Soon after we arrived in Anderson Valley in 1957, my father nailed a couple of elk horns onto the trunk of an oak tree in front of our house. As elk weren’t part of the natural landscape then (though maybe they were in the 19th century), the rack must have been left behind by the previous owners of the property. One of the horns broke off years ago, but the oak is slowly engulfing the other as it deteriorates; the base and most of the first fork have now disappeared into living wood. The tree — estimated to be 300+ years old — looks little different than it did 50 years ago, but the disappearing horn shows how time passes, even in a natural world where change is slow.
The natural world in Anderson Valley would appear to the casual observer to have changed little during the past 50 years, when in fact it has changed considerably, primarily as a result of human activity. Much of the remaining big timber in the valley was harvested in the decade after I arrived with my parents in the late 1950s, leaving seriously compromised forests only now regaining their beauty. Some of that logged land was converted into vineyards, as were plenty of pastures and apple orchards, in all cases resulting in high fences and high water demand, both detrimental to the local ecosystem. Annual rainfall in the valley has gradually fallen over the years, the effects of which have yet to be fully seen.
To be fair, there have been a few changes for the better. The disappearance of logging mills in the valley and the regulations that require clean burning wood heaters have virtually eliminated smoke in the air. The precipitous decline in logging has reduced suspended sediment in the Navarro River and its tributaries during winter run-off (though, from my casual observations, silting raised the river bed of lower Rancheria Creek several feet between 1957 and 1988).
My parents’ property in Anderson Valley was situated in one of the most varied and beautiful corners of the valley; west of Navarro River near Hendy Woods State Park (or Hendy Grove, as it was known when we arrived). Yes, there were selective timber harvests on the property over the years and Douglas fir bark beetle caused the big firs to be felled in the decade after we arrived, but the forests, meadows and creek frontage were — and remain — largely uncompromised. Such also was the case in neighboring properties.
It is normal to be captivated by nature written big. I was fascinated by the big redwoods, towering firs (before they came down, we had several approximately four feet in diameter and 150 feet tall), big deer, mountain lions (almost never seen but leaving tracks), foxes (ditto) and bobcats (ditto), if occasionally frightened by the idea of them (usually while walking in pitch dark with a flashlight to and from chores).
But small elements of nature also captivated; a native snail with a sideways shell, valley quail whirring into flight, white and blue wild irises, the great blue heron that returned each year to nest near Indian Creek, brown newts in every creek, woodwardia ferns growing six feet tall in the hillside seeps, the occasional Navarro River turtle, a carpet of redwood sorrel beneath the trees in Hendy Grove, an undisturbed hillside meadow (comprised entirely of native grasses) and hundreds of baby toads on each sand bar along Rancheria Creek in late spring.
Deer were a constant. Originally shy, by the 1970s they had become very bold. They sometimes walked through the center of camp in broad daylight and regularly feasted on my father’s tomato plants — planted on a raised bed approximately 40 feet in front of our house — at night.
In the 1980s, wild pigs became a problem. They would tear up the ground as they fed, leaving a mess. Hunting helped control the population to some extent. After my parents sold their property, the new owners, who were serious “respect for nature” folks, asked my father’s advice on dealing with wild pigs. “Shoot them,” he suggested. Well, they couldn’t, because it went against their values. However, they came up with an alternative; they hired professional hunters to shoot them!
As far as I know, there were no brown bears in valley proper during my time in Anderson Valley, although Bear Wallow (situated west of Boonville) suggests they were present in previous times. A bear was shot near Comptche at some point in my time in the valley (late 1970s? early 1980s?) and — due to their wandering ways and a plentitude of open land — a population might again gain a foothold in the future.
Although I spend little time in Anderson Valley now, I’ve noticed some changes in the natural world. I never saw wild turkeys in the valley at any time between the late 1950s and the late 1980s and now I see them often. Coyotes were rare back then and now they aren’t; I had a close — too close — encounter with one last year. Deer seem less prevalent now than then, though during a recent visit I saw three — including a white one — grazing on a neighbor’s meadow.
One element I am reasonably certain hasn’t changed is the night sky. Anderson Valley was — and hopefully still is — a wonderful place to see the heavens. One the clearest nights I could see stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper and count nine stars in the Pleiades star cluster. Soon after we moved to Anderson Valley full-time, I bought a 3-inch reflector telescope and would spend long evenings looking at the moon, the planets and the stars. The only downsides were cold nights and big trees that often obscured my view.
In early 1986, a couple of years before my parents sold most of our land in Anderson Valley, I returned for a weekend to see Halley’s Comet. I knew the absence of close neighbors — and their lights — would provide a great view. Sadly, I was welcomed home by the caretaker’s German shepherd, which bit me so seriously I had to go to the hospital in Ukiah. So I missed seeing Halley’s Comet in Philo, though I did see it a week later from a viewing location near Napa. Truth be told, Halley’s Comet wasn’t very impressive that year, but I don’t expect to be around for its next return, in 2061. ¥¥