Catching Raindrops

ocean and mountainsThe skies are clearer in the Monterey Bay area these days, betokening a shift in the wind more than a lessening of Western conflagrations. Still, the respite is welcome, a breath of fresh air, lifting the trembling skirts of riparian trees to show a subtle yellowing of leaves that indicates approaching autumn. Out in the bay, anchovies are schooling; the air is rent with diving cormorants, and the curved dorsal fins of dolphins as they dive off of West Cliff never fail to elicit gasps of delight from locals and tourists alike. How is it that the merest glimpse of something can stand in for the whole thing? We see a sleek grey scimitar slicing the water, the barest breach of a slick grey back, and we conjure the whole beloved dolphin instantly, imagining it flowing gracefully underwater. Powerful, joyful, the knowing eyes and the laughing mouth, the intricate, folded brain whose bright intelligence diverges from our own in ways not yet remotely understood.
I don’t know what the dolphins have to do with this journal yet, but they asked to be included; their image flowed from the pen like their sleek dark shapes through clear water. I let them flow, from sea to screen to you. This missive was written on the beach, as we escaped the heat and swelter of the inland hills for a breath of cool coastal air. We left the wilting tomatoes and the tired pumpkin vines to their fate, exercised our privileged mammalian locomotion to travel down to the cool Pacific ocean. Sand between the toes, breeze ruffling whitecaps and lashing wisps of ponytail. A breath of air, indeed; wind, I am always powerfully reminded, is the breath of the planet, driven by shifting temperatures around the globe. The earth is breathing faster these days, heat rising higher as temperatures climb, drawing the wind currents faster toward them. The dark underbelly of every cooling breeze, of course, is the fuel it might give to wayward sparks or glowing embers; still, we let it lift the hair on the back of our necks, take the refreshing gift of its coolness with a coarse grain of sea salt.

The heat is helping to dry raisins, from grapes we picked many weeks ago off an arbor overlooking the vast Pacific. A blue variety, dark and tart and sweet, that are said to taste like blueberries when they dry. They dry slowly, whole on their branched, woody clusters, slowly wrinkling and shrinking as they lose water. We keep them on screens in the sauna, where we alternately burn brush to heat the small room, or let the sun heat them through the thin roof in that same darkness, when the fire goes out. While it seems counter-intuitive to sauna in the heat, there is something medicinal in the practice, a way to open to the extremes of heat, to acclimate the body to the heat of late summer.

This week’s recipe for sambal is another kind of heat, a fire that burns on the tongue and in the belly, heating the body from within. It brings home the true meaning of the word “calorie" as a measure of heat, transcends the boundaries between flame and sun and spice. The flavors (sweetness, acidity, heat) remind us that we are truly eating stored sunshine, with every bite we take. Bright sun of fermented pepper paste, to spice our winter meals with the sweet flame of summer.

We have weeks left of late summer/ early autumn sunshine, but a threatened dry lightening front the other day brought a wash of stormy grey clouds. Luckily, no lightening struck. Just a few fat raindrops fell, barely enough to release the vibrant scent of petrichor from the parched ground. But it was enough. While driving home from the beach, back up onto the long ridge on Empire Grade, we opened the windows to smell the good first-rain smell, put our hands out the window to feel the fat drops splash into our open palms. As we drove, we saw several other cars whose drivers also had their hands stuck out the window, doing the same thing. A sweet kind of communion in the moment, so many of us reaching for connection as we went about our day; open-handed, yearning, excited to feel the first wet touch of rain.