June gloom? I’ve got it made in the shade

Photo by Tricia Wilcox

My sister returned to Malibu from a week in the mountains delighted with the forecast for a weekend lifting of June gloom and a return of sunshine to the coast. Our thanks to Coastal Eddy’s timely, if temporary, retreat.

Of course, there was plenty of sunshine here at 4,000 feet. But it was partly too hot and partly too windy to enjoy sitting outdoors much, so a return to soft ocean breezes was welcome. Every day, I’ve been saying it’s time to put up the shade cloth over the patio, both to cool the inside of the house and to make it more pleasant to sit outside. But the timing of this annual ritual is tricky. It should go up by Memorial Day and come down before Halloween. Not exactly rocket science, but last year I missed Halloween and wound up frantically trying to unhook it as a heavy, wet snow was piling up ready to rip it to shreds. It’s a rather nifty design, if I do say so, copied partially from one used by our local landscaper at his nursery. It was he who warned me about the snow, admitting he had gotten up at three in the morning to take his down in the midst of a howling blizzard. I allowed for this in the design, securing the grommets on one side to eyebolts on the eaves with a continuous line of green twine. Kind of like a chain stitch on a T-shirt, one snip of the scissors unwinds the whole thing. Getting it up is another matter. Last year, by sheer luck and procrastination, it was still folded in the garage when the June wildfire swept over us. It would have curled into molten bubbles like the spa cover. Yuck.

The most vexing problem is birds’ nests. If I’m home during spring nest building time, I discourage the little songbirds from constructing their homes on top of the coach lights, which they seem to think is just about the finest location imaginable. It isn’t for the birdies or for me. For 2-year-old Amy, it’s perfect. She watches for hours as they fly in with twigs, weeds, bits of landscape twine and Border collie hair. Sometimes the orange cat sits beside Amy, patiently watching. But their motives are not the same. As the birds flit around tamping it all into place, Amy is waiting for eggs. The orange cat waits for a misstep.

After a few days in Malibu, I returned to find nesting stuff speckled with birdie guano decorating my strawberry pot. Too late to dissuade them, I guess. My sister asks what will happen to the birds if I put up the shade cloth. I know they can fly in and out under it if I leave the vertical screens off. Still, I waited. Then a huge windstorm came up in the night and partially dislodged the nests, leaving them perched rakishly over the lamp’s edge. After no birds appeared for two days, I climbed up and peered inside using a mirror. No eggs. No baby birdies. In just three hours, including a trip to Ace Hardware for more u-clamps and nuts, and bumping my head only five times on the hanging geranium basket, I had the support cables stretched crisscrossing the patio and the shade cloth secured to the eaves. I left the screens off temporarily. The birds returned to check out my work, sat on the rain gutters twitting their opinions then flew off to their new digs. Now, because the screens still aren’t in place, a few enterprising wasps stealthily track the underside of the cloth devouring tiny flying creatures that cling there. It’s a whole new science project, monitored carefully by Amy and the orange cat.

My daughter returns, astonished at my successful construction, and Amy explains that the birdies moved their nests and their babies to a safer place (while she was napping, of course). And “Look at the bees, Mommy. They’re eating bugs. Yucky,” she giggles gleefully.

With no eggs and no baby birdies to stalk, the orange cat has gone to the front yard where it lies in wait for lizards as the sun sets. The German short hair pointer goes with him. He points lizards when he can’t find quail or dove. Pretty soon he points something under the plum tree and emits a deep growling bark. My daughter says, “Tucker has a snake!” She grabs her 410 and runs down the hill. We hear no shots. She comes back with a 5-foot-long snakeskin minus the part that goes over the head and a 4-inch piece of the tail. No rattles. The granddaddy of all gopher snakes had chosen that moment to crawl into an abandoned rodent hole shedding its skin in the plum tree’s wire netting. Amy is fascinated with the papery, translucent ghost snake.

“A Weekend in the Country,” how enchanting, how delightfully droll,” as Sondheim would sing.

Later, I call my sister to tell her the birds are safe and the shade cloth is up and her grandniece is a budding scientist. She says Coastal Eddy is back with more June gloom.