Patches of Smoke and Light

Dusk and the flies bite

Sunlight now burning through the air as it feeds on wildfires.The idea that a creek is still running in such a hot place with flooded fields and wasted irrigation water within reach of the fish.

But look, a merganser family taking a stroll on the stagnant water seems just as curious as I in the beaver’s frantic chewing of slimy wood.

Heads bent into the water, they watch the underwater movement as if to suggest

the beavers are up to no good.

Emily Creely
Taylorsville, CA

The above poem is one my sister Emily wrote, probably right after taking her daily ramble through the town and environs of Taylorsville, the small town that she lives in. Taylorsville is located in a region of the Northern Sierras called the Indian Valley. It is a lovely place. About 150 people live in Taylorsville at an altitude of 3,547 feet. To visit Taylorsville, you drive east out of Chico, leaving Butte County behind you and entering Plumas County, California’s least populated county. You proceed up the Feather River canyon, through which the Feather River glides. The river is girded with vintage-looking hydroelectric equipment that belongs to PG&E. The sight of the long pipes and dams is both dismaying and impressive.

The Feather River does not run through Taylorsville: it is adjacent to the small town. Indian Creek does run through Taylorsville and hooks up with the North Feather River slightly northwest of where Emily lives. Before it does this, it meanders pleasingly through the long flat meadow which used to be, if I’m not mistaken, a water meadow or a marshy type of place or maybe just a valley with lots of water in it. Indian Creek was drained and pressed into use by the farmers and early agriculturalists back in the mid-1800’s, and is mostly used as pasturage. The meadow-pasture maintains a link to its watery past through the presence of spunky little Indian Creek and also the mosquitoes that come out at dusk and attack you. When you look east from Emily’s balcony, this long flat meadow/pasture is what you see first. Then you see Diamond Mountain to the east. The whole set-up is spectacular.

Indian Creek, of course, depends on California’s snow pack for filling its water column. This year, it was shorted grievously. California’s snow pack was minimal, a mere 40% of what it should be. California’s water situation is wildly changeable- it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous – and although 2011 was a banner year for water in our state, 2012 sucked. “I’m really worried about the creek,” Emily confided to me on the phone in August of this year. “It’s…SO LOW.”

She hadn’t been worried two months earlier, in June. I visited her for a weekend, and on the last day of my stay, she took me on an expedition through Indian Creek. We left her house on foot, carrying an inner tube, and walked through the dry meadow to the edge of the creek. “Are you sure there’s no Giardia in here?” I asked suspiciously (where there are cows, there is Giardia.) I could have sworn that I asked her about Indian Creek’s status as a swimming hole and thought she’d pooh-poohed the idea. “No. It’s fine,” she said. “Get in the water.” I did, and before long she and I were swimming, and/or walking, depending on the depth of the water, in the creek. It was magical. We did this for a mile or so under the hot sun, and walked home afterwards, with the inner tube slung around my neck, like heedless teenagers. It was a scene Ray Bradbury would have understood and written about: the idylls of two sisters, me and Emily, floating down the creek, looking at the swallows, shooting tiny rapids on an inner tube and speaking in short sentences about anything at all. And then walking home in the golden afternoon light: tired and sunburnt, we were happy.

Two months later, Emily got worried. Her worry sounds a note in the second sentence of her poem, which reads thusly: “The idea that a creek is still running in such a hot place with flooded fields and wasted irrigation water within reach of the fish.” (This is an unfinished sentence, likely to be concluded in a future conversation about the fate of Indian Creek.) But it’s an interesting and complex worry, because of the faint note of hope that is nested within it. Indian Creek, water-starved, is in a precarious situation. But it’s still running, and it’s still a going concern for the animals it supports: crawdads, merganser ducks and, wonder of wonders, a beaver family. Chewing wood. Making a dam. Whew.

Talk about precarious: Beavers are not a sight to be taken for granted because A. they were driven to the point of near-extinction during California’s “fur rush” in the nineteenth century, and B. Beavers still suffer terribly from the loss of their habitat, as creeks, streams and other waterways get diverted for flood control purposes or simply drained to provide water for irrigation during dry years.

This is what happened this year to another lovely little creek in California. Bear Creek, which flows through the Central Valley town of Merced, California is the only other creek I’ve ever seen a beaver swimming in. But earlier this year, because of the drought, my husband and I walked on Bear Creek’s dry bottom, picking up freshwater clam shells and wondering where the hell the water was. (In the nearby agricultural fields of Merced was the answer. There were no beavers to be seen that day.)

The unfinished sentence of Emily’s poem contains an implicit question: Indian Creek, what’s up? What will things be like for you in the spring? Will you still be able to host ducks and beavers? What are we supposed to prepare ourselves for, what dénouement, what finale, what plot twist?

What plot twist? That’s really the issue. As we hurtle toward change, the soundness of my environmental vision-what I think I’m looking at versus what I’m really looking at-has suddenly become grippingly important. I am a querent of California’s landscape. The questions tumble out of me at places like… Malakoff Diggins, for example: is the side of that barren slope so denuded of vegetation because of wind and rain and the work of time or is it because of the water monitors that scoured it back in the eighteen hundreds?

One week ago, at Hoyt’s Crossing in the South Yuba State Park, I thought a beloved swimming hole was a bit lower than it should be. The banks and flanks of the river basin were more exposed. Is this okay? Is it because of Spaulding dam? The lack of a snow pack?

How am I supposed to know what’s normal, what’s exceptional? What should be? What shouldn’t be? What the fuck?

The climate and the meteorological conditions that affect the delicate balance of fire and water in California are changing and because they are changing so rapidly, my sister and I (me, far more than Emily. She’s a scientist and can read the environment in a way I can’t) are having to reassess what it is we “know” about California’s environment, built and natural. Emily’s anxious-yet-hopeful question is not simply addressed to the creek, but also to the mountains, rivers and lakes, grasslands and coastal areas of California. Are you a going concern or not? Are you going to dry up and die and take the busy beaver with you or not? How will things change? Can we stop things from happening?

Maybe that’s where the lore of naming places and attaching events, personages and ideas to a creek, or an entire state starts: asking the right questions. As a struggling dinnseanachai (a narrator who tells stories about the place I live) my stories and Emily’s are prefaced by questions. To California, my sister and I want to know: Which questions should we ask? Which stories should we tell?

San Francisco, 2012