The harsh, grating sounds of a flash flood warning were blaring for the second time over the radio midafternoon Saturday when I decided to go out and check on the nearby creeks. One runs though our property, another through the neighbor’s, and then there’s the creek (bed) I cross every day as I walk my regular route to school.
Paradoxically, there was a lull in the rain, barely a sprinkle, and I didn’t really need the umbrella I’d brought along just in case.
Our creek was flowing steadily, but not high enough to be of concern; the same was true of the other two, although the one at the far end of the trail near campus was flowing faster (and louder) than I’d seen in a year. My fears assuaged, I made my way home. The California newts I keep track of have re-emerged for the wet season, and two crossed my path on this day, a bonus.
I had plans to pick up a friend for an event that afternoon, and so I’d been in a hurry, not stopping to observe much or savor the time. Even so, I’d ventured farther than I originally intended. By the next morning, luckily, the rain had abated again, and I took off with my dogs for another look – crossing the road, traversing my neighbor’s property, and then hopping the fence onto the school’s nature trail.
The dogs nosed around joyfully while I breathed in the moist clean air. What a difference these last few storms had wrought! As late as October, this walk had felt and smelled and sounded completely different, so excruciatingly dry that my nostrils bristled and each step crinkled and crackled under my boot.
I remember the sound of the parched and withered buckeye tree in a breeze, rustling and swaying, on the verge of disintegrating into a fine dust. I took a desiccated leaf in my hand and it crumbled.
There was no green, not really – even the trees that had still been in leaf, the oaks, for instance, seemed to be on view through a sepia filter, all colors muted and dull. They were just towering skeletons, stiff and lifeless, leaning over in exhaustion, cowed by the drought.
They formed a crinkly canopy, fading from dull green to crisp shades of brown – not even brown, but rather verging on colorlessness. Even the few “evergreen” trees were not really green anymore; one pine tree, injured with a gash on its side, seemed to be bleeding out in slow motion, not enough moisture left in the sap to allow it to flow out and freely down the trunk.
The bright yellow blossoms of the hardy and odoriferous tarweed provided the only real color in this parched landscape.
But now, on this cloudy day between the storms, the rains puddled in the low places on the trail, and I skirted around them. The earth was soft and pliable, accepting the contours of the soles of my new boots. We passed by coyote scat in a mushy pile.
Buckeye seeds lay scattered in the rich, damp loam below their parent tree, half buried in the decaying leaves. Only the skeletal remains of the previously vibrant tarweed still stood, having lost their color, scent and stickiness. Where they had provided the only real color before, now the sprouting grasses and miner’s lettuce formed a blanket of lush sparkling green.
On the trail itself, in the sections where the water had already receded, the deep red and black leaves that were left behind formed a curious pattern, layered in a way that suggested they’d been placed in a purposeful and symmetrical series of curves, overlapping like lines of toppled dominoes.
The rain had led the trees to continue their seasonal shedding; joining the fallen leaves were broken branches, acorns, pine cones and fallen limbs.
We ambled on, and I kept my eyes out for another newt, taking in the clear signs of transition from decay to new life, from old growth to new. It was the lull in the storm, and we took it all in.
Beth Linder Carr of Tollhouse teaches English and drama at Sierra High School. Write to her at email@example.com.