You will love the house. You will think of it as of your “forever home”, and you’ll refer to it as Casa [insert your family name here]. What you don’t suspect yet is that you will also develop a relationship with the land and the things that live on it, and it will be a complex relationship, as emotional as you have had with any human being. Welcome to country life, and good luck!
When you first saw the listing online you flipped through the photos and studied the interior. You tried to picture the rooms with your furniture in them, and even imagined in passing how it would look after you are done remodeling, the tall ceiling beams nicely complimenting a white wall-to-wall carpet, and you’d definitely start collecting art now. You noted the plan of the house (simple yet convenient), and its location in proximity to the village (all walking distance). You were aware of the exterior, of course, or at least you knew that there was one, but it remained in the periphery of your consideration, the main focus of which was the pool. It was an old pool; newer than the house itself, still old enough to require attention — a bit intimidating given that your experience with pools was limited to having swam in them — but heck, it was an actual, functional pool! Enamored with fantasies of future poolside parties (string lights overhead and Joni Mitchel playing in the background) and sunbathing on a chaise lounge with a good book, you didn’t hesitate to sign on the “acceptable condition” box. When you arrived to look at the house you were struck by how different the property looked in person. Aside from the paved driveway and a few cinder block enforcing walls, most of the lot was untamed, largely occupied by what your agent called a ravine but was a downright canyon, steep and overgrown, and suspect of raccoons...
And look at all that goddamn vegetation! Some of it is potted flowers left behind by the previous owner, a sweet old widow who held on as long as she could, put the house on the market when she couldn’t anymore, and moved to Oregon to be closer to one of her three daughters. There are many geraniums blooming in red, white, and pink, too many really, and they’ve jumped their pots and taken hold of the hillside. Succulents everywhere, plain old fat greens that don’t need anything but to be left alone. There isn’t a garden to speak of, just a rose bush going rogue in front of a window, its thorny vines gripping the brick wall. Clumps of lavender here and there. Remnants of flowerbeds once tended to, then neglected as the widow aged and now, during changing of the guard, dying of thirst. Two sizable oleander bushes by the back kitchen door, looking perky in the shade.
Mostly, it’s wild vegetation: grasses and brush and trees gaining on the fences, advancing on the adobe walls. The trees are cultivated street-side, purely ornamental; you don’t know it yet but one is a Marina Strawberry tree, and the other is a Manzanita. Both are shorter than the house, and appear to have been regularly trimmed to shape, their crowns well rounded and buzzing with insects. Three olive trees, one absolutely humongous Monterey pine (its scent of Christmas— intoxicating), and exactly zero palm trees, thank goodness.
The rest is just generic trees, so many trees, and you’ll soon own them all — what a concept owning a tree is! but trust me, you will be thinking a lot about trees in the years to come — and it is almost entirely certain that the majority of those trees would be oaks.
Oaks are basically the default California tree along with redwoods and pines — they are so common that you probably don’t even notice them as individual trees, but see them as a part of the general landscape, accent brush strokes in pastel tones against the white sky that blur when you drive by on Carmel Valley Road towards the village for an afternoon of wine tasting during a pre-house visit (because you’d always loved the area, and it’s closer than Napa). City people don’t pay attention to trees unless they are in some way spectacular, like Magnolias (or any male tree, preferred by city planners to avoid dealing with fruit and seeds cleanup, thus creating an allergenic nightmare that makes you miserable every spring). Black, blue, white, coastal and canyon live oaks, all sorts. Oaks don’t stand out because they are abundant and have been here forever, giving names to places before people started naming things after themselves: Encino (oak), Encinitas (little oaks), Encinal (oak grove), Robles (oaks), and of course Oakland. You can’t swing a bundle of sage without hitting an oak, though, while you may want to spiritually cleanse your new digs that way, I do not recommend burning anything outdoors, especially between June and December. The importance of fire safety is your first lesson as a rookie country homeowner. The second one is that oaks are jerks.
It’s a different type of cleaning you will have to do once you move in, not via crystals or chanting, or even by using a vacuum. Rather, it involves sweeping, leaf blowing, weeding, pruning and cutting, raking and other maintenance: landscaping and gardening are menial but expert labor with a twist of philosophy, and a healthy dose of science. I can best describe it as a ‘metaphysical cardio workout’, something you will become intimately familiar with, just like you will inevitably get acquainted with oaks. Oh yes. They will make themselves known in surprising ways, and you will never underestimate them again, or see them as a blurred part of the scenery.
The thing about country life is that it is in immediate proximity to nature, and the thing about nature is that it grows and grows until it takes over. In fact, your battle with nature is lost before it really starts. Your only hope will be to learn how to keep it at bay just enough to stop it from consuming your little piece of civilization, which is in itself quite ironic because the reason you moved to Steinbeck Country was to escape civilization in the first place.
But practically speaking, you must do the minimum and make sure that roots don’t grow through the pipes, the gutters don’t get clogged with pine needles, that large branches don’t extend over the deck, or that gophers don’t go nuts in the canyon and compromise the stability of the soil, which is already crumbly from the drought, making the slope ready to slide down with the first heavy rainfall, and take the entire house with it... And since you are house-poor (I’m speculating, though considering the real estate prices these days I am almost entirely sure I’m correct) you will have to either bestow the problem to a landscaping crew, or do that minimum yourself.
Let’s say that you choose to forgo splurging on hiring professionals; after all you don’t yet know about the rates in which trees grow (oaks are fast growers at 20 plus inches per year) and you naively, albeit wrongly, believe that ignoring the pile of leaves at the far corner of your property is not a big deal. Your priorities lie elsewhere, mainly indoors, in unpacking, settling in, figuring out how everything in the house works, and of course you are eager to get back to some sort of a routine after many hectic weeks of escrows, paper signing, moving boxes, changing addresses, and other bureaucratic chaos.
Buying a house and moving are highly stressful even under “normal” circumstances, and the current circumstances are anything but. It makes perfect sense to let clover grow unnoticed because you are focused on setting up internet service so you can start working remotely, and on signing up your kids in the local school (also remotely). There isn’t a housewarming party, and it will take awhile before you meet your neighbors in person instead of waving at each other from a distance for safety. Pity! Country people have the wonderful habit to welcome city transplants by bringing over delicious home baked goods, which is simultaneously endearing and a deliberate tactic of establishing social superiority. Berry pie and well-intended psychological manipulation is how we roll.
Also a pity because a casual conversation would have informed you of the challenges that await in the face of your newly acquired trees (and the occasional mountain lion), and disabused you from thinking that it would be easy. Maybe you already have some experience with nature and maybe you don’t; you’d been camping before and you are an avid hiker, but make no mistake: living in the country full time is not the same as a day trip to a quaint vineyard. Not where oaks are concerned...
But hey, there’s lots to do! Starting anew is refreshing, and all-consuming. You get on with it, and it’s not halfway bad. You enjoy the morning views and the sounds of hooting owls in the evening (those things are loud). You do your thing: sign up for a new primary care physician, look for a good dentist, and even try out takeout from some of the local restaurants. It seems very vacation-like with quarantine and all, like a getaway to a cozy cabin in the woods. You synchronize, vibe with it, and take the opportunity to arrange everything just so. There are accent walls to paint, decor to put up, a new dishwasher to buy. The kids are happy; they turn tan and slightly feral, but manage not to accidentally fling themselves off the deck or fall into the pool while you’re not looking. If there aren’t any kids, your partner is ecstatic to inspect every nook and closet with a child-like curiosity, and to flip switches hoping to figure out what they turn on. The pets mark their new territory, and find the best sun spots to sleep in.
By the time you are finally adjusted the euphoria wears off giving way to content with trivial day to day life, which is not entirely unpleasant. Work doesn’t feel as stressful, and looks like country life is already rubbing off you. You haven’t read the news in a week, and your sleep has improved thanks to the lack of noise and light pollution. Congratulations! You have your own piece of Heaven now.
Nature, too, hasn’t idled. Unbeknownst to you, the genista — an inconspicuous shrub that blooms with pretty yellow flowers — will have grown over three feet high, only to die in the late August heatwave and turn into a dry, explosively flammable skeleton. It’s all too easy for the untrained eye to overlook genista plants; they are well camouflaged among roadside brush and near fences, and your eye is untrained indeed. Eventually you will join your neighborhood’s NextDoor group and you will stumble on a post about it (“the best time to uproot genista is in early spring when the plant is small and the soil is soft and yielding”), and about a dozen other invasive plants plaguing the area. In the meantime, you will also experience your first country life crisis.
The pile of leaves has made a perfect home for rats, and now there’s a dead one decomposing in your wall. You get woken up by chilling screams at 2 am that trigger memories of all the horror movies you’d ever seen about remote houses and creepy intruders, but it’s only foxes in heat. Clover is covering every inch of your yard, including the driveway; dirt carried by the wind has filled the smallest hairline cracks and widened them to crevices, breaking off entire chunks of asphalt. Debris of sticks and tree bark is littering the roof obscuring the skylights, and the bottom of the pool is thick with a layer of sandy sediment. And it seems that the whole world is covered with fine green pollen. When nature comes so close it literally enters the house, it’s time to deal.
Being a freshly minted Carmel Valley resident who bought an old yet ready-to-move-in house that needs work (but will do for now), you aren’t exactly clueless. You came from the Bay Area to escape running the gauntlet of Sand Hill Road, or from whatever is happening down south these days (there’s no love lost between L.A. and myself) and here you are, say, a young family professional, or a mildly successful artist with grown kids who craves a taste of the American pastoral, but whoever you are, I’d venture a guess that you aren’t exactly Bezos-rich, just wealthy enough to close quickly on the property (because it is a seller’s market in a K-shaped economy recovery). You do have plans to remodel, which includes landscaping — a living roof over the carport perhaps, a few cool boulders for emphasis, and a small citrus grove by the pool — but that’s an investment you envision further down the line, when the kids are fixing to leave for college, or at least when the mortgage is halfway paid off.
A passing glance at your budget determines that you should at least try to take care of the land on your own first. You figure that an afternoon over a weekend or two would be sufficient time to “clear out some leaves”. It’s a common mistake that stems from how deceptively effortless nature appears, just sitting there, looking all beautiful (the picturesque vistas of rolling hills are our major selling point) but don’t fret, you’ll soon take a crash course on both the intricacies of landscaping and the true, and often violent, power of nature.
You get to work by surveying your land. You look around and for the first time you truly see it. You realize how abundant it is, how omnipresent. This isn’t the suburban wasteland of Mountain View or the pseudo-small town of Glendale, with manicured lawns and paved sidewalks. There is no gardener and pest control service included with the rent that come bi-weekly anymore, or a resident maintenance guy. It’s just you now, and you discover that trimming the branches that threaten your deck isn’t exactly a job you could do by yourself.
For one, you lack the tools. There’s a handsaw somewhere in the basement; you vaguely remember buying it once to have just in case, for being an adult implies preparedness, like having spare batteries, a first aid kit, and a distant but clear concept of a last testament (or at least a theoretical idea about how long you’d want to be kept on life support before they pull the plug, should anything fatal happens). A handsaw, however, doesn’t seem to be a match for this particular job, and the next thing you know you are three pages deep in a Home Depot search for pole saws and chain saws, which gives you a tension headache, and just confuses you further. You could buy tools, but you don’t know the first thing about using them. You figure that climbing 12 feet high while brandishing an electric saw is objectively not a skill you have, and suddenly the tree looks tall as you stand in its shadow and arch your neck back to look up and try to estimate whether you’d die instantly if you fall off it, or only break a few bones.
Just like that, you are humbled, and the first seeds of understanding rural life start growing in your mind (so to speak). If it’s any consolation, most of us get the same sense of inadequacy when confronted with the sheer size of a century-old pine. It’s normal. Wait until you need to reckon with an oak.
Your journey to empirical wisdom starts with a Yelp search which returns the top results for best rated local “arborists”. The term has a mysterious ring to it, and even strikingly deeper meaning: a tree surgeon. A few quote inquiry calls bring the new information that arborists are damn expensive. That’s nearly 3 grand for cutting down the tree and hauling away the lumber, and by the end of the day you have a newfound appreciation for the value of manual labor (and possibly a few doubts about throwing yourself into country home ownership so readily). Still, it is what it is, and you go ahead and book the arborist, blocking out a large portion of the day in your work calendar because you will have to be available to supervise.
Arborists know their stuff and they don’t need you at all, especially not to supervise — if anything, you find out that you are in the way while they work. They take down that tree in a single, intensely noisy afternoon, clear the logs, chop them up in their chipper, and drive off. You are taken aback by unexpected sadness after the pine is gone, and the feeling of loss washes over you when you look upon the cutting site littered with fragrant sawdust and pine needles. That’s because you are soft. Another year in the Pastures of Heaven will fix that.
Same happens later that week, when you call a company to pump and repair the septic tank... minus the sadness, that is. Their truck has a sign that reads: CAUTION! THIS VEHICLE MAY TRANSPORT POLITICAL PROMISES! You open the back gate for access, ask a few plumbing-related questions. Mostly, your presence isn’t required—rather, you enjoy hanging out with the crew for half an hour after they are done (the aroma of chemicals and poop mixing with the scent of sap from the cut pine in a sophisticated bouquet).
Any social interaction is precious these days; the pandemic has starved you of the human connection you need on an almost primitive level, but it’s not just that. There seem to be a special set of social protocols in the country. Things here are personal. You will come to treat everyone you meet from now on with friendliness so far reserved exclusively for people you know well and love — a paradox as curious as the misguided notion that rural life is often synonymous with provinciality and city dwelling with luxury, when it’s the other way around. In reality, the price you pay to be a part of cosmopolitan culture is anonymity and social isolation, and the reward for being “out in the boonies” is the chance to establish your personality without a mask or a pose.
There’s no one to impress here in the middle of nowhere, nothing to prove other than your own happiness, to yourself. So when you pass by another car on a back road, you wave. You nod and smile to people walking their dogs as you get your mail, and you learn the name of your mail carrier. It’s just the thing to do... not the right thing necessarily, but the only natural thing to do when you start seeing people as they are: not a faceless mass of strangers but individuals as substantial as you, and of the same importance. There aren’t prestigious museums around, modern galleries and grand concert halls; there aren’t big malls, fast food restaurants or fancy nightclubs, and you’ll have to drive 30 miles round trip for your monthly Costco fix. You exchange your ego-driven demand for convenience and instant gratification for the privilege to be a part of a small and tight community, and you do it gladly.
Don’t get me wrong, you won’t like everyone. Not everybody will like you, either. Some will share your values, others will annoy the crap out of you with their insistence that 5G towers cause cancer. It’s an eclectic amalgamation of lifestyles and practices you will eventually learn to respect, and maybe even understand.
Country people come in many varieties: from those who live in actual yurts, off the grid up a dirt road towards Jamesburg (that’s the rural equivalent of “get off my lawn!”), through couples in self-sustained, state-of-the-art tiny houses who make a living by selling handmade jewelry and organic body lotions, to ranchers and horse people and bee keepers, cannabis growers, vegetable farmers and wine makers.
From families running a yoga with goats operations (hiring out the stock for goatscaping in between classes) to people with conventional jobs, like educators, medical professionals and small business owners who commute to Monterey and Salinas every weekday and occupy homes near the village center (and don’t forget the military employees).
From people in finance, glass blowers, and chefs, to stay-at-home parents who embody the very meaning of the term ‘rustic’ as illustrated by Pottery Barn.
From craftsmen of all trades who grew up here and first attended Tular then Carmel Middle and High schools, went to college, then returned home to start families and continue the tradition (GO Bobcats!), to wealthy folk who came from the East Coast and retired in large colonial mansions and contemporary glass houses perched on a hill, who play golf and know Clint Eastwood personally... and anything in between.
You will develop your own brand of country lifestyle, which may involve owning rain boots and multiple pets, patronizing Jerome’s, and the knowhow of rescuing hummingbirds trapped under the car port, but probably no chickens or goats (you aren’t there yet), no dirt bikes (no judgment, extreme sports just don’t appeal to you), and definitely no hunting, though you sometimes consider buying a gun when you think about the fact that Carmel Valley is unincorporated and lacks its own sheriff’s department.
At any rate, the more you become accustomed to the local community, the more rarely you use expressions like “redneck”, “upper class”, and “bourgeoisie” because nothing is as clear cut as it looks in the country, least its people. It’s advisable to leave behind the carefully learned urban terms pertaining to social echelon and start acknowledging the nuances of your new environment. You gain enough perspective to discover that success and prosperity are unorthodox here, and often not monetary. You come to measure what it means to be a part of an elite by the privilege to chat with a WWII veteran next to his Packard during Car Week (any “normal” August), and by the luxury to wait out the pandemic in the safety of your four-bed, two-and-a-half bath sanctuary overlooking the mountains East of Eden.
It’s highly probable that you will gain both good friends and, if this were a Stephen King novel, people you would think of as enemies among the diverse local population. There is no such thing as a perfect place, but Carmel Valley doesn’t need to be perfect to be idyllic. There is history here (featuring Joan Baez and her Institute for the Study of Non-Violence), there are stories (of Dorris Day and her rescue animals galore), legends even (some of them macabre, like that of the tragic fate of one Steve McAlpine who started the 2015 Tassajara fire by committing suicide), and events so fantastic they could be taken straight out of a Hollywood action movie (like when illegal pot growers spike strip the road and threaten hikers with automatic weapons, causing the area to flood with SWAT teams).
There’s, of course, small-town gossip. If you abide by the unspoken rules (remember to look out for your neighbors but don’t forget to mind your business), the gossip may not concern you. One day you will have built a repertoire of stories of your own, memories held dear that will earn you the proud title of a “local”, and you will call the valley your home, because it’s not just your address anymore. Your people are here, and no matter how much you like or dislike each other, you care for them. A small community is held together by the glue of care, and it’s only fair you treat people kindly by asking after their health and children, checking if they need anything (offering the proverbial cup of sugar or help with evacuating from a wildfire), or towing them out of a roadside ditch even after you’d fought about politics and hate each other with passion.
And you will learn to treat your hired help with extra special care, because only they can save you from your own ignorance.
Your recent interaction with the arborist crew was short but meaningful. They’ve pointed out a couple of other trees that may need cutting soon because one of them is sick, and the other grows too close to the electrical wires. The trees in question are oaks. You promise to call the crew and hire them back when you are ready to take care of that. For now, it doesn’t seem urgent. You put it out of your mind entirely until you decide to sweep the driveway one weekend and bam! you now hate oaks.
For one thing, they litter like crazy. Oaks are evergreen (and apparently they are actually shrubs?) which means that they grow new leaves and shed them continuously. For another, sweeping said leaves proves to be an impossible task. Damn oaks are endemic species, highly specialized in survival. They’ve adapted to withstand the harsh dry climate, and their leaves have evolved into hard, serrated pieces of Satan himself, catching on the pavement and holding on for dear life with their cunning little claws. You try to scoop them by hand, and they puncture your fingers, drawing blood. You grab the rake and try to scrape them off, which kinda works but gives you carpal tunnel. The only solution is buying a leaf blower, so you end up another few hundred bucks in, and the neighbor is giving you the stink eye about the noise (electric leaf blowers are slightly quieter, but still unpleasant on a Saturday morning).
Furthermore, the sick oak starts to rot. It drops chunks of hollow, spongy wood with every gust of the wind, and whatever is plaguing it jumps to the next oak, slowly discoloring it, casting a menacing air to its already gnarly trunk. Oaks are just that, gnarly, contorted in all directions as if they never got the memo that trees should grow straight and up. You trace the line of oaks leading from the driveway down the canyon, trying to count how many are there, and how many of them are infected by the plague, but you lose count around 12 and, although they appear to look healthy (whatever this means, with their rugged bark and knobby branches), you suddenly get the urge to chop them all down. Then you remember that there are probably laws about cutting trees in California, and you walk back to the house to sulk, and research the matter.
Who knew that moving here would necessitate getting an education in Dendrology?! Not you, and it shows. You are miffed by how dumb you are made to feel by a bunch of meagerly oaks. You go back outside to investigate them up close; you run your hands on their leaves (very carefully), tug down on a branch to test it (unclear for what exactly), pick up an acorn and examine it, still irrationally mad for having to pay so much special attention to something as perfectly ordinary as a tree. Then you observe something else, something out of the ordinary... There’s stuff hanging down from the oaks, a moss of some sort, so maybe that’s a good reason to summon your arborist friends and clear out that canyon.
Turns out you are out of luck. The stuff is not what’s killing your oak — it’s not moss, Spanish or otherwise. It’s Lace Lichen (“Ramalina Menziesii”, to be specific), it’s benign, and it’s almost beautiful if you examine it closely (or if you haven’t already decided that anything oak-related is just obnoxious). And yes, you can’t simply down trees left and right, especially not native trees. Another online search tells you that oaks are not only native, they are old as heck, and apparently are well loved by everyone (but you) for their historical significance (acorns were a main food resource for the Ohlone people, thus culturally symbolic). Unless the oak was in fact dead or threatening your property, you can’t touch it, and even then you’d have to petition and get approval to cut it down. Tree huggers, you think to yourself. A brief vision forms of you attempting to hug a scratchy oak, which would only be second to hugging a cactus, and you laugh at the absurdity of this entire debacle.
What’s wrong with you, anyway?! From all the things you had to deal with since you moved to the countryside, why are oaks getting under your skin? Sure, they are ugly motherfuckers with acidic leaves who like to accessorize using fungi woven by some dexterous woodland fairies, but so what? Splinters in your fingers are hardly as big of a deal as the danger of hitting a dear when you drive past dark, or as nauseating as a skunk bomb. One time you had to drive over the Grade as fast as the curves would allow and get a bunny to the SPCA in time to save it from a hawk attack, which upset you, and also made you an accidental expert on rabbits (being pray animals they are prone to die of shock when stressed). And then there was the rat incident... You had set up traps — the old fashioned, snapping kind you bait with cheese or peanut butter, like they do in cartoons. You were in a meeting when you heard the snap (it echoed from underneath the house up the chimney and out the fireplace), followed by the agonizing screams of the rat. It took many long minutes before it stopped, and it traumatized you so much you cried. You dealt with it though. You went to Murphy’s to look for solutions; they convinced you that you should never use poison because it would harm the birds of prey if they ingested it, so you purchased electric rat traps that kill instantly, and most importantly—quietly.
You dealt with other things too, things you hardly ever thought about when you used to live among people instead of trees. The reward: symbiosis. It’s a foreign realm to be in. There used to always be something in your environment that made you feel out of place, always someone to be at odds with, but harmony seems imminent now. It is hard-earned, and you relish the belief that as long as you keep taking care of your home, your home will also take care of you.
And on that note, you decide to give oaks a chance. After all, you rationally understand that somewhere deep, deep inside their gnarly souls oaks are good guys. According to the US Department of Agriculture, oaks are “an important indicator of forest health” and “keystone species benefiting the ecosystem and wildlife”. You certainly don’t want to contribute to their destruction; by now you have gone down the rabbit (oak) hole and have learned that oaks are tough, drought-resistant, and can withstand fast moving fire, but are also vulnerable to “sudden death” (always so extra!), and were once endangered because the Conquistadors brought a bunch of invasive plants along with their ranches and missions (you are rather fascinated with the tradition Padres had to sprinkle mustard seeds along El Camino Real). You are skeptical of the statistic (via UC Davis) that just 1in 10,000 acorns result into oaks; it seems peculiar considering that you have found no less than twenty seedlings sprouting randomly in your front yard alone. Still, you feel a little better now. After the arborists return to take away the sick oak and trim the one obstructing the wires, you finally leave oaks alone.
Fortunately for you, oaks don’t tend to reciprocate people’s intense feelings (they truly don’t think of people at all) so they leave you alone, too.
You are alone in the country. Or rather, you feel like a bonafide Disney character surrounded by wild critters who are always on the move, perpetually rustling in a nearby bush, chirping in the trees, and rummaging your trash cans at night. The canyon is a deer highway. Bats are nesting behind the window shutters (and sometimes fall out of the patio umbrella when you open it up, scaring the bejesus out of you), rabbits feast on your plants for breakfast, scattering when they hear a hawk screeching from the telephone pole. The world is abundant with motion and life, cycling through a different phase every week: the “pool is full of salamanders” phase, the “blue jays are particularly loud and annoying” phase, the “howling coyotes at 9pm” phase... It’s a madhouse around here, entropy incarnate.
The only order you know is the coming and going of the seasons. They turn the old airfield from a bare, scorched desert into a lush green wildflower oasis in April. They bring in droves of tourists on summer weekends, and bicyclists who slow down traffic on CV Road by riding in long lines towards the village in early fall.
And with four thousand other people on the hermit spectrum spread out across the valley, you are never quite alone, just secluded, and hardly ever lonely. Who needs company when you can afford to walk buttnaked in your yard and have loud sex and be eccentric without the scrutiny of others? You are liberated from worrying about what would people think because there simply aren’t any people around, just wild turkeys with their babies and bobcats lurking after them. As you become a PTO member, rally at a small local BLM protest, or join a group of neighbors for a roadside cleanup, you get to know people, and you get to see yourself through their eyes — it makes you self-aware, and involuntary tempted to please and act agreeable. But then you go home and you immediately feel absolved from judgment, because you understand that it doesn’t matter. Among the oaks, you are free — from the constraints of crowds and traffic tightly packed in some premeditated geometric grid, and from your own hangups.
So what if you have build somewhat of a reputation?! You’d always wanted to be more vocal, more assertive, or a chance to try those ridiculous jokes on a captive audience. This is your village now, your scenic, personal playground. Go forth and play!
The very shape of things is different here, with curves and flowing lines sprinkled with man-made structures that stand respectfully far apart, private but still welcoming; a topography you can understand because it makes sense, not the product of architecture’s triumphs and mistakes, but formed by the force of the elements (or, if you are so inclined, by a Bigger, Greater Force), punctuated by awe-striking landmarks you can’t help but become attuned to. Soon, you can tell the weather by the way the coastal fog gathers in the foothills, by the intensity of the bird songs, and by the wind direction and speed gauged by the flag you fly on the porch. Once you get accustomed to the peculiarities of wilderness and you give yourself permission to be unapologetic (respectfully, of course), you’ve finally arrived.
As you transform the land, it transforms you right back. You shouldn’t merely tolerate this change. You must welcome it and let it happen, be it sometimes painful. Your body will feel it first: your shoulders will straighten, your thighs will round up with muscles, your core will harden, and your hands will develop callouses. Sunscreen will become your best friend. Your skin will roughen and get covered in scratches and bruises, signs of your close encounters with all earthly things. Nothing stands between you and nature anymore, no man-made contraptions to protect you from exposure, so you toughen up and you grow stronger every time you step out the door.
The land changes your psyche too. It makes you savvy about pragmatic things, like the ability to tell apart venomous and beneficial snakes by the shape of their heads (rattlers have a diamond-shaped head) or the habit to look first before shoving your hand into a dark, rarely used storage closet lest there are black widow spiders living there. Such knowledge comes with experience, the sort that could be the difference between life and death. And with it comes enlightenment, a surprising yet wonderful mindset to discover just when you are ready to succumb to the cynicism of middle age. Ask the turkey vulture that glides in the air, looking for roadkill, or the owner of a local Mexican food place who is trying to keep it open during the pandemic, and they will tell you the same thing — being defeatist is an indulgence.
Amid the responsibilities of homeownership and the banalities of yard work there’s a sparkling hope for epiphany in the shape of quartz jutting out of the ground after the rain washes away a layer of dirt in January. Trust that hope. It is mica white and milky pink, and you dig it up to use it in the garden, arranging every chunk you find in a circle around the plants, like runes that tell about the days of yore when the quartz still lay at the bottom of the ocean. Getting down and dirty, literally, has become a ritual. Every few days, or whenever the weather allows — and let’s be honest, the weather around these parts is kind, with mild winters and breezy summers — you go out, put on gloves, and pick a corner to work on.
In no time, time slows down and stops completely; you dig and scoop and pull and cut in a trans-like state while the world around you revolves like in a time lapse video, with clouds running laps overhead, and the sun doing a one-eighty. You only look up when you notice that the quality of light has changed, and that your shadow is now long behind you. This is what life coaches and spiritual gurus have in mind when they talk about “being in the moment” and “letting go”, concepts you considered pretentious piffle as recently as a month ago, made up to sell self-help books and to encourage white people to feel good about their lives of consumerism marked by career achievements that fail to fulfill them.
In the country, far from the “real world”, you find the most palpable reality of all: that of transcendence. Forced into humility by your dealings with nature, you strip your prejudices one by one, and utilize the skills you acquire from working on the land in your profession, whatever it may be. Your art becomes rawer. You take more risks, and manage your team better, with authority yet gently enough to inspire them to grow, the way you’d handle an oak. Your ability to parent or to be the partner your significant other deserves levels up as you bond over shared experiences, both difficult (like watching wildfire smoke close in, turning the sky orange and twilight dark at noon, cataclysmic ash raining over everything) and fun (like going whale watching on the bay and seeing them breach and cluster-feed mere feet away, huge, prehistorically beautiful). You look in the mirror one day and you see a face relaxed from tension required to maintain a neutral yet attractive expression — the face of someone you genuinely like.
There’s no need to deny anymore that you don’t look down on city folk; not because you think yourself better than them, but because they lack the prudence to stock up their pantry with essentials for emergencies, or the insight that toilet paper and bottled water do not constitute “essentials”, dried legumes and canned goods do. You know this because up until very recently you were one of those city folk, utterly unprepared for driving during a storm (hydroplaning like crazy), blissfully unaware of the pain caused by poison oak, and investing in things instead of in people and experiences. You still enjoy spending the occasional day in the city of course, and you need to for practical reasons, or even just so you don’t entirely forget those other survival instincts, like crossing busy intersections and haggling with street vendors and carrying a cultured conversation that doesn’t pertain to firewood or bullet holes left in the stop sign by a drunk guy in a red Chevy truck.
A day in the city is an adequate time to do some businesses, and to remind you of the value of running a comb through your hair once in awhile, and of buying a pair of dress pants even if you’d only wear them to the pharmacy in the mouth of the valley. Longer, and you get overwhelmed, your senses overloaded with unnatural noise and entirely too many strangers, and you are eager to return to where people are familiar, and where there are no billboards to yell at you everywhere you look. The longer you live in the country the rarer you are willing to leave the village, and places like New York or Vegas start to seem unreal to you, their very dimensions and hectic rhythm as fantastic as a sci-fi novel. Next time you drive to the beach in PG or visit a friend in Carmel-by-the-Sea, you are relieved that there aren’t any metropolises to loom in the distance enveloped in smog, with their tall buildings and bright lights, encroaching on the landscape, and disturbing your reclusive thoughts with their relentless demands for attention. You just don’t care about keeping up with cities anymore. It’s exhausting. And overrated, given that you can have anything city people have thanks to the Internet and two-day shipping.
So you pop open a beer and sit out on the deck to meditate on whether or not you are correct to think about the differences between country and city life in such absolute terms. You aren’t exactly unbiased. You have been undeniably changed by nature and you can’t imagine going back to civilization (the definition of which you now seriously question), for you have found congeniality with oaks, and wonder in hearing a murder of crows caw hysterically when they pester a hawk — the bigger bird, confident in its superiority, unperturbed as they reach to peck at its tail feathers.
Maybe life is all the same for everyone, everywhere: a cacophony of events big and small, just happening in different circumstances and set against a different backdrop. How these circumstances should look is arbitrary, subjective, and a matter of taste (and there’s no accounting for taste).
Then again, it’s almost sunset. In the distance, towards the horizon, the sky is currently so ridiculously pretty that you don’t even want to take a picture, just to stare at it. Squirrels play tag and launch pinecone missiles at you from above. The beep-peep of a truck tells you there’s construction going on, road work to fix the potholes left by a flash flood maybe, and there are little voices echoing around as your neighbor’s kids cause ruckus. Something crashes down in the canyon, a buck on his way to the river, and you surge with joy about nothing in particular and everything at once.
Tomorrow will be a nice day to go to the river yourself and pick up a few round rocks for the garden. The day after you could hike Garland. And next weekend you plan to tackle the path leading to the canyon; you want to dig up some terraced steps to make it easily passable. You will risk straining your back and injuring the nerves in your arms again, which caused your hands to tingle last time you undertook such a project, but you are excited about it just the same, galvanized by the halcyon of time that stops while you work, and of the clear-headed tiredness afterwards.
When you are done, the path has been cleared of weeds and pea gravel that’d made you slip down the slope. You walk up and down the steps you had dug and spaced precisely to fit your stride, and you feel so proud you are giddy. You are thirsty. Dust crunches between your teeth, there’s dirt under your nails, and your clothes are itchy with poky stickers.
You undress in the laundry room before entering the house, tiptoe into the bathroom (trailing bits of leaves and sticks behind you) and get in the shower, your whole body feverish (soon to be sore) and muscles spasming. The hot stream beats pleasantly on your back, your scalp, your chest, and you break into goosebumps. The water washes away sweat and reddish dirt, dissolves your anxiety, and you stand there for awhile, still, hushed.
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