As I read and prepare for my upcoming interview with Margaret Renkl, author of The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year, my memory synapses are triggered with images of my own personal encounters with wildlife. For instance, Renkl writes of her time—in what she describes as less than a cabin in the woods—“In the middle of the night hearing the rustle of furtive feet, a rat crosses the hearth of a fire’s dying to embers. Another rat sits up on the stack of firewood, its teacup ears pink and translucent. Each whisker ends in a point of light. It lifts its nose, testing the night, trying to decide what to make of me in my quilts, also sitting up, also watching from the shadows.”
This conjures a recollection of an all-night ritual gathering in a decaying, turn-of-the-century dance pavilion built in the middle of the woods on the property where we had taken custodial duties. Here, on the side of a small mountain, we enter another dimension. It turns out that this place of earth has not given permission for permanent human residence. Even before it became a spa-retreat in the 1880s for fashionable visitors arriving in their carriages, it was a refuge for the local indigenous Šóqowa people to hide from the Spanish who were indiscriminately slaughtering and removing them as they confiscated their homelands.
This is a place with a haunted history and if I narrow my eyes, I see a phantom remnant of women in their long, hooped skirts twirling round and round. If I look out into the surrounding woods, I can make out the embers of a fire pit warming the ancestor native peoples of this land as the mountain gave them refuge from the armed forces. The mystery of this land reaches out and touches me as I imagine their ghosts rising from those long-ago fires.
The gaze of rough and gnarly faces that dwell in the trunks of the oaks and madrone trees are the embodiment of the guardians of this sacred place.
At one end of this Victorian structure is a gurgling year-round spring and the dance floor is surrounded by a 2-foot stone wall. We knew there was a pack rat nest in one of the two dormers designed as an entrance and exit to the structure.
Burned in my memory, a companion cat from a fellow resident, a beautiful Abyssinian, joined us. In the middle of the night, on top of the stone wall, Camber, the cat, touched noses with a baby pack rat. She didn’t attack. They were more curious than aggressive toward one another in their meeting. It was a magical moment; one I will never forget.