The holiday began with Ian cutting chard leaves and eating them cooked, then playing the letter game with me on the floor after supper. A return to the rapport we used to share when he spent more time here, not just intervals between school and home.
I’ve anticipated this holiday for weeks, though I wasnt sure I’d be able to get away. I didnt pack my gear until just before leaving last night. I’ve been longing for a respite from the campaigns–Jan’s and Obama’s–and from my own compulsive clicking on the news of world economic collapse. I’ve found surcease only while working in the garden and on my upcoming talk on “God and Nature” for the Methodist Church in Morro Bay.
After Dennis took Ian home last night, I pedaled across campus toward Poly Canyon. Car, bike and pedestrian traffic bustled on the approaches to the new residential complex at its mouth. The parking structure, swimming pool and athletic field lights cast a garish glow on the huge eucalypti and the mountainsides, but halfway up the canyon it was replaced by moonlight and the hooting of owls. Beyond the Peterson Ranch buildings, I crossed paths with two other bicyclists wearing headlamps as bright as an automobile’s.
I parked the bike by the dirt road near the junction of the south and middle forks of the creek at the base of Cuesta Ridge, a spot insulated from noise and open to a broad sky. The cricket sounds were overtaken by the rising and falling roar of a crowd way back on campus, probably a soccer game. By the time I’d finished unpacking and fiddling with my camera, the roar disappeared, and the chorus of crickets returned, now with its own throbbing pulse, like the sound of the stars. Through my binoculars I saw black shadows of mountains on the bright side of the half moon’s dividing line and white summits peeking through the dark side. As I settled into my sleeping bag, a family of coyotes yodeled to one another across the valley. Overhead, a shooting star stitched in and out of existence.
I awoke at 2:30. The moon had set and Orion stared down at me. I rested my camera on my shoe and took a fifteen second exposure with manual focus at 1600 ISO.
After hiding the bike, and hiking up above Magpie Falls, I sit under an old oak on the lee side of the wildly gusting wind. Sun about to top eastern ridge.
Shadows creeping down the hill, too slow to reveal motion, like the minute hand.
8:20 The sun has cleared the ridge. The air is warmed. The wind settled, though audible in the uphill treetops remaining in shadow.
9:00 I break the fast with a mouthful of trail mix: cashews, macadamias, almonds, dried cranberries and pineapple. I forgo the ordeal of grogginess, headache and gnawing stomach. My body, I tell myself, gets enough mortification from sore joints top to toe. I lie back on the Thermarest and lean my head on the ancient trunk.
The Brizzolara Creek drainage extends below me bathed in sunlight. Oaks, bays and sycamores still deep green, the sycamore limbs chalk white. No signs of human habitation, except a few houses in amongst the urban forest on San Luis Mt. visible through the gap between Poly Mt. and Caballo Peak.
10:00 The sweet astringent aroma of tarweed tingles in my nostrils and clears my sinuses. In the shade I still want my windbreaker, but the grassland outside the oak’s dripline heats up. Yesterday it was 97 around noon in SLO.
11:55 I’ve moved to the northside of the tree, where the slope tilts me back toward the trunk instead of downhill away from it.
Jacket off, chilly wind turned to cooling breeze. I’m back from wandering down into the Magpie Falls gully. Its been years. I tried to catch spider webs catching the morning light.
The beautiful gnarled Toyon and the oak with branches touching ground were still there, but poison oak mades it hard to get through. Threading my way up the parched streambed to the hidden escarpment, I was met by a foul smell. Around the last tight corner I found a murky little pool at the base, thousands of black larvae and a dead snake floating on its surface. I wanted to get out fast, but the serpentine cliffs were crumbly and treacherous.
My tree is behind a new electric fence excluding cattle from the riparian area. Under the oaks dozens of new seedlings are thriving.
It’s a surprising sight. People have been lamenting the absence of young trees anywhere in California’s oak savannah. Biologists say it’s the livestock, cattlemen say the squirrels. These seedlings here support the biologists.
1:15 The wind intensifies again, now from the west. Five vultures play in it up high. Then it stops. Then starts, whooshing in the branches above my head, harrying the wild oat stalks.
I’ve been reading old journals. The one whose unused pages I fill now is labelled “Hawaii 1989.” Ten days Joe and Claire and Jan and I travelled to Maui during my first Spring Break at Cal Poly. A time of triumph and promise. I’d weathered the first two quarters, teaching four classes in each and had just returned from a conference in Victoria where I presented my first paper on Shakespeare, “The Military Theatre,” to an appreciative audience. Jan was negotiating an offer of an Assistant D.A.’s job. Joe had been accepted at UCSB, his first choice, and was living the last semester of high school at Troy’s house in Palo Alto. Claire was doing well in the fifth grade at Teach, the selective elementary school for gifted children. It was the last time the four of us would be a close family and we knew it, living in a tent on the beach at Hana, during the rainy part of the day the kids helping me to calculate the previous quarter grades to fax home .
Next, I browsed through another black book I’d grabbed from the journal drawer and thrown into the backpack last night. It covered 1999 and 2000, ten years later, the middle of my Cal Poly stint. A long entry written on the airplane trip back from Washington, while Councilmember Jan remained behind to visit with Congresswoman Lois Capps, noted that I was correcting the page proofs for Shakespeare and the Bible and planning the Cal Poly Land project. I knew then that never again would I be as adventurous, focussed and productive as during the past 47-57 decade.
2:15 I read around in Mary Oliver’s collection of poems, “What Do We Know.” In her words, I find what I search for in this place: praise, thanks, wonder, awe.
the tree sparrows
the frozen buckberries
and calling to each other
wafers of sound.
the voice of the wind itself, flailing out of any and every quarter of the sky.
Her favorite word is “terrible.” She admires the predators: herons, egrets, hawks and owls, and pities the prey: little fish, voles, and frogs.
4:05 I have meditated twice, sitting under the tree and up in its flat open crotch, repeating my secret syllables of acceptance and request.
Through a hole in the rotted limb
New leaves against the sky.
Bare twigs still grope for light.
Suffused by the tarweed’s incense
I greet a lizard rounding the trunk.
The winds blow from two directions
And now a serenade of twitters.
Two, three, five small birds dart in the branches, then perch, backlit silouettes. Through my binoculars I see their grey wings, fluffy peach-colored breasts, small sharp beaks. One drops a poop.
They dash out into the sun, flutter, feint,
and alight on the fence. Their backs are blue!
Then they are gone.