The beginning of the year is a vital time to seasonal dude ranches. It is during the late winter and early spring that we begin to accelerate our efforts to prepare for the arrival of the coming season’s guests. It is during this time that in ordinary years, we remodel cabins, develop new infrastructure, and upgrade those thorny details that drew our attention during the past summer. During this particular January the focus of our energy at Marble Mountain Ranch will mostly be directed to the more basic points of surviving the Winter. Our focus this Winter will be on recovering from the worst snow storm we have seen since, well…. Let’s just say that there isn’t anyone around who remembers a storm like this, hitting Northern California. So, its been a long time. The newscasters are telling us that as of February, Northern California has 173% of the snow pack for a normal year. California’s 5 year drought is all but over, and our snow damage related work is just beginning.
I have always found it somewhat ironic that the landscape of the ranch is so drastically altered at this time of year. The bitter cold of winter often breaks pipes and cracks stones. The intense humidity, heavy rainfall and moisture laden snow push down giant pines, doug firs, and hardwoods that fall onto fences and structures placed in unfortunate locations near the trees. Equipment and other valuables are covered with tarps, resting motionless with the stillness of a cold mechanical corpse. The vibrancy of summer has left no trace, and there is an eerie quietude that pervades every corner of the ranch’s frigid, aching body. What I find ironic is the way that the ranch’s appearance represents a struggle that to many, probably seems benign. Can the groomed, manicured and lush ranch of the Summer really look this battered in Winter? Could a place teeming with so much life, become so incredibly quiet? Could one storm bring so much destruction? The answers are a resounding YES to all of the above. The appearance of seasonal hibernation and winter survival lies not just in the drama of twisted and fallen trees, but also in the mixing of snow, mud, and broken tree limbs. All of this is added to the fallen fruits remaining from the autumn harvests.
The off-season as we call it, when we are not open for business, stretches from Thanksgiving through Easter. It’s not uncommon for ranches and other properties in our region of California to experience damage during the off-season. The Marble Mountain Ranch is no exception to the struggles of Winter. But, there are a few things that make clean up on the ranch a little extra sticky. Pun intended. You see, one of the hallmarks of Marble Mountain Ranch is the abundance of fresh produce that is grown on our property. But, as any rancher can tell you, Mother Nature is not necessarily a speedy “Cleaner- Upper”. The combination of the rain, snow, wind, humidity, and abundance of residual windfall apples, pears, figs, plums, stone-fruits and walnuts can leave the ranch looking like, well….. Like a ranch that got stuck in a blender.
In The Trees – the first place to anticipate winter damage and messes is, naturally, at the source. We have an exceptional orchard population of apple trees, pears, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, and exotics that continue to produce fruit from July through November. Even with daily efforts to harvest, and to share with our neighbors and animals, we still have more fruit than we can pick. The fruits that go unharvested typically rot on the branch until harvested by the army of avian fruit scavengers and climbing herbivores. It also doesn’t help that our mountains are home to large, hungry and large, large black bears (did I say LARGE?) that love to climb up the trees and gorge themselves while endeavoring to add fat for a winter fast. This often results in broken trees and damaged property. The bears tend not to bother the nuts as much though. The residual walnuts and pecans are attacked by the stellar jays, ravens, crows, squirrels, and even our ranch dogs. Have you ever seen a dog grazing on walnuts? Yes, it happens and we have accepted our omnivorous canines in spite of their out-of-the-norm dining habits.
What ever tree might have survived the scouring from the grazing wildlife will next be required to stay upright in a Winter that could likely pound it with 60 – 90 inches of rain in one three month season. Then, with the ground fully saturated with water, the poor trees need to muster the strength to stay upright when loaded with several feet of wet sticky snow. Not all of the standing trees will survive even a normal winter here, and this year the losses were immeasurable.
On The ground – the mass of fruit that is simultaneously ripening on the vine literally spills out of the trees and floods the ground with a sticky, seedy, pulpy mess. (It should be noted that this is worst in late fall, after the prime guest ranch season). Maybe this is why despite the equally prolific black bears that damage our trees, we still have new trees that bear fruit with each new year. The fruit is more easily managed because it is contained to more specific areas of the ranch. But the most challenging mess to clean up off the ranch floor is, by far, the sea of walnuts and pecans. Long before the ranch was used as a resort, it was a gold mine, a homestead ranch, fish camp and a number of other incarnations. At some point, a past owner decided to plant a cash crop in the form of dozens black and English walnut trees in the ranch center. You can see them still. Their long arms stretch across the space between buildings and offer shade and attractive foliage during the summer. By September they hold seeming millions of nuts ripening for the harvest. They fall and collect in mass at the base of tree rows now lining our roads and walk-ways. It is not uncommon in the Fall for the only audible noise of a passing pedestrian to be the crunching of nuts under foot. Where there was once a cooling summer shade canopy, there is now a minefield of autumn nut-bombs.
On Your Car – We have probably all heard the phrase, “If it wasn’t this, it would be something else.”
You would think that fruit laden trees would seemingly be a self evident and axiomatic observation, leading one to not park a car or truck directly under said fruit bearing tree. A good mantra might be something to the effect of “gravity always wins, and cars parked under fruit trees always loose”. While apples, pears, figs and the like will camouflage your prized auto in a fruit puree pattern, the walnuts might actually leave the dorsal surface of your vehicle pitted rather like the survivor of a biblical hailstorm. Nope, we don’t leave autos under fruit trees and especially not under nut trees during the ranch harvest or winter seasons.
On Your Head –
While I cannot recall any ranch resident that has had a cranial – fruit bonding moment, I do acknowledge the existence of a few fruity members of my family tree. However, we have had renegade squirrels propel walnuts onto the heads and necks of passers-by (my wife most notably) during the harvest season. One noteworthy sacrilegious squirrel attack on a Sunday morning left my wife Heidi with an otherwise put-together Sunday outfit that was pocked with black walnut husk stains spattered along her back side. I blame the rodents for this act of aggression and consider the fruit and nut trees to be mostly innocent accessories to the crime. This aggressive act has at times, and in years past been the impetus to a declaration of war waged against the defiant, angry, barking tree squirrel population. To quote another victim of random violence: “Can’t we all just get along?” Just take your nuts and leave the flower beds alone!
On Your Toast – This is definitely the most favorable, and might I add, flavorful, outcome that you could hope for. All of the falling fruit isn’t good for nothing. We labor each year to harvest and preserve as much of our produce as we possibly can. This is our way of trying to economically, and ecologically utilize the literal fruits of the ranch, and to practice sustainable farming. What we harvest is used to make jams, jellies, chutneys, marinades, sauces, juices, vinegars, dressings, and more. Much of what we are not able to use is fed to our neighbors, staff, horses, goats, chickens, and finally to our compost pile.
It’s no lie that things can get messy fast on a ranch. It only takes one storm to undo a lot of hard work, and cause extreme damage. To this point, we now have a 10 year supply of firewood to heat the house and fruit-wood for the meat smoker thanks to the 100 year snow storm we have just endured.
But we also know that we have been blessed. Mother Nature is still the biggest mess maker of all time, but she also keeps giving us more than we know what to do with. Her abundance allows us to be that much more generous to others, and helps us continue to give the ranch its own wholesome, and hand crafted feel. Besides, everyone on the ranch knows that the secret to Heidi’s jelly is actually that the fruit was first hurled through the fresh mountain air, clipped a river guide on the ear, narrowly missed the cowboys’ hat, and finagled its way into the kitchen to marinade with a delicious blend of homemade spices, and a pinch of ranch grit. Oh, and does anybody need a chord of firewood? The price of firewood is right this year!
Doug Cole and Cierra Sorensen