The Skull with a Vacant Stare

In my last blog I explored how the Pond of Diamond Springs, California in the 1950s earned its Capital P. The Woods also earned a capital letter.

To get there I walked out the back door, down the alley, and through a pasture Jimmy Pagonni rented for his cattle. Tackling the pasture involved crawling through a rusty barbed wire fence, avoiding cow pies, climbing a hill, and jumping an irrigation ditch.

The journey was fraught with danger. Hungry barbed wire consumed several of my shirts and occasionally went for my back. Torn clothing and bleeding scratches were a minor irritation in comparison to fresh cow manure, however. A thousand pound grass-eating machine produces acres of the stuff. A well-placed hidden patty can send you sliding faster than black ice.

For all of its hazards, the total hike to the Woods took about 10 minutes. Gray Pines with drunken windmill limbs guarded the borders while gnarly Manzanita and spiked Chaparral encouraged the casual visitor to stay on the trail. Poison oak proved more subtle but effective in discouraging exploration.

I could count on raucous California Jays to announce my presence, especially if I was stalking a band of notorious outlaws. Ground squirrels were also quick to whistle their displeasure. Less talkative jackrabbits merely ambled off upon spotting me, put on a little speed for the hyper Cocker Spaniel, Tickle and became bounding blurs at the urging of the hungry Greyhound, Pat.

Flickers, California Quail and Redheaded Woodpeckers held discussions in distinctive voices I soon learned to recognize.

From the beginning I felt at home in the Woods, like I belonged. I quickly learned that its hidden recesses contained a multitude of secrets begging discovery. I was eager to learn these secrets but the process seemed glacial. It required patience and I hardly knew how to spell the word.

I did know how to sit quietly, however. This was a skill I had picked up from the hours I spent with my nose buried in books. The woodland creatures prefer their people noisy. A Curtis stomping down the trail, snapping dead twigs and talking to himself was easy to avoid while a Curtis being quiet might surprise them.

One gray squirrel was particularly loud in his objections. He lived in the top branches of a pine beside the trail and maintained an observation post on an overhanging limb. When he heard me coming he would adopt his ‘you can’t see me’ pose. But I knew where to look. I would find a comfortable seat and stare at him.

It drove him crazy.

Soon he would start to thump the limb madly with his foot and chirr loudly. He had pine nuts to gather, a stick home to remodel and a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed lady to woo. I was blocking progress. Eventually, if I didn’t move, his irritation would bring him scrambling down the trunk for a more personal scolding.

After about 10 minutes of continuous haranguing, he’d decide I was a harmless, if obnoxious aberration and go about his business. That’s when I begin to learn valuable secrets, like where he hid his booty.

It was also a sign for the rest of the wildlife to come out of hiding. A Western Fence Lizard might work its way to the top of the dead log next to me and do push-ups. Why, I couldn’t imagine. Or perhaps a Thrush would scratch up the leaves under the Manzanita in search of creepy tidbits.

The first time I heard one, it sounded like a very large animal interested in little boy for lunch.

Occasionally there were special treats: a band of teenage Gray Squirrels playing tag and demonstrating their incredible acrobatics; a doe leading its shy, speckled fawn out to drink in the small stream that graced the Wood’s meadow; a coyote sneaking up on a ground squirrel hole with an intensity I could almost feel.

I also started stalking animals.

Sometime during the time period between childhood and teenage-hood, I read James Fennimore Cooper and began to think I was a reincarnation of Natty Bumppo. Looking back I can’t say I was particularly skilled at stalking but at least I learned to avoid dry twigs, walk slowly and stop frequently. Occasionally I even managed to sneak up on some unsuspecting animal.

If the birds and the animals weren’t present, they left signs for me. There was always the helter-skelter pack rat nest to explore. Tickle made it a specialty, quickly sending twigs flying in all directions.

There were also numerous tracks to figure out. Was it a dog or coyote that had stopped for a drink out of the stream the night before? My greyhound knew instantly but I had to piece it together. A sinuous trail left by a slithery serpent was guaranteed to catch my attention. This was rattlesnake country.

Who’d been eating whom or what was another question? The dismantled pine cone was easy to figure out but who considered the bark on a young white fir a delicacy? And what about the quail feathers scattered haphazardly beside the trail.

Scat, I learned, was the tracker’s word for poop. It offered a multitude of clues for who had been ambling down the trail and what they had been eating. There were deer droppings and rabbit droppings and mouse droppings descending in size. Coyotes left their distinctive dog-sized scat but the presence of fur suggested that something other than dog food had been on the menu.

Some scat was particularly fascinating, at least to me. Burped up owl pellets provided a treasure chest of bones… little feet, little legs and little skulls that grinned back with the vacant stare of slow mice

While Tarzan hung out in the Graveyard and pirates infested the Pond, mountain men, cowboys, indians, Robinhood and various bad guys roamed the Woods. Each bush hid a potential enemy that I would indubitably vanquish. I had the fastest two fingers in the West and I could split a pine nut with an arrow at 500 yards.  I never lost. How could I?  It was my fantasy.

But daydreams were only a part of the picture.

I fell in love with wandering in the Woods and playing on the Pond. There was an encyclopedia of knowledge available and a multitude of lessons about life. Learning wasn’t a conscious effort, though; it was more like absorption. The world shifted for me when I entered the Woods and time slowed down. A spider with an egg sack was worth ten minutes, a gopher pushing dirt out of its hole an hour, and a deer with a fawn a lifetime.

Next blog: Back to Burning Man… A Cast of Characters

2 comments on “The Skull with a Vacant Stare

  1. Pingback: Searching for God In All the Wrong Places | Wandering through Time and Place

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