Home Again: A Photo Essay

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.

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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.

I’ve opened this gift nearly every day since the last box landed.

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. 23659519_10214969735903274_1348357550184536507_n

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.23659245_10214969736143280_603823775223930087_n

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.

***

Love Song for a River Bank

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.

A Song of Home for a Heart that’s Breaking

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…

Witchhazel, woodfern:

     Wright’s buckwheat bastardsage!

 

Yarrow.

Yerba Santa.

Yew.

***

 

 

 

Ghosts of Summertime

Half an hour ago it was too hot to be outside. The edge has curled up off the day now, just about 8pm, and a soft freshness pushed up from underneath. I can smell it, unfurling like a frond of fern.

I have not been content today, nor free of heavy cares for some months. So much is not right – with the weather, with my home, my life, my country – and my ability to affect change is so limited as to feel non-existent. But the towhees buzz as the breeze comes up before nightfall. It does help.

Summer in the Willamette Valley is the beloved season. We wait for it, discuss its late starts and occasional rains with an affronted air that recalls nothing so much as sun-spoiled Southern Californians. Which is what an increasing number of us used to be.

I carry a preference for mists and overcast, morning chill and fresh cool air at midday. I like to be outside and alone, but all my neighbors are up and out in this season, keeping me company from dawn until well past dusk. There’s a reason I’m no longer in Southern California myself.

Even my sleep is more populous in summer. Vague dreams keep me hovering near the surface, aware of my cool cotton sheets. A few nights back, I was dipping in and out of some large unsettling mystery, in no hurry, for once, to find how it all fits. Dreams are unknowable, but that hasn’t stopped our species from confident interpretations. I decided mine was my subconscious speaking to my daytime unsettlement: slow down, this is all you have.

In which case, what to do with the dream that followed, featuring an invisible force I was either playing or contesting with, while half my family looked on? I banished it aloud at the end, with a sense more of theater than conclusion. It’s normal to wake from dreams of the supernatural with a pounding heart in the darkness. This time I felt only a vexed wish for unvisited sleep.

The lack of actual darkness surely plays into this. I live in a semi-urban downtown, where night is just a dimmer switch. From my darkening porch, I wish to find the night, to move through its other-textured streams. Evening is a great consolation near midsummer, and I long toward its liminal softness. Here, where street lights are loud and too-revealing, neighbors chatter freely at daytime volume, and music of the canned variety ruptures the boundaries of car and home, I lose heart for evening walks. I also find some of what I seek, when the night is cool: the wind coming up as the sky fades, as though it disperses the light. The flittering of tiny bats, the white roses’ last late glowing.

Mornings are the quiet hour: five or six, before the sun clears the foothills. When the sky is a blank blue page, a bit darker each week. When the city and the hills disappear, enshawled in a drift of sunrise cloud. On the bay, the mallard kids are nearly grown. The men paddle about in lonely eclipse while the women give every appearance not to need them. It’s a brief reprieve: the fancy suits and the strutting and the casual violence of the mallard love scene will return.

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***

Supposedly summer is waning by September. Everyone’s keen to stuff in two more backyard parties, one more camping trip in the mountains. These last few years, though, August and September have brutalized the Northwest. Glance at a map showing wildfires, and it’s lit up like a city skyline. Rain might have never existed. In our supposedly temperate valley, the air doesn’t cool below 70 degrees for days at a time. Drop that number to 60, and you can extend the time to weeks. Meteorologists call this “poor nighttime recovery.” When 70 is the low, the mercury is climbing to the 80s by mid-morning, peaking near 100 in the breathless five o’clock hour.

I have to walk very early to get outside in this season. And I see things I would otherwise have missed. In the second week now of September, I’m out the door in darkness at 5:30. By seven the sun has vaulted the horizon. By 8 or so it’s struggled up, stained in blood, through the haze of smoke that walls the valley in. You can feel the air catch in the instant the sun breaks free.

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Last week, the smoke-flat sky was dim at twenty after six, the sun still crouched and readying to spring. The glorytrees in bloom smelled like someone’s vision of heaven: rich and sweet and heavy like a cross between perfume and preserves. Bruise a leaf and the scent of peanuts rises into the sweet. I’d been listening for some minutes to a ruckus of crows, moving westward roughly parallel to my route. Turning the corner at the scent of peanut butter and jelly, I was hearing something else as well, a screechy-brakes squealing, overwhelmed by indignant caws. Suddenly a large, distinctly flat-faced owl shot of the dougs on one side of Berwick Road, taking immediate cover in a tangle on the other. Its wings caught the light off the glorytree’s creamy blossoms. Barn owls are common, but I’d never managed to see one wild. I followed this one’s escape through the neighborhood, invisible but for the crowd of shouting corvids. Exit, pursued by crows.

In the remnant oak woodlands on bluffs above the river, dawn means I’m the first to greet the spiders. Webs crackle as they break across my nose, drape limply on the brim of my hat. There’s Oregon white oak up there, a rarity, and some much scrubbier variety, and rocky, seeping meadows drying out in the long rainless months. I’d never been up there before. I know the plants but they arrange themselves differently, and they make space for the sky. I played a game where I named every plant I passed – snowberry, toxicodendren, big-leaf maple, sword fern, thimbleberry, Indian plum – until I met one I couldn’t and I had to stop for one full minute and listen, utterly still. One time, the birds went silent too. I stood tall and tried to look either intimidating or invisible. I didn’t break my silence. In retrospect, an odd sort of game.

Tryon Creek breathes tangibly in this blanketing heat. Standing 20 feet from the trailhead at Andrews Road this morning, I felt it as an invisible rising river. Beneath the heavy summer maples, the green-boned alders reaching, wrensong watered the understory. The creek itself is small, of course, but running fast and clear, busy with water striders treading against the flow. Two ravens skimmed the treetops, a rare presence in this city-shouldered wood. It didn’t feel urban, though, today. At the wood’s heart, at dawn, as ravens quorked above, it was wild.

Even my little urban bay seems wilder just before daybreak. Endless tiny fish backflip out of the shallows. Airborne insects caper, and the last bats snap them out. Yesterday I sidled up to three Canada geese on silent patrol, and in so doing startled the shy green heron I have seen here only twice. A great blue glided low above my head, startling me in turn with his single, growling kraaaaaaak. I followed them both around to the marina, empty of boats this early. The green flew from my presence but the blue ignored it, stalking along the docks under sunrise clouds. A  blue heron’s eye is huge and fluorescently yellow. I imagined myself the object of its hunting gaze.

 

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***

Returned from my sunrise ramblings, I seal up the house, with myself inside. As a child I read about house arrest and thought it a very light penalty. Septembers in Portland have caused me to reconsider. Evenings on the patio are scarce, and the noontime sky some days smells like a campfire and sags down heavy as lead, leaking sulfurous light. It looks like a storm about to boil, but there’s no rain coming to save us.

I woke last night to the scent of falling water. No breeze, so the rain dropped in silence, misting onto the maple and dripping from its fingers once when enough had gathered. Coolness rose and padded in the window like a cat.

I woke again and reached, and my fingernails clicked on glass. Rising, I slid the window back and thought I smelled the rain. The moon, my companion on these long hot nights when the smoke recedes, had dropped behind the trees. Instead, the neighbors’ porch lights tangled in the maple trunks with the orange shine of over-lit streets.

In the morning I got up again with the first faint seafoam glow in the eastern sky. Only some spent brown seeds dripped from the maple. Beneath the hydrangeas, mulch and soil were dry. The rain, if it had been here, had found the veil too thick to cross last night. I walked into the fitful semi-darkness, my heart a small, confused, insistent hammer.

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Coronado in Winter

So many shorebirds! After half a week on this temperate coast in the waning days of winter, I can still only wonder at such finely-grained diversities of wing. They seem vast and billowing, clouds upon the sand.

Their numbers are small, perhaps, compared to the massive muster of only decades past. My shifted baseline lets me see the flocks as great, and I walk among them amazed. This may be an individual blessing as much as it is a general curse.

Sometimes they’re throwing multi-family feasts, all you can catch. Sometimes they keep themselves to themselves. I quite understand the desire for both at once. If I don’t yet comprehend the fine distinctions between a whimbrel and a dowitcher and a godwit, fellow-feeling is a simpler step.

The plovers, at least, are an easy ID. Tiny grey and white puffs with black eyestripes and cartoonishly quick legs, they’re perpetually in motion, striking the wet sand with their small neat beaks like black lightning. Very soon now they’ll start to nest, choosing a shallow scrape in the sand by rules only they know. Their internal guidance routinely ignores human habits. Their perfect scrape might be a day-old footprint on a heavily trafficked beach.

Plover nesting grounds are protected here on the base at Naval Air Station North Island. A section of beach is roped off and signed: no dogs or humans allowed. It’s immediately next to another don’t-tread-on-me zone — this one warns of live rounds firing.

Burrowing owls have claimed much deeper scrapes in the sandy tangle of low-slung weeds across the access road. They’re protected too, by the dubious virtue of living on a radar range. Humans are advised not to wander here either, so I’ve stood my hopeful watch upon the tarmac, pacing for awhile and then sitting a spell, and finally giving up to try later. The owls are meant to be diurnal, and the few left to San Diego County stay year-round.

There are none in sound or sight this morning. I walked out to the waves instead, through zipping plovers and the 8am-daily strains of the Star Spangled Banner. This is a complicated feeling. We think we own all this. We rank our right to own and use above all else, and still expect the land and sea and humanity at large to treat whatever bargains we’ve imposed as fair, to abide by our supremacy. Meanwhile, my heart swells at the rockets’ red glare.

The damp sand near the breakers lies strewn with gifts. Thumbnail-sized shells in ice-cream-cone swirls, jet-black scalloped ones, whole sand dollars furred with recent life. I made my beach offering thinking of nothing but this, as is proper. Walking away down the shore, my thoughts slide back to injustice and impermanence. Even this beauty – especially beauty – lives in many layers.

I have been walking barefoot for days – a thing I mostly cannot do and deeply miss. Sand is so forgiving. I’ve let my long hair down to sway in the slight salt breeze. The feeling altogether is near to mythological. I am kin to ancient beings of salt and seaweed, or ripple-haired heroines of song and story. Or possibly just myself at an age when such comparisons felt natural.

All of these — I imagine when I am back indoors with a comb — also hated picking out the tangles, and thought of cutting their storied locks right off. Instead I lie on the bed with the breeze stirring the wooden blinds, and float on the sounds of surf and shorebirds and the buoy in the harbor mouth. And it feels like home.

***

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To Furnish With, or Enable to Develop, Roots

Root (transitive verb)
a: to furnish with or enable to develop roots
b: to fix or implant by or as if by roots
Source: Merriam-Webster

creek fog at sunrise april

This is my home.

I live at river mile 21, a slight dell where the creek comes in from what used to be called Sucker Lake. It travels down a ravine I only call the Canyon, with its blocky ruins of not-so-long-ago, its hidden architectural grace of a bridge. The creek probably has a name, but that may be another recent ruin. It tunnels out beneath the lake-edge dam, slides down fifty feet of wild rock, and matures within a quarter mile into a placid slice of pond. And there it offers itself to fill a small emptiness the Willamette River didn’t know it had.

It’s easiest to see my home when you rise out of it, quickly. Traveling east on State Street, suddenly you’re even with the branches of the douglas firs, and not their straight-hipped boles. The rest of my town, and the next one over, sits on a bluff, where the highway reveals the green sinuosity of the water’s course. From my home shore, you come upon the river like you would a sleeping snake. I do sometimes feel the urge to back away slowly. It’s big and breathing and it’s right there at my feet.

I locate my home as a dip in the lay of the land, a place lush and water-shaped – as William Stafford put it, “insanely green.” My house in this is a townhome. It’s just off a busy road, and I can see a dozen neighbors’ windows from my own. I cannot see any water, but give me five minutes – half of that’s just waiting for the light to turn – and I can touch the river. My house and its two hundred closest companions crush, penguin-like, into the very slightly higher ground between a slim arm and a shallow bay of the same lake, and that silver-green traveler, the Willamette.

I find myself in land. I’ve grown roots half a dozen times; I can’t help it. It’s understood that many generations of modern Americans are a rootless sort, and certainly I grew up moving from region to region, posting to posting, and school to school. I’m not “from” anywhere. It never made sense to imagine I could stay attached, but that didn’t stop me from growing down into a place. I’m a dandelion: just give it time, the wind will blow me away. Folks forget, and I do too: dandelions have tenacious roots.

This time I’ve stayed, five winters and counting, at one crossroads of water, beneath eight gracefully middle-aged doug firs and a single sheltering maple. This time I made my own choice, and this rooting has been gradual but it is deep.

River fog at sunrise april

And I am moving. This is also my choice. Every time I search uneasily for a private place to sit beneath the yawning windows, I know it’s right. And every time I cross State Street to the river, I can’t stand the thought of leaving.

If you’re tallying by place – a distinct land- and culture-scape – I’m on my sixth. If you’re counting buildings of residence, I’ve lost track. It’s possible to understand a life as a history of leave-taking.

It’s always hard; what I face now is not new. But the stakes are different. I notice I am stronger as I age – stronger of conviction, of intellect, of skill. My roots grow with concurrent intensity. They changed the rules of this game before I noticed. Digging them up for transplant becomes less a process of a gardener’s tender care and more a battle of wills.

It’s true my old connections never quite leave me to heal in peace. I’m always finding burrs in my socks, or translucent flowers pressed between the pages. It’s like an aspen grove in here: separate lives on the surface; beneath, a single entity, old and strong. If I have six homes and god knows how many houses, they have only one. They go wherever I do.

So I’m storing up the things that I’ll take with me, from this place. The way, for example, my part of the river gives back the first light of day: incompletely, changed, like it’s swallowed some of the sunrise. Where does the dawn resurface?

***

Nothing but time could teach me that home means many things, some of them contradictory.

I try to go home for Christmas every year. This home lies in the southern half of California, bounded by dry, folded mountains like a dropped cloth of velvet, and set back a few blue miles from the unpacific depths of the Santa Barbara Channel. It’s Christmas-home because my parents live there, in the gray house on its wide culdesac that they bought when I was fourteen. The olive tree that I recall is gone, and the court’s least favorite neighbor, the mockingbird who perched there to compose his half-thieved tunes in the smallest morning hours. The fan palm, dryly rustling, and the queen palm, glinting at sunset – these endure.

I get lonely for these things. And for the morning light first brushing the eastern hills; for the arched porch at close of day, a glass of wine, and my mother’s conversation. My life is long gone from here, but these winter glimpses remain a gift of grace.

When my plane lands in Portland, the cooling, diffuse light soothes and welcomes. Meanwhile my freezing toes recall the kiss of deeply shaded grass, shelter asked and given from which to thank that bright, demanding southern sky. In the midst of home, we are in every other home.

When I lived in that quiet house, my mother and I decorated the Christmas tree together. It has an order and a rhythm, this decorating, and we are the only two people in the world who know it. Undecorating has the same order, in reverse, and a very different rhythm. My parents have collected more ornaments – souvenirs of their travels, the many friends and family they have loved, and their own several homes – than we can use at once. Some ornaments take turns. Particular pieces go up every year, and one of these is Reed Duck. Reed Duck, who’s about my age, is just what he sounds like: a small waterfowl made of bundled brown reeds, hung with scarlet ribbon. He’s been lost for years, MIA, a casualty of some glitch in the undecorating ritual.

Mom was sorting through old clothes today, and there he was. He’d only fallen out of a box, and taken a long nap on the ground beside the box of stuffed animals I put away for my children when I left home, and the bag of beautiful small dresses labeled “for Tara’s daughter.” Mom cried when she rediscovered them, and I cried when she told me. The recovery of Reed Duck had been a gift – and in the next moment a cruel consolation for the lack of child and grandchild.

What do we do with those clothes now, those stuffed companions? The pink-striped dress I had my first portrait in, aged 5 – it’s still gorgeous. What good can it take into a new generation? My threadbare Ducky Daddles, whose squeaker stopped working before my memory starts, whose snuggly portability accompanied me across the country more than once – who will cherish him today?

I loved my animals fiercely, and I love their memory. My dresses were a joy, and I smile to remember them rustling and new. But the things themselves persist, inconveniently. They’re useless now to anyone except a person who will never exist. They’re valuable only to people who cannot use them.

Of course we can give them away. But what difference will they make: more unwanted things, stripped of the history and the love that made them special? The world already suffocates beneath a rising tide of material possessions. Mine aren’t needed – not even by a stranger. One stuffed animal is as good as another, unless it’s yours.

It’s my practice as an adult to avoid accumulating non-consumable goods. I keep the handmade scrapbooks that recall our travels, a not-insignificant number of books (many with history of their own), my journals since the age of eight. The loss of these would be great. But certain material things tangle themselves in so much weight of emotion. Of these, I keep scarcely any. It turns out this is because my parents keep them for me. The daily sufferings of parenthood never entirely cease.

I remember the afternoon the plump beige and sable cat I named Siam sat waiting for me on the front seat of our ancient Chevy. In the picture that survives from that day, I have rips in the knees of my jeans and my barretted hair is coming loose in white-gold wings around my face. I am grinning a partially-toothed beam of uncomplicated pleasure. Today, my only real choices are to throw Siam away, or give her away to a faceless organization. But I recall her as a friend, and you don’t throw friends on the trash heap. I can’t think of casting her to the wind without betraying everything bound up in her: a deeply happy childhood, my parents’ youth and hopes, my own regret that I’ll never have a daughter.

What do you do with those things, if they cannot be transplanted? They can’t leave home without dissolving into anonymity. And home cannot keep them, either.

***

Microscopic geography has never been my strength. I loved atlases as a child – big maps of foreign mountains with unfamiliar names. I loved my homes, but I did not know them in the way of the committed resident. I walked them in road miles, I drove them in townships and counties. I took what they gave, but I attended mostly to their grandeurs.

Here, I walk more than once a day, sometimes the same route. It’s often of moderate length: to the grocery store and back, to the river, around the bay, to the library. For a long time I sought novel routes by habit. When I began to have favorites, I was surprised to find them the ways I most often travelled.

There may be a word for this, in a language I don’t know. To me, this is the process of becoming local.

River ruins

As I have located, I have tended not to localize, but here it is, surprise! I roam as much as ever, just nearby, without a car to find my starting point, without a guidebook to help me find a new trail. I’ve seen this as a domestication, an unwilding of the girl who met the wind-borne Gorge rains with gladness on the steepest slopes each week. It could be that: age and the knowledge of mortality allowing the wilderness-fear the upper hand. It might be just the commitments we make with our time: in my 30s, I have chosen more paths and thus closed off twice as many, something my 20s self did not see coming.

If it’s both things, at least there’s a consolation prize. Certainly river mile 21 is my consolation.

The maple’s leaves have just unfurled since Easter. The sun travels warm and the soft breeze cool through her thousand brick-tinted palms. I’ve seen four hummingbirds today, investigating. What interests them? They’re thought to find the shades of red attractive, but there’s no nectar for them here. Towhees throw their trilling rattle across the patio. Yesterday the rain beaded up on plum-ripe tulips made me want to take a bite of them. Today the sun drops blessings on the last of the tiny wood violets, fading among the moss on my small bank of earth. My camellias – one pink like the palest morning cloud, one pink like a 5-year-old’s tutu – are making confetti on the porch.

I will go from here. And perhaps I will come back – not to this patch of soil, but one close by. I will adapt; I always do. I think I can stand to move a river mile or two.

Please, though – and this is a prayer – not more.

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Songs Without Words

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I always look out the window before I close the blinds to go to sleep. By now I’ve been indoors a couple of hours, more in winter. Pleased with my warm friend-sewn blanket and wool slippers, some essential element is missing. I cannot put a day to bed without first greeting the night.

Mostly I see a mess of orange clouds – the underbelly of daytime grey turned into Vegas by night. Or Sauron’s eye, when my mood is bleak, of late. Tonight it’s stars. My upstairs window is none too clean, and I have to double-check it’s not a reflection. But there’s Orion practically shouting at me, and I race downstairs into the frozen night.

It’s not frozen, actually, for all it’s January in Oregon. I’m standing out here in jeans and a medium-warm plaid shirt, next to a street still busy at this hour, and if this deep-blue night isn’t velvet, but more like clammy silk, well, it’s wrapping me up all the same. And it is deep blue – small miracles – like the sea where the continental shelf drops all the way off, and you know it’s an unconscionable distance down to solid earth.

And maybe it’s singing Orion’s up to, not shouting. He and the other constellations my father taught me are sparkling, popped against the night like pewter buttons, newly shined. They move around a little bit, like the giant person who sewed them on is up there breathing, admiring her beautiful glinting fasteners.

There’s more to the constellations, I know: I’ve seen their pointillist density, their curious feathered shadows. But there’s too much light in metro Portland to see all the millions of milky stars the sky washes up. Orion here is an outline of himself, his one red shoulder like the coldest ruby – frozen fire, fresh-wrested from the earth. A few stark strokes paint him in all his essentials.

No wind tonight. Wishing the road away, I can almost feel the quiet rippling into the void. Our great douglas fir muscles up next to the hunter, ocean green on darkest blue, the rich and pleasing colors of the unclouded globe from space. There is something to be said, after all, for artificial light.

***

I have this perfect place that I go in moments like this. It’s my front porch: wide and deep, with beautiful Craftsman detail in the raised molding that marches around the whole structure with a pleasing mathematical authority. There’s an Adirondack chair pulled up right next to the railing on the lefthand side, where I can wrap myself in wool plaid, and indulge both my day’s-end weariness and my desperate desire to drink the stars.

This is a perfect place because it is a made-up place. I see this porch in my mind’s eye every day, but that doesn’t make it any more attached to my house. I see it clear as the stars tonight, when I’m ready for sleep, but unwilling to surrender this utter sublimity to the frankly boring pleasure of a warm, soft bed.

I’d watch birds from this porch, in daylight: beeping nuthatches and five-alarm woodpeckers; bushtits by the bushel, and chattering masses of chickadees. Birds by day and stars by night: how comforting. I’d come out for sunrise from this porch, or sunset, sing to the wind rippling on river or lake or sea.

I’d be perfectly happy, too, if I had this porch. I actually think this, fairly often. That it is false does not quench the small hopeful ember cupped in my jealous little heart. I want privacy, and birds, and quiet, and stars, more than I want a higher income, more time to read, or the honey-gold hair I wore loose in my youth. I rushed out with pure joy to see the stars tonight, but here I am coveting another life instead. I can still feel the joy but now the restlessness is stirring up behind it.

I’ve acquired several diversions for this frustrating visitor, who is always right but never very wise. I can offer them a walk, which they tend to decline (and either wander away or lie in wait for my return.) I can open certain books, dropping in wherever they’ll have me. Jane Austen is about the best for this purpose, with her deceptive mannerly dialogue, and observations like knives sharpened in secret behind expensively upholstered chairs.

Or I can run a bath. How has it never occurred to me to do this at midnight? Scented with rose soap, the water’s delicious at first. I’ve been reading about sea swimming. Slipping in, I can’t imagine wanting that goose-pimpling embrace, that shocking strength unallied to my body.

I’ve lit candles, to preserve the dark and still read about the sea swimming. Amy Liptrot in her memoir The Outrun describes crisply the fear and trembling, the painful clarity, the vague familiar freedom of floating on the living deep. The tame water around me lacks personality. It doesn’t speak, as water should, much less toss stones between wave crests or surprise me with soul-eyed seals. It’s hotspring-warm, but without the secretive small currents and whiffs of infernal mud. In its bleak bathtub sojourn, this water has forgotten that it’s coming from or going to anywhere.

Within ten minutes I’m contemplating a trip across the street to the river. I don’t get past the imagining stage, though. I’m so far from compassing anything more extreme than going back out to sip the stars. I used to run in rainstorms for fun, didn’t I? I used to swim at night in my home river, an inward-curving teenager desperate for communion, terrified that someone would find out. No one did, until now, and that’s for the best. There weren’t words, then; there was only river.

***

Candlemas morning: the world tipping over into light. I’m not brave enough to swim, but I’ll dip my fingers in the frigid Willamette, trace my personal signs on my forehead and cheeks. Our mountain, the moon, my river. It’s like saying my name to myself – my wordless name, so much bigger than just me.

I do this reflexively – catching sight of alpenglow, or opening my eyes to the moon in my window. Rushing out to greet the glorious gift of stars.

I also do it intentionally, in the nearest body of water, marking every seasonal shift by the ancient calendar of solstice, equinox, and cross-quarter. The turning year speaks to me, more than any particular season or sight. It slows me down to wonder and give thanks. My pagan little naming ritual helps me hold onto that. It also reminds me of my baptism. Sometimes I cross myself with water, too. We need all the belonging we can get: fingers dug into the sand, eyes fixed on the heavens.

Last night, in the hours between enchantment and awakening, restless wind erased the stars. Pendant branches on a line of empty birch trees slant like rain, thin and black against a greying sky. Crows and cormorants greet each other in the name of the crisp cold wind. Bald eagles are circling low to the river, loosing the curious fluting squeaks I hear only in winter. How I’ve taken these past few days of calm and stars for granted. This morning everything is on alert: another storm is coming.

It rises from the north and west, and it has not yet reached to reel in the dawn. Reflected in the riverpath out of the east, the sun is rising: delicately, radiantly, defiantly striped in the rainbow colors of an abalone’s secret shell.