How many San Diegans live outside the bubble, on the edge of the wild world?
You’d be surprised.
My buddy Fitz camped out for the longest time in a cave in the cliffs above Black’s Beach. He wasn’t alone. Some guy with a PhD lived in the cave across the gully.
Clay, another friend, made a home for himself in a space between the rocks that form Coronado’s seawall behind Center Beach. “Most beautiful view to wake up to you can imagine,” he said. One morning, there was President Bill Clinton jogging with some Navy SEALs. I don’t think Clay got a chance to say hello.
Then there was Tom, an ex-Vietnam medic with too many nightmares to be stuck indoors. He gave up a large apartment in Spring Valley — at $2100 per month — to set up on a little island in the middle of the San Diego River, not far below Old Town, along with his old lady and a couple of herons he’d rescued as chicks, one blue, the other white. Any sound of approaching footfalls and they’d be aloft, squawking, warning Tom to skedaddle or hunker down till the intruders passed.
Then there’s Laura Stansell, whom I met one night on a South Park Walkabout. She described how a realtor friend had urged her to tear down her big rambling house, which straddles one of the area’s canyons. He explained how she could build an apartment or condo complex in its place and maximize the value of her property.
Laura looked at it differently. “I wouldn’t develop the canyon,” she said. “I love it as it is. For instance, I was sitting in the hot tub on the deck one night, and I heard crackling. A coyote walked by, about 20 feet away. We stared at each other for the longest moment. Foxes, eagles, owls — I’ve always felt it’s like living on a farm in the middle of the city, in South Park.”
A surprising number of San Diegans do choose to live and work at that interface. Here are five people who have done a deal with the wilderness gods. They’re either trying to have their suburban cake and eat it, too, or they have more guts than you or me, enough to plant their lives where that other world lays down its gauntlet. Right outside the front door.
∗ ∗ ∗
A murder of crows is making a racket a few hundred yards away.
I check my watch. It’s 7:39 in the morning. “If I had a cast of hawks, instead of just Aidan, I’d be less worried,” says Andrea Ashbaugh. A cast of hawks is a pair. A murder of crows is a flock. “And that’s a heck of a murder of crows. They’re already upset. Seeing a hawk could make them really cranky. They might attack one. Two, they’d think twice.”
This is a rumple-clouded, still-darkish, spritzing morning — the “nautical twilight,” Andrea calls it — down near the Tijuana River sloughs, where Sunset Avenue meets Saturn Boulevard, east of Imperial Beach.
Suzie’s Farm, the organic operation here, has fields cracked open by arteries of the river delta. The wanderings of these little tributaries are plainly seen through an overgrowth of trees and brambles. If Brer Rabbit had a briar patch down here, this is what it would look like.
Andrea Ashbaugh’s Harris’s hawk, Aidan, wears a hood to help him stay calm before and after a hunting session.
Image by Howie Rosen
It’s also where Andrea and Aidan, her Harris’s hawk, plus Gossip, her Jack Russell terrier, and Sunny, her whippet, are headed now.
Andrea is one of the few genuine hunter-gatherers in San Diego County. “I live in Clairemont Mesa, in a ’60s subdivision, as suburban as you can get,” she says. “But Aidan is my escape, and my meal ticket. I haven’t bought meat in a store for three years. Aidan catches it for me.”
Meaning, I guess, that what she has been eating is an awful lot of rabbit pie. “The farm allows me to hunt their fields. In return, Aidan (the name means “rascal” in Gaelic) catches rabbits, and makes other rabbits chary about returning to those exposed baby lettuce patches for a nibble. It helps Suzie’s to stay organic and still harvest a good crop. “We’re only hunting on Suzie’s lands, not the sloughs themselves, which are protected.”
Andrea knows her subject. She graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in zoology, volunteered with the Chula Vista Nature Center. Her day job is with the San Diego Humane Society.
She reaches in to the Coroplast box with her gauntlet-protected hand and hauls out one scarily big bird. He’s gray, with rusty-red wing feathers and a yellow stripe across his hooked beak. And long, white-tipped tail feathers. Oh, and fearsome yellow talons. Andrea’s wearing one of those brown gamekeeper’s jackets with big pockets into which she might stuff dead animals and birds.
We head out across the muddy field toward the tree line, where the wild things live. “You have to learn a bunch of medieval terms to do this,” Andrea says. “The designs for the equipment — tethers, knots, styles of construction — all come from the 1500s.”
People, she says, have been falconing for maybe 4000 years. “The Babylonians have etchings. We have words like ‘tercel’ — like the Toyota; it means the male falcon — and ‘jerkin,’ ‘hoodwinked,’ ‘mews.’ All are falconing terms. Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew uses classic falconing methods.”
“The Arabs and the Japanese were considered among the premiere falconers,” Andrea says. “The English fly their birds differently, although Elizabeth the First did it essentially like us. So what we’re doing has really ancient connections.”
The most shocking moment comes when she throws this big bird in the air, no strings attached. Aidan spreads his wings. He wafts up to sit on top of a nearby power pole.
“Oh, yes, he’s free to go anytime,” Andrea says. “The in-joke is that there are two sorts of falconers: those who have lost their bird, and those who haven’t lost their bird…yet. The thing is, you’ve got to handle your bird, fly him, exercise him, groom him constantly, or he’ll become wild again. I recognize that I’m sharing my life with a wild critter. When I apprenticed, I had to get a permit to take a bird from the wild, and then that’s what I did. Went looking for a wild, red-tailed hawk. I found a juvenile in quite an urban area. Had to tempt him down, capture him, train him, fly him, and then — and here’s the thing — I released him back to the wild after two years, even though I wasn’t required to. I thought it was best for both of us. But that was hard. He was a fantastic hunter. He caught rabbits, pheasants, ducks. I taught him more than his mama would have. For a start, 75 percent of hatchlings die. And most parents only teach their young to catch rats and mice. There are about 4500 falconers like me in the U.S. We teach our juveniles to make more noble catches. Rabbits, pheasants. We give them the confidence to catch a wider variety of prey. If he migrates up to Sacramento for the summertime, as they often do, there are lots of pheasants, and with my training, he’s familiar with them. That’s good for survival. They need all their chances.”
On the last day with her juvenile, after two years together, Andrea cut his jesses (the leather tethers on his ankles) off. She says, “He caught a rabbit, looked at me with his hackles up. I knew he’d probably be okay. I let him go. But I think I’ve seen him in the same general area [where I caught him], ten years later. That makes me feel good.”
Why doesn’t Aidan just fly away, back to the wild, right now?
“He’s come to see me and the dogs as his partners in hunting. I mean, with the dogs’ help, this one-and-a-half pound bird has caught an 11-pound white-tailed jackrabbit. These birds realize that we’re giving them the chance and the locations to hunt food. Even if we take away what he catches, he gets some of it.”
Why does she do it?
“It’s a way of getting back into nature. I’m one who believes, if you’re going to eat, eat something that died for you, for your true needs. The way rabbits cry, I still find that awful. Hawks are never nice. They’ll eat a rabbit to death. Every animal wants to live, feels pain. I try to get to the rabbit as fast as I can and break its neck.”
She says the Suzie’s Farm rabbits she catches these days are bigger and healthier than when she started.
Could it be that by keeping them in check and killing some of them, the rabbits that are left have more to eat? Andrea won’t claim that.
In any case, rabbit scores aren’t her bottom line. She just loves living this way. But why, with all the work and walking and caring and worrying? Clearly, it’s not only for food — or to help out Suzie’s Farm — that she gets up at the crack of dawn every day. She has a fascination with these raptors, with the idea of recreating an ancient partnership with a remarkable species of hunters. “Have you ever heard the humming sound of the feathers of a peregrine falcon as it dives at 200 miles per hour, hurtling down from 1500 feet on a prey?” she asks. “Just before the explosion of pigeon feathers, there’s a whip-crack! as it flares its wings and feet right before impact. He’s actually breaking the sound barrier. These are astounding birds.”
Wow. Could this be true? Andrea points out that the crack of a bullwhip is similarly a small sonic boom: the end of the whip moves faster than the speed of sound. The falcon is certainly the fastest animal on Earth, even before he thrusts out his talons and wings to stop his power dive.
As we’re talking, and walking through the mud — probably talking too much; we’ve seen only one bobtail disappearing — Gossip and Sunny race ahead toward the tree line, the murder of crows makes a racket, darkening the sky, and Aidan has again landed, unfazed, this time on a treetop from which he can see where we’re going next.
Andrea is as grateful to be able to do this as the farm is to set Aidan hunting on 40 of their 70 acres. “Access to wild land in San Diego is shrinking at an astonishing rate,” Andrea says. “Now. The trick is to find an area where the rabbits don’t recognize us.”
∗ ∗ ∗
How can a farm on the edge of town embrace the wild creatures that want to wolf down its crops and animals?
Ellie Sherman, of Suzie’s Farm, embraces the wild not as a threat, but as an ally.
Image by Howie Rosen
By not getting too hung up on them. That’s what Ellie Sherman says. She’s Suzie’s Farm’s first employee, now one of its managers. Ellie embraces both the wild and its creatures as allies, not threats.
The strategy seems to work. This farm is taking off, one of the flagships of the locovore movement.
“We started with one acre in 2009,” she says. “Now, three years later, we farm 70 acres. Restaurant demand for local organic food has exploded.”
We walk with Homer, her Italian spinoni dog, alongside rows of radishes, baby greens, arugula, collard greens, and kale. We’re munching on red frill, a kind of Asian green, like mazuna, that Ellie casually plucked as she passed. I’d never heard of either of them, but Ellie says it’s okay to eat these greens straight from the plant because they’re organically grown.
Why isn’t she worried about living next to the wild lands, what with all the predators and bugs nature could unleash?
“We believe life begets life,” Ellie says. “We don’t want a fortress farm. We should worry less and farm more.” She hopes to go one step further, to actually reach out to the wild things across the river and welcome them in.
“We plan to invite a lot of these creatures. We’re trying to create what we call a ‘bug superhighway,’ so we’ll plant flowers all the way through our fields, from here to the wild lands. It’s a way to make a safe place for the type of insects we want, for them to come right out of the tree line in the river valley and into the field. We’re thinking ladybugs, predatory wasps, and beetles, because they eat other bugs. Some wasps lay their eggs inside a caterpillar, and when their eggs hatch, the baby wasps eat the caterpillar. And some wasps lay their eggs inside of the eggs of agricultural pests, including caterpillars. So the baby wasps that emerge actually feed on the host eggs. We order them from a beneficial-insect company right now, and put them in our fields, but we hope that we provide enough forage for them to keep reproducing and stay here. They’re so small, they’re hard to keep track of. But we’ve seen that the caterpillar populations have been much more under control this year than they were before we started.”
And the ladybugs? “We’ve never had to import them. They just come and help us control our aphid populations. They go crazy. You’ll see them all over.”
What about bigger predators, say, bobcats and lions? “There has been a rumor of a cougar sighting, but I don’t believe it,” she says. “Last year, a couple of people reported seeing a ‘big cat.’ It doesn’t seem possible to me. I get that a big cat could have come from the east and walked the whole way down the Tijuana River. But there are too many people around here. The park nearby is used mostly by local horse people. So there’s a lot of space, but it’s well traveled. And I haven’t heard of any bobcats. In the evening, I do hear the coyotes singing, ‘Yip yip yip…’ One gentleman I’ve talked to used to walk his dog in this field before it was being farmed. He’d let him loose, and the dog would go off and join a pack of coyotes and they’d play together. It was unusual, and cool. He’d put a light on his dog’s collar, so he could see where it was playing.”
Ellie doesn’t panic about invasions of rabbits or foxes. “We do have the rabbits. We have little cottontails, and we have big jackrabbits. We have one jackrabbit who hangs out in that field. It’s a perennial herb bed, and he loves to munch away there. But Homer loves to chase him.”
She admits rabbits can do damage. “They come out of the woods and take a quick bite and run. Then they come back and eat more. Over a week, they get braver and braver, or more hungry. Sometimes they’ll eat 20 feet of a ten-row section. That’s why Andrea’s hawk is so useful. Keeps them on their toes. And we have a pair of barn owls in our barn. They hunt every night. Sometimes, if you come in the evening, you’ll see rabbits diving in all directions. Or the squirrels will come flying out of the fields. Homer’s number-one favorite thing is to chase squirrels.”
How bad are rabbits for the farm’s bottom line? “They’re a nuisance, but they’re not going to run us out of business.”
The same goes for birds, Ellie says. Even though they love the farm’s seeds, she wants to create a space for them to come in, provide forage for them, and even create habitat, in some circumstances. “That’s why we want to start planting hedgerows that will create permanent space and shelter. Not just a crop that we’re planting. But actual space where they can settle in, do their thing.”
Ellie says she uses birds to give her signals about the coming seasons. “Being from Pennsylvania, I’ve got to have season signals. The first birds that I’ve developed a deep relationship with are the red-winged blackbirds. I noticed that, at the end of the summer before last, they came for our sunflower seeds. I had never seen this bird before, and it just filled my heart with joy. They fly together in groups, and when they turn into the sun, you can see the glistening of all of their red wings. They love sunflowers.
“So, since the red-winged blackbirds were so great, this year we grew a sunflower maze for the fall. It was a whole field. Two acres of sunflowers. We grew them rather than corn, and then we mowed a maze into it for visitors to the farm. We set up some art installations inside. Then we hosted a big, really beautiful dinner inside the maze, for the solstice, the fall equinox.
“And then, just as I had been hoping for weeks, once the seeds started to dry, the sunflower maze became home to at least 50 red-winged blackbirds. It was incredible. They spent all their time hanging out here. They would descend on the maze. You couldn’t really see them or hear them, then you’d walk around the corner, and they’d get scared, fly off, and they’d land somewhere else. It was beautiful…beautiful. As I say, ‘Life begets life.’”
The red-winged blackbirds are only here for September. Then they hit the road again.
“What marks the beginning of winter is the turkey vulture,” Ellie says. “They come back every winter. You can recognize them because they’re flying in circles in groups — at least pairs, sometimes as many as five or six — and they’re just like you imagine vultures. Their wings are distinct, they have their two [wingtip] feathers bending up and down, fine-tuning. And they look as though they’re making fun of the helicopters doing training circles out of Ream Field at the end of the farm, the birds cruising in their own circles, but beyond where the Navy flies…Then the big hawks come back for winter, also.”
Ellie says that’s important, because they have 150 free-range chickens, which are allowed to roam free during the day.
“We weren’t worried about hawks when we first put our chickens in the field in the summertime. But then, by the fall, you start to see the big guys, and you hear their cry, and you know: now I need to keep an eye on our chickens.
“We put the chickens in the fields after the crops are done growing. We’ll section off an area that might be going crazy with weeds, surround it with electric fencing, and let them have at it. They poop, they fertilize the fields, and they eat bugs, and they eat weed seeds, so it’s good to have the chickens out here. We’ve only had one problem: a Great Dane who belongs to one of the local farmers. He was able to jump over the fence to get in, but he couldn’t get out. It was a mess.”
In an age of factory-farmed chickens, these are some lucky cluckers.
“We started with a flock of 50, then added another 100. They make the best eggs. The best eggs! Their yolks are so orange. They taste like…well, like eggs should taste.”
But surely the rats and squirrels and rabbits could devastate unprotected crops?
“We have squirrels and rabbits all year round, and, yes, they cause trouble all year round,” Ellie says. “Sometimes the rabbits can be devastating to crops. They’ll take out, say, half of your crop. But only in areas near the wild. Fields like this one are too close to human activity. There’s a secluded back area in a field we call Homer — after Homer here — where the fence came down. They feel comfortable running into the field and nibbling and running back, and running in again. Summertime is when we have trouble with them. That’s why we have Andrea and her hawk.”
The irony? All this wildlife, farm life, bug life, happens downslope from row after row of houses. Imperial Beach’s suburbia looks out on all this. And yet, Ellie says, when she talks to some of the homes’ occupants, they don’t even realize the farm is here.
∗ ∗ ∗
Laurie Richards is a lawyer and a writer, but to get to her place you’d think she was Crocodile Dundee. The mud track has your car’s hood silhouetted against the blue sky one moment, the green canyon bottom the next.
Stairs leading to Laurie Richards’s hidden home.
I’ve followed her here in the rental car. After I stagger out, Laurie asks, “When we were driving down that road, did you see my house?”
I shake my head.
“That’s my protection,” she says. “You can drive right down here in front of it, right before these stairs, and you can’t see it.”
It’s a low, ’80s, woody house in what you might call the “empty quarter” of North County, east of Palomar College in San Marcos. Mountaintops surround the spot; one looks as if it had blown its top yesterday. A garden and patios cling to a ledge. Behind a hedge, the hillside drops. Out here, it’s all open, unincorporated county land of 20-acre-minimum lots, soon to be designated 40-acre-minimum.
This is where fellow writers come to find their voice under Laurie’s tutelage, with no possibility of escape. She offers daylong fiction and memoir workshops, arranged by Cal State San Marcos.
When the writers aren’t here, she lives on her own, a refugee from L.A.’s over-stimulation — and from a marriage.
“There are certainly people who think I’m crazy, living out here. But I really like the quiet. [My husband and I] bought this for a weekend house, in 1983, when we were still married. We’re just 15 miles east of Carlsbad, as the crow flies, south of Twin Oaks.”
But how do you have a social life?
“It’s cut down on my drinking, that’s for sure,” she jokes. “Nobody comes out here to pick me up for a date. If I go out, I have to be my own designated driver. I get a lot of flat tires, nails going through them. UPS can’t find me, FedEx can’t find me, visitors always get lost. It’s easier for me to go out and find them rather than give them more instructions.
“I can see Vista, but I can’t see Carlsbad. But you can’t hear a thing of human civilization. What you hear, if you stand outside at night, is the sound of your own heartbeat. That’s how quiet it is. I don’t go walking in the hills around my home, because I can’t necessarily get phone reception. If I fell or something, I don’t know what would happen. But the solitude is very nurturing for me. I feel really good here.”
She admits it’s not all peace and quiet. Take her first night alone.
“I came down one weekend with a load of things, because I wanted to clean the place up. I brought bedding. I was going to sleep on the floor in one of the rooms, just me and the TV.
“I guess I might have had the TV on, when, right above, I heard, you know…footsteps. On the roof. Clump, clump, clump. Like human footsteps. It was summer; it was in July. So it was warm. And the house had been vacant for a few years.
“I was really scared. I went and got a knife to sleep with. And I thought, This is kinda stupid, because somebody could wrest this knife away from me really easily.
“I finally decided that I’d either not wake up in the morning, because I’d be dead, or I’d wake up in the morning and be fine. So I went to sleep. Because there was nothing I could do about it.
“When I told people, they suggested that maybe it was an owl. Somebody else said a coyote. I thought for a while that maybe it was a farmworker who had taken to sleeping on the roof.”
It happened again, on another night, but Richards never found out what was making the noise.
We’re standing on her small side patio. The hedge guards the drop-off down the hillside.
Then there are the coyotes.
“At night they go crazy, just beyond this hedge,” Laurie says. “I hear drib-dibbleda-yip-yip-yip! They sound crazed. I think they’ve caught something, and they’re ripping it apart. A rabbit, maybe. They’re having fun.”
And the woodpeckers.
“I was in my dining area, and I heard a bunch of noise in my outside wall. It was like llblbllblllll — like a tape running fast. And what it was, was hungry baby woodpeckers. Their mom had pecked the nest cavity in the wall.
“I never did see them. I always take the easy way out. I just let them grow up. Because, anyway, we had termites, and woodpeckers love termites. Eventually, the babies flew away.”
Let’s not even mention the bobcat — okay, let’s mention him.
“I’d just driven home at night. It wasn’t real late. I turned around and saw these orangey eyes. The bobcat was lying along the branch of the Brazilian pepper tree that grows right next to my garage. I was only ten feet away. The light from my garage lit up the area a little bit. I saw this tail, a furry tail, maybe a foot long. He was the size of a coyote. He looked pretty healthy. He was quite comfortable. He just stared at me, and I stared back, and then I turned around and went inside.”
Or the snakes.
“I have two green hoses in my courtyard and one brown one. I leave them out, uncurled, ready to use. Rattlesnakes love them.”
She goes and gets a photograph from inside the house. “See?” she says. “There’s a brown snake right here, spread alongside the brown hose. My nephew found a green snake in the garage, cozying up to one of the green hoses. Either they think they’re convenient camouflage or that they’re some long-lost relative. And babies? I’m always seeing baby rattlers among my roses. Or inside. I came home once, again at night, and there was a baby rattlesnake curled up in the middle of my hallway on the carpet. I went and got the neighbors, and they scooped it into a shoebox. We decided to let it go someplace. Because snakes do take care of a lot of rodents.”
So, really, what’s a gregarious writer-lawyer from L.A. doing living out here in North County’s empty quarter, all alone?
“Well, one day I was watching a docu-drama on TV about Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond. The actor’s walking around Walden Pond, in the various seasons. And I’m thinking to myself, Oh! I wish I lived in a place like that.
“And then I looked outside, and there’s mountains that I could see from one side, and then I went to another side, and there’s a mountain I could see there, and another side window, and I could see another mountain. I thought, You dummy, you do live in a place like that. So I decided to stay longer. Now I’ve stayed longer here than anyplace in my life.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Japatul Valley, below Alpine: there’s a war going on here.
I’m standing with tree doctor Warren Stormthunder, looking down on one of the most isolated settlements in the county. From the top of the hills that form the southern rim of the valley, you can’t even see his house, only the forest of trees that hides it. Neither Stormthunder nor most of his nine neighbors — the homes are not close to each other — have electricity.
So it’s a bitter irony that SDG&E has chosen this valley to march across with their Sunrise Powerlink lines and pylons and substations, breaking up land that was once clothed in nothing but green.
“Where that substation sits is itself a major wildlife corridor for deer and other animals, including mountain lions, as a changeover from the Sweetwater watershed to the other watersheds in the south,” Stormthunder tells me. “A lot of the deer have migrated farther west, to my area, and with them the [local] mountain lion comes, and I see his footprints more often than I used to. It used to be once or twice a year. Now it’s every few days.”
It takes us a good 15 minutes to lurch down the steep, rain-rutted dirt road — me following again in the rental car — to the groin of the valley, where we bump along a track that weaves among live oaks. He halts us in front of a sign on a gate: “No Trespassing. Keep Out.”
Warren gets out of his truck to swing open the gate. “That’s only been necessary since the Powerlink struggles began,” he says.
Finally, we stop in a glade of sycamore and oak trees. A rough-built house shelters within them, maybe ten feet above a stream. Stormthunder’s not just living on the edge of the wild, but in the middle of it.
He says mountain lions pad right past, following the stream. But it’s not just mountain lions.
“See these?” He climbs up toward a rock pile. “It’s okay now — this is winter, when they hibernate — but we see rattlesnakes coming out from these rocks regularly in the spring. They live in a nest of rocks, farther downstream. When I built this house, little did I know that.” He laughs. “We always find them right around here.”
All you hear now is the breeze in the trees and the gurgling of the stream. We cross it and head up to where a narrow, much-used, and muddied track climbs the steep bank and into the undergrowth. “This is the path the deer have created,” Stormthunder says. “That’s why we get lions.”
We’re maybe 50 feet from his house.
It’s hard to comprehend that, in the year 2012, Stormthunder, his wife, and a dozen other denizens of Japatul Valley spend their evenings moving about by lantern light, reading by headlamps.
I ask why he chose this extreme rejection of modern life.
“I used to live on the coast,” he says. “I just didn’t like the turn society was taking. By nature, I’m a recluse. I wanted to come to someplace with some solitude. And I love working with trees and the land.”
“It’s hard to say why I like them so much, but they’re a form of life. They’re a necessary part of the ecosystem. Take, for example, oaks: there are something like 600 species of insects that depend on oak, and only 4 or 5 that are destructive to it. And consider all the wildlife: the food chain depends on oaks. Deer eat the acorns — all the smaller wildlife can eat acorns; for instance, it’s a big part of the raccoon diet — and the mountain lion depend on the deer. In Native American times, people depended on the deer, too. So the oak was [a central] part of the ecosystem. The trees are important to many creatures, not just man. But also man.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Stormthunder’s friend Duncan McFetridge wasn’t so lucky on the snake front. That’s one of the downsides of living on the edge of the wild: there are more of these unpredictable critters than in town, and it takes longer to get help if you need it.
Wild turkeys are comfortable
outside Duncan McFetridge’s home
McFetridge, who campaigns to keep sprawl out of the countryside with his Save Our Forests and Ranchlands (SOFAR) organization, has a couple of horses and mules, and in among the corrals and ancient oaks, a studio where he carves wooden sculptures. His land, not far from Descanso, abuts the Cleveland National Forest.
The other day, he walked the dusty trail to his front gate, as he has a thousand times before. He wasn’t looking down.
An unusual black rattlesnake, with a body as thick as a tennis ball, struck him.
“It was an incredible event. I was totally unaware of the snake, because I was looking up at a construction project. So when I did feel a bite and looked down, there was this very large black rattler. I realized I’d been bitten. By the time I’d walked in to my phone, my body had started going numb. So I realized that this was, like, serious business. My nervous system was being attacked.
“I called a neighbor, Kathy. I also called 911, but they said it would take awhile to come out. So I opted to get down there as best I could. Another neighbor arrived just before Kathy, and we took off at 90 miles per hour. I felt like every second counted. A doctor friend of mine had said, ‘Duncan, if you’re bit by a rattler, time is tissue. You get bitten, you need the anti-venom immediately.’”
It took half an hour to get to a local hospital.
“The incredible thing is, the doctor who saw me came out with this line of questions, before they gave me any anti-venom. The first thing he said was ‘Did you see the snake?’
“And I said, ‘Did I see the snake!? It was so big I was practically riding it.’
“He said, ‘Well, you could have stepped on a stick.’
“As soon as he said that, I knew that I was in trouble. I said, ‘I have the bite marks.’
“And he was, ‘Well, let’s see here.’ It was weird. He came over, and by that time I was completely numb. I told him. It was kind of funny, because my nuts were numb. I said, ‘My nuts are numb. Everything…’
“He said, ‘You could be having an anxiety attack.’
“At which point I said, ‘Are you a doctor?’ Which totally pissed him off. Smart-ass young doctor. I knew I had to stay cool. I was aware that, if you have a panic attack, your blood starts to circulate [faster — it carries the poison along with it], so I was purposefully cool.
The bite marks finally convinced the ER doctor, and McFetridge was cleared to receive his anti-venom.
“Once they started treatment, it was the best. My next [specialist] doctor was awesome, and all the nurses, all night long. They almost had to cut my leg open. They told me, ‘If it swells too much, it crushes the blood vessels.’
“The other natural reaction at the hospital was, ‘Did you kill the snake?’ And I said, ‘No way. The snake is not the problem. It’s mankind that is the problem.’ People laughed at me, but I said, ‘Look, the rattlesnake is defending what’s left of his territory, ladies and gentlemen. I’m living in his territory.’
“I found out later, this snake is so dangerous. If I had not been given anti-venom, there’s no question I’d be dead. One gentleman died in five minutes. This guy was up in Cuyamaca and he was dead in five minutes!
“They gave me morphine, anti-venom — at something like $3000 a vial. My hospital bill was $100,000.”
What came rushing in on him during the crisis was how important his little corner of the world was to him. How much he wanted to be back looking after his horses and mules and rabbits and birds, and the bobcat who has established himself on the rise above his house.
“When I got back — limping, but okay — I can’t describe the feeling that came over me. Just to have a chance of spotting our bobcat. I’d seen him twice, sitting on the rock, watching the rabbits. I have lots of rabbits. It’s been a bumper year. So he has ample food supply, because all he has to do is wait someplace nearby and reach out. I just wanted to see him again, see him saunter through the yard. The way he walks…he’s, like, ‘Well, I’m just checking out my place here…’ I watched him mosey on over through the horse corral…it was like he was totally at home. His home.”
Now McFetridge worries more about the bobcat than his snakebit leg.
“Because the reality is that life here is incredibly dangerous for that bobcat. I worry about him being run over on a road. I worry about his cave. Because I know where it is. It’s a miracle that my neighbor and I happen to be wilderness enthusiasts. What if he had been a normal idiot, [someone] who wants to put a house in next door? That’s right where the cave is. Where would our bobcat go?”
McFetridge sighs. “Still, I count my blessings. I have everything. Turkeys, rabbits, bobcats. They’re all very comfortable here.”
Well, not all, if you count oak trees as wildlife. Mainly ancient oaks, some two centuries old. These past several years, the drought has brought the gold-spotted beetle; 80,000 county oaks became victims, including ten of McFetridge’s most magnificent trees.
It’s clear he sets a lot of store by this surviving giant. It’s why he called his friend Warren Stormthunder, with his tree medicines influenced by Kumeyaay practices. “I spent $300 on what Warren calls ‘good fungus,’” McFetridge says. “And whether by talking to it, or by drilling holes to put this ‘good’ fungus in the earth, something made a difference. Because it’s the only big one that made it. It’s got to be 150, 200 years old. Ten other big ones went down. Succumbed. Died.”
But not that one. And not Duncan. He’s home alive, too.
There’s one other bright spot: “The younger trees are coming back,” Duncan says. “Sprouting from the roots of the old dead ones. It’s unbelievable. I tell you, I live in a church here.”