The black and gold cat they call Mountain Face is moving swift and low out of the dark line of the woods, down the hill and across the bleached grass lit pink by smoke filtered sun. The ominous taste is in my mouth, and the sky has not cleared for days. On my way up to the farm the radio said the fire is now the biggest in state history. I drive past the staging ground for the fire fighters, a dusty tent city on the north end of State street just before I turn west to drive the switchbacks over and down the tight ridges and canyons to get to this sixty five acres at the edge of the redwoods.
The old road between the one and the 101 is pitted and coming apart in fissures and chunks that surprise with a bone shaking bounce. I know the road- so I zip close and in control- slow for the big lumps that would throw me off.
The smoke is idle in the valleys all around- erasing rows of ridges to the east and west. At the peak above town I stop and take pictures of the disappeared mountains of the national forest, the smoke pouring slow, decadent and insistent. Its a bad acrid smell. It’s telling a tale, it’s giving evidence and can not be ignored.
Next day in the early morning I begin to work, before the heat of the day, I am reaching, then squatting and ducking, over and under a hedge of marijuana chest high. The flowers are ripe and sticky and the fingers of my left hand are thick with the plant’s resin. This is the beginning of harvest. The left hand holds, as tenderly as possible, the ripe full flower, creating leverage as the right hand finds the base of the stem of the biggest fan leaf and removes them one at time from the branches. Careful not to tear the plant, I can tell right away if the leaf will pull off with a twist or a pluck- it is a practiced move that first tests the resistance, the vitality of the hold of leaf to stem. I start from up above and then once I have thinned the big rough fan leaves, move down below to the understory. I practice being methodical and work my way from one plant to the next, down one side of the hedge, as far as my arms can reach, clearing all these leaves until the buds to be harvested are nearly naked, trembling from my touch in the sun. Weird stinking flowers, sparkling and gooey under hand, all beneath the fringy canopy of this clearing in the redwood forest, smoke taste in the back of my throat. At some point in my work I realize that it is time to cut the whole plant down. The bugs that feast on the largest leaves and build webs in the flowers, if given enough time and heat, are starting to make their move. The plants need to be cut down now before the valuable flowers are destroyed by the webs of the multiplying mites.
So the lead guys rustle up a helper for me and the two of us hack the branches off the plants until the pale woody stems are sticking up like boney fingers from the earth of the raised beds. Lars is working fast across the row from me, a big solid person with California all through his face. His smile is easy, his whole body done in broad golden colors, blue eyes sparking, his voice too, is home to me, deep and lilting, stoked, and at ease- with work, land, and himself. The branches, with the heavy sticky flowers, we pile in massive rubbermaid bins- breaking down two or three plants and stacking them this way, gently at an angle so the flowers are intact. Then we move into the shade, and buck them down. This means we take a branch and cut it into smaller pieces, pulling even more of the fan leaves until just the flower is left and the plant can dry on a hanger in the cool dark barn. Standing in the shade with the leaves building up in piles around my feet we work in teams, and the surfer boy working next to me chats me up nonstop. It is fun- we talk about all the far out stuff, Lumerians and mass extinctions, climate change and the changing world of the Marijuana economy. We trade UFO stories and fire predictions, we talk about the lights in the forest no one can explain, raising children in the wilderness and the pleasures of surfing. Time slides by and there is no phone to check up here. I listen to the shouts of the kids and the wheels of the skateboards on the half pipe under the redwoods. Chickens fluff and peck in the garden and the old one eyed dog named Einstein warbles and growls in his dusty dreams in the dirt of the driveway. Stretching suddenly and inexplicably getting up and nosing around my legs looking for a pat on the head, a blocky remnant of some rotteweiller line in him and he is a tough looking sweetheart. I watch him walk stiffly away looking for shade and I let my eyes wander over piles of plastic grow pots and stacks of heavy duty rubbermaids, irrigation tubing, pipes, wires, generator parts, a dirt bike partially tarped, a caged plastic fuel tank, an Audi sports car from the late 80’s, kids toys in a profusion of color and decay. The woods make the strongest impression but the sound of the generator kicking on reminds me of how dependent and tenuous the little foothold in the forest is, how linked to carbon capitalism these once underground operations really are.
I wanted to stay away. The pay is terrible these days and my past is thick around me up here, but the land is so achingly beautiful and the night so perfectly quiet and crusty with stars and the dreams that come while I Iay beneath that sky are so strange and strong, that I go back anyway. In the night I hear rustling, the green house plastic flapping, I see a red light that increases in intensity and then fades out in the little windows of the cabin where I lay my sleeping bag out. I feel so tired and so good up here, it feels like I could be abducted by aliens or the world could end and I would be alright with that. These woods make me want to disappear, they are so beautiful and strange.
I want to get away from the city and the confusion and the people and the feeling of incredible futility, the race towards our own annihilation that I observe every day from the windows of my apartment. Cars and trucks and buses hurtling as fast as they can through the block I live on, the only block on the road without a traffic light. Some mad urge is in play- to go as fast as one can through this one intersection before the next light catches you, demands you stop and wait. It is absurd to watch and it tells me all I need to know about the likelihood that we as a community, that we as a nation, that we as a global species will slow down enough to prevent the cataclysmic undoing of the delicate balance our climate rests inside- the precariousness of our ability to survive on this planet is willfully ignored in the rush to get to the next intersection, the next destination, the next whatever.
When I do return to the city I can think only of the trees and the smoke, both of which appear to be linked in an unfurling edge, a fractal line sparking and moving in the wind and the sun. Trees and smoke, the heat and dust, the dry burnt line of ridges still not healed from the fires that raged through Redwood Valley last year at this time. My friend Sean lost his home during that inferno, I know he stopped growing weed shortly thereafter. When I saw him this last time we sailed out into the Bay and looked north to see the double plumes of smoke rising from the fires in Mendocino this year, fires they say are the largest in California history. A beautiful sunny day, sparkling bay and porpoises racing beside us and he never mentioned that loss, even as the smoke up north thickened and crawled across the horizon in a gloomy yellow circle.