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Rain Language

By Brandon Downing

It’s February 21st, 2017.

We woke this morning to the obnoxious sun. We’re about to see what the latest terrifying rains did to our land and the river last night.

We’re deep in the Redwood Empire of Northern California, on my family’s farm, a rough paradise I’ve been coming to regularly for the last 35 years. Like most of the state, Humboldt County—among the wettest in California—suffered from five consecutive, paralyzing years of drought, until one cool night this past November when the sky literally opened up for something like 96 of the next 100 days. It was only this morning, almost literally, that the sky dawned cool and clear and blue, the better to show us what the storm had done. More than 120 inches of rain in barely three months, and while that’s easily measured in a graduated cylinder, it takes daylight to get a real sense of the wreckage. And last night, holy shit, was the craziest yet. Sixty mile an hour winds, which can paralyze a city, work even harder on dense second- and third-growth forest that surrounds the farm. It was a bracing scene. The noise!

This is the winter routine. Sit as close as you can to the wood-stove, throwing in the last bits of the season’s firewood, listening to the pounding rain, wondering if anything will be standing in the morning. Eventually this routine became a kind of poetics. I should explain. When I’d first come here as a teenage boy over winter break from junior high school, I would spend entire nights in bed listening to the whipping rain and to the insane noise of the frogs at the old farm pond down the hill from the house. In the early 1980s, the pond was still lined, and each rainy season would fill it overflowing with runoff. Towards the end of winter—now—the frogs would come out of hibernation and gather in and around the pond to socialize and mate by the thousands on rainy nights. The sound of that, in vibratory sheets of song, clashing with the rain, in the absolute country darkness, is one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard. Every four or five years, though, some sort of environmental trigger caused the frogs to multiply into what sounded like millions of individual voices screeching around the pond. The cycle would start the same: from a dead silence, three or four croaks would call out from around the shore in rhythm. Then a hundred or more would answer, both within the rhythm and breaking up the rhythm, and then thousands upon thousands more would answer that call, until there was this undulating wave of noise that blocked out anything else your senses could hear. For just about a minute. Then it would be completely still for another minute, before they’d start it up again. It’s not unlike what happens to your perception when you’re on a very strong hallucinogenic drug like Psilocybin or DMT. Like DMT, the noise cycles in your head, layer upon layer upon layer, until it’s almost a physical presence in front of you. Sometimes when these cycles would start up, I would climb out of bed, get into my rain gear, grab a flashlight, walk-slide down the trail to the pond, get myself under a little tarp, turn on the flashlight, wait until the noise started back up, and, using a small notepad, still half asleep, try to make sense of what the frogs were actually saying and write it down. Yes, I was an odd kid.

I know that any herpetologist could tell me that what I was hearing were the breeding songs of Pacific Chorus frogs, and that these millions of voices were all distinctive mating calls that individuals could somehow make out from the wall of sound, leading each eventually to a partner. But to me, sitting under the tarp right in the mass of noise on the shore of the pond, the noise was so overwhelming that it actually seemed like the frogs were sculpting something in the air with sound. I know it’s a stretch, but bear with me: by using their voices, they were physically creating and exulting in their god. With sound. This god took benevolent shape, emerging out of the noise before its worshipers, in the air over the pond.

It’s a shame I never recorded it back then, but I did a little searching online, and this gives a sense of what I’m talking about. Just try to place yourself in the direct center of the physical space of this recording when you listen.

Until very recently, I’d largely forgot about the intensity of that sound. Later in the 1980s, we got rid of our goats and horses; when the liner to the pond broke out, my uncle decided against fixing it. For many years the pond was bone dry except during the wettest times, and giant clouds of blackberry bushes rose out of each other to tower over its perimeter. If we wanted to swim, we hiked or biked down to the river. We hardly even walked down the little hill anymore. And while you’d hear the frogs periodically, the noise had little of the density it possessed when the pond was full. However, the winter of 2011-12 was particularly wet, and I found myself at the farm for much of February editing poems by the fire every night, listening to the rain. A few days in, a particularly loud chorus of the frogs started to raise up. I asked my uncle about it; apparently some shifting mud had temporarily shored up the old pond, and so now it was filled in a few months, rather than a few weeks, a year, and the frogs had duly returned in force. Hearing it again brought it all back. And while I was older and the process was messier, I’d still put on the rain gear at night, grab a flashlight, a notebook and a tarp, and sit down by the pond in the middle of the night and try to parse the meaning out of the noise. It’s another story entirely, but that particular experience steered me on the path of a book I’m just now completing, which centers around the experience of Euripides’ Chorus from The Bacchae, as a series of theatrical poetic dialogues. Thanks, frogs. For the five years I’ve been writing, the drought had the state under its thumb. No rain, no pond, no sound. Until this winter. In fact, last night was just about the fifth anniversary of that experience; as we listened to the screaming winds and punching rain, and the frogs calling out, I was putting the final touches on the poems in the sixteenth, final, chapter in the book. It brought everything back. Of course it was too scary to even think about heading outside.

We had to wait out the storm.

But all that’s gone now. It’s morning, the frogs are silent, and the fucking sun’s out, of all things. There’s debris everywhere. Three old work ladders, which we’d been using to monitor the condition of the roof and second floor since the previous storms, were apparently blown more than a hundred yards overnight, and lie propped like an aluminum scrum by the moldy old barn. Limbs and bits of trees are scattered across the property like dandelion seeds: old farmhouse oaks, madrone, black locust. Some are the size of our rental car, an SUV. Many will have to be sawed into logs—too big and messy to move—or pulled out of roads and paths with a winch. It’s going to be a long couple of weeks. Our little stand of redwoods seemed to come out mostly unscathed. Of course, they were made for this kind of weather.

But other than the disconcerting refuse, the feeling on the ground, as the warm light comes in and out of the moving cloud-cover, is so calming it’s wacky. The daffodils, which are everywhere on the flats, are suddenly in full-on yellow and white bloom. It’s like they know. The bugs are going ape-shit. Birds are here. You can literally see the wetness melting off into the sky. It’s about sixty degrees already. It’s already hard to remember how completely freaked out we’d all been last night.

The daffodils on the farm are in bloom literally eight hours after a two-week wind and rain storm. There are a few tree branches I haven’t picked up yet.

What makes the effect even stranger is that evidence of the drought is still everywhere. An old red settler cabin across the field from the modern house, which we’d used as spillover housing for seasonal workers and guests, is still sitting in its spot, three-quarters burned out. In November 2014, about 2:20 a.m., with the air temperature in the teens—rare for here—an under-watched fireplace flue coughed sparks onto the roof and on a semi-decomposed woodshed adjacent to the building, both of which would be typically sodden at this point in the rainy season, and un-burnable. But there had been no rain. What water we had stored in the tanks—not much—was frozen uselessly in the lines. The Telegraph Ridge Volunteer Fire Company, made up of many of our neighbors and my young cousin, were working through the night on a controlled burn that, well, had lost control nearer to town. Being more than an hour away from any appreciable emergency services, we were forced to just stand there at the perimeter we’d hacked out and watch it burn. For the two years since, it’s been standing there because it was too dry to fuck with. Now the old black and red hulk’s too wet to demo it. Maybe we’ll get to it next year.

The “red house” burned down on a cold night during the drought in 2014. It’s either been too dry—or too wet—to do anything with it since.

For the last five years I’ve only been here for 4-6 weeks in the high summer, looking up at hills of grass so parched they’re white, breathing hot air that felt like Yuma. Now, water, water everywhere. And a thousand shades of green.

It’s just about noon. We’ve just hiked back up from the delta of Mattole Canyon Creek, which runs adjacent to our property line, at the spot it empties into the greater Mattole River on a triangle of land where we have mowed out a ball field and a lumpen disc-golf course. Every year, drought or not, the rainy season does a number here with the river, from the new year into March. Whole banks are plowed under with gravel and rock carried down from the hills; some of the stones are the size of an outhouse. Uprooted trees, of course, old fence, black PVC waterline, bathtubs, it’s kind of an annual Katrina. The Mattole is a little shit river that my family’s been working more than half my life to help restore along this rural stretch, a once-grand waterway that rocked with steelhead and browns in the water and osprey in the air, until heavy, barely-regulated logging in the 1940s dissolved half the valley’s soil into it. Until the early 1990s, the Mattole here was a river of stones, choked with algae. There was nothing but gravel holding it in place. Over the last two decades, we planted more than 20,000 willow trees in the early spring, to give the gravel and water something to find resistance against. Eventually the willows held, their root systems shaped out the banks, the cottonwoods came, and then tick-brush and wildflowers. Starting in about 1996, we get the extended family together to plant hundreds of redwood saplings in the now-dry furrows along the banks, and dragged our cut brush and log refuse into heaving, hundred foot piles that could eventually break down into soil. Some of those redwoods are, twenty years later, four and five stories high. A forest’s forming. Now…that shit river feels like a real river. At the moment it’s easily as wide as the Missouri. And shaped, in a way, by human hands.

And running like mad. I don’t know the proper terms to use to describe volume and velocity, but the main stems down here seem to be moving water for the most part at twenty or thirty miles per hour, it’s frothing, half steam, carrying some ungodly amount of mud and runoff to its mouth on the wild Pacific just below Petrolia (great little town). But it’s under control. The banks always hold; many of the fairways and greens of the disc-golf course have been reshaped, but that’s a small annual price to pay for this wallop of a rainy season.

The man-made world, however, has not fared nearly as reliably. Highway 101, the main artery up here, has been functional, if occasionally paralyzed. But the county roads here tell a different story. Or no story at all. Some of them don’t even exist. Telegraph Ridge Road and Wilder Ridge Road are paved two-line county roads that run either side of the Mattole River along the mountain ridges and are the closest thing to major thoroughfares we have in the rural southwest of the County, heaving year-round with heavy equipment, construction traffic, and of course the now-legitimate-but-still-furtive traffic of the marijuana industry and its global workforce. Hundreds of millions in pure low-life commerce.

Well, both of these roads are fully, presently, fucked. While Telegraph Ridge Road is navigable, outside of some seismic-looking drops in elevation where the pavements broke up or been sucked down, and splattered trees, you wouldn’t dare drive it at night. But Wilder Ridge Road…is essentially gone. At the bottom of the ridge descent, just as it passes Honeydew Creek on its way to the Mattole, there’s a two hundred foot crevasse where the pavement used to be, and the hill along with it. The washout’s so severe that a private paved road a hundred feet above it on a parallel ridge has also washed away. Hundreds of people, local teachers, workers, weed farmers, use this road every day. Now an ad hoc trail system has been put in place, marked with neon red hiker flags, from a spot a few hundred yards before the slide, where parked cars are clustered, as passengers hike up and above the ridge, in the oak forest, cross around the mouth of the gap, and stumble down on the other side, about a 1/2 mile hike in total. If they’re lucky they’ll have another car, or a friend, waiting for them to take them to Honeydew, Petrolia, or one of the little hamlets beyond. Everything has to be hand-ported. I can’t wait to see what they come up with when it warms in the spring and suddenly farmers are carrying thousands of marijuana clones, soil supplements, and all the other equipment they need to make the county’s largest industry, by far, spring into its annual life. There are going to be a lot of hippies hauling amended soil by hand. But life’s absolutely going to keep happening.

The Wilder Ridge Road slide. In the background you can see cars waiting to pick up hikers after they go above and over the washout.

That’s the thing. This county has been through one hell of a storm. This country is in the midst of one of its own: a shit-storm that won’t simply be over when winter’s over, either. As a New Yorker most of the time, the city these last three months has seemed like one continuous shrieking organism of outrage and panic and self-examination. Living there, just a couple of dozen blocks downtown from the tower of our new national Sauron, has been particularly awful. No surprise there. Yet I feel lucky to get a regular dose of perspective forced on me a few times a year, here in the woods. I get to feel the storm, hear it, huddle like a newborn deer beside a fire and marvel at the strange heavy noise the world makes when it’s angry at us. But I also get to go out the next morning after the storm, see the land already busy with its business, like nothing ever happened. Today’s been that sort of day. I hate nature analogies just as much as any other poet, but today, I can’t help but think the same thing will happen in our society. Soon maybe? No: the storm’s got to run its course. Until then, stay inside, try not to be too scared, write some poems, and try not to hate yourself. This planet might just bounce back…

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Tuesday, April 11th, 2017 by Brandon Downing.