Not being able to see anything has been surprisingly informative. Every night, when the quietude of bedtime has settled in, Cricket Hollow, the comfortable cove that Lil’ Squatch is nestled into, produces a regular sequence of mysterious sounds. The forest floor, completely covered in dried leaves, allows that not even the stealthiest creatures can move without leaving a trail of sound. The substantial and crisp California Sycamore leaves amplify, turning the skittering of a vole into a hefty animal. So far out of the dozens of times we’ve picked up a flashlight, inspired by a burst of raucousness or the snapping of a branch, we’ve seen almost nothing but the textured ground fading into the shadowed brambles. I have once caught the glistening eyeshine staring back at me from murky blackness, an animal of indefinite size, bigger than a squirrel, smaller than a coyote. Another night Rachael and I crept slowly, vainly attempting to avoid the crunch underfoot, to the base of a nearby tree. Something had shuffled up there and our light caught the fluffy orb of our local Western Screech Owl, not terribly happy to be spotlighted but otherwise disinterested in us. This put a face to a voice and settled a question we had about what had been making a deep, trilling call long into the night.
Our daytime neighbors are communicative as well. No animal better represents the oak woodlands that are the true California landscape than the Acorn Woodpecker. Boisterous, gregarious, laughing at me all day as they gather acorns and peck holes into any and all wooden surfaces, a stump, a snag, fenceposts, telephone poles, the Park housing and outbuildings. A communal bird, they work in multi-generational groups sharing the work of collecting acorns, making caches and raising the young. Another family, a covey of California Quail pass through our yard daily, tisking nervously to each other, cooing, kicking leaves in search of bugs, taking dust baths before fussing into a nearby roost for the evening. At this point the crickets for which I assume our hollow is named kick in and if the temperature is optimum their chorus can hit decibels that drown out everybody else singing into the night.
We didn’t need to hear or see one of our nocturnal neighbors to know he lived here. “Do you smell something?” Rachael asked. “No, …wait a minute” Not a sound or sign other than a musky scent wafting through the air. The unmistakable odor a skunk visitor was thankfully mild and short-lived. The smells of the Sierra Foothills where we live have been otherwise a pleasure. Our first walks through the sun-warmed grass and oaks of early September were filled with an evocative dry-sweet scent, dusty and vegetal. This became saturated to a deep earthy richness with the first light rains of October. The air is infused and the crispness of autumn is complimented by this hint of fragrant moisture.
This is a dry and scratchy land in September and October, the tail end of our Mediterranean summer. The scramble trail down to the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River can leave me with scratches earned while avoiding the more troublesome poison oak. It is well worth it. I’ve never had the pleasure of living five minutes from my choice of a half dozen perfect late summer swimming holes. Boulders of tortured metamorphic rock polished smooth by high, snow-fed, spring runoff, surround deep, dark pools of clear water. The trail dust and detritus is washed away, the temperature a perfect balance, cold enough to be exhilarating, warm enough to linger, the water enveloping the skin. I glide, High Sierra granite in the distance, multicolored woodland ridges surrounding, sand, gravel and stones at my feet. This becomes a daily ritual, a compulsion. I haven’t been this well washed in years. Pausing, waist-deep, my feet on algae covered riverbed I feel a curious sensation. Looking down I see a school of minnows aggressively nibbling at the bits swirling around my legs, taking investigative bites of my skin and ample leg hair. This ticklish exfoliation becomes a reliable part of my routine, odd enough to keep me swimming away from the shallows.
Once, returning home from my swim, I catch sight of another elusive neighbor. He already knows me, though we haven’t met yet. I’ve seen his scat on the abandoned trail 40 yards above our RV. He lives by his nose. With an olfactory system seven times as sensitive as a bloodhound he probably knows that I prefer dark roasted coffee and have been experimenting with homemade seitan. Fortunately he’s focused on his native food right now. Seeing me he effortlessly takes his 250 pounds to the top of a 40 foot oak tree and balanced on branches I wouldn’t trust with my weight, he is heartily feasting on the same crop of Blue Oak acorns that our woodpeckers gather. There are other neighbors we are unlikely to meet. We’re told that a Mountain Lion den is just up the drainage from our spot. If so it also knows I’m here but I’ll probably have better luck with my lottery ticket than with being able to catch sight of her. Ringtails, Badgers and Bobcats are likely out there. I know we have local foxes by their promiscuous pooping habits. It is satisfying enough to sense these presences in other ways. Getting any rare glimpse would only be a bonus.
Here’s a Video of our friend in the tree: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUMq6oSC7GM