A Month Late and Several Dollars Short

San Diego is a desert and the last few years have been completely rainless from April to November with a few light sprinkles in the winter months.  So I didn’t think too much of it when some of the lesser landscaping started to die off—an azalea here, a rhododendron there, a wilted geranium.  And the grass, well, you can tell I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to my dogs, and the worst case of bladder cancer I ever saw was in a young woman who worked for ChemLawn, so when the grass started to die I was philosophical:  maybe it will come back when it rains.  But “Sugar Magnolia” was always one of my favorite songs and when the beautiful thirty foot magnolia tree failed to sprout new leaves this past spring, I began to realize that the problem needed investigating.  The withered palm trees and the parched horse pastures were the proverbial last straw, but my water bills still came with a warning: “We are in a state of drought: PLEASE CURB YOUR USE OF WATER!”

Just before I left for Jamaica in October, the Santa Ana winds came from the east, and parched branches began to snap and fall heavily across the driveways and corrals.  As I walked out to check on the horses, a huge limb from a water starved eucalyptus was jettisoned towards my head.  I put my arm up to ward off the blow, and was rewarded with cuts and bruises worthy of a prizefighter.  That’s when I called Dave, my friendly arborist and landscaper. As we walked the property, he said, “What has happened here?  It used to be so beautiful.”  I looked at my old check registers and realized it had been six years since he had last done any work on the old homestead.  I was living on three acres of dirt.

Initially the plan had been to trim the trees for safety’s sake.  Just the trees.  The eucalyptus grow like weeds here, and mine were over 100 feet tall.  There are at least forty of them. The estimate was ten days at $1500 a day.  You have to pay people a lot of money to climb trees that high.  A month later, the wood chipper was a permanent fixture in my driveway, the horses no longer spooked at the noise, and I could heat my home for the next ten years with the wood piles, if such a thing were necessary in San Diego.  While the men who looked like Cirque du Soleil performers were lowering huge branches with ropes from treetops, Dave was investigating the sprinklers.  As he suspected, broken pipes underground were pouring water into the creek at the bottom of the property.  Over and out.  There was no water where water was sorely needed, yet I was using more than my share.

Ten weeks after the work started, today the men finished up.  I’ve gotten to know them, their children, and their preferences for fast food.  Matt took it upon himself to get my fountain going for free, with a pump that was being wasted in his garage.  That fountain which had not worked since we moved in sixteen years ago is now bubbling pleasantly, masking the noise from the street.   The dead juniper bushes lining the driveway have been replaced, and there are new pink and purple geraniums blooming amongst the azaleas and ice plant.  Norman and Dash have grass again in their pastures and the dogs will no longer make mud pies when they venture out at night by the fence line which was inexplicably always wet and dark.  A state of the art weather station will now dictate how often and how much the sprinklers sprinkle.  All is right with the landscaping.

I had hoped to go back to Africa for my sixtieth birthday, but that isn’t happening. I have a week off after Christmas and I will be taking a lovely “staycation” here in the paradise that is my backyard.  Today I signed over my end of the year bonus check to Dave, who complained, “We went so long over time and budget on this project, I could barely pay my men.  My children won’t be having Christmas this year. My wife is going to divorce me.”  I am very gullible and I have a soft heart.  I threw in an extra $200 and said, “Dave, please use this to buy presents for your wife and kids. “  I figure I’ve got about a week before the deerhounds start their landscraping.

The Thundershirt

“Thunder and lightning, very very frightening–me”  Queen

When I woke up this morning, they were already at it, and I walked into the kitchen and immediately slipped in a large pool of saliva that had apparently been dripping from the mouth of big Magic, my 125 pound scaredy cat Scottish deerhound.  When I say “they”, I mean the tree workers who are up in the giant eucalyptus trees which blanket our property—I would call them arborists but I know better—they’re just very brave guys willing to climb up 100 feet with a chainsaw in hand to hack off the large branches hanging over the house, the horse pastures and our driveway.  Tree work is expensive, and the eucalyptus grow like weeds.  They need to be trimmed every three to five years minimum, and since there have been many other things I needed to spend money on in the last ten, namely, putting children through college, those gargantuan trees had had a bit of “deferred maintenance.”  Sometimes I need to be smacked in the face to pay attention to what is right in front of me, and this is exactly what happened the weekend before I left for Jamaica.  We had what is known around here as “Santa Ana conditions”, where a hot wind blows off the desert from the east, instead of our usual cool ocean breeze from the west.  As leaves and debris flurried like snow, I went out to check on the horses, and heard a crack.  I put my hand up to shield my face from the falling branch, and received the force of the limb with my hand and arm, which were nicely black and blue by the time I arrived in Kingston.  Three weeks later, the chain saws are still singing.

Magic has been afraid of fireworks and thunder since he was a puppy.  The first Fourth of July celebration came when he was eight months old.  As I heard the sound of fireworks, I went outside to call the dogs.  Magic was nowhere in sight, and a thorough search of the property found him shivering and wet, hiding under the bridge over a small creek that flows through the back of the property.  We brought him inside, dried him off and tried to comfort him as best we could.  As he aged, his fears escalated and translated into terror of every large repetitive or continuous noise, to the point where we just stayed home any time we knew there would be fireworks. Fortunately thunderstorms are rare in our neck of the woods, but holidays were problematic, and the usual solutions—closing the windows, playing music loudly to drown the sound, Bach’s Rescue Remedy—were only partially effective. Two years ago when we had a new roof put on the house, the constant hammering and banging overhead put old Magic over the edge.  His fears became uncontrollable to the point where we thought he would hurt himself so in desperation I called my veterinarian for tranquilizers.  She said, “Have you tried the Thundershirt?”

If you are familiar with Temple Grandin’s work, you will know that she is autistic, but with a unique gift which allows her to empathize with the way frightened animals feel and think.  Her designs for humane slaughter of cattle have revolutionized the traditional way that our food animals are led to certain death.  When she was young, she used to comfort herself by enclosing herself in a homemade device which literally held and squeezed her between two walls.  The sense of enclosure, and pressure calmed her panic, and allowed her to function in college and subsequently in society.  The inventors capitalized on the same concept—that perhaps being wrapped tightly in a stretch jersey fabric fastened with Velcro would calm a panicked dog.  We bought one for Magic, just before a scheduled visit to the East Coast and left my adult son in charge of our household with instructions to put it on the dog if he became anxious with the roofers.  A couple of days later, I called to ask how things were going at home.  Brandon replied, “Mom, he comes to me and begs for his ‘special shirt.’”

I arrived in Jamaica to find the rainy season in full swing.  Unlike San Diego, when it rains there the lightning flashes brilliantly across the darkened horizon and the rolling thunder cracks are bone shaking. My host Dr. Spence has four adult Catahoula Leopard dogs, and the dominant male Ludie was like Magic on a very bad thunder day, whining, trembling and salivating.  I told her about the special shirt, and she wrapped him tightly in a blanket, which seemed to help a little bit.  Today as I cleaned off the slimy floor, and pulled out the gray jersey Thundershirt and wrapped up my dog, it occurred to me that maybe this is not such a novel concept after all.  Maybe when we are faced with scary things beyond our control, all that any of us need most is a tight hug from someone who cares.