Saturday, February 8, 2014

Stupidity in the name of science

It's raining. Glorious downpour.  The sound of it is everywhere in my ears, in this house with no attics, and ceilings right up to the clay roof tiles. Rain pouring past me left to right, and the frogs are suddenly shrieking with glee.

It's been a long, dry, lonely winter (TM Beatles), and the drought has had all of California mesmerized and still, and now, on day three of a ceaseless, miraculous wet, we are soaking it in through our ears and our pores and our tongues and our skins.  All of us: the hills and the people and the frogs and the creeks and the empty, empty reservoirs.   My hair has been damp for 48 hours, my jeans are steaming ever so gently.  I would change  - a pair of flannel checked pajamas is calling my name - but even here on my couch, I'm with the frogs right now. Let us be damp.

I was a freshman in college at the end of the seven year drought.  Seven years of water rations and cracked earth and three minute showers, and all of California was aching for rain like tonight's.  I lived in the freshman dorms, in one of two L shaped buildings that faced each other across a central quad.  And one night - we'd been there, all of  us, a month, maybe two, when out of the blue, on a warm evening, it started to rain. I was at my desk studying, and my roommate was reading in her bed, and we heard, suddenly, whooping and yelling from the quad.  It's college.  One pays no attention.  But the yelling went on and the whooping got louder until finally we looked out the window and realized - it was raining.  It felt like a miracle.  And the quad below us was filled with freshman, war dancing, rain dancing, half of them half naked and some of them all naked, turning the lawn into a mud bath and shrieking with glee. Like the frogs.  They were all one with the frogs that night.

We joined them, of course.

It rained for the next five years, on and off, more on than off, in that bit of the world. I studied biology, and my professors explained - correctly - that if one is afraid to do biology in the rain, one is going to miss most of one's chances to see life.  So we bird watched in the rain, and we studied meadow voles in the rain, and fish-sampled in the rain.  We SCUBA dove in the rain, we hiked, we botanized, we camped in the rain, we tidepooled in the rain.  For five years, this was how life was.  But that was a very long time ago now.

Now, one is sensible and  stays indoors in the rain, and uses rainy Saturdays as good times to get the kids' Valentines made.  I spent my rainy Saturday with foam heart stickers, and playing Chutes and Ladders, and Memory, and Mancala.  There was some running of errands with umbrellas and rain boots and running from house to car to shop to car to house, keeping the kids dry.

We kept them dry, and happy, all day.  We fed them dinner.  They loaded the dishwasher, and scattered to their last hour's playtime before bed.  The rain poured on.  And I said a stupid thing.  I said "Who wants to help me find a newt?"

My husband did not.  Ten minutes later I was driving up a winding, unlit road in a mix of fog and downpour, with two children.  Each child was fully equipped with a rain coat, rain boots, a glow stick round its neck and a flashlight in its hand.  I had another flashlight - with brand new batteries - and two umbrellas.

Sometimes I have very bad ideas.  You see, near me, through a bit of hill country, there is a road that is closed from November through April.  It's gated off because of the newts.  The newts, apparently, love to cross this road on their way to making love and babies, and they like to do so at night in the rain.  And the newts are rare, and ponderously slow, and they make very little squish under a tire.  So the road is gated off.  I, being me, clearly felt that this presented a lovely opportunity.  I mean, it's been a drought for how long now?  It last rained..... last April??  The newts have been waiting 10 months for rain, surely tonight they would be out en masse, no?  And I am raising small boys, and small boys like newts, and one plus one is obviously "deck children out in rain gear and glowsticks and head out into the pitchy wet."

What I failed to calculate, off course, is that the road is actually not in my sweet rural town.  It's over across the way, in the outskirts of one of the most crime-ridden cities in America. 

So when I got to the gate that closed off the newt road, on a pitch black night with dense fog and pouring rain, in what felt like the middle of nowhere, I realized that I was not, as I'd expected, going to be alone with my kids.  As we slowed down to park, another car drove by, and also slowed - way, way, down, to a crawl. Clearly scoping us out. We waited for them to pass - it took awhile, and turned into a dirt pullout to park.  Where there was another car parked.  An occupied car.  My hackles were rising, but I'd promised my kids newts, and surely these were just... other nature lovers, out to enjoy the rain.

Two kids and their rainboots and raincoats and glowsticks and flashlights and I tumbled out of the car, into the pouring rain, and heading across the main road to the path that would take us around the barrier and onto Newt Road.  But another car pulled up - parked itself right across the barrier, in fact, so that I held the kids hands and didn't let them cross because I couldn't tell if it was coming or staying or turning around or parking illegally...and it turned off its lights.  So we hurried past it, and the barrier, and it turned on its lights again, but didn't go.... and the three of us headed down Newt Road with our umbrellas and our flashlights, heading into the wilderness, on a fully deserted, barricaded road into wilderness; a petite woman with two tiny children in tow.  Two umbrellas.  Three flashlights and two glow sticks. And no other lights, and no other people, except for three dodgy cars, which seemed to be carrying someone other than newt enthusiasts.

We went round a bend quickly, and the cars were out of sight.  Ahead of us were tall hills, and around us everywhere were great tall pines, with fog floating through them to the road.  The rain and our boots were all the sounds, so that an airplane overhead sounded as loud as thunder, and made kid-the-smallest shrink close to my legs.  We walked and we walked, and the road stayed newt-free, and on the pretext of searching for newts I swept the flashlight behind me, back up the road, every few minutes.  The kid-the-smallest was nervous in the dark, but kid-the-older and I promised to keep him safe, and he seemed to believe us. On the pretext of "better newt hunting" I took us off the main road and onto a side road, so that, just in case, our very well lit presence would not be... quite so obvious.

And I stayed brightly cheery, and the kids stayed cheerful, but there were no newts, and far sooner than I might otherwise have done, sans dodgy cars, I turned our party back and headed for the car.  But before we turned the last corner to the barrier, I doused all the lights but one, and held tightly to the hands of my children, and when they were in the car, I locked the doors before even turning to strap them in.

We drove home by the light of the cats' eyes in the road; I wouldn't have found the way without them, the fog and rain were so dense. And I put my children in their beds, and as I kissed kid-the-older  goodnight, I said to him "Thanks for coming with me.  I think you were very brave."

"So were you," he whispered back.

More than you know, kid.  And more foolhardy.

The next time I go newt hunting at night, I will not be the only adult.  And that particular spot will not be where I go.