Monthly Archives: December 2005

Water

I awoke this morning to find my apple tree, a sapling, blown partly over. A neighbor’s fence lay on the ground, and down the hill the topmost branches of a broad juniper caressed a parked car. The ground is sodden, and roots’ hold on it is loosened.

The creek, at nine, was full to the brim and roaring. Whole trees sped toward the bay in its brown embrace, tangled in the railroad bridge. Downstream the houses flooded.

Neighbors walked in the street knee-deep in water. They watched from their porches as the flood lapped at their foundations, and talked hopefully of better weather to follow.

Ninety-five feet uphill, two feet of water stood in our crawl space. I pumped it into the street with a seven amp impeller.

This year has been bracketed in loss, vultures to start it, an uncle’s death to end it. Faultline ended this year, a near decade of hope and work thrown down a hole. The Mojave burned. And yet, I thought as I watched the water from beneath my house flow back toward the creek, we did not drown in sewage after standing on tiptoe in our attic for five days as the government reveled in its ideological mediocrity.

That’s something.

Fossil hunting

Fossil hunting They have torn down the giant rusting tank on the shore. In its place are scattered piles of brick. Pipes and scaffolding lay rusting along the tracks.

The storms have ceased, at least for now. The creek roils brown and low of voice. Atop the path ducks bathe, wash their heads.

Each storm takes another layer off this cliff face. The rock is soft. It crumbles in my fingers. Two centuries, three, and this little outcrop will wear down to nothing, or the sea will rise ten feet and cover it.

I miss my brother. Were he here, I would point out the sanderlings gliding an inch above the bay, the kestrel in the eucalyptus. We walked down here one day, his life at full ebb. We scrambled at the rock with bruised fingers.

One face offers nothing, the next nothing. Some rocks, pried from the cliff, expose webs of roots. This was a shallow sea. Sand washed off a river long dead. Now grasses splinter the rock.

So many days in climbing loose, unstable slopes. So many stones wedged deep in the boot. Some forty years these hands have broken rock. Shale, sandstone, siltstone. Sometimes the rocks ask to be split. Walking some years ago I hefted a rock, dropped it on another. It cleaved to reveal a Miocene scallop. Becky was entranced. “How did you know it was in there?” I hadn’t known.

The third face is the one I wanted. The rock comes away with odd, round indentations. I free a rock, another, and then there it is: a clam, three quarters of an inch broad and thirteen million years dead.

Sometimes the rock preserves the living shell, and fossils bear a thin veneer of pearl. More often all that lived is gone. Only a mold impressed into the sediment remains. That mold fills, and a replica of the organism is cast in native stone. Held in the hand, this looks and feels like a clam. It is an echo of an echo. Seafloor was shaped. It shaped again in turn.

The rain will come tomorrow and the next day. Wet wind off the ocean will pelt the rock. The little clam saw light today for the first time in millions of years. I place it on the ground. A season or two will dissolve it.

Seven sevens

Grrlscientist and Jill tapped me for this one. I’ll figure out a way to get even with reward them some day.

Seven Things To Do Before I Die

1. Visit Washington, Montana, and Alaska, thus bringing the pointless list of US states I’ve been in to 50
2. Spend a summer in Bolivia
3. Drive to Tuktoyaktuk and dabble my toes in the Arctic Ocean
4. Hike at least the California portion of the Pacific Crest Trail
5. Become one of those Californians who sells a piece of inflated real estate and retires in an Intermountain West town, with access to mountains and desert so as to make both Becky and myself happy, probably Flagstaff.
6. Visit Australia or Ethiopia or Mauritius and dabble my toes in the Indian Ocean
7. Apologize sufficiently

Seven Things I Cannot Do

1. Free-climb El Capitan
2. Pay attention
3. Eat like I used to
4. Understand why people still support Bush
5. Keep up with my 76-year-old father-in-law
6. Figure out a way to keep Zeke with me for ten more years
7. Apologize sufficiently

Seven Things That Attract Me to — Blogging

1. The freedom to write without an editor
2. The risk involved in writing without an editor
3. Being able to be a writer instead of an editor
4. The instant feedback you guys provide
5. Having the sense that my blog doesn’t fit into anyone’s pre-defined blog categories
6. The discipline involved in having indistinct but immutable and terrifying deadlines
7. Attending the birth of a new literary form

Seven Things I Say Most Often

1. Admittedly
2. Wow
3. I don’t want to go to work.
4. I love you, Becky
5. Let’s GO, Zeke. I don’t have all day.
6. Can you please put me on your “Do Not Call” list?
7. Mmmmmm coffee.

Seven Books That I Love

1. The River Why
2. The Desert Smells Like Rain
3. Black Sun
4. Big Rock Candy Mountain
5. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
6. Raven’s Exile: A Season on the Green River
7. The Tortilla Curtain

Seven Movies That I Watch Over and Over Again

1. To Live (Huozhe): I’ve called it “the best movie made in the 20th Century,” and meant it. Heartbreaking, beautiful, and devastatingly political.
2. Manufacturing Consent: A documentary and profile of Noam Chomsky by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick. There is plenty to criticise in Chomsky’s work, and his fanatical admirers gve me the mild creeps, but this very watchable flick neatly disproves about 98 percent of the usual anti-Noamian talking points. And that’s not even what it’s really about.
3. Tremors: On the surface, a cheesy bad science fiction movie. Beneath the surface, a well-envisioned heroic saga with homage to deep mythic themes and trickster stories. Beneath that, still a cheesy bad science fiction movie. Also, I’ve camped and hiked on a few of the locations.
4. Pleasantville: A nice idea turned into an overwrought metaphor for civil rights, freedom of expression, and passion, then used to bludgeon the audience for an hour and a half. What’s not to like?
5. Ganjasaurus Rex: When a subsistence pot-farming couple in Northern California decides to plant a few seeds of the new hybrid Cannabis sequoia, the strain’s powerful resins awake a slumbering beast that evolved long ago to eat the gigantic pot trees. Can the city of Garberville be saved? And will the farmers elude the ineptly fascistic Campaign Against Marijuana Planting?
6. Office Space: Yeah… I’m just gonna go ahead and ask you to include this movie in the list here. Okay? Greaaaaaat.
7. Lonely Are The Brave: The first postmodrun Western, screenplay by Dalton Trumbo from the book The Brave Cowboy by Ed Abbey. Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) breaks into jail to help free a friend imprisoned for aiding illegal immigrants. Douglas later said this film was his favorite of all the westerns in which he’d played. Also stars Walter Matthau, William Schallert, and Carroll O’Connor, not to mention Gena Rowlands, of whom I would watch two hours if she sat at a table and read the newspaper silently.

Seven People I Want To Join In Too

Nina
Elissa
Beth
Bitch, PhD
Auguste
Tom
Carrie

Uncle

Tonight we drive to San Jose for dinner with Becky’s mother’s family. Liam will be there, and Sophie, and I’ll get to be Uncle Chris for a few hours instead of merely Chris.

This will feel good. I have been Uncle Chris for 21 years and change. When Allison was five minutes old the nurses handed her to me. My sister Coral was pre-occupied as they sutured her episiotomy. I introduced myself to someone, for the first time, as “Uncle Chris.” It felt like destiny fulfilled, a hereditary title I had anticipated my whole life.

Here is the stuff of which an Unclehood, properly executed, consists.

Patience. The niece’s or nephew’s quirks are likely a source of deep annoyance to the parents, but you will be heading home at the end of the day, and the child will only tap your reserves a little. For the parents, each tantrum is one in an endless string. For you, it is merely punctuation of a long afternoon on the grass.

Indulgence. A parent’s rules must be respected. But respect comes from knowledge, and knowledge of a rule is best gained when you spend a little time looking at it from the wrong side. Coral made it easy for me: cookies were against the rules for Allison, and I think seventeen years later my sister may almost have forgiven me that Oreo. And then there’s the “beer at seventeen” thing, about which I had best shut up as Liam’s mother may well read this.

Fun. This one, oddly, is the hardest. Popular wisdom has it that two-year-olds are terrible due to their propensity for saying “no.” Fun uncles know the awful truth: the word you should fear from a two-year-old’s mouth is actually “again!” Just give up. Your back will stop hurting eventually.

Exemplary behavior. Some of your nephews — and, in this enlightened age, some of your nieces as well — may grow up to be uncles. They will need a role model. Tell them “no” yourself when you need to, but be fun. Be patient. Indulge them. Love them relentlessly. They will think of you when it comes their time to uncle.

I have fallen down in that task on occasion. I have owed my sweet Grace an email for some weeks, and James is still waiting for my answer to his question about dinosaurs and planets. James, and Carolyn as well, have made it all the way to starting school without meeting Uncle Chris for the first time.

I cannot blame my negligience on a lack of role models. I had the best one possible.

My father has three brothers, each one a fine uncle. When I see them, which happens infrequently, it is nice to catch up. I am smart enough now not to mistake for disinterest the taciturn nature they share with my dad. Also: playing favorites among family members is an odious and risky pursuit. With good men in abundance among my parents’ siblings and their spouses, who would be so crass as to confess having a favorite uncle?

Me, that’s who. But that’s neither criticism nor slight of anyone in my family. It’s simply that Carlyle Benedict is the best uncle anyone ever had. When I held Allison that morning in 1984 I had him in mind, and I wondered if I would measure up.

Uncle Benny Carlyle — “Benny” — married my father’s sister Joyce some years before I was born. I have known him forever. At family gatherings in the 1960s and 70s, where Clarke men tended to gather in deep silence around the television, content to say nothing for hours, Uncle Benny was a spark of infectious liveliness. The party started when he got there. He was not particularly a card. No joke-teller, he. It was more the way he approached life. He could walk into a room full of Clarkes and get us telling jokes.

I am trying now to remember a time when I saw him not smiling for more than a few minutes. I am failing.

The guy was a kid magnet. If there was a child under the age of five in the room with him, that kid would inevitably wind up clambering on his shoulders, placing a hand on his beautiful bald head. I loved him furiously as a small child, and then my sister Carrie did even more ardently, and yet I yielded my rightful place in his lap without resentment. I suspect my brother Craig — Craig Carlyle Clarke — loved him most of all.

There were times when we kids essentially lived at Aunt Joyce and Uncle Benny’s house in Penn Yan, or at least those of us who were born at the time. Lazy weeks in the summer with Aunt Joyce carting us to Keuka Lake, troubled times when my father was called up for National Guard duty or my mother was in the hospital having her thyroid removed. Their kids, Laurie and Tim, were older than us and we looked up to them. Uncle Benny would come home from work — in the service department of a local Dodge dealership, at least at the time — with a smile on his face that rarely ebbed, even when Laurie would play the same The Doors 45 sixteen times in a row, even when Tim was practicing his drums. That house was a second home to us.

Uncle Benny was a homebody. He spent his entire adult life within a twenty-minute drive of the farm where he grew up. We spent summer weeks camping in his father’s fields, tromping through the sheep barn in our good shoes. Driving two hours to Buffalo was an excursion to him, travel in the original sense of the word, a cognate of “travail.” Tim went on tour one year and his band split up somewhere in the Midwest, and he called his father to come fetch him and his drums, and the whole family knew that while someone like me might drive a thousand miles for a good plate of ravioli, Benny’s driving that far was an awesome sacrifice by which he proved his love for his son, again. Tim came to his senses and settled on his grandfather’s farm.

I took Becky to Penn Yan to meet them in 1996, and joked to Uncle Benny about his coming to visit us in California. “Yeah, right,” he smirked. When he saw me that day — the first time in some years — he grinned wide, held out his hand to shake. “That’s not gonna do it for me,” I said. I hugged him, kissing him on his ear just above the diamond stud. He looked a little surprised. “I live in California now,” I explained. 

The phone rang this morning. It was my father. Tim called my Aunt Sylvia in Gorham, who called my dad. Uncle Benny had been in the hospital again, a common occurence what with the cancer he’s been fighting, and the doctors had planned to release him this morning.

Instead, my favorite uncle died last night.

I will see my little nephew tonight, pick him up and clasp him to me, hold him on my shoulders, smile at him indulgently through his inevitable snit. This is what good uncles do, though not usually with eyes this rimmed with red.

Amber

Four older women around the table yell at one another, happily, in Cantonese. One of them holds her hands up in front of her. Her wrists are entirely obscured by beads.

In 16 years I have grown used to being the sole mute person at the table. The role holds an odd, serene comfort.

Becky’s father Bill leans over to me, translates. “She says the amber gives her energy. It gives her energy for housework.” He laughs a little at his sister. He is an engineer and a skeptic, but he appreciates a bit of folklore. 

I once suggested to Becky that I learn Cantonese. “Why bother?” she asked. “Just to talk to my family? They speak English.” “Well, ” I replied, “I could eavesdrop on conversations on the 30 Stockton bus.” But probably not. Cantonese is an outsider’s name, one word applied to probably two dozen mutually unintelligible dialects. If my seatmate’s parents grew up twenty miles from Bill’s home town, her language would be as far from his as Scanian is from mine.

Bill’s sister Marian takes off one of her bracelets, places it on the table. “The energy goes around,” she says in English. She gestures in a circle, traces the circumference of the bracelet.

Becky speaks up. “Mom, show Chris your bracelet.” Joan brightens and hands it to me. The bracelet is fine, with three colors of amber, from pale to dark brown like grades of maple syrup. Amber is the only gemstone that is always warm to the touch. “You can see the leaves in there,” says Joan. I hold the bracelet up to the light. Flecks of bark and leaf and random Cenozoic dirt sparkle there. It is beautiful.

Twenty years ago Elissa idly wished to own an amber necklace someday. A week later I wandered into the anthropology museum at UC Berkeley: there, in the gift shop, was a string of Baltic amber beads. At a hundred bucks, it cost a week’s pay. I intended it as a Christmas gift but couldn’t stand to wait, and gave it to her in November. She spent some minutes struck speechless.

Marian is animated. “When I wear these, I can vacuum all day.” Across the room a man chases fish in the big tank. They are a foot long and silver-gray. They do their best to elude the cook, slipping around behind the net and flattening themselves against the tank wall. One fails and goes limply off to the cutting board.

How I spent my solstice

Matthew and I walked in the near-rain to the Ferry Building. In the stores there, I bought a REDACTED and three DELETED for Becky. We sat outside eating Mexican food, my back to the Bay.

Matthew looked out across the water. “Lihui is back in the Port of Oakland.” I nodded. “You know, the scrap steel ship on the Honolulu run? A big old Art Deco rustbucket. It’s just nice to see it back.”

This morning, on the Bay Bridge, I looked at the water to the south. Fog obscured the land on both sides, and low dank clouds stretched almost to Alviso. A broad strip of pale pink sky lay on the horizon. It backlit two freighters anchored off Oakland. I thought of pulling over to take a photo until I remembered where I was, on a high-speed suspension bridge with no breakdown lane.

Thanks

Snowy egret There’s no way to make this photo better. The light was low, the egret was moving fast, and the photographer was blurry. But I think the shot, for all its flaws, captures Egretta thula rather well: splayed primaries, crane grace, a hint of mane at nape of neck, and those feet!

That was my morning, anyway.

Heartfelt thanks to the reader who sent along Gary Nabhan’s book on tequila from my Amazon wish list. A more personal note of gratitude is on its way. And thanks as well to Stephanie after a long silence for surprising me, and perhaps you, with the post below. What a wonderful winter read!

I hate winter

Everything takes longer; everything is a hassle and a waste. The smallest action is made more difficult by heavy clothes and stiff, gloved fingers.  The snowdrift between me and my destination is always exactly two inches taller than whatever footwear I’m wearing. I hate the uncertain footing; the missed patch of ice on the back steps, the sick sweating moment when falling is inevitable. I hate shovelling snow; I much prefer sweating in the garden in tank top and shorts to doing it under heavy layers of coat and long underwear.

But from my firm’s conference room on the ninth floor, I can see downtown 15 miles away, lit by cold late afternoon sunlight the color of frozen peaches. What I can see of the sunset is in the same icy palette-cool salmon pink; silver-gold; a delicate, crystalline orange. I know the city to be full of commerce and bustle; reeking of too many people and their fossil fuels; the constant din of honking horns and thousands of one-sided cellphone conversations driving out all thought. From here, though, the stolid office buildings, their hard edges softened by the unearthly light, are ethereal spires, glowing like molten gold. The city looks as if it is carved of alabaster and rose quartz; gilded; fragrant with precious woods and ever-blooming flowers; a strand of distant, piping notes echoing through its streets. The lost fairy city of Chicago floats in the clouds of distance and movement, and dreams in the last rays of the setting sun.

No adjournment

Interior, day. A small, airless room with no windows. One wall is entirely taken up by a bookshelf, on which are piled so many stacks of yellowing paper, so unstable and close to tottering that it is clear no one has read any of the books for a very long time. Four mis-matched office task chairs surround an old oak table. Two of the chairs squeak incessantly. One chair is occupied by a banker’s box full of paper, the lid slightly askew. The other three are occupied by Garcin, Estelle, and Inez.

GARCIN: [wearily] We have been at this a very long time.

ESTELLE: It’s important to give the matter a full airing.

GARCIN: I agree. But we’ve gotten nowhere. We agreed at the beginning of the meeting to give this final agenda item ten minutes. An hour has passed, and I’m beginning to fear we’ll be here forever.

INEZ: You’ve got no right to inflict the sight of your fear on me.

ESTELLE: Inez, I hear your reluctance, but I don’t understand it. When we spoke before this meeting, you were wholly in favor of the idea.

INEZ: And I still am.

GARCIN: Then why —

INEZ: One can support an idea, yet object to the heavy-handed way in which it is imposed.

ESTELLE: Ah.

GARCIN: Imposed?

INEZ: We are here two women and one man.

GARCIN: And so —

ESTELLE: I see.

INEZ: And so, Garcin, why is it that you, the man, are assigned control of this meeting?

GARCIN: But we rotate meeting facilitation! You ran the last meeting, Inez.

ESTELLE: And yet —

INEZ: But who imposed that arbitrary system?

GARCIN: We did, the three of us. We agreed to it after a full day of discussion.

INEZ: And who facilitated that meeting? You, Garcin.

GARCIN: Because you asked me to. Estelle was on the roster to chair that meeting, and was late. You asked me to, Inez.

ESTELLE: I had another meeting.

INEZ: And yet I had reservations about that arbitrary system of facilitation, Garcin, and I kept them to myself for fear of ridicule. What use is a Procrustean “fairness” when it means one third of our meetings are ruled by a patriarchal hand? Estelle, you must agree with me on this.

ESTELLE: I can’t put myself in your skin. You must decide for yourself.

GARCIN: Inez, you are becoming hysterical. If I cut discussion short it is merely for efficiency’s sake. We each of us want out of this room.

INEZ: Hysterical!

GARCIN: We’re chasing after each other, round and round in a vicious circle, like the horses on a merry-go-round. That’s part of their plan, of course —  Drop it, Inez. Open your hands and let go of everything.

INEZ: [sighing] Never mind. I drop my objection. If Estelle is on your side, I won’t block consensus. So carry on, Mr. Garcin, and try to be honest with yourself for once.

ESTELLE: Should we force Inez to support a decision she abhors?

INEZ: Have it your own way. I’m the weaker party, one against two.

[Cell phone rings.]

ESTELLE: I need to take this.

GARCIN: Can I just check in with you, Inez? I sense you’re feeling some frustration with the way I’m running this meeting.

INEZ: One can only take so much anger from a facilitator.

ESTELLE: I’m running late. I’m still in my meeting with Garcin and Inez.

GARCIN: Angry? I’m not at all angry.

INEZ: Your anger colors every suggestion, each of your attempts to choke off discussion.

ESTELLE: Yes, that’s fine, we can revisit that topic when I get there.

GARCIN: I feel no anger, but frustration. We always seem to come to agreement on ninety-five percent of a matter, and then your feeling female trivia sabotage our progress.

ESTELLE: Burgundy.

INEZ: And there we have it. It’s just as I thought. The misogyny is revealed. You cannot dismantle the master’s house by using the master’s tools. Yes, we agree on the substance, but what is a good decision arrived at by oppressive means?

GARCIN: A good decision.

ESTELLE: We’re going to have to revisit that in light of Garcin’s revisions to the Mission Statement.

INEZ: Misogynist.

GARCIN: That’s absurd. I don’t hate women. Do you know, I used to be mad about women? And some were fond of me. So we may as well stop posing. Why trouble about politeness, and decorum, and the rest of it? We’re between ourselves.

ESTELLE: OK, Ciao. [hangs up]

INEZ: The worst oppression is familiar.

ESTELLE: I’m sorry. Could you rehash what the two of you were discussing while I was offline?

INEZ: We were just sidebarring. Let us proceed.

GARCIN: Yes, let’s. As Inez has agreed to the proposal, we should declare the matter settled.

INEZ: “We.”

ESTELLE: Do you have your revisions of the Mission Statement?

GARCIN: They’re almost done. I can have them by the end of day.

INEZ: That’s what you said last week.

GARCIN: Last week I doused a hundred fires.

ESTELLE: It was fifty words.

GARCIN: And they’re nearly done. I need but type them.

INEZ: And you said that last week as well.

ESTELLE: We can’t implement this decision without the Mission Statement.

INEZ: And the week before.

GARCIN: I own the fact that I let it fall behind. I take responsibility for making sure it’s done by the end of the day.

ESTELLE: We simply can’t implement this decision without the Mission Statement.

GARCIN: You’ve made that clear.

INEZ: Why are we even having this discussion without the Mission Statement?

GARCIN: By the end of the day.

ESTELLE: Good, because we’ll need it to implement this decision.

INEZ: We should rescind the decision until we have the Mission Statement.

GARCIN: The Mission Statement will reflect our discussion here. By the end of the day.

ESTELLE: Will it reflect the part of the discussion that took place while I was on the phone? I didn’t have the chance to offer feedback.

INEZ: It was a sidebar.

GARCIN: It was a sidebar.

ESTELLE: I had no chance to offer feedback.

GARCIN: So it’s agreed: the three of us will reconvene as a formal committee to draft a meeting facilitation policy.

INEZ: If we’re in agreement, then, let us adjourn and reconvene.

GARCIN: I have two more short items we must discuss.

INEZ: Why didn’t you put them on the agenda?

GARCIN: I lacked the opportunity.

INEZ: You wrote the agenda!

ESTELLE: I feel strong reservations about forcing Inez to agree with this decision. We should make sure her concerns have been aired to her satisfaction.

INEZ: They haven’t been. They haven’t been at all.

[cell phone rings]

ESTELLE: I need to take this.

[fade to black]

Islands as gene banks

Grrlscientist — who was supposed to send me some writing to look at (poke poke) — has a fascinating post up this week describing a significant undermining of established wisdom in the field of island biogeography.

The common assumption has been that islands — especially remote oceanic ones — are places on which mainland species are marooned, to evolve in isolation, occasionally providing colorful examples of speciation (cf. Darwin’s finches) and then, inevitably, to go extinct.

Grrlscientist cites the work of some friends — published in Nature — that indicates islands may actually serve as reservoirs of avian biodiversity: that some island birds may actually re-colonize the continents from which their ancestors came, potentially reintroducing a species, more often introducing a daughter species to compete with its mainland cousins.

It’s a fascinating article, and thanks to grrlscientist for bringing it to my attention.

Corn

corn.jpg The storm we had two weeks ago did some damage to my corn. The stalks are still healthy, a good sixty degrees off vertical and canted to the north.

I tear off two or three long leaves, feed them to the rabbit.

The middle of December and the ears are still not ready. I have abandoned the idle notion of blanching kernels in lye, rubbing off the skins, and making tamales from the masa thus produced. I planted this corn in June, dark purple kernels an inch below the soil. A cupped blade-like leaf pushed through the surface from each kernel, then another, from inside the cup, then another from between them. Turn your back and the stalks are four feet high. I pulled a firm fruit from a stalk last week after our first frost and shucked it. The kernels were small, pale white with only the slightest purple stripe. I will plant earlier next spring, and buy tamales from the carniceria up the street.

I bought the corn from that same store, dark purple dried ears, maiz morado imported from Peru. In the Andes children drink chicha morada, water that has been boiled with this purple corn and the skins of a few pineapples. Their parents sprout the corn and make a weak beer chicha, from the malt. When I go to Bolivia I will relax my no-drinking policy.

The lack of harvest saddens me only a little. We eat well, and even were I so allergic that a bite of corn would send me into anaphylactic shock, I would still grow it. Call it a tic, though one requiring more time and planning than most. I plant corn and watch the stalks grow. We have perhaps a hundred square feet of garden bed. Fifteen of them are in corn, wedged between the asparagus and the Cabernet vine. It is not a garden without corn. I feel the swelling ears through rough papery husks. That is sufficient. Any eventual tamales are a bonus.

My job is to put the kernel in the ground.

In 1993 I got a call from a man I didn’t know. Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya was slated to give a speech at the United Nations to mark the close of the International Year of Indigenous People. The man asked if I would organize a benefit in Berkeley to help raise travel funds for Thomas.  I said I would, and went back to work and forgot all about it.

Twelve years ago last week I realized the event was in a few days. I had made no preparations, asked for no help, arranged for no venue, gotten no publicity. I made a somewhat nervous phone call, and then another, and then got back to editing my magazine, due at the printer in a day.

The next morning the phone rang. It was the director of a small local event hall in Berkeley, offering the space for free. I thanked him and hung up. The phone rang: the proprietor of a local native arts store offered her place for a second event, and the schedule she suggested would work just fine.  I hung up. The phone rang: the host of the morning show on KPFA asked for the event info so that he could publicize it on the air in the week before the event. I thanked him and hung up.

Both venues were full. We didn’t charge admission. Thomas passed the hat at the second event. He raised more than a thousand dollars in a few minutes.

His flight to Flagstaff was at five the next morning. At 4:15 we sat in the Oakland airport eating vending machine cinnamon rolls. Thomas fretted mildly about his schedule. All the traveling, the giving speeches, all the advocacy for the Hopi and their way of life, he said, was getting in the way of his important work.

In the 1940s, Thomas spent seven years in Alcatraz for draft refusal. Hopi prophecy foretold that three great, world-shaking events would take place, representing forces symbolized in Hopi culture by two important icons: the sun and the swastika. Then a gourd full of ashes would fall to earth two times. The gourd would be able to boil the oceans and burn the land. This would signal the advent of a time in which the world was in great peril. This age would culminate in the day of purification. Our fate that day would be determined by whether we lived their lives well, whether we lived them ethically.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hopi elders told Thomas that the gourd full of ashes had been dropped twice, that the great earth-shaking events were the two world wars, the most recent one with the sun and the swastika actually on the flags of the combatants. How much more clearly could a prophecy be fulfilled? Go to the front door of the house of mica, they told him, as is spoken in the prophecy, and bring the assembled people of the world the Hopi message of peace. For four decades he had tried to address the people in the house of mica, but had been rebuffed each time. Now they had invited him in. He was a week away from the culmination not just of his career, but of the central myth of his whole people. According to the prophecy, the fate of the world went with Thomas to the house of mica. And he fretted that all of it was getting in the way of his important work.

He was afraid he would not have time to plant corn that winter.

Hopi farmers do not water their corn. The plants must rely on rain, snow, and groundwater. Hopi farmers do not plant their corn in rows. Instead, they drive a stick a foot into the earth and drop a handful of seeds into it. Planting this deep will kill most varieties of corn, but Hopi farmers have bred their corn to breach that thick cover of soil. A foot down, moisture from winter rains will linger, feeding the growing plants until they bear fruit. A Hopi cornfield is a sparse, compelling thing, thick clumps of stalks some feet apart. The outer stalks take the brunt of desert wind and sun.

Thomas had filled two pickup trucks with ears that spring, ears of all four Hopi colors — blue, white, yellow, and pink. You take the white, he said, and leach it with wood ashes to make hominy, then get some lamb meat from a Navajo herder and boil the two together for a few days. This is called Noq Qi Vi and I should try it. But he had little time to plant before heading to New York. He was afraid the planting season would slip away. He woould try to get as much planted as he could that week, then he would give his speech and fly home to plant more.

Corn has forgiven us a multitude of sins; the sterile male plant debacle of the 1970s in which nearly the entire US corn crop failed, the loss of a hundred different varieties to F1 hybrids planted in Mexican valleys, the splicing of soil bacteria code into its genome. It has to forgive us. The plant cannot husk itself, shed its seed and push it an inch — or twelve — into the ground. It is a wonder of evolution that it is accompanied by a being that can fulfill those necessary tasks. Five thousand years this partnership has lasted, corn evolving from teosinte to maize, into Hopi blue and Mojave and Mandan reds and the tasteless, insipid white industrial corns, Silver Queen and whatever monstrous cultivar they use to make chips these days.

We are corn’s way of making more corn. What choice does it have but to trust us? What choice do we have but to plant it? What more fitting life than to watch it grow?

The year after I met Thomas, a Native activist with whom I was meeting loudly questioned my commitment, my worth, and most importantly my ancestry. I smiled and nodded. I forget what we were talking about. He seemed to regret his anger. He left the room and came back with a bundle, handed it to me. Inside was piki, a flatbread made by the Hopi by spreading blue cornmeal paste on a very hot rock. “Try some!” he urged, and I broke off a leaf, thin and translucent as phyllo. It nearly disappeared on my tongue.

“That’s the best you’ll ever have,” he told me. “No one makes piki like Mrs. Banyacya.”