A Portrait of Fall

louis martin
cns news & features

IN MENDOCINO COUNTY the seasons overlap, and in late August on certain days you can feel the approach of fall. A breeze that rustles the leaves of a tall tan oak, a chilliness in the morning air causing you to shiver, and you're reminded that dreamy summer is not going to last forever. The descent into the cold of winter will be slow, but it will come.

Still, for the most part, early fall is as beautiful as the finest day of spring or summer. The only difference is that its beauty is mortal and you know it, and with that knowledge comes a dose of anxiety with the morning sunshine filtered through a redwood forest or a sunset over hills or the ocean. It is the same gnawing feeling in the pit of the stomach that a child feels about going back to school after a long vacation.

In the fall, nature's beauty turns somber, promising nothing beyond the stark, momentary vision.

But fall is, perhaps, the most honest season of the year. It does not lie to you about pleasures to come, each more sensual than its predecessor, as spring does; nor does it induce a warm, drug-like trance making you indifferent to the events of the world, as does summer. No, fall is lovely but the descending path of days toward winter is clear to all but the most deluded.

Even so, it comes a bit the like an announcement to a person in seeming good health that he or she is terminally ill. To one convinced that the only reality is here and now, the news is chilling.

But as it says in Ecclesiastes, better the house of mourning than the house of feasting, "for to this end all men come." All is vanity and chasing of the wind, that wise book says.

A healthy dose of negativity is a good starting point for building a house of truth. That is the real point of such Wisdom literature. Sweep away the deluded notion, get rid of what is dead, so that the real life may begin or resume.

Thus perhaps those dreary days that start with so much heavy beauty--the reds, the golds, the browns--hold a message for us.

But perhaps I am getting carried away by fall emotions. And to be more accurate, the leaves in California and Mendocino County do not undergo such dramatic red-brown- gold transformations as they do in other parts of the country, such as the East Coast; and the leaves of the region's best known trees, the redwood and Douglas fir, are needles that stay green year around. Nevertheless, the descent into winter in Mendocino County takes its own form.

Some claim that the quality of light changes. Amber is the usual description given. With the tilting of the earth away from the sun in the northern hemispheres, and the greater depth of atmosphere the sun's beams must penetrate, a difference in the quality of light is to be expected. Those seeing amber are at least seeing something.

And in the northern hemisphere, and in Mendocino County, the amount of daylight is on the decline. The dying of the light is a fact that does not bring much cheerfulness with it unless, of course, one has candles and a bottle of wine and a friend with lovely or handsome eyes. Colder nights make warm beds creak with pleasure.

BUT THERE IS MORE to fall than longer nights and altered daylight hues. Walk a back road along one of the ridges where you can see out over deep ravines for miles and miles--over hill sides that are forested but heavily pruned now by the big logging companies--and you can see other signs.

Along the side of the road you will still see a butterfly or two, but those great black and yellow swallowtails are gone now, as are the golden monarchs. The sweet fennel is now tall and in bloom with its clusters of tiny yellow flowers in early fall, but it will soon turn dark and collapse, leaving only decaying black stalks. Down by the creeks the Elk clover--native Mendocino Ginseng--is also in its glory but will soon lose its clusters of small black berries and its big leaves will wither. Other smaller plants will wither and die as well, but not so dramatically as these large ones. The seemingly leafless Phantom Orchids, deep in the woods on short, one-foot-high stems, have already come and gone, leaving no trace.

And the Scottish broom, so hated by some because it's a non-native and aggressive, as are so many who live in the county now, no longer displays its little, yellow, pea- shaped flowers; which means that it has already replanted itself many times over. It's such a pretty shrub that I have never been able to hate it properly.

STANDING on one of the big coastal ridges in Mendocino you can see for miles across steep forested ravines, each with a creek, big or small, flowing along its pebbly bottom. And scanning the horizon you can see how ravines come together and join into bigger ravines that eventually open up to the ocean. Down the final big ravine opening to the ocean flow all the collected waters in a creek with an official name, and sometimes that creek is large enough, by state standards, to be called a river. But there are no really big rivers in Mendocino; mostly there are a lot of creeks. It is truly a lovely sight to look out over a whole system of ravines that come together--a series of top-limp Vs like the wings of a large bird in flight--and that merge to form a larger ravine and waterway.

There is a name for this merging of ravines and confluence of water. It is watershed. Environmentalists love the word and probably overuse it. The logging industry acts like the word doesn't exist. Invoking water quality as the preeminent issue, watersheds have become the focal point of many a lawsuit against a logging company.

Although the sound of a chain saw is heard year 'round in Mendocino, there is a bit more urgency heard in the early fall before the rains begin. That is because, with the first rains, most logging operations must cease. In theory, then, loggers, like bears, hibernate till spring. And hopefully, like squirrels, they have stored up enough nuts to get them through till spring. And on your walk you may also smell smoke. But is it wood smoke from a stove, or smoke from a vegetation fire?

The first smell of wood smoke in fall is heavenly; it is like incense. But the smell of a vegetation fire is another thing. There are far more fires in Mendocino County than the public knows about, or probably cares to know about. Five or six a day is a likely number.

There are vehicle fires, structure fires, and vegetation fires, in the nomenclature of those charged with extinguishing them. Usually fires are accidental but sometimes they are deliberately set by deranged individuals dubbed arsonists by society. The desire to set fires is one desire that Karl Menninger fails to mention in his classic book, "The Human Mind," but one that no politician fails to condemn in the most vehement terms, so that one might suspect a little arsonist lurking in every politician's psyche. Yet the act of arson, except as revenge, points so clearly to dementia that condemnation, as a disease or disorder, is confined almost exclusively to politicians in need of the public eye.

But maybe the matter is more complicated than I think. Recently I witnessed what I believed to be a case of arson involving both a degree of dementia and revenge.

I LIVE a few miles outside of a small town on the Mendocino coast. The cabin I rent is on the north side of a ridge and the narrow county road that runs along it. Because I am in the news business, I have a scanner programmed to several county fire frequencies. About seven o'clock the other evening, a call went out for a fire in the local fire district. When I heard the road and mile point marker, I wondered that I had not smelled smoke or seen flames; I wondered, in fact, that my pants were not on fire.

I ran outside and began to sniff the air. But instead of being greeted by smoke or flame, I heard loud yelling coming from the direction of the county road to my south. Not calls for help but angry, screaming, accusatory voices, mainly a woman's.

"You god damn son of a bitch. You asshole. I planted them, and you pulled them up. You god damn son of a . . . ."

But I could see nothing, as there are trees along both sides of the road.

The woman's voice went on and on and in such a rage that I nearly went back in to call the sheriff. But then I smelled smoke and saw the column--to the south and roughly in the direction of the shouting--and I decided to walk on down to the county road.

As I approached the county road from the dirt road that runs down to it from my cabin, I saw that the column of smoke came from across the road at the Grungeld property. I live on the very top of the ridge between two heavily litigated watersheds, one to the north, the other to the south. The Grungeld place is down below me and located entirely in the southern watershed, though I think old Carl Grungeld could care less about the watershed or water quality as long as people stay off his place. His property is on a fairly flat area of the ridge just before it drops off towards the creek.

As I strode down the last twenty yards or so of my dirt road to the county road, kicking up dust as I went, I saw one of the white volunteer fire department engines arriving and parking in front of the road to the Grungelds. Equipment was being dragged out by a yellow-suited volunteer named Pete. Several other vehicles, private pickups, were already "on scene," in fire dispatcher lingo.

"What's happening, Pete?" I asked. "Well, with all that smoke I think we have a real fire," said Pete, axe in one hand, rake in the other. Pete likes real fires, not false alarms. I followed him down the dirt driveway onto my neighbor's property, a volunteer spectator in tow with the volunteer fire department.

It is the first time I have been on the Grungeld's property. I have lived across the road for a year and a half, but have taken the approach of visiting this neighbor only if some occasion presented itself making a visit necessary. I was pretty sure that eventually some occasion would come up, though I had not pictured a fire.

Once on the property I saw old Carl standing about ten yards back from a smoldering giant redwood stump. Several volunteer fire fighters were raking debris from inside it and wetting down the area with a garden hose. Water pressure was not great. The stump was just at the edge of a dry, grassy meadow before the land dropped off into the forested ravine. Adding an element of excitement was a California Department of Forestry helicopter circling the area and beating the air like a giant egg beater.

Carl was puffing on a cigarette and looking very nervous while all this took place.

I approached Carl.

"Jeez, what happened?" I asked, trying to sound naturally curious but not too probing.

"Stump caught on fire," said Carl.

"Really?" I said, as though doubting it even though I was staring right at it just like Carl.

"Lightning?" I suggested. Occasionally lightning does start wild fires, but there had been no lightning recently. Wrong season. I was hoping that my absurd suggestion might lead to an explanation.

"Might have been a cigarette," offered Carl. "Cassie was out here smoking awhile ago."

Now things were beginning to fall into place. Cassie was Carl's no-good, or let us say troublesome, fortyish daughter. She was living at home following a serious drug bust in Fort Bragg. I believe that her living at home was part of a probation deal, but I am not sure about that.

Cassie was nowhere to be seen, but pretty soon a CDF fire marshall showed up, the helicopter having departed when it was clear the fire was under control. He asked Carl how the fire started. Carl told him the same thing, that Cassie was smoking by the stump earlier. The fire marshall asked if Cassie was around.

"Can we talk over there?" Carl asked, and they went over and talked by the white fire engine that Pete had now driven onto the property for additional water. Pete blasted the stump with gallons of water while Carl and the fire marshall talked out of my earshot.

I think Carl explained that Cassie was a little upset right now and that talking to her would only make her more upset but add nothing. Anyway, Cassie never appeared, and soon all went home, myself included.

So what really happened, I asked myself later on. I think it is this, though it is only speculation, not fact--a distinction that need be very clear in the news business.

Labelling this clearly speculation, then, here is what I think happened: I think Cassie had planted pot on her father's property or nearby, and Carl had spotted it and pulled it up, possibly destroying it. I think that then Cassie had started the fire in retaliation. Retaliation is an old story among pot growers. The giant stump, according to Carl, was one of his favorite places. Carl's wife had called in the fire--Carl told me that--and apparently just moments before I heard the angry exchange. That I know as fact, since I heard the dispatch go out, then heard the exchange.

Thus I think the fire was arson, and the fire marshall was at least curious about it.

But that is different from hard, factual news, and I let the matter drop. I wasn't being paid to investigate the matter, and didn't feel like it was something Cassie was going to do again soon, if she did do it. After all, marijuana harvest season was over for the year here.

That's just Mendocino in the fall, I told myself. Like cooler nights, like a crunchy bed of dry oak leaves. Like tourism dropping off, at least a little.

MENDOCINO, BED & BREAKFAST capitol of the state. And Mendocino Village, the center of it, and in a way the laughing stock of the county with the merchants in an unending war with the county planning department over the size of signs.

People come to Mendocino for the environment, to get away from asphalt, concrete, traffic jams, and bad smells. They pay a hundred, two hundred dollars a night to stay in a cabin that wouldn't pass building inspection back in the city. Here what is broken, what doesn't work, is touted as rustic. Back in the city it would land a slumlord in jail.

But people still flock here, which shows how desperate we have become for anything natural and some peace and quiet too. Yet most tourists never get off the road or out of the state park. They see only what the visitor's bureau and the chamber of commerce would have them see. Seeing only roadside forests, they miss the mile after mile of overcut interior, the enormous stumps of trees from another age, the once-cool, shady forest floor now hot, exposed, and gashed by heavy equipment. It's not a pretty sight when you walk out into it and see. Though at a distance all looks green, close up one sees sparse redwoods but a few years old and overcrowded forests of spindly young oaks, not a mature tree among them; and tick-brush, thistle, and eroded soil.

And yet with all this damage, which is very real, the county is still quite beautiful.

Hunting season ends in early fall, and the deer can settle down to their usual routine. Only the abalone are pursued for a few more months, but less vigorously now, for it is a six month season and divers are not as enthusiastic for this sport as they were back in spring. An abalone that has survived to fall is less likely to be pried from its rock by a young man in a designer wet suit.

And fall brings harvests, most of them legal, and fairs and festivals, just like in earlier ages, to celebrate those harvests. To see the apples ripen to fullness in an orchard is a glorious sight, especially in the late afternoon of a fall day with the sun low, filtering through the branches and surrounding the fruit in an aura of golden light. It is almost too much of something, the fullness bringing with it an awareness of an end in store and the emptiness to follow. The beauty is intense, but is an unhappy beauty such as seen in a lover about to depart and not return.

Such is the beauty of a fall day in Mendocino county. It can be heart breaking.

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