I wrote this in the fall of 2019, the year before Big Basin burned down. I'm sharing it now in gratitude for regeneration.
On Sunday I rode a motorcycle through the Santa Cruz mountains for the first time in forty years. When I was 17 my boyfriend had talked me onto his Yamaha, and I'd ridden the same windy roads through the redwood trees, but the next weekend, riding solo, he'd gone down on a gravel road. It wasn't a serious injury, but then my sister Amy went down on a bike too, and left a bit of her beautiful shoulder on Highway 1. That did it for me. I'd never been one for taking risks—I didn't have a great sense of balance and I didn't crave adventure, especially if I wasn't in control. So I decided I'd never ride again.
But I learned over the decades that risk-taking isn't a choice. Risks permeate everyday tasks and encounters, not just the big planned adventures. The choice lies in looking beyond the risks, in seeing yourself not only as surviving but as feeling the joy, the beauty, the exhilaration, the peace—whatever the payoff might be. This "looking beyond to the light" was no easy lesson, but in my 50s life took me where I least wanted to go so I could learn what I most needed to learn. I practiced being brave when I didn't have control, and learned that control isn't even really a thing. I practiced being brave when I felt out of balance, and learned that true bravery is always balanced by kindness, to and from others. I bought a t-shirt that said "be brave and be kind" and wore it so much it got holes. I called it my Holy Shirt, because the phrase was my touchstone for how to be. It helped me get through hard things, while keeping them from hardening me.
So last week, when my best friend suggested that we go for a ride on his Harley, I balked out of long-ago habit—but then caught myself and said yes. In fact, instead of borrowing the necessary gear, I bought a classic leather Harley jacket and motorcycle boots. With that purchase, I went from "well, okaay" to being ALL IN. Like the t-shirt I'd worn into rags, it symbolized a commitment. I would look beyond the risks and see myself not only surviving, but loving the ride enough to do it again, even if only to justify the jacket.
The autumn skies were clear on the morning we rode, and a warm wind blew redwood incense under my visor. The road was twisting but smooth, and I didn't have to clutch at my friend to feel secure. After all, he wasn't some show-off teenage boy. I felt the tranquility of trusting an expert, and the awareness of his extra care—of my bravery, his kindness.
The ride was both peaceful and exhilarating. Everywhere I looked, I saw beauty. There was clarity in the window-free sunshine and unfiltered air, a liberating perspective of greater depth and detail. The trees spun past me in aubergine stripes, and the forest floor was lime with lacy ferns. Dragonflies shimmered and dust motes hovered in shafts of ethereal light.
The first mile of illumination destroyed any lingering fears; the second brought visions of lounging at Alice’s Restaurant on Skyline, and of roaring down Route 66. Obviously, I would also need to buy a bandana and chaps. By the third mile I was planning my first tattoo: be brave & be kind inked in art on my back, where brave would meet spine and kind hear the beat of my heart, and where the ampersand, marking my center, would bring them together.
At our destination, Big Basin State Park, we bought cinnamon hot chocolate and basked in the sun on the Visitor’s Center deck with the chipmunks and jays. I felt grateful for my friend’s gentle pressure to take this ride, and for all the little things he'd done to put me at ease . I was soaking up the joy of letting go; I was reveling in being all in. I was proud of myself for scaling a forty-year wall. Though I’d done some other brave things since my teens—for wildlife, my kids, a pond, dogs, trees—-it was in that moment that I felt the payoffs of risk for me.
I knew I'd be taking more rides with my friend, that the balance of courage and kindness would mitigate risks. When a tourist expressed his envy that we'd come through the woods on a bike, I, in full poser attire, just smiled and let him think that I do this all the time.
One month later, I got the tattoo. One year later, the historic Visitor’s Center and deck at Big Basin State Park, where I had spent many childhood vacations and this special day, burned down to the ground.
52 years ago today, an orca calf was taken from her mother in a horrifying, brutal roundup of about 100 orcas in Puget Sound. Tokitae was the only calf stolen that day who would survive the sentence of entertainer at a marine park, though confined in the smallest whale tank in the nation at Miami's Seaquarium. Despite decades of ardent activism by thousands, and the collaborative plan of the Lummi Nation, Orca Network, and others to repatriate her to home waters, Tokitae is still there in the hot Miami sun, turning tiny circles in her tiny tank, listening to loudspeakers blare all day, doing tricks for dead fish. Doing nothing that wild orcas do.
Somehow, I grew up not knowing of Tokitae's plight. In 2019, when I first heard of 24-year-old Rachael Andersen's connection with the orca, and of her own traumatic beginning, I was deeply touched. But when I discovered the truth of Rachael's and Tokitae's beautiful, suffering selves, the parallels between them broke my heart. Each truly has, in the other, a soul sister--and each truly has, in her mother, a fierce, abiding love. I'm so grateful to Rachael and her mother, Suzanne, for allowing me in on their journey. May it end with Tokitae flashing her flukes from the depths of the Salish Sea.
Until then, for Rachael's sake, I hope you'll read and share their story, "A Split Tale."
At 2:00 last Sunday morning, while sleeping in the heart of a grove of two-hundred-foot redwoods, what seemed like a series of atomic bombs went off over my head, one neon flash after another in quick succession, cutting the forest around me into sharp silhouette. The thunder and lightning were synchronous; the storm was directly overhead. Rain splatted through the screened roof of the nylon tent.
I felt awe for a minute, then terror. All my life I’ve known better than to stand near trees or water in a lightning storm, yet here I was, under the world’s tallest trees, next to a creek in Portola Redwoods State Park—my first time there. There was only one way out, up a tiny twisty road through thousands more redwood trees. One of my friends thought we should leave right away, but it was agreed that we ought to stay low. Driving up and out could attract a bolt, or take us right into a fire.
One friend clambered out and attached the rain fly, which filtered the frequent flashes to a pulsing glow. I lay by the door and unzipped it to watch the raw lightning. Warm rain rolled over my face. I stared, mesmerized, at the indigo skyflower formed by the tops of the trees, watching its petals turn purple, mustard, or pink—a dynamic aurora borealis, set to crashes and booms that rumbled through my bones, as awesome and exhausting as if it were a laser-lit, four-hour Neil Peart solo.
After a while my friends fell back to sleep, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the nuclear sky, nor my mind off the fear that a fire would start nearby.
The show ended at seven, and the sun made jewels of the raindrops on billions of needles. Banana slugs slimed across the wet forest floor. I could hear people taking down tents, and the smell of pancakes rose through the fresh-washed air.
The camp host drove past, waving cheerily at his discomfited guests. “Quite a show, wasn’t it!” he called out with a grin, alleviating my fears. I thought maybe the San Mateo range saw such virulent action often—that the night had not been so frightening to him because this topography, like Yosemite's high points, might attract regular thunderstorms. So I focused forward on exploring the rest of the range with my friends, and getting respite from another hundred-degree, humid day.
But as we ascended the long winding road out of camp, we saw towers of smoke. One grey plume was wavering below us, just outside of the park. A brown one wiggled up from behind a northern ridge. And at the western skyline, straight pillars of crimson stood tornado-tall.
Yet there were no planes in the air, no wailing siren sounds. At the Pescadero County Park entrance, a ranger blocked the way in, but did not look alarmed. At Butano State Park, the ranger at the booth looked a little more anxious, but just said the park was closed because of a fire. At every state or county park, we were turned away because of fires beyond our view.
So instead we went up winding roads and discovered cold creeks no less stunning than in the Sierras. We noted future picnic spots for cooler, calmer days. We walked through the Heritage Grove of old-growth redwoods, where five trees had fused together in a single colossus. We wandered past banks of leatherleaf and sword ferns, past logs lush with bright fluffy moss. We looked up the origins of the historic Middleton tract, whose original and subsequent owners had kept its huge, ancient trees safe from loggers. We daydreamed of renting its quaint summer cabins, once owned by the Stanford elite in the 1930s.
By the time we left the San Mateo range at six o'clock, we were all in wonder at its primeval beauty, and wondered why none of us had ever been there before. We could hardly wait to go back, and we had no reason to believe we would not. The plumes in the distance did not seem to have grown much larger, and we were optimistic the fires would soon be out, thanks to the night’s rain and the efforts of the day's firefighters.
But now we know the firefighters' efforts were fast overwhelmed. That there were five times as many fires as visible plumes, and that many more trees were holding fire in their hearts, smoldering,
On the third day, back at my Capitola home, a blood-red sun rose up through a violet smog, and the ashes of my redwood friends made gray snow on my deck. The lightning had taken the heart of the forest by storm.
Since then my brother, friends, colleagues, and customers have all had to leave their mountain homes in a rush, but the community, as always, has pulled together with strength, grace, courage, and generosity. Inner beauty is easily seen in the good heart of Santa Cruz. As for the beauty in the heart of the mountains, just what remains to be seen still remains to be seen.
If you're a local who'd like to donate goods, please drop them off at the warehouse at 1082 Emeline--not the evacuation centers. If you're not a local and you'd like to help, here's the link to donate. THANK YOU.
On Sunday I carried sweet Darcy to the banks of Los Alamitos Creek, where we’d walked together for over a dozen years, and had shared experiences of the heart that had led to my book. An editor needed a photo for an upcoming review, and I wanted to place her in situ one more time. She couldn’t walk, at sixteen, with spinal arthritis, but her attitude was happy, as always, and she posed patiently. I didn’t know she was one day away from death.
I had chosen a place on the creek where I wouldn’t have to carry her very far, and where the foxtails wouldn’t be too thick, and the bank too steep. When we reached the shore I looked up and realized I had brought her to the very place I’d come to grieve in mid-July of 2003, right after my dad died, a memory I’d included in the book as a connection to Maria Zacarias, who once lived there. I believed she, too, must have come to that place to grieve her own father’s death.
So the place was layered already with then and now, with loss and memory, with pages in process and the published book now in my hand. My dear dog was my shadow in that story, as in everything else. And once again it was a poignant evening of weed-gilding light, giving me an elevated view of summer’s take on the land.
It was in that heart-full, achey appreciation of what was gone that I carried my sweet girl back to the car, parked in a cul-de-sac. As I carefully placed her in the back seat and picked the burrs from her satin-smooth coat, talking to her all the while as I always have, an elderly man called out to me from behind a patio wall.
“You are being so kind,” he said. His wife joined in. “We can see that you're so very kind to your dog. Kindness matters so much, doesn’t it? We had an old dog whose hind end gave out too. Thank you for being so kind.”
I teared up and thanked them for their kind words, and we talked for a bit about our dear dogs, and kindness in the Days of Covid; I put on my mask so they could show me their garden sign about the importance of kindness, and I told them about having “Be brave and be kind” tattooed on my back last year, at a time when I especially needed reminding. Then I gave them my book, which I’d brought for the photo shoot, and I drove off with Gretchen’s and Greg’s words warming my heart.
The drive to Watsonville through old Almaden Valley was loaded, because midsummer on that road reeked of death to me already. I had driven that back road from Almaden one June to visit my dying dad, and the next July, I returned that way from my friend’s dad’s service. I had written about that sensory drive in MINE, imagining Zacarias soaking up the same scents and sounds in the July days right after her husband’s murder, and in a later July when two of her sons were lynched. It was a drive rich with memories of mourning and learning and journaling across this land, and of being with Darcy every step, mile, and word of the way. My dear dog is written on its landscape and in its chapters.
The land was astoundingly beautiful in its demise, with sunset reappearing at every curve and change in the mountains’ height--I got to see the day end several times. Once, when the sun sat over the hills behind a golden vale, I stopped at a turnout and picked up Darcy, who could no longer sit up and look out the window, so she too could see its beauty--I didn’t want to see that much gorgeousness alone. But now I’m glad I did that for her sake, that she saw her last sunset from my arms, out in the country we loved and wrote about. It was a gift from the Universe, which knew what was to come.
Many more kindnesses awaited us at home. I don’t want to write about—because I can’t bear to relive--her sudden turn for the worse, or the medical reasons, or the anguish of watching her hurt. I only want to dwell on the kindness of people who came to our aid at every heartbreaking turn. The bearded Vietnam vet and ex-rancher, an acquaintance from the park, whose hopeful, cheerful greeting turned sad and deeply sympathetic when he saw her. The hand-holding couple who saw I was using a harness to lift her up, and who cheerily called out “Peace to you for doing that! We used one of those for our old dog too, and we know it’s hard. Namaste!” The woman next to me in the ER parking lot, who sensed my sorrow while I was waiting for Darcy outside, and let me love on her own aging Border Collie mix. The trucker who, having heard the Chevron market clerk decline my request that she stay open one more minute so I could buy water for my dog, motioned me over to to his big rig, pulled open the giant sliding door, sliced open a shrink-wrapped case of water, and handed me a bottle, refusing money—“I have dogs too,” he said, not even knowing how important the timing of that one drink was. The handful of friends I told who said just the right thing, my landlord’s kind words of genuine empathy, my sister Becky getting up early to dig the grave at the family farm, my brother Dan taking the day off from work to help his adoring fur-friend out of this painful world, the vet who came to the farm on short notice to give her relief, and then peace.
People who filled my heart and eyes at every turn, who sent Darcy messages of kindness I know she heard.
Every dog lover’s dog is the best dog ever; Darcy was no different, except, of course, to me. But she was unusually intuitive, loyal, ever-patient, observant, and vigilant; a herd dog whose greatest goal was to keep an eye on her dwindling flock. She was unwaveringly devoted to me and the people I love. She went along with my every need—getting up at 4AM to walk under the stars, driving 14 hours to see the eclipse, waiting patiently under many a restaurant table. I never left her home alone for more than four hours, but she would lie at the window watching for me the entire time. She was so devoted to Tyler and Audrey that after they left for college, she lay by the front door for months, eyes fixed and ears pricked, listening for their return. Long after they moved to other states, even as recently as last week, she eagerly pulled me toward people who looked like them. Darcy never forgot a face or an experience; she learned everything with one try, from housebreaking to the hazards of chasing coyotes or snapping at rattlesnakes. She wasn't just smart; she was deeply intuitive and wise.
Darcy assessed all kinds of situations with wisdom and accuracy. She was my radar, my barometer, my compass. I trusted her intuition even more than mine. She put her head on the laps of those she could tell were sad; in class, she chose to lie by the quietly anxious student. She knew which tense dogs to avoid and which ones she could calm. She once barked at me to “come,” then lay across a carpet cleaner’s feet, two times, barking insistently, her Batman-ears up and her eyes fixed brightly on me, to predict the massive coronary he would have before he got out of the driveway.
Darcy really was the best dog ever.
I will never be without my sweet girl. She was with me through the best and worst times of my life, and I was with her through hers. That didn’t stop when she breathed her last, and it won’t stop when I breathe mine.
Originally written in 2012
Nine years ago today we lost our wonderful dad. Wanting to evoke a sensory connection to him through the nature he loved, I thought I’d go out to the old cemetery for awhile. But I was disappointed to see that it had gone from au naturel to unkempt. More markers had tumbled, the grass had died, fake flowers had faded, and tiny cheap flags had fallen over. The latter was appalling, especially since Dad was a World War II veteran, but given that he’d battled gophers all his life on the farm, he’d have felt worse about the dozen holes that riddled the ground right next to his stone. It was kind of depressing. So I decided I’d get back on the country road that connects the cemetery in Santa Cruz to my home “over the hill” in San Jose.
“The hill” is the local phrase for the entire Sierra Azul, a range of mountains spiked with redwoods and puffed with native sycamores and oaks; on a steamy June day like this the drive is redolent with the musty scent of hot leaves and needles. When I was sixteen my home was at this end, on our farm in Santa Cruz, and I drove to work in San Jose with Dad. He’d gotten me a job in his office, which did me a world of good and gave me some much-needed time with him. We always, always drove the back way home. In fact, 34 years ago today we’d be taking this road from the other direction at about this same time, 5:30. I remember these same backlit tunnels of trees, these same ferns frothing out of the limestone walls. I remember this same profusion of new moths flickering against the amber light, iridescent, like bits of torn foil in the still, hot air.
I had my learner’s permit that summer, and Dad let me take the wheel of his Chevy sedan. This road is where he taught me as much about life as about driving: how to take the tight turns, how to honk before a blind corner, how to brake before entering a curve. How to pull over for people who wanted to go faster than we did – people who didn’t appreciate the meaning of the back way: enjoying the journey, reaching your place in peace.
Dad’s glove compartment was stuffed with goodies Mom forbade at home, like Hershey’s bars or M&M’s. Sometimes we’d stop at the only market on the road, Casalegno’s, for an Orange Crush to wash down the chocolate. Casalegno’s was an old building, even then, with a quaint interior and an owner who ran the store from his wheelchair. Today I thought I’d stop there and get an Orange Crush and a bag of M&M’s to celebrate Dad.
It was much the same inside, but there was Sunkist instead of Orange Crush, and the store had a new owner. She was a pretty woman with two young children at her heels, and she was working hard at stocking the shelves and commanding or shooing her kids. I picked up some M&Ms and started looking at the fresh-made sandwiches, thinking, you know, maybe I don’t have to have both an Orange Crush and M&Ms. I asked her where the vegetarian sandwiches were and if she had salt and pepper and then, just because she seemed like a real person and I felt the urge, I told her why I was there. That I used to stop at Casalegno’s with my dad, and that today was the day that I’d lost him nine years ago.
She said, very matter-of-factly, with a bit of a snap to her voice, “Lost mine too, a couple of years ago.”
I told her I was sorry.
“Oh no, no no no no,” she said quickly. “It’s part of life.” And while I was considering that perhaps she hadn’t had such a great relationship with her dad, she added, a little softer, “Grief like that is how you get your stripes.”
That’s true, I said, touched. Those “stripes” gives you empathy you never could have shared before. I asked her to tell me about him, and she began to describe a dad like mine. A man who appreciated nature. Someone who spent real time with her, who treated her like no other man’s ever treated her. Her back was to me as she shoved eggs in the refrigerator, but I thought I heard her choke up a little. So I told her that he sounded like a great dad, and that people like us were lucky. That not everybody missed their dads – and with good reason. She went behind the counter to ring me up.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t miss my dad,” she said, sliding a mismatched salt and pepper shaker toward me and turning away. “Not one day.”
She gave her kids some orders and went in the back. I walked out of there thinking, what did I go in there for? Orange Crush and M&Ms? I’d stopped to relive a taste, a voluntary memory, as Proust would say; a sensory experience that would connect me to my Dad. Instead I got another human being who had a dad like mine.
Now I’m back on the road, pulling over for every car behind me. And I don’t know why I’m crying; I’ve been over his death for a long time. And after all, it was just a little moment in a little grocery store.
But that’s what our dad was all about: pausing for the small things, ordinary people, little moments – knowing they’ll turn out to be bigger than you think.
Happy Mother’s Day! This baby took eight years of labor, but today my book is finally out, and María Zacarías Bernal de Berreyesa gets to breathe.
It's perfect that Mother's Day falls on Día de la Madre this year, because MINE is the true story of this Spanish-Mexican mother of thirteen, whose San José land (with a mercury mine) was also, in many ways, mine. It's a journey across landscapes uniting two mothers born centuries and cultures apart.
I'm sharing the introduction below, which tells how we met--143 years after she died--and why her tale of betrayal, murder, and greed seemed mine to tell.
MINE brings untaught history to light, and restores a voice to María Zacarías, who deserves to be heard. It was a finalist in the 2020 San Francisco Writing Contest (creative nonfiction) and the California Historical Society 2014 Book Award Contest. I’m excited and honored by all the interest in this remarkable Californio mother, and I hope her story will resonate with you as well.
¡Feliz Día de las Madres, Zacarías !!
From the introduction to
MINE: El Despojo de Maria Zacarias Bernal Berreyesa
Like most Californians, I grew up with a fourth-grade, mission-project vision of our state’s earliest history. For most of my life I remembered only bell towers, and gray-robed priests, and smallpox epidemics that had killed many Indians. I knew nothing of the Californios who had “owned” the land for seventy-plus years, of their permanent disruption by the massive influx of foreigners—whites, that is—after 1848. Research showed me what American greed cost Zacarías and her people, but my heart showed me who she was through our common land.
Rancho San Vicente, so integral to Zacarías’s mid-life and livelihood, has felt like “mine” for decades. Most of it is still ranchland, except for the corner where my children’s grade school stands beside her creek. For hundreds of mornings, after dropping them off, I would walk the banks of Los Alamitos, soaking up its beauty, reflecting on my own rural childhood. Often, I took my children there to play after school, so their childhoods would hold the same kinds of memories as mine.
After my teens began driving to high school and my chauffeur role came to an end, I went back to the creek with my dog, working through motherhood angst and mid-life loss. In that anxious, sorrowful state of mind I began to see glimpses of a story there, odd words and aberrant phrases scattered throughout the waters and woods. I noticed the green glossy surf of non-native periwinkle, the face of a snarling devil in the knots of an oak, the distorted scar of an arrow carved in a trunk. I heard crickets rasping in the middle of the day. I found rusted mattress springs beneath the weeds, rotted chunks of lumber sticking out of banks, and bits of tumbled brick beneath the silt. I saw vultures hunkering together on rocks in the creek, and paddles of prickly pear cacti poking through weeds. There was an ancient, massive cactus stand my dog refused to pass, and when I carried her past it, I felt her trembling.
There were signs of a mystery at Los Alamitos, a tale of something significant under its skin. I became convinced that something momentous had happened there. It was like being in an empty gothic chapel, appreciating its simple grace, yet feeling there might be stolen relics wedged in the vaults, morbid stains in the splendid fretwork. I already knew of the extinct quicksilver mines in the mountains’ spurs, but I felt something else was embedded nearby, something deeper than mercury mine shafts and cinnabar caves—something richer than ore. The creek was connecting me to both the past and presence.
Now and then I thought that my raw state of mind might be making me imagine things, until one day, while visiting the Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum, I learned that the creek had once defined the western end of Rancho San Vicente, the home of María Zacarías Bernal de Berreyesa.
Who was she? I asked.
The short answer astounded me. I understood, in a flash, why Los Alamitos Creek had been speaking to me; I knew she too would have paced its banks, caught up in grief and loss. By then I had spent almost half my life on her league—in my children’s classrooms on the corner of the ranch, or down by the creek that bordered her land, or in the surrounding hills—and suddenly I knew she had been with me all along.
I found longer answers to “who was she?” at tables and desks, enough history to know her story deserved to be told. But I found the real Zacarías in natural places, not pictures or print. I felt bound to her by “our” land.
So I have told her tale of losses through connections of the heart, weaving our experiences together in situ, under the influence of places and seasons we have shared across time. In doing so I intend MINE to resonate across cultural and political lines, to create empathy for María Zacarías Bernal de Berreyesa as a mother and woman, and to deepen awareness of our state’s Spanish-Mexican roots.
MINE was a finalist in the 2020 San Francisco Writing Contest (creative nonfiction) and the California Historical Society 2014 Book Award Contest. It also won departmental awards at San José State University. MINE is available in paperback on Amazon.
If I were to plot my watershed moments on a graph of my life, and draw lines from point to point, the result would not seem to show progress. The inner lessons learned would not plot out like formal accomplishments would: there would be very few straight strokes, and no clear pattern of upward or even forward momentum. Most of the graph would be a scribble of overlapping swoops, back and forth and up and down and around. Frankly, my growth chart would look like a loopy mess.
But the longer I live, the less chaos I see in the tangle. Standing back, days or decades later, I see where seemingly small, unconnected events--a chat with a driver, the gift of a ring, a misdirected email or text--ended up criss-crossing in zig-zaggy, who'd-have-guessed ways. I see astoundingly meaningful patterns, unbound by our notion of time, unlimited by any linear sense of order. I see the proof that what goes around comes around, yet never in one perfect circle. The swirl of synchronicities that says every little thing matters.
This swirling mass of small "insignificant" things forming astounding patterns is an opening image in my friend Julian Hoffman's new book, Irreplaceable. He's describing a murmuration of starlings from underneath a pier, a rise of a thousand-plus birds into a shape-shifting form: "The starlings spiralled, ribboned and wavered, a vast tremulous cloud of intelligence, each curvature and warp in the air a response to their dynamic but precise volatility"--and a stunning show of collaboration and beauty. But the birds aren't performing for humans; none of them is trying to astound. As Julian says:
Each and every starling in the shifting body of birds is constantly moving in relation to its closest companions, regardless of the flock's size. According to an Italian study, orientation and velocity are precisely calibrated to a starling's seven nearest neighbours, so that the orchestral swing of a murmuration is governed by tiny deviations almost instantaneously transmitted by way of a ripple effect through the entire assembly.
The first time I read this scene I was at the beach in Santa Cruz, where ripple effects were at my feet in glittery residue of rocks, and in surging waves from faraway continents. It brought to mind my belief in the connectedness of all things, not only spiritually but elementally, not only laterally but deeply through eons. We are all acting in concert with our neighbors, intentionally or not; every action has repercussive effects. And as that thought arose, so did a murmuration, right in front of me, out of a half-sunken ship.
Awed by the synchrony, I thought of the swirls that my friendship with Julian had created. We had first connected in 2011, when he responded warmly to my comment on his gorgeous, prize-winning essay on Terrain.org--I quickly learned that's who he is, gracious and thoughtful and kind to everyone. Two years later our paths crossed in person at the AWP conference in Seattle, which had awarded his new book The Small Heart of Things their coveted nonfiction award. And the year after that, I had the honor of hosting him during his Bay Area book tour, and of introducing him to the California redwoods and elephant seals.
Three connecting loops in three years--three memorable days in 2014 that got me wondering who and what I needed to be. Three days that lit a fire under me, as a writer, an MFA student, an environmentalist, and so much more, as I wrote about here. Julian's brief visit changed the shape of my life across the next six years, from inspiration to action. The new shape was dynamic, shifting from one role or goal into another, transforming through myriad small deviations, as in Julian's description of the murmuration's flow:
Together they shape-shifted into mystifying forms as evening fell around us--the black coil of a sinuous snake at sea, a bowl set spinning through salt air, a wine glass brimming with the last of the drained light. No sooner had a shape been perceived than it had already morphed into something radically unrelated, as if a sequence of ethereal phantoms, fugitive and fantastic in their unfolding.
In 2019, my year of not-so-tiny deviations, Julian released Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places, honoring the efforts of devoted individuals to protect certain at-risk land. His much-lauded, lyrical writing brings to light their network effect on the world, the interconnectedness of all species, the nonlinear consequences of our actions. His timely book makes it clear that everything we do, as individuals and as a species, matters, and our actions have repercussive effects in all directions,
Those effects may not chart out right away; we might feel like we're on our own and going nowhere for a while. But if we do our own small part in the moment, without worrying about "measurable success" or immediate outcomes, it will all add up. This truth pervades all arenas, from external activism to personal choices. When we do what we must to be who we are, we contribute to a greater whole. And when we step back someday, we'll see a meaningful murmuration of collaboration, beauty, and progress.
To purchase Irreplaceable, please consider supporting your local independent bookshop. It's also available on Amazon in hardback and paperback.
This senses poem was written in tribute to our dear old apple farm, set in the Watsonville hills south of Santa Cruz. My sister and her family live there now, and it still looks, feels, tastes, sounds, and smells -- like dust and so much more. The photos, however, were mostly taken in spring, which so beautifully belies the dust.
I smell dry earth, the sweat and dung of horses,
Distended burlap sacks of chicken scratch,
Hot laurel bay and eucalyptus leaves,
Mom’s chili, wood smoke, ragweed, saddle soap,
Alfalfa hay in musty verdant stacks
Shoved into forts and stages and storefronts,
Shellac and varnish, paint and paint remover;
The pungent scent of fly spray, salted air,
Oats, rotten apples, dead mice inside walls,
Wet soil on boots, pink Cecil Brunner roses,
Hot cider, Folger’s coffee, flannel shirts,
The fallen fruit that scents the orchard dust.
I feel the strain of lifting sodden straw
From muddy stable floor to wheelbarrow,
Cool coastal fog against my neck as Dad
And I hike with a thermos over hills
Vibrant with dew. I feel that barn-sour pony
Tearing home beneath me -- my numb panic,
Hard fall, sharp shoulder pain, embarrassment;
The amber evening sunlight on my arms
While cantering through undeveloped land,
The sticky, chunky texture of the oats
Inside the wooden feed box; scratchy hay,
The privacy of tree-forts and the sense
Of secret space yet union with all things,
Legs dangling down from slender eucalypti
That, bending, send me to the forest floor;
My purple fingers pricked with berry thorns,
And dust like talcum powder underfoot.
I hear the John Deere sputter, cough, and growl;
Rain jumping on the corrugated roof
Of our old barn, dogs howling, roosters crowing,
Ducks squawking, horses breathing, hooves clip-clopping;
The clanging dinner bell across the acres,
Danita yelling at her mom next door,
The screech of tires where the road turns sharply,
The thump of hammers, wail of table saw,
Dad calling “All right!” or, “Aw, cruminelly,”
Wind fluttering through the acacia trees,
The crunch of driveway gravel that announced
A date, his car eclipsed by silver dust.
I see the old red of the sagging barn,
The oak worms Shawn and I picked from our sleeves,
The plays presented on our rustic stage –
Small Becky in a sapphire evening gown
As Salome, delivering the head
Of St. John on a platter (skull-sized rock
Besmeared in ketchup underneath a scarf);
The Scotch Broom frothing from the well-road banks,
Sun sinking in a shred of distant sea,
The broad leaves of the fig tree splayed to keep
Most of the summer sun from my green cave,
The steep twist in the forest trail where
Our ponies liked to dash across the roots,
The blossoms on the bellflower apple tree
Whose branches brushed the soil like a skirt,
The scrubby brush that filled the dense corral,
Clouds, columns, devils, swirls, and puffs of dust.
I taste the sweet Satsumi plums, the quince,
Ollalieberries, kumquats, and persimmon,
Fresh crispy apples eaten under trees
Or whittled into cider, pies, and jams
By Mom, who made the most of everything;
That bitter unknown fruit we used for pranks,
Dad’s catch pan-fried in cornmeal, kidney beans,
Spaghetti, chard and spinach, deviled eggs,
Surfeit zucchini tucked in every dish,
Pure well water, warm cheesy casseroles,
Tart sourgrass, wild fennel, boys I kissed,
Big gulps of ocean air and orchard dust.
At five o’clock this morning I was journaling about my commitment to 2020 as a year of vision—not only retrospection and foresight about my life, but about inner vision, about my commitment to “see the light” one step at a time. I expressed gratitude for the trinity of body, mind, and soul that empowers me to see the lamp on each point of my path, and to move my foot into its glow, one step at a time.
I noted that I don’t need to see the big picture – the whole trail, the destination signposts, the aerial view of the path through the woods (or desert, or sea, or mountains) – I’m just supposed to put one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. I’ll get there when I get there—in fact, I am already “there” with every step, since life is the journey and not some place of arrival.
I wrote that “Living is not static or conclusive; it’s dynamic and perpetual. So life’s meaning is in taking each step, trusting that I’m going in the light-right direction, being thankful for my current place and the power to move forward. It’s in not turning up my nose at any of the people the universe puts in my path. Everyone and everything is a chance to serve or learn.”
I followed my journaling, as usual, with a few moments of meditation, to clear my mind for better reception throughout the day. But strangely, in the brief moment I was able to clear all of the words from my mind, out of nowhere (I thought) a sad, terrible image arose: of Robin Williams stepping off a chair to die at the end of a rope. I had no idea where that image had come from, or why it showed up just then, but it made my blood surge with sympathy. My heart ached for that miserable man, the sad clown who hid under his own brilliant humor, behind twinkling eyes and an ever-endearing smile. I imagined, for just a second or two, what he might have thought and felt as he took that step, and then I erased that too.
Today’s steps began at six o’clock, as they always do, with literal steps along the coast, in a stunning, soul-feeding setting suffused with new sunlight – a glorious beginning. My walk along the bluffs, wharf, beach, cliffs, village and river always suffuses me inwardly with joy, stoked in large part by my favorite playlist pouring out of my headphones, in “shuffle” mode. My morning stroll has a soundtrack determined by the universe, and every song seems aligned with every new shade of dawn.
But today I was more conscious of my physical steps, of the physical path I was taking, one step at a time. I was more aware of my commitment to go be receptive to people in my path, not just in my own music-and-nature-happy mind. I smiled at everyone I saw and said hello even though I couldn’t hear myself speak, because of the Plain White T’s or Fleetwood Mac. I stopped on the wharf to feed peanuts to the seagull who waits for me there each day, and I waved at the woman who does yoga there, facing the sun. I called good morning to fishermen as Phillip Phillips sang “Unpack Your Heart.”
But when I reached Depot Hill to walk along the bluffs, I saw a woman approaching whom I knew just well enough that I ought to stop and chat—she’s vivacious and bright, one of those effervescent people who can keep you awhile, though you can’t help enjoying yourself. Not ready to leave my private world, I considered just smiling and walking on, knowing my headphones would show I was occupied. I knew she wouldn’t think it rude if I didn’t stop.
Then I remembered my commitment to each step, to not turn away from any person put in my path. So I pulled the headphones down around my neck, paused the playlist, and said “Hey, how are you this morning?”
She replied, with a catch in her voice, “Oh, I’m so very sad! My childhood friend just hung herself Friday, and I can’t get past losing her. We used to walk to kindergarten together. We walked these bluffs together for years – she had a house up here, and this was her favorite place.” And she choked back a sob. Of course I gave her a hug, and we talked for awhile, about people who suffer, and the dignity of choice, and the merits of seizing the day and hugging our friends. She told me that her friend had been a woman full of laughter and love, who just couldn’t handle the pain of her ailments and life.
When we moved on, I paused several yards away, my music still on hold. It had been a sweet, short conversation that I hoped had served her well, but I knew it had served and taught me. My morning writing and meditation had prepared me to pause in my path, to recognize and honor the person placed there by design. The image of Robin WIlliams had preheated my heart to sympathize from my core with the woman who had taken her own. And I had learned that a conscious decision to see will bring on the lamp, the glow, the path, the momentum, the lesson, the meaning of life for me.
I turned toward the sunrise and started to walk, and undid the pause on my playlist. Which song, out of nearly two hundred happy love songs, came “randomly” into my ears? The odd dark song in my light-filled mix: Don’t Fear the Reaper, by Blue Oyster Cult.
Came the last night of sadness
And it was clear she couldn't go on
Then the door was open and the wind appeared
The candles blew then disappeared
The curtains flew then he appeared, saying don't be afraid
Come on baby, and she had no fear
And she ran to him, then they started to fly
They looked backward and said goodby,
She had become like they are
She had taken his hand, she had become like they are
Come on baby, don't fear the reaper
I don’t know why this sequence of situations and images and people were presented to me today—why the light shown on such sadness, why it gave me these visions of suicide and grief. I just know I followed the light this morning, and that vision and value are revealed one step at a time.
Dry fields sticker with foxtails and burrs.
Hot air buzzes thick with wasps.
Red poison oak bushes rage out of hard-packed ground.
Starving deer hem skirts of sharp-leafed oak.
Wilted wildflowers relinquish more color each day.
Hard to tread there without getting stuck or stung.
Hard to reach out there and not get a rash in return.
Hard to feel peace there when life is not getting its fill.
A year and an hour away, in rising light,
Seafoam laces the edge of a silver cove.
The ocean supports the present seekers who wait
Above or upon its surface, knowing the day
Will tender its gifts. Six surfers sit and gaze
Toward distant ripples likely to transform to waves;
Four seagulls hover, scanning for sparkles of fish;
Two sailboats rest on the glass, awaiting a breeze.
On the bluff, a climbing vine that has outgrown its trellis
Clambers over a weathered roof, lifting unopened blooms
To the fog-dampened, fostering light of the coastal sun.