The day is
Night is always
Always about to fall.
The day is
Night is always
Always about to fall.
To wax, I read:
“To increase in phase or intensity.”*
Of celestial bodies, of satellites.
Sigils sought in breadth of night.
Of things you think you know the pattern to.
Of you. Of course. Of course. Of you.
*Credit bestowed where credit is due:
those lexicographers know their moon.
Merriam-Webster inspired this piece
as much as luna did, as much the trees.*
I take a walk
To plan, foment; to argue with myself.
The trees have nothing to contribute to such foolishness.
And after a time
of measuring my stride, I stop attending.
Important questions lie about
like acorns, oak galls, fallen leaves.
It’s possible they might be just those things.
Trees don’t tell the answers to them either.
I have stepped into the house of silence.
The path led through a hidden cleft in remote mountains unstoppable on the horizon. It smelled of winter on the way, the smoke of mingled woods, and the heartscent of Jeffrey pines. (Vanilla, the fieldbooks note, clinically. I smell butterscotch.) It followed a clear, swift river, crimson with spawning Kokanees carefully spaced for their final, essential dance. It offered me long and solitary mornings, walking quick to keep warm. It tossed me casually beneath one frozen night of popping stars and the white-washed spaces between, and the black.
All of this I traveled at no particular speed, in the silences of natural things: sparrowsong and finch-flutter, the whine of wind flying north up a narrow lake and ruffling up the pines like winter grouse. There are these kinds in the house of silence. And there is another: a mystery perhaps not more deep, but this one ruffles up the soul, and counts each nerve.
That mountain path spilled me out onto a prairie – one I had not known was even there. It does not hang its flag on the horizon. I had heard its name in passing, a half-remembered legend of the mountain west, and set a course for it.
The Zumwalt, we call it now, though what that is is not so simply told. It’s the homeland of the Nez Perce, for one, and the carrier of brutal memories of colonial destruction that have yet to heal.
The Forest Service has a go at simplifying it: “One of the largest remaining intact tracts of bunchgrass prairie in North America.” This, my settler-descended, science-worshipping brain can grab ahold of. Theoretically, I know about bunchgrass: the name describes the habit of growth, and refers to perennial grasses that build deep, rich soils. But all of that’s in English, and in the centralizing speech of the Anthropocene. And in the language of the regulated wild, requiring the bureaucratized protection of the very species that seeks its unqualified submission.
There may be other places on this earth where the silence settles so intense you can hear it, just as if it were a sound. I have met just this one, and it swallowed me whole. I stepped from the car and froze, a prey animal, a praying animal. And when I moved I hesitated, approaching with the kind of reverence you grant to the sudden appearance of a very large and very wild beast.
The track before me held, indeed, abundant evidence of coyotes, deer, and elk. And I hear tell – signs in surrounding towns declare it with righteous bile – that the wolves have returned.
From a green-fringed watercourse, yellowing with the trickle-end of summer, a bull elk startled. He was there before me – wasn’t he? Perhaps he grew from the land in that tense moment, frightened into clattering creation. He turned at the base of a hillock and was gone. And he was not: his antlers, canted over to one side, floated forever above grassy hummocks and balding outcrops of basalt. Hooves drummed into the distance for incredulous minutes. You could get so, so lost out here, I thought, and then I did. A trail marker was moved, or one was missing, and the prairie really does look endlessly repetitive, just the way the Little House books taught me. I had to follow a fence and a sightline back from higher ground.
No wind spoke, while the great weight of sky deliberated rain in the distance. Grasses stood gold against the black volcanic soil, their compact heads a pleasant weight against my palms. At midafternoon, no bird sang. No cars rumbled, cattle muttered, raptors cried, or humans blattered on. The sky stole my breath into itself. I did not fall down. This was my sole accomplishment.
I was away less than a week. A long weekend with a good friend, camping and then a short stay in a cabin, exploring an unmet corner of our state. We returned on schedule, but my heart has lagged behind. There’s an Everything But the Girl song that gets stuck in my head, especially this line: “the heart just sulks, and it whines and remains a child.” My heart is a toddler, throwing tantrums I can probably predict.
I lack a single home, the sort you’re born to and return to and belong as part of. I think of the three good faeries granting blessings to the Princess Aurora, and I imagine I got just one well-meaning, slightly bumbling fairy, who saw that I would never have that sort of home, and gave me instead the gift of quick and irreversible connection with certain shapes of land and sky and weather. It’s like falling in love – just as crashing, just as glorious and invincible. Just as ruinous: to sever the physical connection shakes and sunders something in my deepest self.
My prayer on leaving any such place is to return with gratitude for the experience, and more for the quiet beauty of the town I have adopted, wrapped around a particular green drainage and clustered along two rivers I depend on. I’ve lived in this one place for a decade and more. I cannot live everywhere I love, and I’ve made my peace with that. This is my story, anyway. I spend a lot of time shouting inside my soul.
From the Zumwalt, I wished to bring back dreams. I woke halfway for many mornings after, searching behind the veil for that wide unconquerable sky. I went to sleep each evening craving dark of mountain and silence of prairie, inviting the endless grassland to my sleeping brain. It turns out I cannot command my dreams.
But memory writes in curious, twisting paths. My waking thoughts return at random to this place. At first, they sounded like my speech. One afternoon cooking chili three months later, I caught myself contemplating with joy that such a place exists, that it can stop our tracks. I hope, I was thinking, they never pave the roads that lead there.
Of late those prairie thoughts have begun to sound like nothing much at all. Which is to say: like everything, like Mystery. I have stepped into the house of silence, and it has come, sometimes, to dwell in me in turn.
A long time coming, it came like a winter flood. After six months idling in the backwaters, our house sold one day, and it carried us away for a month.
Only a month? My body says a year.
My body says: go for a walk. A sanity-preserving suggestion.
We’ve landed in a gangly elbow of the Portland metro, a ragged cluster of office buildings and corporate-looking apartments, crooked between the wash and the roar of freeway. It’s loud, but it’s just this side of country. And it has its charms, up close.
Even better: if I climb steeply for five minutes, my boots sigh onto the soft, non-native grasses of one of the last remaining patches of Willamette oak savanna.
It’s literally the same few trails. A half an hour’s brisk loop. They make new conversation every day, though. Already they have changed their clothes for winter. Always moving forward. Yes, I’m listening.
Anna’s hummingbirds give chase, screaming in their tiny whirring voices. Towhees shout down the endless cars. Leaves plummet, pivoting around their spotted galls. I’m told that if I find a hole the right size in the hillside, I’ll know where a mother coyote raised her pups.
From the top of the slope, an actual answered prayer. That’s River Mile 28.
From the top of the slope, from the midhill oaks, from the south-facing windows of my strange and lucky home: every day, the most astonishing clouds.
I could make an entire avocation up here out of cloudgazing.
At sunrise, in particular.
At the close of each short day.
Every time I look up from my work.
Every time I look, this grace.
The great wall of ancient growth sends its shadow across the river. Alder-cedar-redwood are the color of the afternoon water: serpentine. A breeze sweeps upriver from the sea, picking out the leaves of the tanoaks in gold, turning up the volume on the rapids just downstream. Wild azaleas bloom from the tangled bank, but the wind is wrong for me to catch their scent.
The poet Michael Longley speaks of “the beauty of going to the same place over and over.” I heard these words in an interview, and I scrambled for the pause button.
I have longed for a home because I thought that I had none. Later I thought it was because I had too many, each one partial and incomplete. I was born a wanderer by circumstance, and I have loved many places. I read some words of Terry Tempest Williams: “Each of us harbors a homeland, a landscape we naturally comprehend” – and I felt sadness like a well. Homesick for the having of a home.
And then, in the sudden silence from my radio, my particular curve of river sang to me, in the prose words of a poet.
This river and the forest that it feeds are nowhere I have ever lived. Robert Macfarlane, writing in The Old Ways, helped me reconcile this by pointing out that the “landscapes we bear with us in absentia” may influence us most powerfully. I feel the right of this when I consider the words I use to talk about my relationship with this place. I have lived here regularly, returning once a year, at minimum, to a landscape that grew into me as I grew up. I know its smell the way I recognize the scent of my mother. The rest of the exiled year, I speak as if I’m not quite complete.
When I walk this place, I know the names of the plants, and which can help or harm. I smell the weather changing before I can see it; I call back to birds whose habits I have observed since my earliest years. I’m not claiming any particular woodcraft. I don’t claim to share the depth of what folks who live here learn. I’m claiming love by attention and affinity, and a conversation based on that, carried through repeated pilgrimage over a human lifetime.
It’s lonely the way my culture likes to do things: living in a place without remembering it’s alive. So I speak to my places, and I try to learn their language. It’s a long process, by its nature. To learn to read a landscape, you have to learn your letters and then your phonics first. It gets a little easier, maybe, once you know how to learn. But one lifetime to one place seems about right for mutual understanding. I’ve already exceeded the ratio.
And even so, I do have a homeland. There’s a place in this world that I can set my back to. How does a person inhabit a grace this large for so long before learning to name the gift? I learn everything slowly, at the pace of a forest’s growth.
Crouched by the river, I have yet to touch it. It’s strange this year: thick mats of poison-green algae dance with the current, more than I have ever seen. No one I ask has been equal to an explanation. Is it a temperature shift, a chemical imbalance, a sudden loss of primary predator? It coats the shallows here, beginning four feet out. Isolated tufts cling to rounded stones midstream.
Also the river is the same. Green-gold in the morning sun, clear to the stonebound bed of reds and greens and quartz: the secret colors of trout. Hung with alders at the banks, and reflecting at midstream the old-growth stands it waters.
Red fleece and purple polyester flash through the far bank’s cover. There’s a trail over there, an old acquaintance – but at 10am, it’s too late in the day to follow. So many people, not only here. If I did not rise early, I would rarely find a solitary walk.
Perhaps – I say this often to myself in the weeks after leaving each summer – if I was able to live at the edge of remote wilderness. I never have, and so I suspect some of that is unexamined fantasy: wild places are battlegrounds in our culture; why do I imagine I would find peace living at that boundary? The places to which a person might run away are shrinking. When we do run away, we often step too heavily.
I do not think I imagine the feeling that this is different from my youth. The situation is as much changed then to now as my childhood from my parents’. There are billions more people on the planet, enough of whom flash disposable wealth that wilderness tourism has become a massive industry. The state of California requires permits and fees merely to enter the better-known beauty spots. Even for wilderness areas, protected but undeveloped, there are official entry-points, and forms to fill out at the trailhead. Here be dragons; that will be $15.
Simpson-Reed Grove, where I walked with my husband this morning in quiet, is by this hour overrun with strolling and shouting. My adopted state of Oregon is considering, as I write, a permit system for popular trails in the Columbia River Gorge. For at least a year now, visitors to Multnomah Falls have availed themselves of a carpark and a shuttle, miles down the highway from the waterfall where once a woman of legend hurled herself to her death to save her people. Would that she had, from the tyranny of settler-colonialism.
It does not matter if there is good and bad to this development. I’m tired of the “both sides” argument. The point is, we can’t stop it. All we can do is regulate. Despite my understanding of the need to do so, I agree, with sadness, when inevitably someone in my family sighs as they set up camp: “every year, more rules.”
The mental and physical space to conduct my daily affairs as I see fit feels like a statement of human right. Constraint by reasonable law and consideration for others is a general good. Regulation is where we turn when both of those things fail.
Regulations do work: by preventing a thousand small acts of incidental vandalism daily, by slowly inculcating ideas about right behavior toward the rest of the planet. They also burn the hand that struck the match, and run away with the fuel they find. The price of universal access – understand that ‘universal’ still largely means people with two legs, light skin, and enough money – is the smallest of decisions dictated in triplicate. Don’t hang lines from the trees. Don’t poop less than 200 yards from running water. Don’t step off the trail. Don’t leave so much as a coffee cup on the table while you wander to the restroom. Don’t gather firewood. No noise after 10pm. No fireworks, no parking, no more than 8 people camped on a single site. Add your own: it’s a collaborative poem about the price of what we like to call freedom.
We follow the rules: some of us, sometimes. They’re reasonable, mostly, considered in the context of our crowded, connected world. But they aren’t aimed at teaching us to be better citizens toward each other. Or the forest, or the river, or the bears. They’re emergency brakes, applied to a freewheeling system we cannot imagine our way out of. We try to ameliorate capitalism and other forms of selfishness with laws and punishments, but the problem is one we can only solve by changing our society’s values. Until enough of us behave ourselves out of profit worship and greed, until we teach each other to eschew the idea that “I’m an adult, I do what I want,” all the regulation in the world cannot make the world a better place.
Meanwhile, it controls the damage. Talk about a consolation prize. Without it, the home of my heart would be, at the very least, so many board feet of beautiful, rot-resistant lumber. For enough almighty dollars, I could buy it and build myself a new deck.
Every place I love breaks my heart. The love comes in when my heart heals up around it.
Every year, this place wounds me over and over. Which is nothing to the ways my species, perhaps especially my culture, has wounded it. The world my generation inherits is every year shown to be more precarious, more polluted, more irrevocably changed by own hands than we’ve dared to attempt understanding. How do you protect the places you love, when so much has already hurt them?
We already know how to face this question, in the context of family and friends. With the best of intentions, we try to protect them from harm. Eventually, hopefully, painfully, we learn that the best we can do is to create a supportive space for them to make their own decisions.
This, perhaps, is what we can learn to do for our wild places. Could we leave more of them alone, to decide upon their own futures? We still have to remove our selfishness from the equation. Our roots are crowding theirs out, making their decisions for them from afar. What will it take to teach us self-control? In the meantime, I suppose, there is regulation.
One merganser, female, cruising watchfully midstream. One raven, flapping about in the canopy. Rainbow birds in the understory, unseen. Two dippers, yesterday by the otter spot, but none this morning.
I do not have my mobile. That pirate and savior of the modern human is difficult to leave behind. Even the functions that aid my love of place and presence – a camera, a notepad – are tied to a hundred others fighting for advertising space in my brain. Here – not only here – the weight has grown too much.
I have been sitting here idly reading, mostly watching, bare toes inches from the water. The moment I realized I’d been hearing only rapid-rumble and stone-lap and leaf-rustle was the moment an ambulance screamed by on the highway. Then a man bruised the trail above me, climbing out on a downed log and exclaiming about how ‘sick’ the view. He’s right. Another man came down to my pocket-sized beach with his child, surveying it for a place to play and wonder. My sympathy and antipathy are close companions. I will wait all of this out. My patience for this place is honed to the cut of midday sun on water. My patience for others of my species is less practiced, but my efforts continue.
There is a campground quite nearby, developed to a point. This place is wild, though. Whatever domestications intrude, they eventually leave. Most of them depart promptly – the ambulance wail slices west, and the men breaking through to glory take their shining glimpse back to their cars. Some intrusions erode at a more leisurely pace: witness my own ephemeral presence. When I am gone, the river and the rainbow birds remain, and do not miss me.
I cannot decide if I want them to miss me. As a human in such a world, is my place to step back as far as possible, to create that space where my beloved land may forget me immediately, in peace? Is there a way I can live that would allow it, however impenetrably, to be grateful that sometimes I am here? I lack the wisdom or the experience that might illuminate an answer. This is my work: to learn to love well, I live inside the questions.
What I’ve written below may look like a list of plants.
In my taxonomy work, I have been for several months in conversation with one such list. It has been a many-layered joy: because I enjoy the puzzle of taxonomy, because I know many of the plants, and because I rejoice generally in the kingdom Plantae. The names of plants are dying in our language. I like to speak and write them as a counterspell.
My list is derived from many sources, but its best inclusions come from the catalog of a particular Oakland nursery, East Bay Wilds. I’ve never set foot there, but I love them. Their species list contains the raw ingredients of a powerful incantation.
Last afternoon, my cat companion died. She was old, and it had been expected. Still, it was a shock to see her husk: her eyes sunk in and fur in ragged clumps, the muscles gone slack that had held each piece minutely, the pattern that had made her starting to unravel. For a dozen years, she was my friend, my little owl, my Gwenhwyfar. I will never speak with her again.
Our present times are overfull with heartbreak. It helps me to work, and I’m lucky to do that with good folks, who know when to speak their sympathy and when to ask distracting questions about attributes and values. It also helps to reach out to my community, gathered all about, as ordinary and miraculous as a bowl of stars. I did both those things today, and both have held me up.
I had marked out for my work today this list of plants to finish wrestling with. Grief – not just for Gwenners – has loosened my self-consciousness of late. So I didn’t stop when I realized I was speaking aloud the genus and species and cultivar names that pleased me. They felt cool and soothing, the way it feels to gain admittance to an ancient grove. Merely listing them was not what I heard myself doing; I was punctuating. So I wrote them down, and I stopped and paused and drew out these names the way they shaped themselves to rhythm, and what I have on paper is…a prayer? A poem, a paean, a mourning song. Beautiful words from the woods and hills of my first beloved home, chanted or whispered or sung to meet the hurt in my heart, to lift the memory of my loved, my lost small friend.
You may share them, if you like. I do not think their magic is particular to me, or to my loss, or to loss at all. Speak them, if you have a quiet place. I hope that they might bless you, too.
Lace-lip fern & leafy reedgrass, lily-of-the-valley.
Leather root, lotus, living stone.
Oceanspray & olive; owl’s claws.
Pacific Mist manzanita. Pearly everlasting.
Pink-flowered buckeye, Point Reyes bearberry, prickly pear & purple moor grass
— Quail bush. Radiant kinnickkinnick!
Rushrose & Sandhill sage, sapphire ceanothus.
Sea buckthorn & serpentine sedge, sequoia.
Sorrel, snowdrop, slender-footed sedge.
— Shatterberry manzanita.
Spearmint, spicebush, southern silktassle. St. Catherine’s lace buckwheat.
Staghorn, stonecrop, strawberry tree;
Sweet pea & sycamore, tarragon & teak.
Thyme & tickseed & tiger lily. Torrent sedge & toyon.
Twinberry honeysuckle, water lettuce;
Wax myrtle, & weeping fig.
Wild ginger, wishbone bush, windflower, wisteria…
Wright’s buckwheat bastardsage!