Drying Out

Florida Scrub Jay“Oh, yeah, you give me some Live Oak and a dead pig and about eleven hours, oh yeah…the smell alone could make a college-educated vegetarian drool, drive a carnivore like myself crazy and leave the uninvited jealous with envy. It’s the oak makes California barbecue the best in the Country, don’t tell them southern boys with their vinegar and hickory.”

Doug had not eaten anything since the soup he made yesterday from crayfish shells, purple and black sage, fennel and mustard greens. He had eaten the crayfish (7) two days ago.

He was alone except for the scrub jay that was an attentive listener despite the occasional Jay Bird chirp. The man and bird had shared the last of Doug’s oatmeal cookies the first day he arrived on that Malibu hillside under the thick oak canopy overlooking Crags Creek as it pooled in places and flowed shallow and slow and sometimes gave way to dry stone.

Three days earlier Doug caught a 14 inch Largemouth bass using a net he made with bamboo, willow, a tee shirt and boot laces. He used the same net to catch his crayfish. The bass was isolated in a pretty small pool. It had five flatworm parasites attached to its body. Doug gutted the fish and cooked it directly on coals, made from oak sticks, in the park up the road from his hillside perch.

There was an empty Black Velvet whiskey bottle at his side. It had been empty for two days. Every once in a while Doug took an imaginary drink from the bottle.

“When I was in high school I was with this outfit. One hustle we had was making antique furniture from red oak. Now, look see, who’s the antique? Sorry for going on about oak, but it’s something I know you can relate to, liking acorns like you do. Too bitter for me. I know the Chumash had a way of leaching out the tannic acid and making dough, but I never learned that process. Not much call for acorn bread at the restaurants.”

The scrub jay actually has a symbiotic relationship with oaks. In the summer the birds are happy with insects, but in the fall, they start eating and hiding acorns. The bird plants more than they eat, and they plant up hill from the original source of the seed. They are known as “uphill planters.” The scrub jay is vital in regenerating oak forests decimated by fire or drought.

Suddenly there was a crashing sound in the branches above. A red fox squirrel drops and bounces right at Doug’s feet.

“No shit.”

He picks up the small rust colored mammal. It’s head is crushed and it’s body is warm.

“Where did you come from?”

The squirrel came from the talons of a Cooper’s hawk. The raptor was trying to gain altitude, with the squirrel freshly caught, when two mockingbirds swooped down on the hawk. The squirrel hit an oak branch and came loose from the grip of the lethal claws.

The red fox squirrel population came from Tennessee, a few were brought out as pets for patients and staff at the Veteran’s hospital off Sepulveda. This was after the First World War. Then one day someone decided that the government should not be caring for pets with questionable health benefits. The squirrels were released. Now they are thick where ever there are people. And while they too eat acorns, they bury many more than they eat, spreading acorns beyond the reach of their parent’s shade.

Doug grabs his backpack and pulls out a tan leather roll. He unties the laces keeping it bundled and opens it flat. His eight knives are clean and obsessively sharp. Each one had a different purpose. He uses the paring knife to field dress the squirrel.

“The wife, she watches this nature show, “Naked and Afraid.” I guess she likes it. Me, I don’t care for it much. When they, the campers, talk at the camera, who do they think they are talking to? Themselves? Where is the isolation? Maybe it’s with the person watching. This squirrel gonna smell good.”

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