There is a Great Blue Heron nesting in the scrub across the channel opposite our dock. I know this without looking because each morning at dawn it lets forth with a single Jurassic squawk.
This is not a pleasant, calming sound, even for a budding ornithologist. Doves, ducks, seagulls and owls make calming sounds. Heron-song is a primordial screech that reaches deep into the lizard brain and pumps a shot of adrenaline through the recumbent human body. Worse, our neighborhood is so quiet in the wee small hours of the morning that the surfline on the far side of the dunes is comfortably audible.
A single prehistoric bleat at 4am sound like the the hunting cry of a pterodactyl. This is not a sound that endears. It is a sound that can almost tempt a man to defy wildlife protection laws and his very nature, especially after the thirtieth night in a row that his sleep has been so interrupted.
I’ll learn to live with it, I’m sure, but I have a new-found sympathy for those who make sacrifices on behalf of our collective accommodation with nature.
A Western Grey Squirrel (Sciurus griseus) perches atop the highest branch in an oak tree in Lower Arroyo Sequit Canyon, easy prey for any hungry raptor who might be circling in the noontime sky. Even more strangely, the animal emits a loud squeak, almost a chirp, rhythmically, every second. It is a sound and a behavior none of us has ever heard. Looking more closely, we see the squirrel transfixed to our right, up the canyon a bit and toward the campground.
Transfixed, we follow its gaze. Fifty meters up the canyon, in the midst of a gravel trail, lies the headless corpse of another squirrel, and the shocking revelation comes that what we are looking at is evidence of a family unit that has been violently broken, an automobile the most likely culprit.
As we continue our hike up the canyons above Leo Carrillo State Beach, we see at least a dozen other squirrels on their daily rounds, likely gathering food to feed newborn broods hidden in the trees and underbrush. This is breeding season for the Western Grey, and moms (it is usually the moms for this species) are busy. The animals cross the paths and roads with little care, completely ignoring the campsites enveloped in the mid-day torpor of noontime in a summer canyon.
Despite the shock of the headless squirrel, there is much to appreciate as we walk the trails. Man has encroached upon nature, but he has done so here with a degree of sensitivity not duplicated in many parts of the world, including my wife’s native China. Our trail walks in the Middle Kingdom betray an improving yet still human-centric thinking about nature. In China, nature bends the knee to man. In Arroyo Sequit Canyon and in most of California, man and nature search for a boundary twixt the two that is viable for both.
Standing a hundred feet above the campsite, it disappears. Hundreds are encamped below, but only the occasional shout of a playing child reminds us that we are not the only people in the area. The breeze rustles through the underbrush alongside trails mercifully free of trash, the pathways themselves the only sign of man’s presence, and the plants and birds a reminder that the very existence of the path remains tenuous. The fauna sleep in the heat of the day, a heat barely broken by shade that seems to radiate from the hillside itself.
We round a corner in the trail, and suddenly the temperature drops five degrees, the breeze cools, and the heaving blue Pacific shows itself at the mouth of the canyon. At once the word “microclimate” jumps to mind, and we pause to discuss quietly what we have just experienced. We follow the trail back down to the small but superb interpretive center, and sit down quietly, unwilling to break the unexpected spell the day has put upon us.
Leo Carrillo State Park
35000 West Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265