Late in the afternoon and early evening, the hot west wind blows cool rolling fog from the Pacific over the hills and unto the scorching valley floors of orchards and vineyards as far as the eye can see. Spring is quickly passed as winter’s emerald touch turns pale yellow, except where green vineyards and wild yellow mustard sweep up, around and over hill, or where tufted mounds of live oak shelter the sleepy remains of once thriving dairy herds.
We are back…home, in Northern California. Departure from New England, Vermont and the farmhouse on Silk Road was easy enough in the general, but in the revved way that months of tense build-up, prepares for major change. Last October after Sister Janet died, all magic became infused with grief. Not the wild kind of tearing and loss, but the subtle heartache kind so suited to her gentle beauty and soulful absence. She is often revived in thought, sometimes so powerful that one would swear her perfume lingers for real, as if she had just passed through the room or laughed just out of sight moments before.
She was May flowers, apple blossoms, sky-blue muscari, forget-me-nots, and sun-yellow daffodils. She was spring. We stayed, lingering for just one more lilac Spring. On the last day, those very old tree/bushes burst out in vivid colors of red/violet, lavender, deep purple and white, with fragrance on the air so intoxicating, the end of winter was sure. It was an abstract of her life and recalled my last garden moments with her, which found us, as usual, talking of literature and poetry on a garden tour around the farm.
She particularly loved the mix of heavenly blue morning glories and scarlet red runner beans that walled the vegetable garden. But that time was different from previous late summer jaunts. She took my arm. It was painful, but she did not acknowledge the suffering. She would see beauty at any cost, embrace it as her own, and give it back with a recognition in her smile and eyes that never ceased to enchant me. She left us not long after. Each leaving of a sacred space is a bit of death. I suppose our lives are always in practice for it, but rarely prepared. Each time is at once unique and familiar.
The huge rented moving truck was filled to the square inch with decades of absolutely ordinary, but subjectively precious, vital things. Large, small, tiny, odd, necessary, useful, practical, fanciful, memorial “stuff’ as George Carlin might say: stuff absolutely necessary for the next nest, for the next illusion of safety, for the new angles on life, for the next place of sanctuary where our collection of past bits and pieces creates a future—-a future which we know is more tenuous to the vision than ever before.
In spite of wisdom, or perhaps because of it, fear often stalks the aging years and assumes even the manageable change to be potentially catastrophic. When did hermetic phobia seep into the walls of soul, like some devouring mold? I remember long ago, my grandmother pulling the blinds on all the street windows, feeling safer in the dull glow of shades and dim rooms. Why is that? What dread negativity, beyond the fin de secile of American decay, stirs what once came so easily to the adventures of youth?
Perhaps, it’s that age knows the reality of evil and must discipline the thought that transition, like goodness, is actually a virtue that most of us usually carry forth in generosity and would apply liberally in optimism. In that, we opened the hand of thought to let go and move on, leaving behind much soul in Vermont, vibrant ties of friendship, the wounds of love and betraying family, and the richly woven synchronicity of season and land.
It’s the everlasting granite we miss: mossy, worn, enduring, reliable and the quality of centuries. It’s the abundant water we miss: always flowing, soaking, enriching and wearing down the granite. It’s the hills, green with pines, hardwoods, wildlife, wild flowers and wild people we miss; the hills that carry all the rest, and stir the infinite process of a barely observable change, except for the glorious kabuki of the seasonal drama.
For weeks in the early spring, I walked around the farmland by the marsh near the river, skirted the pond and birch groves, and peered into the wild tangle that was once an apple orchard a hundred years ago. There, I saw pale green transparent leaves and tender vine, sap rising, fruit trees blooming, and tried so hard to memorize it all, as if each second could really be held in truth. I held dear the garden where dog-child Harry Hound was buried beneath special stones and a soon to be lush gathering of beautiful flowers.
Like all graves and memories of the once living, I could rage against the weeds that a future absence would allow. It could not be held, that immediate sensate wonder. Impossible. Haiku’s of unfolding spring could not be gathered like souvenirs, collected like ’stuff’, or moved across thousands of miles and unpacked. Memories are not the same as life, and too often mock our pathos and fool our truth.
As the truck pulled out of the driveway past the narrow stanchions of granite that framed the entrance, a rear tire caught the edge of the ditch, and for a brief second that fear one holds back in brave childish face, gave waver as the truck shuttered in a moment’s pause, tilting briefly, before it’s powerful engine kicked in and lurched forward onto the road intact, ready for the leaving and sealing certainly the distance from home. It might have been nearly unbearably sad. For those who wander as do we, few places are home, and the old farmhouse was such a place. I could not look back. Before us lay thousands of American miles, and the old sense of adventure came over us. With T. confidently at the wheel of our behemoth machine, we let go. Bodhi Dog perched in the middle on his sheep fleece, slept as we sped into the future out of Vermont, heading West.
Any American–anybody who has not made the cross continent journey from sea to sea must do so, if only to experience the splendor that is American land. It’s still there, outweighing the vast spoilage and damage of growth capitalism. Beyond the endless stretches of closed shopping malls, toxic dumps, worn cities, fast food eateries, pastel tracts of over-mortgaged, abandoned or foreclosed homes: there lies the granite, the plains, the mountains, gorges and mind-boggling wonder—the beauty of our exceptional landscape.
We focused not on the damage, which is evident for several thousand miles, but on Vermont’s wild flowers in full spring; on acres of wild white trillium covering the forest floors of upstate New York; the rural art of tilled fields and verdant mid-American agriculture; the rugged rocky splendor of Wyoming, with its herds of antelope and long stretches of desolate landscape colored with the rich subtle shades known to harsh and inclement environments.
The far west is breathtaking in Spring. Both deserts and mountains vibrate with fleeting blossom and wildlife. Those tumbling weeds, so characteristic of long stretches of arid land, were silvery light green and not a few sporting bright yellow flowers. Utah and Nevada are never more beautiful or magnificent than at dusk or dawn. What ever fears we had on our migration were dispelled by luck, T’s masterful driving, and the experience of awe-reviving memories of earlier youthful trips in broken down Volkswagen buses, a few tabs, tokes, and fewer bucks, sleeping bags and heedless open adventure.
Donner Pass is the border by which California leaves America. Naturally, we made hungry jokes or discussed bones of contention. But such puns are small in the atmosphere. The mountains are gigantic, raw, and dangerous. It is easy to feel death in the possibility there. In encompassing stillness, the Donner ghosts are a matrix of all that is American in the lure to new land, new lives, a fresh start; in short, the promise of California, which for more than a century has always been the magic of the American dream. As goes California, so goes the nation. It’s true. And unfortunately too true, for the Donner experience was tragic in its miscalculation of hope. The story of their survivors however, has no moral, redemption or universal tale of wisdom–just survival. We are here again.
The Bay area , San Francisco is ‘home’ to us; to millions of us who have ever lived there. Some of us are natives, most of us visitors who have fallen in love with the City by the Bay. There are few cities that engender as much passionate attachment as San Francisco; New York—Paris—a few others. But none is San Francisco ( The City). Irregardless of what particular house or apartment one has owned or rented, or borrowed or shared, San Francisco, itself, is ‘home.’ It always strikes me with excitement and active nostalgia, as if seeing the face of a lost lover in a crowd. The pulse quickens and the heart rejoices. And yes, the magnificent Golden Gate Park still smells like feral cat pee, but everyone pretends it’s the eucalyptus. And sour dough with fresh crab and a chilled Napa Chardonnay…..ah!
As if the city itself were not mesmerizing enough, the Golden Gate Bridge will do it. One of the wonders of the world, its massive, muscular, clean-lined deco towers and feminine, graceful garlands of steel cable continue to enchant with a tense and perfect balance. Either from the City side or the Marin bluffs, the spell is cast. From fog to sun, from urban delight to redwood forests and vineyard country, Northern California constantly re-creates its promise of life. Still, beneath the dazzle and sensate luxury, there always lies for some of us the disquieting sense that we are only visitors, temporary sojourners passing through, even though having lived here on and off for nearly forty five years.
It was easy to leave Vermont in the intense activity that moving requires, in the complex planning and the myriad tangles of administrative restructuring that an ordinary American modern life now requires. It is not unlike a mourning put off in the quick of planning. Then it hits…the disconnect and realization that a real home has passed beyond to history. The farmhouse was that, a four year long poem of substantial being. Homesickness is one thing when it encompasses a city such as San Francisco, but quite another when it is a two hundred year old New England farmhouse that one has re-created as a second soul. Many lived there before us, and many will follow after. For a few of us it was 'the' home—more than a house. California doesn’t feel that way.
But then, as the move-in settles down in a tiny little town surrounded by vineyards and traces of the old California, daily life takes on its new cadences. It helps to create a garden first off, the working of earth, dirt and plants is a choreography of spirit and form that takes precedence over the ’stuff ’ still in boxes. First in the ground, were scarlet runner beans and blue morning glories. Then came tomatoes and herbs; next came the water gardens: small, but cooling in this climate of hot dazzling sun. The scent of lavender and catalpa blossoms fill the air. Red dragonflies have already moved in. The akatambo are a perfect sign of the new life; we saw the blessing and embraced the omen. It also helps to rise early and walk part of the long West County trail that snakes its way over miles of orchards, vineyards, and berry farms.
Spring comes quickly to California, and leaves in the morning, silently, with barely a trace of its wildflower delicacy lingering in the air. For several weeks the trails were burgeoning with wildflowers: yellow mustard, blue and yellow thistles, feral hollyhocks, thin lavender/pink/white phlox, scentless naturalized sweet peas, wild pink climbing roses, tiny pedaled orange ground cover, deep purple crown vetch, and silver/green grasses with pink plumes. Butterfly bushes, arid country’s answer to lilacs, appear here and there as do delicate marsh plants, including some ancient farm asparagus along the ditches and wetlands, allowed to stand. Old wild plum, olive trees, and live oaks with Spanish moss arch much of the path in a tunnel of dappled light and cool motion. Birdsong is breathtakingly delightful. I think to myself,”How beautiful". I left my heart in San Francisco, and am home; but know, with no regrets that a vision of my deeper soul will never leave Vermont.
Then one day, the county parks crew with a gang of prisoners on ‘good behavior’ furlough came through the long miles of the trail, and cut down all the wildflowers to improve conditions for the other crews who would follow with improvements and repairs. Walking by them, you could feel the sheer delight at being outside again, in the sun, talking freely. They were visitors too, temporarily freed as I felt, and as chained to the past.
The crew work finished, the flowering ones are all cut down, done, dried and yellow now like the distant hills beyond, which seed and turn golden once spring has passed. As life goes on, we recreate and make our thriving the true story of survival and celebration our expression of transience. Someday, I’ve got to catch up on what happened to the Donner survivors.
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