Living Deep in a Redwood Canyon

Redwood forest canyon, Felton, California. H Grimes, Flickr

Redwood forest canyon, Felton, California. Credit: H Grimes, Flickr

After moving 50 times in 50 years, I finally settled down in a deep redwood canyon, across a potholed single lane road from a large state park. Eleven years later, my wife and I are still discovering the hidden treasures in our little 0.44-acre property. Compared to the cities and suburbs we lived in before, the days, nights and years are quite different here.

Soon after we moved here, I thought we might have made a terrible mistake. It was mid-December, and even when it wasn’t cloudy, we only got an hour and a half of sunlight. Now from late fall through mid-winter, we still don’t see much of the sun – it’s blocked by the fog, hides behind the canyon walls and gets tangled in the thick, tall trees.

But after a few years of looking and listening and learning, we’ve come to appreciate our small slice of temperate rainforest.

Days

As soon as I step out the front door in the morning, I can hear a menagerie of birds singing away, all around but out of sight.

Retrieving the morning newspaper at the bottom of the driveway, I listen for water rushing downstream in the creek at the bottom of the canyon. The first sounds of splashing usually mark mid-winter, when we’ve finally gotten enough rain.

That’s also when we can reliably track bright yellow banana slugs (no, not that kind) as they slowly crawl across our sidewalks, driveways, walls and doors, leaving their enigmatic trails slimed across barren landscapes. We’ve joked about giving them names, but it’s hard for humans to tell one from another.

On the nicer days, we hang out on our back deck, with pleasing views of the small meadow behind our house, surrounded by tall trees. We’ll hear, and barely see, tiny little birds chirping a few feet away, flitting from branch to branch.

Sometimes when we’re lounging outside, a hush will suddenly fall across the forest. We’ve learned to keep quiet and look closely for slow movement. It usually means a bobcat or mountain lion is prowling through the woods, scaring all the other critters into silence.

We’ve been lucky enough to see a mountain lion creeping through our back yard in broad daylight. Twice. We’re comfortable sharing the mountains with these pouncing pumas, but our friends who live safely in suburbia think we’re nuts.

Feisty little bobcats have made several appearances, sometimes on the ground, sometimes perched in the trees. We don’t bother them, and they don’t bother us – most of the time.

But on a couple of evenings, chills ran down my spine as bobcats howled from overhead perches a few yards from our front door.

From our deck and windows, we’ve watched many generations of black-tailed deer grow up from small, spindly-legged spotted fawns to multi-pointed bucks and pregnant does, calmly munching their way through our gardens. We can’t scare them away from inside the house; running outside, shouts and claps might send them bounding a few yards up the hillside, only to return a few minutes later.

The California quail seem to come and go from year to year, but this year we hit the jackpot. We watched three different quail families raise their broods, hatched a couple of weeks apart in the spring, then peck around the yard for seeds and bugs. The little ones started out barely larger than a ping-pong ball, but by summer’s end, we couldn’t distinguish them from their full-grown parents. We also watched their numbers shrink, no doubt succumbing to disease, drought, or predators, their tiny bodies transformed into fertile soil or bobcat muscle.

For most of the year and most of the day we listen to dozens of acorn woodpeckers chattering away. If we look closely, we can see their distinctive red tops as they cling vertically to dark brown redwood trunks.

On warm summer and fall afternoons, we can hear, and sometimes see, hawks screeching overhead, soaring on thermals, too high to identify, complaining about something we’ll never know about.

On those rare warm evenings when we can hang out on our patio without chills, we’ll hear coyote yip-yip-yips, barks and howls from across the canyon.

Nights

It can be so, so dark here after night falls. When we first moved here, we left all the outdoor lights on, re-creating our familiar suburban glow. But we grew to love the inky nights, and even covered up dozens of little LEDs around the house. We’ve become such fierce defenders of the darkness that we text our neighbors when they accidentally leave a porch light on.

Before moving here I marked the hours and the passing seasons by watching constellations like Orion appear and disappear in the night sky. I always knew the moon’s phase, and my aging eyes – helped by strong eyeglasses – could barely make out the Pleiades.

Now, between the canyon walls, the giant redwoods, and the ubiquitous evening overcast, I go weeks at a time without seeing the moon at all; seeing Orion is almost a surprise; and I can’t remember the last time I saw the Pleiades.

Lunar eclipses used to be an excuse to go outside for a natural light show. But every eclipse since we’ve moved here has been nothing more than a fading glow behind swirling clouds.

We’ve come to appreciate one aspect of being outside after dark in a forest. From late fall to early spring, we’re happy to hear unseen owls calling to each other: who-who-who WHO-WHO-WHO, deep into the evenings.

Years

We appreciate long-term changes much more after staying put for 11 years.

We take care of coast redwoods and coast live oaks and Douglas firs and madrones and native orchids and redwood sorrel. We remove poison oak and invasive non-natives like Himalayan blackberries and vinca and German ivy and pampas grass. Everywhere you look are ferns, ferns and more ferns. All of those grow and change and sometimes die through the years.

We’ve taken out about a dozen large trees in the past decade, and it still looks like we live in a dense forest. Now we get two hours of sun in mid-winter. Woo-hoo!

After decades of suburban environmental activism, redwoods were sacred to me. Now they are one step above a weed. I hack away at new stump sprouts and pull up seedlings, not wanting rapidly growing monster trees in the wrong places. Spindly redwood sprouts barely 20 feet tall when we arrived are over 50 feet tall now.

Within seconds of walking out the door we can tell if it’s really raining. Tree drip will keep going for hours after the rain stops. Or it might be dripping when there’s been no rain at all, fog condensing on redwood leaves, supplying one-third of the moisture they need.

We learned about the multi-year life cycles of oak moths as oakworms munched through the leaves of our oak trees. Last time around we swept up buckets of oakworms from our sidewalks while it was raining worm poop. If you spent any time outside, oakworms landed on your hair and clothing as they spun down from the trees on nearly invisible threads.

When our neighbor cleared his land, he gave us two cords of cut wood for our fireplace. We stacked it carefully to dry – and move it three times as we landscaped. Ten years later it’s slowly rotting away and I’ve tossed most of it down the hill to become part of the soil, because it never dried out enough to burn. It’s just too damp here.

Move or stay?

My wife and I frequently talk about moving away, mostly for the sake of change.

But over the last few years, our idea of the perfect spot has evolved to look a lot like where we live now – except with more sun.

We really like living in this peaceful, slightly wild, rural environment.

Maybe we’ll stay for a little while longer. And take out a few more trees.

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