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Naturalist's Notes

El Cerrito, California

This is a serene, blue-collar neighborhood of thin-walled houses with windows that quiver like wind chimes. Here, the evening haze is sugary and pale. It is several colors at once: spun-candy blue, spiderweb silver, and yellow like the whisper of an old lace ghost. In summertime, it smells of heavy sweating flowers and the slowly melting sea. Because nothing on the water lasts forever, there is a sense in this community of a long, drawn-out grace period, an acknowledgment of intervals.

There are people living here, and little creatures, too. A fat skunk with a frazzled tail lopes hunchbacked past a short thick wall of hedges, then climbs casually onto someone’s porch. It stands there blinking underneath the light expectantly, as if it’s waiting for someone to open the door, or for a crowd to burst into applause.

The artists here are unassuming, studiously anonymous. Two thick nails drive a Post-it-sized sketch into a phone pole on my street. The picture is quickly drawn, with a sure hand and an eye that seems accurate, though this is hard to say for sure about an illustration of a fluffy Pomeranian revealing several rows of shark teeth. “Biskit, I love you!” reads the caption. It is as calm and absurd as the title of an artwork ought to be. Underneath and to the side of it is a mug shot of a timorously grinning T-Rex. In italics with quotation marks—as if the dinosaur is emphatically saying something, but there is no room for a word balloon—it reads, “Oh, no, we can’t stop here! This is bat country!”

The third piece isn’t quickly drawn, but urgently, as if the artist had a sense of limited time or impending disaster. There is passion and power here, a touching lack of irony. This one is done by the gifted kid, in with the practiced young men.

In efficiently voluptuous lines, like something from an underground tattoo parlor, a naked bald man draws himself into a ball. His face and groin are hidden, but the tension of his limbs is lovingly displayed. He is glued to the gas meter, as if in some obscure act of defiance.

People around here have a broad interpretation of the phone pole as a way to communicate. They don’t confine themselves to lost pet fliers or garage sale ads or exhortations to “Lose weight!” and “Earn money from home!” Two blocks from the miniature gallery, there is a large plastic freezer bag nailed to a phone pole. It is partly obscured by a graceful bough of soft green leaves like sweet shy kisses. When I brush this bough aside, as gently as I would a strand of a sleeping infant’s hair, I realize that the freezer bag is bulging heavily with partially liquefied dog shit. There is a carefully laminated note inside, too, smudged but legible: PLEASE CLEAN UP AFTER YOUR DOG. Then, with mounting rage, the tidy capitals begin to slant: I’M SICK OF STEAMING PILES OF DOG SHIT EVERY MORNING!!!

Veering unseeingly past all of it is a long-toed trail of bloody footprints, leading from the crossing at Yosemite and Lassen. The story starts between a set of tire marks, with three savage splatters of heavy blood. I can see the fur lines, etched into the ground in vicious silhouette. I can see where the creature gained its feet and then wound hectically along the sidewalks, through the hedges, down San Pablo, towards the sludgy creek beneath the train tracks. The prints are black and faded now, the soggy paws and fat round teardrop splashes. I saw them when the blood was gluey and bright, on the day I stole the shopping cart from Trader Joe’s. I thought it was the trail of a dog in heat, but it was another bloody passion.

There is a little hill that oversees the highway and the sunrise and the wetlands, where the loons all dip their bills into the viscous soup. The long white egrets pick their dainty way among the stones and broken bottles and the little big-eyed things that dig into the sludge. The hill is surrounded by an ineffective moat, a continuation of the creek beneath the tracks. There are signs around the water’s edge (though none at Lassen and Yosemite) that read: DANGER. This area is a designated DANGEROUS AREA. Please exercise caution at ALL TIMES. There is a smell here of well-used city parks; that is to say, of damp earth drying softly in the salt sea air, and eucalyptus buttons, and children with their grubby, eager hands.

The eucalyptus, with their silver leaves, are graceful foreigners here, bending nostalgically toward the horizon. Gently, gently, they aspire to the sky. There are foggy days here, when a thin cloud paste spreads itself across the top of the world, and then, when I peer into its muted glare, the tallest eucalyptus look like black-and-white photographs of stunning clarity. They dwarf the ruddy thick-fingered shrubs that thrive here, squatting squinty-eyed and practical, away from the wind to the ground. When they fall, the eucalyptus stretch across the paths in lavish displays of grief. They expose long, pink gaping wounds where they have lost their limbs, and jagged fleshy splinters, all of it terribly sobering, terribly raw.

A hedge with lemons in it grows so square I think it must have been cut from a mold. I picture a crane lowering a giant, four-cornered paper cutter onto the shrub. Do lemons really grow in hedges? Or is this a hedge encircling a lemon tree, wrapped around it closely like a heavy, branchy coat? I reach for one. “Wait,” says Tyson, eyeing a car like a seasoned criminal. He doesn’t move until it drives away. Then he plunges an arm into the forest and withdraws it, amid the sounds of a terrific struggle. He presents me with a pair of fat, textured lemons, thin-skinned and oddly shaped, as different from each other as a pair of human faces. “That’s enough for tonight,” he says nervously. From deep inside the hedge, the lemons shine like lamps.

The color inside them is a deep, wet yellow, almost orange, like globules of honey or plasma. Their smell is thick and excessive and intimate. I like to think of them, being pushed out of the earth where people hang up bags of dog shit and their urgent, loving sketches, where little long-toed creatures fight for life and skunks wait on the porch for the sound of applause.