Birdsong, or The Next Child In The Forest

When you’re hiding from a pandemic, the last thing you would expect to worry about would be death by cow. And yet, here we were, face to face with about 20 cows, not 30 yards away. And their moos were decidedly unfriendly.

As a Montana native, I am obviously acquainted with cows, have no beef with them (literally, because I don’t eat red meat), but they’ve always been on the other side of a stout fence. 

You forget just how big cows are until you’re  hiking in a nature preserve that doubles as a working ranch. 

Let me back up, though, much as we did with the cows. After a month of sheltering in place, we were all feeling a bit cooped up – except, ironically, for our chicks, who are still small enough for a cardboard box and whose official coop isn’t quite finished. 

“Let’s go for a hike,” Marina suggested. 

“Where?” I asked suspiciously, as if she’d suggested a game of tag with the entire neighborhood, sans face masks.

It’s not that I don’t love hiking; it’s just that I’m a big fan of Newton’s Laws of Motion. My body at rest tends to stay at rest, preferably with a good book and a couch.

But hiking is in my blood. While I didn’t hunt, fish, or ski growing up in Montana, I hiked a lot in canyons and fields, crossing streams and passing under pine trees that must have been a couple hundred years old. I floated the rivers on inner tubes, and generally spent a lot of time roaming the fields around our house. I even memorized the song of the Western Meadowlark by heart, just because I heard it every spring morning. 

Birdsong is that old friend you take for granted who slowly vanishes from your life; you don’t even realize he’s gone until you figure out you’re no longer friends on Facebook. 

Where we live, you’re more likely to hear the traffic from Interstate 5 than to hear birdsong. You can still find it; you just have to know where to go. And Marina, who grew up a Girl Scout in the Sacramento area, always knows where to go.

When you think of California, you probably think of the ocean and freeways and massive cities; but the rolling grasslands and oak forests at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas are just as Californian as anything else, but you have work a little harder to get to them.  

We drove through the weird stretches of unincorporated Sacramento County along Highway 16. Tractors abandoned in partially-mowed fields like something out of American Gothic; sprawling gravel merchants; barns of rusted steel; massive fruit pavilions with picnic tables and enough parking for a high school football game; the kind of big rural “Slavic” churches who ignore health orders and get shutdown by the state after Coronavirus blooms in their congregation; wild turkeys feeding at the side of the road.

Deer Creek Hills is a nature preserve and working cattle ranch run by the Sacramento Valley Conservancy, including docents on horseback, located 30 minutes east of Sacramento in the community of Sloughhouse. 

You bounce down a dirt road gnarled by the roots of massive trees, cut through by stream beds, dry and stony this time of year. In the wet season, you can’t make it all the way to the parking lot without the right vehicle. (Paloma was mad we didn’t get to drive through water this time, the way she did when she and Marina went once before). 

Wide-open undulating grasslands, California Blue Oak woodlands, and seasonal creeks. Entrance is strictly limited, especially now during the pandemic. We were lucky to get one of the few reservations for a self-guided tour available that sunny morning. 

It’s so quiet when you reach the parking lot, you can feel the silence pressing on your skin.

 P grabbed Marina’s hand and charged ahead. She loves exploring and noticing things like interesting bugs in the dirt, especially when that means putting off doing school work for Distance Learning. 

I wouldn’t say P is pushy, but she won’t hesitate to manually adjust your position on the horizontal axis if she feels she should be leading the hike in your stead. 

And so we walked, with P in the lead and eager to point out every patch of cow poop to avoid. 

An oak tree against a blue sky, old, from another century, before the Gold Rush and Sutter’s Mill. It’s another California, but  one you shouldn’t ignore. 

It’s empty, clear, open, limitless. The kind of space that makes a kid just want to GO. Which is the point, really. 

You just want to go. 

The cows don’t like that much, though, all that going. There are plenty of signs to beware the cows, which is not a thing you normally hear (although I have to say The Angry Cows would be a great name for a band). 

As we wound our way through a grassy basin, we found our path arcing towards a milling mass of bovines. 

They noticed us. They stopped milling, stared fixedly, mooing restively, with the occasional chuff of dissatisfaction. 

“Let’s be sure to veer over this way,” I said, walking as casually as Han wanted Chewie to fly in Return of the Jedi. 

We may be cows, the moos seemed to say, but we can run. We will sit on you.

It’s not that I was scared of the cows. (“Yes, you were,” says Marina). I just have a healthy respect for them. (“No, that was me,” says M). They’re very large. 

But that’s life for you. You have to deal with the menacing cows, whether literal or metaphorical, to find … well, whatever you need to find.

So no, we weren’t murdered by cows, at least not this time. As we moved on, they eventually turned away and resumed doing whatever it is that cows do when people aren’t watching, which I’m starting to suspect might be a little shady.

We crossed a creek bed, came around a bend and entered a grove of oak trees, perfect for a picnic. We sat on a blanket, ate apples and cheese sandwiches, drank water, and watched red-winged blackbirds chase  each other from tree to tree. 

Paloma ran in circles and then rolled sideways along the hill. That’s what she does. Where other kids roll down the hill, she rolls along the side of it. 

And when we stopped, for a moment, we heard this: 

The quiet and the music poured over us, like a river of air. It was a moment where Coronavirus never existed, where taxes, and politics, and climate change never existed. 

And it made P smile, a child excited to be among the trees again.


And now the pitch. 

Open spaces like this are rare and precious things. They need volunteers, and they need money. Since you’re sheltering in place, you’re probably not spending as much as you would like on movies, booze, gas, etc., so why not donate $25-$50 to the Sacramento Valley Conservancy, or a similar cause? That way there can be open spaces and birdsong for everyone to enjoy when life finally gets back towards normal. 

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