Behold the Sun (March 26, 2003)

“Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun.”

 — Ecclesiastes

In a few weeks my mother and I will be gone from Anderson Valley, a place I have lived in and loved for three decades. I just realized that I have lived nearly half of my life here. I have experienced some of the sweetest, and some of the saddest moments in this very special place. I prefer to remember the sweetest, thanks.

Most especially, I will remember the people. Next (and always close to my heart) the many animals I have been able to help toward a life in the wild, and the precious pets I have had here. I remember the day, ten years ago, when my mother moved to the house in the orchard after the death of my father, and how she threw herself into activities and service to our valley. Shortly after her move, I asked her how she could have so much enthusiasm after such a profound loss. Her answer was telling of Mom’s philosophy in general. She said, “Lee, you have to keep in mind that, always, when one door closes, another opens.” I try; I surely do.

This is a particularly lovely time of year in Anderson Valley. Every hill begins to green, the daffodils and other bulbs put on a show — as do the fruit trees, with their special palette of pastel blossoms. The birdsong returns and nesting begins in earnest. I watch from the deck as the resident does begin their annual waddling walk, and their bellies grow heavier with the next generation of ungulates. Some of the young will make it and some won’t, but may their kind always prevail in spite of human encroachment. What a pity, if someday one is no longer able to watch a deer meander under the shade of a tree on a hot summer day, or skim a tall fence with heart-stopping speed.

I hope the state of California will see clearly that they need to leave room for the likes of the black bear, the mountain lion and the desert tortoise. Also, that they will recognize the futility of trying to wipe out one of the greatest opportunists of all time, the coyote, whose name is Navajo, and means “God’s Dog.”

I hope all Western states can work together in order to make safe one of the great wonders of the sky, the California condor. I was awed, many years ago, to see one of the last wild condors in flight. Unless you have watched nine feet of feathered wing black out the the sun, you will not even begin to understand the thrill of that prehistoric pleasure. It was with great sadness that I read the original captive “mother” condor, who was released after successfully producing many young, was found dead in the state to which we are moving, Arizona. She had been shot. It is an unfortunate fact that ignorance knows no boundaries. It is also a glorious reality that beauty exists nearly everywhere on our planet.

* * *

Because of my father’s business as a dealer in books and artifacts of the early West, my parents spent a good deal of time in Tucson, Arizona, and made many friends there. I, too, visited it in the early years of my life and fell in love with its sometimes stark, but always astonishing beauty. I visited a place which had, at that time, been recently built in the Saguaro National Forest. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. By the way, if you have some preconceived notion that cactus is just some unlovely plant that grows in an unhealthy environment, travel to Saguaro National Forest someday, and look out over a seemingly unending vista of many shades of green and gold, punctuated by the mighty saguaros, their arms lifted toward the sky, almost as though in thankful prayer. I think it just might change your mind.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum changed me a bit. It was the first time I’d viewed Nature displayed in a way that wasn’t menagerie-like. It was truly a museum and I believe it prompted my pursuit of working with wild animals for my entire adult life. It has remained in my mind and heart. On a visit there with my son-in-law Steve this last January, we were both so enchanted we hardly noticed that the temperatures were in the 90s. In Arizona, you can barely walk 20 feet without a shady ramada and a drinking fountain with delicious icy water. We were there for over three hours. I was completely riveted by the extremely natural way in which the javelinas, the coyotes, the Mexican wolves, mountain lions and ocelots are allowed to roam. There is a butterfly garden, right out in the open, where one may sit under a ramada and watch as the colorful creatures come to take their fill of nectar from native flowers. The walk-in aviary is wonderful. I was in heaven. Steve said, “Mom, you belong here.” I agree.

On that trip in January, I bought a house for Mom and me in Northeast Tucson. It is a big place, with plenty of rooms for family and guests, and a huge apartment for Mom. We have a full acre right against the foothills where the Santa Catalinas join the Rincon Mountains. The place is as quiet as where we live now; birdsong abounds. We have air-conditioning for the scorching days of summer and a beautiful swimming pool, which is solar heated in winter. There is a variety of lovely cactus, and a few saguaros; one appears to be nearly 100 years old. We have a red Rio Grande grapefruit tree, laden with heavy fruit and an orange tree, Mom insists a Meyer lemon is a first priority.

With all of this, we are just minutes from supermarkets, drugstores, theaters, a fabulous library system and places where shoppers would probably faint with joy. The University of Arizona is a short drive from our home. My granddaughter, Heidi, who is graduating from CalPoly with a degree in psychology this June, will be doing some of her post-graduate work there, and has her own large room with us. The U of A has one of the best Ethology-Psychology Departments in the country. What a coincidence!

We have many friends in Tucson, among them, I must count my incredible real estate agent, Charlene Anderson. We formed an almost instant bond. For twenty years, Kurt and Elena Bjorkquist were our close neighbors and friends, then they moved to Tucson four years ago. Arizona is the place of Elena’s birth. Elena and I would often walk together, as we were less than a mile apart. Guess what? Yep, less than a mile apart! Mom’s and my friends, the Rosens and Kaplans have also moved to Northeast Tucson. We are forming an enclave; I believe we will call it Holmes Ranch South.

There is a lovely park with a natural lake and many easy paths for walking. It is a three-minute drive from our house. It is very peaceful there, and very clean. Though it is ideal for walking dogs, which everyone does, there are strict rules about you-know-what. Everyone carries bags and nobody seems to object. There is even a pebbled stream running through the park, so that on hot days, dogs can wade and have a drink. The surrounding paths are all natural desert and beautiful.

* * *

The day Steve and I arrived in Tucson, I thought, “What are we doing here? Do I really want to live here the rest of my life?” In the intervening days, something happened, I suppose you could call it “falling in love.” Tucson boasts 350 days of sunshine a year. It is hard to be depressed when one wakes to brilliant light all but two weeks of the year. In all of our wanderings, in and out of homes, offices, supermarkets, restaurants and shops, we never encountered one surly person. The day our plane took off, I could feel the tears stinging as the mountains drifted behind and the Yuma dunes appeared below us. I said a few silent words. Something to the effect of, “I’ll be back very soon. Don’t change.”

* * *

Buying, selling and moving are, I believe, more stressful than divorce or the death of loved ones (and, I’ve experienced them all). With the help of my friends, both here and in Tucson, and many members of my family, I am still here with boxes and duct tape and FRAGILE labels in hand. Dr. Mark Apfel has been a helpful mentor, as well as my physician. Giovanna Chacon, my friend and Mendocino County agent, has been very patient with my stress and has guided me professionally over the rough spots. As for Gene Herr, Erica Lemons and Christy Kramer, who patiently listened to my laments and tried to steer me away with humor and light talk, there aren’t enough thanks.

Without my mother, this change would not be happening, and she’s been very patient, which is admittedly her nature. As for my son-in-law Steve, what can I say? He’s there when you need him, and he is a grand human being.

I will continue to write, though in a slightly different vein, once we are settled. From time to time, with the permission of the editor, I will submit updates on desert life to my friends in Anderson Valley. In the meantime, as I pack away the treasures of a lifetime into cardboard boxes, I think of that song from my younger years. “Here Comes the Sun.”

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