I start walking around 8 a.m., which is my usual time to hike with the donkeys and dogs, but it’s unusual to hear coyote yipping at this hour. The sound seems to be coming from the creek. Coyote normally hunt-sing at night, so I wonder why I hear them now. But, like many mysteries at Mule Springs, this one hovers unresolved.
So, I turn our little group in another direction and make my way, carefully through tall, dead grass, to the house site we did not choose. It sits directly above the old barn, and is distinctive for its single noble oak perched on the hill.
The dogs circle outwards and hunt for mice while the donkeys stroll along with me. First Chippo walks by my side, and I lay a hand on his furry brown back. We walk in unison for a few moments, and then he speeds up, and I slide my hand down his backbone, over his rump and give his tail a slight squeeze as he moves ahead. Ziggy comes up then, and stays with me as we pass the oak and move fifty yards away to a colorful grouping of rocks.
A variety of lichen in butterscotch, pearl-gray, and deep rose splotch the stone. Verdant mosses add cushiony depth to the twiggy spray of fungus designs, and at the base of each rock, acorns lie scattered. An old tattered bone rests among the chips of broken acorn. Its presence may be more than coincidence. Birds and animals need calcium. I envision a bright-eyed ground squirrel sitting up and gnawing on the bone fragment. As its teeth score the bone, the squirrel peers over the oak savannah watching for movement.
The ground under the largest rock is dug away and allows the squirrel instant escape from overhead predators. Perhaps these rocks comprise a dome for a burrow? Though each squirrel has its own tunnel entrance, many squirrels can live in a burrow.
A well-trodden rodent path runs from the big rock down to the oak savannah where many acorns lie ready for eating and storage. This fall the squirrels will make many trips on the path to reach the acorns.
It’s been a banner year for acorns. Certainly it has not been a mast year where acorns layer the woodland floor ankle-deep, but it has been raining acorns for several weeks. They have pinged the barn’s tin roof, and kept up a constant staccato drum as they hit and rolled onto the walks and lodged into every pit, pot, and crevice below.
On this fine day an oak in the savannah stands covered with pumpkin colored leaves. Soon enough, the orangey-brown leaves will layer the ground under the snow, while California ground squirrel lie half-curled up against each other in their protected burrows.