Acorn Woodpeckers and the End of the World

(Smoke in the air)

No matter how insane the world, I would always have Mother Earth to retreat to. I have lost everything I have ever cared about, literally. About ten years ago, I was slammed with the loss of the love of my life, my mother, then my home and business burned down in a catastrophic natural and National disaster– wildfire.  I was minding my own business at the time.

I went to a Buddhist monastery, to deal with the grief which you never really “deal with” except to say you figure out how to be the new person you become after loss. All those grief books that refer to “getting over” grief and “recovering” from grief seem to think living life and experiencing loss that comes with living life is some kind of disease you “get over.” It infuriates me. Don’t read books like this if you are grieving. They can damage you. The deal with loss is it is part of your evolution as a human being and is inevitable. It will change you. Imagine juggling with three flaming swords and someone throws you another one. You have to fit it in, another flaming sword…and you can never go back to your pre-flaming-sword juggling daze.

I am too young to have all the losses I have. In fact, it is ridiculous; and with this ridiculousness of loss comes constant memories.

Tonite it is of a man named Royce, a naturalist from San Diego County, CA. It was spurred by a few cackling acorn woodpeckers on my oak tree by the watering station I set up for parched wildlife. Acorn woodpeckers always make me think of San Diego, where I started out as a field biologist, an amazing, or it was, place of endemic plants and animals, desert and coastal sage scrub, and Foster’s Point…though I cannot go there anymore since the USFS cut down one of the most magnificent Jeffrey Pines in the forest–a giant beast of a tree, maybe 200 feet tall, 60 inches circumference, dead, but stuffed with thousands and thousands of acorns, shoved in by acorn woodpeckers. Acorn woodpeckers are the keystone species of entire ecosystems. Where they put their acorns, many other species show up–jays, rodents, raccoons, foxes, quail…they build ecosystems, acorn woodpeckers do (“wacka, wacka, wacka” in the background as I type). In one day, the USFS destroyed this legacy — a loss and tragedy of immense proportions instigated by some idiotic employee of the USFS — for “fire safety.” Then they kept going–destroying pristine ecosystems up and down this same mountain–a spectacular and tragic waste of your tax dollars because, guess what, these areas burned anyway and instead of native plants coming in behind the fire, now it’s cheatgrass. It’s not “fire safety”, it’s ecosystem extirpation in the NAME of fire safety demonstrating yet again the arrogance that is human beings going into places they do not belong then blaming the environment.

This tree was in the woods, where it belonged.

Houses in floodplains…houses in paths of tornadoes…Arrogance of the highest order but no worries, the earth is having her say and will boot us off her hide like the planetary fleas we are…

But back to Royce–a bear of a man who loved the “outback” of San Diego County, dare I claim it has any but the space between Julian and and Warner Springs, CA south to the desert comes close. His white Jeep Cherokee was filled with field equipment, cages for reptiles, field guides, butterfly nets, plant presses, and God knows what else. You couldn’t drive a mile without him stopping to get out and look at something, usually a snake he would return with, a bear smile on his face (“don’t worry. It’s just a gopher (snake)”). He would use these critters (and yes, he was permitted to do so by all the right agencies) to teach people–Boy Scouts, random kids and adults, school kids–anyone–about his love–his love for the biodiversity of our planet. His passion…I will never meet a man like Royce again because they don’t make men like him anymore.

Melanoma took him and fast. Somewhere in there, he professed his love to me. I said no. I was a young girl and he was 20 years my senior…

Acorn Woodpeckers.

Stop the car. Dust from the road clouds up and drifts off. Get out. “Look at those clowns,” he says to me, laughing.

About the time Royce died, the USFS cut down the giant Jeffrey Pine full of acorns and “brush cleared” the pristine chaparral around it. Under this bear of a tree and within this same pristine chaparral, a bear of a man taught hundreds, possibly thousands of kids and adults over decades about acorn woodpeckers. He taught them the name of every surrounding chaparral plant. He was gone, and now the landscape he loved and taught within was also gone. Not only did I grieve his quick death, I grieved the loss of the landscape he was connected to, and that he attached hundreds of people to–it’s an eco-system, after all–an eco-emotional system. We are allowed to love the land like we do one another, last I checked, and in fact, we are supposed to.

We stand underneath an old oak full of perfect holes. He tells me that perhaps no animal personifies “family values” (remember all that crap?) like the Acorn Woodpecker—it builds large colonial connections around a single tree. Generations and generations build their existence around a single tree into which they cache their acorns–then everybody shows up (you know how they are)–sisters and brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles—all around one tree. Pretty soon, other species press in, an ecosystem in the making. I wrote this already but where did I learn this? From him, on this day, at this particular time, outside Warner Springs, San Diego County, CA.

So tonite, holding my glass of wine, standing in the smoke of yet another California fire, they descend around my watering station. Five Acorn Woodpeckers, cackling to one another, loudly, one lifts while the other lands, discussing…their clown faces…and I think of Royce.  I think of the near certainty of our planet–that in 100 years, we may not be able to stand above ground, the goddamned selfish human species, taking it all with it, including the splendid Acorn Woodpecker. I think of Royce, leaning back, laughing…

and I feel sad.  So it is, I need to take it all in while I still can, this precious window of time I am looking through that my own species is arrogantly throwing rocks at, breaking the windows, destroying something so precious. Here’s to you Royce–to your memory. Maybe you got out at a good time because watching this planet I love so much go down…it would have killed you. It’s killing me.