The contentious English gamecock is giving Ronna Jurow a problem. Actually, it would like to take her eyes out, which it almost did once.
"Oh, come here now," coos Jurow, her hands and forearms covered in protective leather, reeling in the leashed dervish as it splays and flaps and screeches and kicks up dust clouds with its scratching spinning feet.
"There." She snatches him up from the ground. He sinks his beak into her left arm, then takes a pass at her face, missing her chin by about an inch.
"Hey, you stop that," says Jurow, a gynecologist who practices in Ventura. "It's your mom here. \o7 Hey\f7 ! I'm your \o7 mom\f7 ."
Inexplicably, the thing calms down.
Jurow looks up, cradling the gamecock as if he were a precious newborn infant, and greets a visitor: "Really beautiful, isn't he?" asks Jurow.
Twelve miles to the north, Peter Strauss has another kind of problem.
"I have alien pests," he says, furrowing his brow. "The Argentinean ant. European brown snails. I have the ash whitefly, whose only natural predator is in Greece. It's the Jet Age. The Jet Age has produced a nightmare of pests."
A machine drones nearby, and Strauss spies his spray tractor in the orange grove below his house.
He smiles broadly--the smile that makes him the familiar television and movie actor--and waves its driver to a stop. There's a holding tank and inside is a nasty roiling brew of opaque liquid formulated by Strauss to keep each of his 2,908 citrus trees hearty.
"The Magic Cocktail," he says, beaming with pride. "Magnesium. Nitrogen. Other stuff. Today we apply the Magic Cocktail."
Farther east in the county is Don Marquis. Marquis has no gamecocks, no pests, no cocktails. Instead he has a water problem.
Dressed in a shirt and tie for the next software deal, he lurches up gullied roads in his air-conditioned Toyota 4-Runner, pointing out this avocado grove and that lemon tract.
"Over here," he says, pointing into trees, "that's where I'd love to put my house. But who knows when I can do that? My current house is worth squat--no equity. And business now?" His voice trails off.
He stops, hops out. Shielding his eyes with one hand and gesturing to the surrounding hills with the other, a smile transforms him:
"It's neat. It really is," he says. "It's beautiful through here."
A physician, an actor, a salesman. They couldn't be more different. Yet each has the bug. Each is ineluctably drawn to another life--a life that is often more difficult and always more random and expensive than anything each has known: to be a farmer.
It has nothing to do with gynecology, surely, although Jurow does run from delivering babies at hospitals in Ventura to overseeing in her fowl hatchery, 50 feet from her modern house in unincorporated Ventura County, near Santa Paula.
It has no connection to making money by being somebody else, as actors do. So for Peter Strauss, farming at his home in Ojai represents a stretch.
And the relationship between citrus irrigation and electrical engineering software is, well, strained at best: Don Marquis of Woodland Hills simply dreams of building the house in Moorpark that will complete his migration to the farm life.
But two key things tie these country pilgrims together: successful professional careers from which they take money to create the misery and joy that defines "connection to the land" and the fact that none, despite theft, seasonal humiliations and sometimes impossible wars against viruses and fungi, would turn back on that choice.
They have company, too. Pro-Ag, a leading farm management company in Moorpark, notes that since the division of Ventura County's vast ranches in the mid-1970s, white-collar professionals have increasingly purchased 10 or 20 or even 40 acres of lemon and avocado groves and then set about farming them.
Jurow came from anything but overalls. Forget gynecology--that came after her life as a successful opera singer.
While a Berkeley undergraduate, she won a Merola Foundation Award from the San Francisco Opera. It marked the start of a career, in 1969, as a coloratura soprano with the Santa Fe Opera, the Houston Opera, the Salzburg Opera, the Klagenfurt Opera and the Linz Opera, with appearances at Wolf Trap and Vienna's Schoenbrunn Summer Festival.
But the itinerant single life had desolation made worse by what she saw in her future: "Those high notes leave you as you approach menopause," Jurow says, "and in my late 20s, I knew I didn't want to be a fat old singing teacher."
She quit and flew home to San Mateo, to the Bay Area house where she had grown up. She had had an interest in medicine: It was a family legacy. But her father, a physician, and two brothers, both physicians, had dissuaded her. Not this time: Jurow finally went to medical school, at UC San Francisco, then quickly established herself in Los Angeles, with a fellowship and faculty appointment at the USC Medical Center.