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The Time Traveler

As I learn more about the history and environment of the Central Valley, many of the sights, sounds, and places once familiar have taken on whole new meanings and depth.

 

Growing up, I always associated scrub jays with hot summer days, the smell of cut grass, the sound of neighbors splashing in their backyard pools, and the hiss of sprinklers irrigating immaculately groomed lawns. I’ve associated them and their harsh songs with a familiar suburban life that is conventional, unremarkable, and void of history and context. 

 

I recently learned a number of interesting facts about scrub jays, including their practice of gathering in large groups when one of them dies (allegedly resembling a funeral, although there are different theories about why they do this), their surprisingly good memory, and their ability to understand that other creatures have motives different from their own (apparently a trait not shared by many other animals beside humans). They’re also considered by some ecologists to be a keystone species because of their instrumental role in spreading oak trees by burying acorns.

 

I’ve also come to appreciate that frantic and abrasive ruckus by which they communicate. It has been a central and recognizable part of the soundtrack of this place going back centuries. The scrub jays here have witnessed countless generations of human activity, from the loving acts of grandparents passing traditional knowledge to their young people, to the nightmare of violent social and ecological change at the hands of colonizers over the last two centuries. They were here when grizzly bears and herds of tule elk roamed the valley floor and bore witness to their utter destruction and displacement. They saw riverboats transporting grain before the railroads, greeted dust-bowl migrants as they traveled up and down the valley in search of work, and continue to persist despite suburban sprawl and a changing climate. 

 

I’ve got a whole new perspective now on these  truly remarkable neighbors with whom I’ve shared space since childhood, but have never really seen or appreciated until now.