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Clash of Cultures

October 9, 2012

They were starting to cut some roads into the woods above the Almaden vineyards. The patches of naked earth were reddish orange/brown in color, which glistened in the bright, clear sunlight for the moisture of the newly turned earth. It could almost be seen as torn flesh where its protective skin was the low canopy of the dense oak forest, this, when viewed from a fair distance.

It was bad enough when they turned over scores upon scores of acres of flat, bottom land where we grew our crops of vegetables.  However, to watch the old, quiet forest be transformed into a suburb in a few dozen hours, this was really depressing. I used to take my dog for walks above the new road beds, like in some way, to pay my respects to these woods that would soon be dozed over and burned. These were always sombre walks, quiet and restive. But there was one afternoon, as the sun was setting behind our backs, that was just real damn depressing. We were approaching the crown of a low, easy hill when we found ourselves at the top of shallow but rocky bluff. We looked down the rocky face below, where the saplings were starting to push through the fallen rock, long ago sheared from this small cliff.

Through the deepening shadows down below, I saw something I hadn’t expected. There was the carcass of a calf rotting on the rock shards beneath us. At first, I thought perhaps it had fallen down from up near our position, but, that wasn’t real likely, even a calf wouldn’t be that stupid or clumsy. We back tracked a little and circled round this little scar in the hill. It didn’t take long to find the dead cow. It was white with big brown patches on its hide, the hide and bones being about all that was left. The birds and the foxes and the insects had pretty much cleaned all the meat out, but the hide was still kind of flexible so the death probably took place several months before, not twenty years ago. But, more than a death, this was a crime scene.

The calf scull had a very large hole on one side and in the hole was a large, broken rock with several sharp edges. In my mind’s eye, I immediately concluded that some tract kids had pointlessly killed this calf just to see if they could do it. When the tract kids from the new surrounding neighborhoods went out on to bare fields or into the woods, they always would travel as a gang. You almost never saw one of these new people out in nature solo, but nearly always in loud, rousty gangs. They respected nothing. They would climb the fruit trees, carelessly breaking off limbs and tearing up the bark. They’d chase chickens, squirrels, cats and cattle. Anything that moved would get rocks thrown at it along with jeers and taunting laughter. These people just had no respect. Everything was a joke to them.

I stepped back a few paces from the carcass and looked up to where I had first seen it, up atop the low bluff. I could just see it happening. A bunch of tract brats probably came up on a few stray cattle minding their own business, calming grazing in the shade of the wood. The kids would spook the unfortunate cattle and this calf probably got separated from his mom, and those nasty jerks chased it over the edge of the bluff and down onto these rocks.

The sharp cornered rock was just all too handy and they clubbed the injured calf’s head with it, seeing if the rock would really do anything. They probably freaked out and ran away from all the blood and the squalling, suffering animal.

Calves don’t commit suicide with rocks. Though I presumed this whole story, it was probably true. Nothing else quite fits the facts any better.

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As we started down the hill in the deepening dark, I recalled a much earlier incident where the city people carelessly spoiled our environs. I was very young, maybe seven or eight, and I was riding in the cab of farmer Al’s old Chevy pickup. We were headed out to Calero Dam to check out the status of the irrigation of a large prune orchard at the back of the dam’s lake. As we drove towards the mountains where the dam was located, the narrow Almaden road rose gradually and gently, higher and higher, until it became a mountain road itself. We were still on the rising, straight part of the road when we passed a large number of empty cars and horse trailers which was pretty unusual in our neighborhood. All at once, Al started cursing and cranking on the steering wheel. In those days, middle aged farmers didn’t usually use swear words around young children. This outburst surprised me, and I perked up, looking around to see what had prompted it. As the green pickup hung a big, fast u-turn, I saw a large group of saddled horses, complete with adult riders in a large field.

Now things got very, very strange. Al was glaring at the horse back riders with harsh eyes and a craned neck. His face and neck were as red as a beet. I leaned back in the seat, he was really pissed off. I scrunched towards the shotgun door a bit, I wanted to avoid any spill over of his wrath, and what was he mad at? What ever it was, it had better watch out, I had never seen him get like this. Then the truck did the outrageous, without slowing down the truck turned off the paved road and jumped the gravel shoulder and without slowing down one iota, it sped across the field and came to sliding stop in the path of the horses. We never, ever, drove into the fields, and especially onto someone else’s fields. Property lines were so sacred in the Almaden Valley that you learned where they were almost before you learned to speak. What in the world had gotten into Al?

Al threw his door open and barely glancing at me, told me to stay put. While I had no intention of disobeying, I rolled down my window as fast as I could, my ears burning in anticipation. In those days the movie heroes were the cowboy stars of the 30’s and 40’s, and I’m pretty sure that Al’s favorite was John Wayne. Al crossed his arms real big, leaned back on his heels and cocked his head a little as he started speaking to the riders spread out in front of him, across the field. He made sure to harshly enunciate every syllable of each word, he asked them,

“What do you people think you are doing?”

Most of them were casually leaning on their saddle horns, curious as to the nature of this encounter. “We are taking a nice, quiet Sunday morning ride,” was the answer from one of the central riders.

“Are you related to the owner of this prop-er-ty? I know the owner of this property and none of you are him.” Nearly all of them sat up straight in their saddles with this.

“No,” was the terse answer.

“Did any of you get permission from him to ride through his property and crush his crop?

A pause, then, “And did any of you get any permission from the owners of the several orchards you’ve already ridden through back there?” Obviously, the farmer was seething.

Everyone on the receiving end of this tirade was twisting in their saddles, being very uncomfortable. No one said a word, but I was full of glee, watching Al get these adults in righteous trouble instead of us kids.

He continued, “One of those orchards is mine, and I know no one contacted me about permission.”

“Where’s the owner’s house? We’ll go get permission,” one of them ventured.

“Look behind you. You fools dare to ride ten abreast across a ripe field of barley and you think you are going to get permission to ruin more of the man’s crop? Are any of you going to pay for the acres you’ve already ruined? No one in this Valley is going to give any of you any sort of permission.” Al paused again, to let this sink in. They were all staring over the tails of their horses. Once it sank into me, I felt embarrassed for them. How utterly stupid they were, stupidly destructive.

“I’d suggest that you guys ride out of here, single file, go back to your trailers and clear out. I’d also suggest you don’t come back, except for maybe coming back and thanking us for growing some of the best fruit and vegetables in the world, especially when people like you aren’t trampling it.”

Of course, one of them had to be a smart mouth,

“Who is going to make us clear out?” and you could whispers of “Oh No,” “Don’t say that!”

“Me,” said Al, “I just gave you a damned good reason to clear out.”

But the smart mouth had to be excruciatingly childish, “You and what army?”

And everyone held their breath with this challenge,

“All I have to do is have the kid in the truck lean on the horn and you will have every landowner and every field hand in this Valley backing me up and they will be cocking their deer rifles as they come,” Al told them, brandishing his biggest and best John Wayne.

As they were filing away, Al had to add,

“Even in Army training, they tell you the one army you never want to face is an army of pissed off resident landowners.” I never forgot that. Al the farmer had proudly served in the United States Army Infantry a few years before, during World War II and he was very proud of that.

We drove up to Calero dam and adjusted the irrigation. Al didn’t say another word all the way up there and not on the way home. When we got out of the truck his face and neck were still pretty red. We saw the riders loading up the horses, and, indeed, we never saw them again.

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When you are in the center of a large, well tended orchard, you can turn in any direction and the view is always the same (except for up and down, of course). Unlike a natural forest, in an orchard, uniformity is the key to success. For the working of men, repeatability makes for greatest efficiency. The trees of an orchard are planted exactly so many feet apart, in every direction. This makes for a uniform grid work of the same type of trees over seemingly endless stretches of land.

The view to the North

The view to the East

The view to the South

The view to the West

As we grew older, we would hike through the orchards, sometimes with the kids from the new tracts of houses. It was strange to us that, often times, the tract kids would get real uncomfortable in this setting, in fact, sometimes they would actually get very panicky here. They would become disoriented and start hyperventilating and we’d have to run them to the edge of the orchard to see the sky and some distant landmarks to get properly reconnected. I don’t remember any of us country kids having this problem, though.

It has always been my theory that our immunity to this disorientation was a result of our continuous and life long traipsing over this land, back and forth, round about.  This long term traipsing had engrained the contours of our land into our psyches so that even if all the visual cues were indistinguishable from one direction to another, the one factor in the orchard that men couldn’t change, the lay of the land, always told us where we were.

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It also told us that calves couldn’t commit suicide with large rocks.

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2 Comments
  1. Andy H permalink

    When did you graduate from high school, Ed?

    Andy H. Class of 1969, Leland. (One of those “tract kids” who went on to work in, hike in, and fall in love with the hills of Almaden Valley)

    • We Almadeians were supposed to start our high school careers at Willow Glen High School and then move to Pioneer when it was finished. They finished Pioneer early so our entire high schools years were there, and we were the first kids to go there. We graduated in 1966.

      And, yep, the Doobies hung out in Los Gatos. The building you are talking about, over the foot bridge from Old Town, is Forbe’s Mill and it is one of the several Los Gatos Museums now-a-days. As the Doobies got bigger, they bought houses up in the Santa Cruz Mountains and even when they went on tour, there would be big parties at their houses while they were away. I went to several parties at one of these houses, as I remember, I was told it belonged to Michael McDonald. I remember I felt guilty about partying at someone’s house when they weren’t even in the country but I was told that the housekeeper was there and it was all real legitimate.

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