A Winters Tale: The Other Contagion-Spring Fever

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I never thought I’d find myself wishing for rain. I’ve never liked the rain. Growing up in Phoenix, there wasn’t much of it anyway. Later in life, while working in Portland, I became accustomed to a kind of permanent light drizzle, biding my time until I could transfer to a sunnier place. Now, firmly ensconced in the countryside of Winters, I along with all of my neighbors can think of nothing we’d appreciate more, after six weeks of sunshine than a good drenching. This past weekend, we got some but could use a little more. The wildflowers we planted in our backyard have barely pushed upward through the surface of the earth. A solid soaking, followed by a few sunny afternoons, and the views from our kitchen window should be in technicolor. Any showers at all will soften up the already cracking top layer of soil, making it easier to plant our olive trees, not to mention the digging I’ll have to do to lay in some new irrigation lines. My first-time cover crop of beans, peas, and oats could also use a drink.   Ankle deep in some places, knee-high in others, the field should explode after a few more showers, barely in time for the plants to be plowed under, sacrificing themselves to give nitrogen to the soil. The field itself has changed from a kind of feedlot for small birds and wild turkeys, who enjoyed eating the freshly sown seeds. I chased many of them away the old fashioned way by banging a pot with a wooden spoon.  Now, the vegetation has become a cool hiding place for the jackrabbits, who wait until the very last second to spring up and dash away when I make my daily rounds. More social distancing, I suppose. Rain or shine, the plant and animal life in Winters is infinitely more pleasing than that which surrounded us for decades in Los Angeles.  Down there, the flora are palm trees, the fauna are mostly two-legged, extremely self-involved and heavily tattooed. Here, Judy and I walk to a neighbor’s property each morning with a handful of carrots for their two donkeys, Butch and Sundance.  We have renamed them Peppe and Gigi, because they remind us of two of our friends in Sicily, journalist Peppe Savá and photographer Gigi Nifosí. Some days, the donkeys are stubborn and refuse to bolt down the hill to greet us, and so we shrug and move on.  There is always more to see. Our friends, Lauren McNees and Lee Millon called the other day with a birth announcement. Two lambs had arrived that morning. Would we like to meet them?   Each newborn had a distinct personality, one skittish, the other bold.   Trust me, your problems will melt away quickly when you cradle a lamb in your arms. They smell sweet and gamey at the same time. This is a magical time of year. My friend Bruce Rominger talks wistfully about these first few weeks of the season during which the oak trees begin transforming themselves from skeletal figures, arms naked, into green or blue-green summertime giants. Barely two weeks ago, our beloved oak was leafless.  Then right on schedule, it began to blossom, first at the apex, then daily moving downward until the lowest branches were nearly full. In no time she will once again be that same majestic tree we fell in love with during the summer we discovered Winters.   As plant life explodes around us, the birds continue their springtime rituals.  It is mating season for the turkeys, which means the males are puffing out their tail feathers. They prance around like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, while the females giggle and swoon.   They are no longer interested in my cover crop. More western bluebirds and tree swallows should be dropping in soon, thanks to our friend Manfred Kusch, who arrived the other day with three handmade nesting boxes, which we affixed to the trees in our yard. I consider this gift to the birds as avian affordable housing. And so, as we humans hunker down, the animal kingdom couldn’t be busier.  The other morning, our dog Mizzica began growling and pawing at the base of our refrigerator. I pulled her away, only to discover that a tiny frog had somehow made its way inside our house. I scooped it up and returned it to the wilds of our backyard. As I did, I thought about this special time of year, and how the natural world always finds a way to replenish itself. In these anxious days of fighting over toilet paper at Costco, and sanitizing every touchable surface, it might do us all a little good to simply drive or take a walk in the countryside around Winters. Quarantines permitting.]]>

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