhir, a winter’s tale 12

This the last installment of a twelve part excerpt from Valley of the Menhir. Check December 29 for an introduction to the novel.

To threaten to remove him from the only home he had ever known. And to make that threat openly here, in his own hall, in the presence of his wife and children. To Dutta, it was world shaking. No one had ever threatened him so. He had not known, not at the bone where knowing is real, that such a threat was possible.

Marquart turned on his heel, and strode out of the house, calling for his kakai. Never mind the long cold ride. If he stayed here, he would kill someone. Probably Dutta.

Marquart was shaken. He had meant the things he said, but to have said them as he did, and where he did, and when he did was foolish. It was bad strategy. Marquart prided himself on forethought and cold consideration; where now was the warrior who had taken Port Cantor with cool efficiency, unhurried even by Limiakos himself?

He had acted like Beshu.

#             #             #

Baralia trembled at the outburst, clasped her translucent hands together, and almost whimpering with joy. At last. At last, a crack in the armor.

It was not just rage. It was not just that Limiakos had sent Marquart into exile and made him small. Marquart was a God, with all the power of a God locked up inside him, and he did not even know it. He was agemate to Argat. His mother had been human, his g’mother had been human, his g’g’mother had been human, but none of that human heritage had diluted his power. Rem’s blood ran in him, and the Shambler’s blood ran in him. Only his ignorance, caused and enforced by Hea Santala, kept him from his power.

That frustrated power was now threatening to burst into a flame of rage. And Baralia stood ready to fan that flame.

The excerpt ends here but, of course, the story does not. The son Dael is carrying will be Tidac whose coming will signal the massive changes which Hea could not foresee, and has failed to control.  Further, deponent sayeth not. You’ll just have to wait.

290. Menhir, a winter’s tale 11

This is one installment of a twelve part excerpt from Valley of the Menhir. Check December 29 for an introduction to the novel.

In Marquart’s eyes, Dutta was a child.

Three cousins with their wives and children, an uncle, a g’uncle as well; Dutta introduced them to Marquart. They acknowledged him politely, looking up from their well filled plates, from the table groaning with food. Ruddy round faces; these were the g’g’g’g’g’sons of the conquerors who had moved into the valley two centuries ago. The copper skinned serfs were descended from those who had lost that ancient battle.

Soft, round, polite, secure; with no thought that they were the scourge of the serfs who starved so they could eat.




Marquart felt anger building. He knew that he must control it. He feared that he could not.

In the center of the table was a silver platter, holding most of a jaungifowl, swimming in its own gravy and surrounded by mounds of soaked breads. Marquart picked it up above his head and slammed in back, inverted, onto the table. Meat and juices, bread and fruits flew in every direction, splattering the shocked diners.

There were growls and shrieks that died to silence when they all looked into Marquart’s eyes.

He wanted to shout at them all, to tell them what he had seen today at the firesides of the starving serfs, but there were no words. Twice he tried, and twice the words died in his throat, strangled there by the vastness of his anger.

Dutta approached the table, saying, “Sire . . .?”

“You feast,” Marquart managed to say, “while your serfs starve.” The words rumbled up from deep within him, and he realized that he was pounding the table.

Dutta stepped back in shock and confusion. Marquart continued, “You will not feast again this winter. You will eat sparingly and you will distribute food to your serfs. As your Lord, I charge you with this. And by next winter, half these worthless ones will be gone from your household. You will find a place for them out of the valley, and you will see to it that the food they would have eaten remains in the hands of your serfs. Do this, or I will come here and take your lands away from you, and give them to someone who can carry out my orders.”

He had felt Marquart’s displeasure before, at Midwinterfest, but now his anger was like a flame. Marquart had told him — had told them all — to clear out their households. It had seemed to unreasonable to take seriously.

But to threaten to remove him altogether from the only home he had ever known! That had been home to his father and his g’father before him. And to make that threat openly here, in his own hall, in the presence of his wife and children. continued tomorrow