January, 2008 Archive


Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

The second day of rain. The gift from heaven prayed for in need. Wet. Cold. Dark.

My aunt Hannelore died Monday in Sao Paulo. She was 86, my mother’s half sister. We met in person only during the visit Jan and I made to Brazil ten years ago. But we talked regularly on the phone, and corresponded at length by letter and email. She was a born writer with a great mind. They wouldn’t let her become a doctor in the 1930’s. She married an older man who took a mistress and left her nothing in his will. She always loved him. “In her home when she was going to upstairs, her hart stooped and she died quietly,” wrote my cousin Marcelo.

On Friday we attended Maggie’s funeral. Saturday was Don’s memorial celebration in Lund. Sunday a fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration outside Solvang, where I sat next to a woman I went to elementary school with. We didn’t say it, but looked at each other marveling at the ravages of time.

I’m feeling overwhelmed by the demands of teaching, the impending climax of Focus the Nation next week, the huge expansion of the Sierra Club’s chapter’s commitments to lawsuits and fundraisers. I cant do justice to any of the specific obligations they incur, let alone to the doom-laden mission to do something about the threat of Global Warming which lurks behind all of them.

I wake up with grim determination to get through the day and I plow through the piled on tasks longing simply for the moment to sink into the pillow at night. Maggie, Don, Hannelore, enjoy your rest.

I regret binding myself with duties that generate unrelenting anxiety, that pull me away from the innocent vitality and the fresh bodies of my four grandchildren, and of the other kids at Ian’s school I was able to play with in the autumn. I long for more of the retreat at Knoll House and regret leasing it out to Tristen and his family for another year or two.

I read Thoreau to prepare for today’s class.

There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still. There was never yet such a storm but it was Æolian music(1) to a healthy and innocent ear. Nothing can rightly compel a simple and brave man to a vulgar sadness. While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me. The gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house today is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too.

I want to take this therapy with a walk outside or with reading my own ecologs, but instead I have to scurry to get on with the jobs at hand. I know that the movement through isolation and sadness leads to connectedness and joy, and that the more room given to grief, the grander the reward:

I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery. In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.

Another mixture of Henry’s truth and lies. One hour only he says he felt lonesome. But I sense that he grappled with that “insanity” every day, rain or shine. And that he knew the struggle was what produced the exaltation that made the common companionships of life pale to inadequacy. Every gorgeous item in the catalogue of solitary joys that follows is drawn with ink of ashes and tears.

Two sendoffs

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Today is the memorial gathering in the Gazebo for Don Worthen.

Yesterday we attended the funeral of Maggie Ballesteros, Teresa Fisher’s sister in Paso Robles. She helped take care of Ian between one and three years old while Teresa worked. We saw her frequently during that period and got quite close.


She died of colon cancer, the same disease afflicting Teresa and her brother Art. Teresa urged us to come to the ceremony and sit in the front rows with the family.

It took place in the St. Rose Catholic Church, a large building with a huge crucifix and a realistic statue of crucified Jesus above the altar. First came a viewing of the body–bewigged and coated with a rainbow of different colored makeup. Then a two hour rosary and mass in both Spanish and English. Ian stayed with us for the first hour, drawing a picture of Maggie with wings, and saying he missed her. The sallow priest officiated in a low drone.
We got lost on the way to the cemetery and stopped at Starbucks for directions and espressos.

Back on track, we drove through a beautiful wrought iron gate marked 1892 down into a little hollow where a crowd stood by the open grave surrounded by the flat monuments of the family plot and half a dozen ancient Valley Oaks, leafless and silver trunked, casting dramatic shadows in the low January light. Art, who was put under hospice care the day after Maggie died, was brought to the graveside in a wheelchair. An eight-man mariachi band played mournful elegies while the children ran up and down the grassy hillside above the hollow or sat in groups on the flat gravestones. After one long Spanish song by an elder of the family, the huge casket was lowered into the ground, and adults and children lined up to drop handfuls of dirt brought from the old family ranch on top of it.

As the air got chillier, people got back into their cars, returned to the St. Rose Church, and met in the bright gymnasium for what turned into an amazing party. Here are few pictures.

Sowing Peas

Monday, January 14th, 2008

It took more time than conceiving a baby, but planting a new crop of snow peas was finished in the half hour between our Sunday morning walk with the dog and taking great grandma out to lunch at the Sushi bar. Now there’s less than a half hour to write about it, between completing Monday morning’s preparation and leaving for class.

I yanked the decrepit old cherry tomato plants out of the raised bed and salvaged the remaining fruits to explode in my mouth while spading the damp compressed soil. I’d planned simply to insert the peas in the ground without disturbing the soil structure but it was too hard for my forefinger to penetrate. Digging revealed that roots, probably from the adjoining Toyon or Hollyleaf Cherry, had invaded the bed from below and were converting it into a dense fibrous tissue. With the shovel I was able to turn the soil and pull out most of them. I used a hand cultivator to smooth the surface and picked out several dozen stones that somehow had floated to the surface. Then in a corner of the bed, I poked a circle of ten holes and dropped one hard quarter inch sphere into each. I made six more such circles to fill the space of the bed. At the center of each I stuck one of the ten foot bamboo stalks I’d been reusing for years to grow peas and beans and tomatos. I pulled the tops of the bamboo stalks together like tipi poles and tied them up with a short length of soft cotton string that I’d cut off one of them with kitchen scissors. I patted the soil smooth over the seeds with the flat of my hands. Seventy seeds, sixty climbing vines, twenty sweet and crunchy pea pods each, by the end of March, when it will be time to replant tomatoes.

Under the Dome

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

4:45 p.m. close to sunset, sound of hoofs galloping behind the dome where thirty people sit quiet, the light and warmth of a day between storms waning.

A single birdcall highlighted against the silence protected in this hollow between Caballo peak and Cuesta ridge. Poly Mountain rises to the south, Rockslide Ridge to the north. A wispy cloud above the summit of the peak begins to luminsce below higher dark gray clouds, then drops below the ridge line. A small stream meanders through the middle of the structure, separating the rickety stage from the new concrete amphitheatre seats. Poly Mountain’s north flank now burnished with dark gold light from the invisible sunset. Muscles tensed from a day of preparation, teaching and hiking up the slippery canyon trail slowly relax as the weight of the body settles on the cool cushion of stone.