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slope note.
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the house i grew up in has a normal backyard – big for the town, a good 100 feet back from the house. then a low pink cinderblock wall, and then a slope up to the next street’s houses, 20 or 30 feet up, maybe a 30 degree grade that feels like 45 when you’re pulling an uphill ivy vine and it suddenly lets go – but i’m skipping ahead.

the back slope has always been wilderness. we’ve never done anything with it. in my earliest memories it is an iceplant slope. — east coasters sometimes don’t know what iceplant is. iceplant is a succulent groundcover, common on california freeway shoulders and suburban school hills, long vines similar to ivy branching off into an abundance of green fingers shaped like triangular french fries, with the occasional yellow or pink flower. all children know that if you break off one of the frenchfry fingers the juice inside darkens brown in the air like blood, making an excellent ink pencil for marking sidewalks, or your enemies, or in a pinch your clothing – indelibly. so as a child i thought iceplant was one of the better inventions i had come across even as my mother lived a dream of dread. (it was everywhere, especially the bus stop.)

at some point the neighbors at the top of the hill decided that some ivy would be just the thing to beautify their back fence. a couple of years later, we had an ivy slope instead of an iceplant slope. ivy sounds nice in theory – you think of the ivy league. (is UCLA in the iceplant league?) the reality was not an improvement. iceplant is relatively tractable – for the most part it stays where it’s put, like me. it came over the wall, sure, but sluggishly, fumbling, like baby dropped its rattle out the playpen. bah! the ivy comes over like mongols blow in off the steppes.

still, we let whatever was going to happen up there happen. ivy? well, ok, ivy. so the slope has always been wild, or at any rate i’ve always thought of it as wild. i would range up there from time to time, to get a wayward tennis ball usually, but the ivy’s murk discouraged a linger. you couldn’t see your feet. spiders were strongly implied, and probably worse. there was no place to sit down. nature held that sector.

there have always been vague plans to do something with the space. once when mikeryan was out visiting we hauled a couple of plastic chairs up to the top of the slope and set them against the neighbor’s wall facing out over torrance – the view, it turns out, isn’t half bad from up there. one of the better features of the lot. this set some wheels turning. still for a long time nothing was done.

when i was home last christmas, though – now broadly speaking, where my parents are concerned, i depend on their general inertia to protect me from unwelcome changes. this is a broadly effective strategy. (what this says about myownself, well, another time.) but now and then i will get blindsided by a sudden burst of activity – i’ll come home one christmas to the entire front yard reinstalled, with some droopy asian tree moping around where there’d been dirt for the last ten years. now and then they reach critical mass on something and attack all at once. the mopey tree happened to be a good change, but it was startling. now i sensed that the back slope’s time was finally coming. my mother had been watching a lot of home & garden porn. had books out.

this was a major concern. from my point of view, with certain specific exceptions, the overarching regime of benign neglect improves the backyard. an oasis of nature. ever since we lost the side slope to neighbor wall – which is a whole other story which does tie in to this one. short version: on the one side of the house was also an ivy slope once, but not our property. after a protracted battle with our worst neighbors, it was torn out and replaced with the ugliest gray cinderblock wall you can think of – probably made uglier on purpose due to the battle mentioned, which i won’t detail. at first i was crushed. i would daydream the wall weathering away over a thousand years, crumbling to dust in the ruin of post-oil apocalypse. or at least gaining some character with age. nature always wins, i would tell myself, because what else is there?

and so it is, but it didn’t even take a thousand years. not long after the wall went in, we started seeing lizards. first a few. two of them on the pink wall next to the lemon tree. a couple more in the garden, or sunning themselves on rocks in the corner of what used to be the lawn. they had never been around before. as a kid i spotted alligator lizards a couple of times, but these were a different sort. alligators rumble through the underbrush keeping a pretty low profile. these new guys were much more visible, sitting in their same spot every morning drinkin’ their sun like coffee.

they were twitchy. they’d cock their head at you. some of them had a hair trigger and would zip the moment you came out the back door, others’d let you walk right up and stare them down two feet away. we’d see them climbing up and down the wall, in and out of other people’s yards. i fell in love with them immediately, in that way that i have. the lemon tree and the lawn rockpile in particular – seemed likely to be where they slept at night, raised their eggs – became holy little nature preserves in my soul’s map of the places i go. i would protect them.

i googled a bit and decided that they are probably western fence lizards – "bluebellies". they look about right – and are famous for sitting on top of things, so the behavior fits. found in the west, "often in a habitat with a vertical component." one day i was out in the driveway and saw four of them in a row, each staking out the space between two wood posts on top of the wall, basking in the sun, now and then turning their head to snack on the cloud of gnats that seems to hover eternally in that microclimate of sun and shade and temperature on top of the wall in the afternoon. they had it all worked out. i love the wall now.

so any action on the back slope, affecting the broader backyard system, was a real concern to me. the last thing i wanted was for a tromping squad of hired men to come in and clearcut the whole backyard at once. the damage to lizard habitat and population – well, i didn’t want to even imagine. but it wouldn’t be cost-effective hiring people to tend it all gently one section at a time, like a bonsai backyard, so as not to disturb the lizards – and anyway i can’t picture my dad wrapping his head around that.

so, quickly, i volunteered to do it myself. i have the time, i argued – i work for cheap – and i care. reaction was vague but positive. as i got out of the car at the airport in january i reiterated that i was going to do it, not to hire anyone.

//

came back in march. i didn’t tell them i was coming – just got off the plane at LAX, walked over to playa and ambushed chung (he wasn’t home but generously came over and gave me a ride to torrance – suggested i warn him next time – fair enough). let myself in at midnight, snuck into the back bedroom. then the whole mexico escapade happened – ever since i’ve been working the slope.

it’s not as hard as i thought, mostly. most of the ivy comes out of the ground pretty easily. there are a few major stumps that i haven’t attacked yet, and i know there’s going to be missed spots that try to come back over the next few years. but i’ll get them.

there’s a lot of trash buried in the ivy because of our super-classy neighbors (the ones that built the wall): beer cans, smirnoff ice bottles… dozens of cigarette lighters… empty medical marijuana canisters… glass bongs… broken glass bongs… apple bongs… various prescription pillbottles… old-style pipes… metal transformers lunchboxes full of unidentified gear and paper clumps… glass pipes attached to some kind of medical tubing… i pulled one corona bottle out and was all, "finally! something halfway decent!" (i said that out loud.)

every couple days i have to collect all the trash that accumulates. put it in a trash bag. i did this on tuesday and left the bag up at the top of the hill by one of the chairs. about 20 minutes later i hear a rustle from that direction and look up to see a big lizard sitting on the lip of the open bag. the rustle i heard was him jumping off the wall onto the bag. i’m all, "what!" he cocks his head at me as if to say, "well, what’s in HERE?" and dives straight into the bag. i’m all, "NO! what are you doing?" (i said that out loud too. i talk to them.)

there’s a rustle, one clank and then only about 15 seconds later he clambers back up into view. settles himself, gives me another sideways look which i (the lizard whisperer) can tell means "that was CRAP! what the f," then tries to nonchalantly scramble back up the bag onto the wall – fence lizards fancy themselves serious technical climbers, but the bag’s so slippery he scrabbles for a second and then ignominiously slides off sideways onto the ground. after collecting himself he does jump onto the wall and climb over into the neighbors’ yard, in search of something better than empty smirnoff ice bottles – i bet he found it.

//

at one point early on i walked through the ivy over onto the east side, under the big elm tree, the less accessible area. almost never been over there, even in childhood. (that was before the elm.) wanted to get a feel for it before i destroyed it. i am opposed to the ivy, even more so after reading up on the internet about ivy removal societies – it’s non-native, invasive, little food or habitat value to local creatures, crowds out other plants and creates "ivy deserts", the new system will be better whatever it is unless we pave it which we won’t. but i can’t help feeling a pang – it is after all a microsystem of long standing and i am destroying it. these spiders and pillbugs will need to find new homes, or eat each other up very quickly.

so i went to stand under the elm for a minute and soak up the history. as i reached my chosen spot my foot came down on a large object in the ivy, round, like a basketball. what’s this, now – more smirnoff ice? my old soccer ball we never found? i toed apart the ivy leaves to see – a ribcage. whoa, hey. matted bluegray feathers – a bird. a BIG bird, like a chicken or an eagle or something. what? a big wing bone, looks like a human femur. how’d this get here?

i retreated quickly. didn’t go back over there for about a week. thinking it over. what was it? first thought was more human trash, of course, somebody threw a roaster over – but no, no, the feathers, the huge wing bone, you don’t get that in the market. this was a real bird that really died here. a big one. but who? there’s no chickens, this isn’t a farm. hawk? i think this is bigger than a hawk. eagle? there’s no fucking way a fucking golden eagle died in our elm tree. i’ve never seen one.

i named him turducken.

went back to the west side, kept clearing the ivy. pull off the surface layer, throw it down over the wall. yank out as many major runners as you can. throw them down over the wall. pull the mongol crawlers backwards over the wall – weren’t expecting to get it from behind, were you? ha!

every once in a while i’d glance over at turducken, or where i knew he was – couldn’t see him in the ivy, not unless you were right there. was i wrong about the feathers? they were so matted, it could have been fur – a cat or something? we haven’t seen that cat in a while, and good riddance, i caught him hunting the lizards. (that’s nature too and fuck him anyway.) no, those were definitely feathers. big dead bird. wonder if that explains the rustles i heard a couple times walking back by the elm tree at christmas. rats.

i was working my way back over there. soon enough i pulled on a runner and it came from underneath him, lifted him up, bones bouncing on ivy trampoline. leave that one for a while.

finally after one more day i waded back over to him. better see about this. crouched down, gloves, pulled the ivy back. is that another wing bone? no… that’s… big straight beak, hook at the end… chainlinked neckbones rasping, skull.

pelican.

pelican? never seen one of those over here any more than a golden eagle. thought they stay on the water. we’re not that far from the water, but we’re not close either. bout a mile. i guess maybe you’ll see them sit on the ralphs now and then, if a storm’s coming… but in our elm tree? coming to die in our elm tree? not what i would have expected.

that was yesterday. went back out this morning, threw yesterday’s runners down over the wall in the general direction of the heap, then. next step is really to do something about the peliducken. my dad would just pick him up with a shovel (birds have germs) and put him in the trash, but i feel like i know him by now. i’ll bury him. just need to figure out where. now i’ve spent all day writing this.

the slope’s always been wild.

we’ll put in fruit trees, then a place to sit at the top – a good nook for nighttime parties – steps up for easier access. and then i’m going to try and figure out some kind of ground cover that isn’t horrible. some system with places a lizard can hide.

//

iiiii – april 17 2010, saturday.

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