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In Animals, Seasons on December 31, 2018 at 7:56 pm

A light rain fell last evening.  Intermittent puddles line the bottom of the irrigation ditch.  The path alongside the ditch is damp and near muddy where vegetation has never taken hold in the alkali crusted soil.  As the alkali eases, small lime-green ground hugging plants keep mud from building up on boot soles.  The small plant doesn’t show up before nights cool down into the twenties.  Might the cold trigger their growth?  I wonder as I hunch in the cold and scan ground more than horizon.  I should have got down on my knees and drawn leaf details long ago so I could identify the plants.  Probably laziness on my part, but I’d rather think there is greater beauty in the not knowing.  I certainly have never enjoyed the beauty of poison oak as I did during my first fall introduction. Green with a tint of red, the oak’s beauty calls for closeness and touch.  I traded beauty for warning a day later when I learned what the oaks red does to skin.  Perhaps it is best to learn what that ground-hugging plant is all about, what its official scientific name is, but I leave pencil and paper in pocket and walk on to live with tomorrows conversational awkwardness of describing this moment with, “well, you know, those little green plants that lie on the ground when it gets cold.”

I seldom negotiate my way down the slope of the irrigation ditch. After untold millions of gallons of water over the length of the irrigation season the ditch never dries out before the next season.  Should one be foolish enough to slide sown the ditch bank they would find a muddy bottom that builds up on the bottom of one’s boots.  At about two inches thick the journey becomes tedious.  More so when the clump of mud breaks off it leaves one walking as if wearing a pair of high-heeled shoes with one heel missing.  Better to figure the ditch bottom is best left alone until after the first hard freeze.

Other life has a different opinion.   A scattering of footprints travel the length and crisscross the ditch. Someone has spent a good time in the bottom of the ditch, but from atop the ditch bank the individual tracks are hard to make out.  Clean, clear tracks are best in a little mud.  And the scattering of tracks is as attractive as any red tinted leaf.  I slide down the ditch bank.  Only to have my feet slide out from beneath me.  I fall back and use the rest of the bank as mud slide to the bottom.  Once at the bottom and now that the seat of my pants is muddy I find little reason not to take a closer look.  Sitting in the mud I see a mass of small thin three fingered tracks.  Quail have been using this spot as a crossing.  Preferring walking down, across, and up the ditch bank rather than flying across.  From time to time there are the larger thicker three fingered tracks carrying a heel of the pheasant.  Slightly different in scale, at least one cock and two hen pheasants have visited the ditch.  Mice, even in soft mud, leave the slightest of foot prints.  A set of tracks with an even slighter line, from a droped tail, between the prints tell where one walked down the center of the ditch.  Mud now drops off my soles and a set of rabbit prints cross the ditch.  Deeper than the others, this one is doing nothing but crossing to the other side.

Downstream the ditch arrives at a culvert.  A raccoon left the ditch a stone’s throw from the culvert. The tracks show the racoon entered the ditch at the culvert, walked the centerline, dropped deeper with each step and finally gave up where I encountered the tracks.  Walking on down the ditch my mud soles are half again as wide as my foot and I obliterate the five-finger hand shaped tracks with each step.  The culvert is surrounded by rocks from top to bottom to keep it from washing out during the water season.  The rock is broken with rough edges.  Choosing rock over mud, the raccoon made its way down the rocks to the ditch bottom and then ventured out.

Racoon wisdom is as good as any and I use the culvert rock to climb out of the ditch.  As I climb, hand and foot, I use the rock edges to scrape mud from boot soles.  Still on my hands at the top, scrapping mud, I notice a light trail leaving the ditch in the bank grass.  Following the trail to a fenceline, I push the third barbed wire from the top down.  Squeezing through my back catches on a barb on the second wire.  I back out the way I came, push and lean down a little more, and make it on through.  A few feet on the other side of the fence another trail meets the one I’m following. The racoon doesn’t go by way of the ditch often, the other trail forming the top of the trail Y is beaten down much more.  Taking the main trail (the tail of the Y), the grass is beaten down into a green path. After a short bit the trail turns sharply and drops into the ground.

Two other slighter and occasionally used trails also arrive at the drop making it a wide mouth slope.   Twelve inches down it levels out.  Head to ground investigation tells why the raccoon made this drop into the ground a home.  At the bottom is concrete culvert running east to west.  Eight inches round, the culvert extends far enough that all one can see is black.  Thinking it best to leave well enough alone, I choose not to extend hand and arm into culvert darkness to see if the end of it is reachable.  Standing up with new eyes for the topography, I can now see that at one time some farmer placed the culvert to divert water from their irrigation tail ditch into a drainage ditch.  No one has farmed this ground for a good fifty years.  Though the culvert has not seen water for half a century, it has served another purpose well.  Home to a good and varied number of critters.

Fog’s settling in.  A breeze has come up.  Air water makes the cold a little colder.  The breeze blows a single stem of dry brown grass into the culvert drop off. It lies a few inches from the rim. As the breeze keeps churning grasses above, the single brown leaf doesn’t move.  A good warm winter home I think lifting my collar against the breeze. The thought has me think of a warm fire back home.  Ahead lies the trail I figured on taking.  Off to my left lies open brush country which if taken would mean a rougher walk but I would also return home a half an hour sooner.  Looking at the brown leaf, imagining a raccoon warm in a culvert home, I swing northeast and leave the trial behind.

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  1. Dave: You evoke the feeling of winter in a powerful way. I lived in the country for the first ten years of my life and on the rural fringe of the city for another five and thus have some sense of mud, plants, and birds and beasts, but never had quite the immediacy that you describe in this post. Keith

    Keith Watkins Church Historian and Open Road Cyclist

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Keith. I remember living at the edge of LA, just outside the San Fernando valley and each winter geese would make a reservoir down the road home. Today I wish I had paid more attention to what was going on around me earth wise rather that worrying so much about creating a business. Yet, thanks to you and folk like you, I enjoy closer attention today.

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