Tag Archives: seasons

396. Fire Again

It was nine o’clock at night upon the second of August — the most terrible August in the history of the world. One might have thought already that God’s curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air. The sun had long set, but one blood-red gash like an open wound lay low in the distant west.      ACD

Talk about atmosphere. I was copying those words from His Last Bow by Arthur Conan Doyle, a story about how Holmes and the opening days of World War I, when the helicopters started going over.

I was a teenager and then a draftee during the Viet Nam War, although I didn’t actually go there to serve. For many of my generation, helicopters are like the four horsemen. We don’t run out to smile and wave at the pilots when they go over because, for us, they represent death from above.

I’m about to change my mind about that. My new impression of helicopters is tied to the red and white Cal Fire ‘copters, with those huge steel buckets hanging down, which drop down to local lakes to carry water to fires. I’ve certainly seen plenty of them lately.

This decade, where I live, has been a decade of fire. I wrote a post on that subject less than a year ago, and here I go again.

In the previous post, I opened with a picture taken from my front yard. I am opening this post with another, also from my front yard, taken a few weeks ago. In both cases, there is a lake between my house and the fire. The first fire burned 677 acres. This fire started in nearly the same place, but this time it burned 81,826 acres, so far, destroyed 63 homes, and threatened to destroy two nearby towns.

The day it started, my wife and I went down to watch the aerial ballet as DC 10s dropped fire retardant, spotter planes orbited high overhead, and Cal Fire helicopters carried tank after tank of water from the lake to douse the fire. This time they couldn’t stop it, and it eventually took thousands of firefighters to do the job. It still isn’t really over.

Then another fire broke out ten miles north of here and caused damage and confusion for two days. A day later, another fire broke out in the same area, and it is still burning.

Those helicopters I told you about? They weren’t part of any of those fires. They knocked down a fire less than a mile from my house. I heard them, closed my computer, and drove by back roads to a place I knew I could look without bothering the fire fighters. I needed to know if I should start loading the car to evacuate.

Nope. When I got to my overlook the helicopters had already knocked the fire down. To my eye, it looked like about twenty acres. When I turned around to come home, I saw a battalion of firetrucks arriving.

The helicopters got my attention at 4:55. I saw the knocked down fire at 5:05. It is now 5:45 and I am about ready to post this for tomorrow.

There aren’t enough words to thank firefighters, aerial and ground, but I do have two things to add:

I now keep my computer backup forty miles from here, and —

I’m thinking about moving to the rain forest.

392. Cold to the Bone

Poor Tim. I’ve been putting him through Hell since he wandered off and got himself lost in Post five. But you have to give me some credit. I gave him two breaks. If he hadn’t found that piece of pyrites, or something equivalent, he would have died by the second night. And if he hadn’t stumbled onto that piece of obsidian, he could not have made spearpoints and arrowheads.

The rule of fiction is: you can use all the coincidence you want in getting your hero into trouble, but be very careful in using coincidence to get him out of trouble. That is story logic, not real life logic. We dodge bullets every day by sheer happenstance, but we don’t expect our authors to cut our characters any such slack.

So I gave Tim a piece of pyrites and a piece of obsidian, then gave him rain, cold, clouds, a twisted ankle, and got him so thoroughly lost that he had no idea which way to walk out. That’s fair, in story land. Two ounces of luck and a thousand pounds of pain.

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Write about what you know; the oldest cliche in the book. Well, I know cold.

Take a typical December day in Oklahoma. That means not much snow, some sleet occasionally, but typically bare, hoof churned dirt, frozen by thirty degrees of frost into a tangled mass of lumps and holes. It was deadly to walk on and the cow flop froze solid when it hit.

You will find me snug and warm in my bed until 4:30 A.M. when my dad would throw back the door and shout, “Get up!”, in his take-no-prisoners voice. He had no patience for coming back a second time and, with that voice, he never had to.

I hit the floor with a jolt of adrenaline and went in the living room to dress. The only stove we owned was there, gas burning and hot. The stove pipe in the back had been replaced with a “C” of pipe sections that redirected the fumes into the fan that sent glorious heat into the room. OSHA would not have approved, but OSHA hadn’t been invented yet.

First I held my long johns over the fan. They stood out like a wind sock briefly, then I put them on. The same with my jeans and shirt. The same with the overalls that went on next. Then two pairs of socks, boots, overshoes, then a blanket-lined jean jacket. I was warm as toast.

The comfort lasted about thirty seconds after the kitchen door closed behind me and there was no comfort for the next three hours while my dad and I milked cows.

There is nothing like three hours of arctic cold seeping into your feet from a concrete floor to make you appreciate that you would soon be in a heated classroom. I loved school. I loved learning. I also loved being where it was warm — while it lasted. After school, we did it all over again, then I got to sink into the comfort of a warm bed.

Until 4:30 the next morning.

After milking each morning we would load hay onto the truck and drive out to scatter it in the pasture. Then we would drive to the pond, and both hop out with our axes. We each cut — or recut — a series of eighteen inch square holes in the ice so the cows could drink.

There is a science to this. After you chop out the four lines which form the perimeter of the hole, you flip the loosened square out onto the ice, then splash water up and around the hole. This removes the floating ice chunks that would quickly refreeze, and also thickens the ice where the cattle will later stand.

It works well, usually. But one day there had been a rare snowfall. There were drifts, only inches deep, at the edge of the pond. Actually, over the pond, as I found out when I stepped out, thinking I was still on land, onto the ice itself.

No, I didn’t drown. I’m here to tell the story, aren’t I? But I can’t describe the shock when I went in to my knees.

Science tells us that water, under ice, is 0o Celsius or 32o Fahrenheit. Science lies! It is infinitely colder than that.

So yes, Tim, I know all about cold. I feel your pain, but you are the hero and I am the author. I am going to enjoy sitting here in front of the typewriter with my feet wrapped in a blanket while you sleep on the frozen ground. It’s nothing personal, but I’ve been there, and I ain’t goin’ back.

Welcome to Summer

Hi, just a personal note, here; not one of my usual mini-essays.

I went to Tempe, Arizona to Westercon over the Fourth of July weekend. It was from 109 to 111 or thereabouts, but I felt no pain because the Mission Palms was well air conditioned. I have a report on that scheduled for the 11th.

I came home to find things weren’t much cooler. Yesterday was 109 here in the foothills of the Sierras, so my wife and I cut out for the coast and spent a few hours walking along the beach at Carmel. Today I’m home, hiding under the air conditioner, working out the details of a new novel that was sparked at Westercon.

I am also watering our non-native trees. When I just went out to change the sprinkler, I saw two mother wild turkeys with twenty-one gawky, half-grown chicks in our yard. They were panting, and looking miserable.

They and I are both asking — is it fall yet?

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.