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The last post on Creek Running North

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He has populated this blog as much as anyone with fewer than four feet, but I’ve written little of depth about him here. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps I’ve merely practiced the same circumspection toward him here that I really ought to have practiced regarding the other people in my life. And on Sunday, June 1, he’ll be the last person I see before I formally move out of the Bay Area.

He’ll also be the first person I see afterwards. My friend Matthew is the kind of person who’d volunteer to help you load the U-Haul, then drive with you to Barstow to help you unload at the other end. “Hey, you know me,” he said on the phone. “I’m always up for a U-Haul trip.” We did this in 1987, cross-country. My ex, Elissa, and I had moved to DC for a couple years so that she could go to law school, and when we moved back she flew to Berkeley with the cats, leaving me to pack and clean and dismantle the household in Arlington.  Matthew used the other half of her round-trip ticket, showed up at Dulles, and we meandered west for five days in a severely underpowered U-Haul pickup.

This weekend will be a much shorter trip, and the kinds of stories that accreted themselves to our mutual experience on that trip will not likely be involved in this one. There is no world’s largest cement prairie dog along I-5, nor will we wake in a Kansas campground to watch bass the size of U-Boats hurling themselves at the sky. We will load everything as fast as we can, then roll on down the hill past the California buckeyes I’ve watched grow for six years — they’re flowering this week, brilliantly — and we will be in Barstow somewhere around dark, I hope. And then unloading and back the next day to drop him off.

I fetched up against the Bay Area’s shores 26 years ago almost by accident, insubstantial as spindrift sand. I met Matthew within a month of arriving, introduced to me by Elissa, who I’d just started seeing, as her high school sweetheart. He’d just seen Blade Runner, and held forth on the merits of the movie at some length, late at night. I was a bit befuddled at the guy. His enthusiastic geekery neatly outstripped my own. Before long he and I were annoying the crap out of Elissa with our animated and apparently impenetrable conversations, rarely using a word like “spider” when “chelicerate” would do. Matthew was studying fisheries at UC Berkeley. (The fish were far more suited to schooling than he was, and he graduated with a sigh of relief and commenced to learning in earnest.) It was Matthew who re-awakened my interest in the wild world, merely by asking me on stray hikes what I thought a particular conifer, or flowering herb, or vein of mineral might be. It took a few years before I was any likelier than he to ever have the correct answer.

Our friendship has affected me profoundly, and I chasten when I try to recall any times I’ve attempted to repay his immense kindnesses. I have offered him the profound gift of my company. He has flown across the country to help me move. I gave him a t-shirt once with a wombat on it. He came over in February 2007 to help me bury my dog. I have hired him once or twice, but he’s done the same about as often. And we’ve had dry spells. There have been a couple stretches since 1982 where we didn’t speak to each other for months at a time, perhaps years, too distracted by our lives to stay in touch.

We may be facing more times like that after this weekend. It’s one thing to keep up with a friendship when you eat lunch three times a week, like we did at Earth Island. It’s another to keep up with several hundred miles between you.

On Sunday I will roll in that truck down the hill and away from my life here, away from the hole in the diatomite where my dog’s remains dissolve gently, away from the garden I nurtured and then abandoned, away from this community of readers I have cherished these last five years, away from Becky, away from the Bay and Berkeley and the place I have lived my entire adult life but when you look at it objectively, when you take the true measure of effect and value and persistence in this all-too-short a life, my moving away from the Bay Area is moving away from Matthew. He has bracketed my life here.

California buckeyes drop their leaves in summer, then grow them again in the winter. Counterintuitive-seeming to some, the habit is a defense against drought. Set flowers when there is water in the soil and let the seeds that grow therefrom ripen slowly hard and brown in the summer heat, and those seeds will be ready to sprout with the first touch of moist October. I walked past them for years without seeing them, the soul of California’s inner coast ranges, the expression of the California seasons made treeflesh. Buckeyes and redwoods and Joshua trees, Darlingtonia bogs and Mono Lake’s tufa towers, receding Sierra glaciers and fell-fields ablaze in mule-ears and sky pilot and salt flats 282 feet below sea level and 120 degrees above zero, sliding down snow-covered slopes in winter at 8000 feet and digging for red tide phosphorescence by the ocean, my life in California has been conducted with Matthew near at hand, and I wonder how it will be to go on without him right there.

But I don’t have to worry about that until Tuesday.

Epilobium

“Tell me one true thing,” she said.

Up above was sky, and breezes. Up above was light cascading off the sun. It ricocheted down to them, absorbed in dank and smooth red walls. He thought for a while, silent.

A canyon wren sang, a languid glissade of notes upturned at the ends. 

“You see? You can’t do it.” She sighed, her boot heels kicking up sand behind them as she walked. “The wren can, you can’t. It’s sad.”

“I was thinking.” Said to the back of her head as they hiked.

“Not falsifiable, thus unverifiable. Only possibly true at best. Try again.”

He smirked. “We’re a mile into a slot canyon and we can’t climb out the way we came.”

She turned to face him, her brown eyes mantled, her eyelids pretending at severity.

“I ask for truth and you offer me mere fact.”

“You’re playing games,” he said. “It’s the single most important truth there is. Two miles from the truck, and it might as well be twenty. Once we slid down the chute we were committed. No way out except to go through it. No way to know if we’ll get cliffed out before the end.”

“Cheap metaphor isn’t truth either.”

Boots on sand, boots on smooth gravel. Dark stains on the rock, ten centuries of groundwater seeped slowly in to quietly sublime, leave darkening salts upon the rock, the surface slowly penetrated grain by grain into the depths. They found themselves again in silence, walked deeper into the earth in silence, had only the rhythmic crunch of boot soles to break the silence, tracing bend after sinuous bend as the walls converged, until one rounded bend revealed a flood-carved alcove. A shaft of yellow light illuminated it.

She shivered, walked into the light, sat on the sand. She pulled an apple from her pack.

“You may regret not having that later,” he said. She sniffed. “I regret not having it now.” She took a bite, and then another, and offered him the remainder.

“Not really hungry. You go ahead.”

“Come on, come on. Eat. You know: ‘The woman tempted me.’”

“I’m fine. You finish it.” She looked at him long and pointedly, shook her head a little. The light kept moving, slanting up away from the canyon floor. A gloriole of sun around her hair, he thought. She arched her back against the rock and shivered. “You’re cold,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

“Not exactly,” she said.

“Why so opaque?”

“What do you mean?”

He shook his head.

In a few minutes the light had left her. He stood. “No way out except to go through it.” He walked to her, offered his hand to help her rise. She pulled herself up unaided.

Another hour walking, then two, skating over soft sloping sand and clambering up impossibly teetering slabs of sandstone fallen from the walls, tree trunk wrack and sheer falls to hang from with fingertips, trusting that the sand six feet below their boots was dry and sound. The fear rose in him. She seemed surprised. “You’re the one who keeps bringing us down here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We spend all our time together in these depths. I’d be up top right now if not for you.”

“You can’t be serious. You’re the one that drove us here.”

Her voice grew an edge of exasperation. “Because this is where you need to be.”

He was bewildered. “I didn’t want to come down here.”

“And yet here we are.”

The air grew abruptly dark and he tasted moisture. He looked up. Past walls that seemed almost to touch above their heads, dark clouds passed low and menacing. He saw a flash of lightning, then another, and a low rumbling came, whether from up-canyon or down or above he could not tell. A gust swirled around their ankles, a few wind-blown leaves racing past them on their way toward the canyon’s mouth.

“I think…” he said.

“I think you need the flood to come,” she said. “Each time our conversation veers toward truth, then down it comes.”

“This is crazy.”

“Yes, it is. Here you are in the desert’s heart, your womb, your refuge, and you see nothing but the storm.”

“You’re wrong. You’re wrong! I see the desert varnish in draped waves across the walls, the polished quartz and carnelian on the floor. I watch the adiantum fern make green crowns for moss-bearded seeps, the cholla stems lodged ten feet above our heads by past floods. I see the black-chinned hummingbirds drinking from scarlet blossoms of Zauschneria.”

“It’s Epilobium now.”

“You’re sorry you came.”

“If this is what it takes…”

“You’re disappointed in me.”

“I lost the capacity for disappointment in you a while ago.”

“Oh.”

They said nothing for a time. They walked.

Blood-warm water came in a sudden wave from up-canyon. It stung as it surged past their ankles.

Her shoulders slumped. “Are you satisfied?”

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“I know you weren’t.”

He felt the walls press closer. A dozen floods a day across this plateau, a thousand years, ten thousand, and pain as soft as water carves slick, impenetrable channels in the rock. Two hundred lifetimes of disasters wear pathways smooth to the touch. Whole boulders tumble in the flood, pine snags and skeletons of sheep, their ravage one mere tooth on long time’s rasp. He sat once by a pretty little snowmelt stream and listened, rocks the size of barrels crushing one another in its flow. Downstream the water ran red with boulder sand.

“Tell me one true thing,” she said. The flood reached their knees, their thighs. “Just one.”

“You loved me once.”

“I loved you once.”

“That’s one true thing.”

“It used to be.”

“You’re here with me now.”

“I am?” she asked, and then the wall of ruddy water took him.

They shape the deer

Walking the desert he eyes me, makes the hair stand up upon my neck. His breath a low purr, his footpads small silent temblors. I have heard that he walks on two legs sometimes, unseen he walks the streets of Laughlin, of Kingman, but I have not seen him. Only his tracks in wet sand, only the neck-snapped carcass of the deer. The bighorn sheep have turned to stone: their tears a dry lake the people scrape for salt.

Scrape the land a little and the dreams show through.

The dreams command the people turn rocks over, rake lines in the desert.

The first-born of earth and sky, they dreamed, shamed himself and his daughter Frog killed him. She poisoned him. It took him days to die. He called them all to him and asked to be cremated, but they had no fire. This was before they knew fire. Hanye, a little frog, walked west to the ocean, came back with a smouldering stick borne in his gummy mouth.

The sand fleas dug a hole for him, and Hanye lit a fire beneath him. Coyote stole his heart and fled east. At the mourning party, the lion Numeta and his brother Hatakulya sank into the wet sand.

Coyote wrenches out my heart and flees, his mouth dripping red. He makes trails of my blood on the desert stones, my arteries the Joshua trees’ red-cored roots. Hatakulya stalks me. I stood once at his head, his legs twenty feet long, his body of upturned stone, and he stalked me then. He wore a green crown of broken glass, a tire track necklace: a mantle of indignity laid on him. His breath on my neck. His eyes gauging my spine’s strength. I will fall before him, it is certain: my bones will make his hunter’s necklace.

Mastamho thrust a willow wand into the sand beside his father’s pyre, and the Colorado flowed from it.

Numeta and Hatakulya came up from the ground far to the north. They looked around. They went back down into the earth.

I dreamed Mastamho sank his wand into the sandbar at the mouth of White Rock Canyon, near where the hellish cold water swirls up from the bottom of Lake Mead, and the river started to flow again. It was a flood to end an age and start an age. Those who lived crawled out of the wrack and earth, and all the valley was scraped clean. The stacks that billowed black coal smoke were gone from Laughlin, and the casinos gone and houses on stilts above the river, the gas turbines swept off the old Maze. The dams downstream burst like sutures and the heart of the desert flowed out over them.

Hatakulya and Numeta came to the head of the Mojave River and emerged from the earth. They took clay and shaped it, washed it in the rain, and the clay deer ran into the desert. The lions followed them. In the Hualapai Mountains were trees and water, and the deer were mated and grew fat, and then Numeta made a path for them, his younger brother Hatakulya made a path for them. The doe shunned the path, escaping to the south, but the buck had dreamed badly. He knew he must follow the path to its end.

The lions quarreled over their kill.

Mastamho sings the Pleiades in Grapevine Canyon, a rope of feathered rabbit skin across his shoulder.

Walking the desert Hatakulya eyes me. Scrape the land a little and the dreams show through. He took the buck’s heart in his mouth and left Numeta, walked out into the White Hills among the Joshua trees.

On rape, and privilege, and being seen

I had an argument with a friend not long ago in which she told me she felt I was not seeing her. It was a sobering charge, and an accurate one besides. I had missed, or at least seemed not to heed, some rather clear statements she’d made about what she needed from me.
The specifics are irrelevant here. On the level of our friendship, I was upset to have hurt her, of course. But the reason I mention it here is that it was one more object lesson handed to me in the way that privilege and blindness work hand in hand.
On second thought, let’s not call it blindness. People who are literally blind don’t need one more disparaging use of the term floating around, and besides, there were certain things I was seeing just fine. They all just happened to be closely connected to me. Call it myopia, then, both for greater accuracy and in the hopes that those with the literal affliction will be less likely to take offense.

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Haven

Later, there were a few who claimed they had felt something in the wind at first, an odd pale scent as if of rain and ozone, thinned past sensibility in the summer heat. Hindsight shows what the seer desires. Still we had no reason to doubt them, nor the inclination. A man in free fall might desperately grasp the air as if it could provide a hold, and who would we be to argue logic with him? 

No one spoke of anything untoward until the birds were gone.

Some fowl remained in dooryards fussing after their garden snails, but the woods fell mute. One evening flickers trilled into a deepening sky, killdeer keened in darkness, and then the sun rose silent. Not a quill, not a fleck of down remained. The hunters’ dogs could flush no teal.

We talked about it quietly, struck by the air’s odd hush. We spoke in whispers as if afraid to miss the last thrush’s last note. We heard nothing but the whine of flies.

A month passed, and we became almost accustomed to the empty skies. A draught horse balked in mid-field one day, near noon, and would not calm even when freed from the plow. Her keeper fretted, brought a few of us from town to make what we could of her. She had not moved more than a few yards in the minutes since he’d left her, but reared and circled us at speed,  whinnied at some terror we could not see. By that evening all our horses were so afflicted. They would not rest. Even those we dragged bodily into their barns stared east in vivid fear, as though a second red sun was rising beyond the plank walls, stirring storms.

The next morning they were gone. Paddock fences were broken down, stable doors splintered, and the dust they’d raised in fleeing was a thin pall on the orchard.

Hair stood on end on our napes that month. Old, sweet dogs turned sour, snarled at offered scraps of meat. Lovers screamed insults at each other. The Seated Queen of Stars glowered from her northern throne. The goats’ teats went dry.

When it came, the flood swept half our town away.

There was no rain, nor any dam in the mountains to have burst, but the flood came nonetheless, and fast. It was as if no one had ever lived in the half-mile swath it scoured. No wrack of houses stood above the flood. The apple trees were broken from their rows and cast downstream. The flood was odd. Clear enough for trout, it flowed beneath our rainless sky for days.

At length we drank of it and it was sweet, as water from a rill shaded by oaks. It effervesced, a little. It had no source but still it flowed, and in time we built small boats to launch upon it, a dozen boats the size of ducks with small dry boxes on their decks. We wrote to those who perished in the flood, long aching letters meant for no eyes still living, and told them of our grief for them, our longing to be reunited with them on the other shore. We secured the letters in their boxes, and pushed the little boats into the flow to bear our sorrows downstream and away.

Seven nights passed, and the boats rode downstream past our town once more. They passed again seven nights after that.

There were two of our men who built a pirogue, determined to sail the length of this strange round river, and they set out with a week’s supply of bread and meat. We did not see them again.

In time children were born, and they brought forth children in turn, and their children found it odd to think of rivers that never flowed back to their source. We told them that once all rivers had head and mouth far separated, and they laughed at our deception. They tossed bright toys into the river, shining balls and little boats of applewood, and waited confidently for their treasures to return to them.

Quemado

I dreamed last night that I was in my old truck, out in the saguaros south of Burro Creek. The dog was with me, talking to me from the passenger seat of his hatred for deserts. “Turn left,” he said. “There are forests higher on the Rim.” I did not turn except to follow the turning of the road.

The road clung to the precipice for a mile and then descended. We pulled over to the edge. A mile below us the desert was burning. Smoke rose to us; the cloying scent of Joshua trees ablaze, charred earth and flesh attenuated on the rising air. For a hundred miles to the south there was nothing but fire, and towering plumes, and a sky burnt hell-orange. Phoenix was out there burning, and Tucson, and I watched Baboquivari melt on the horizon.

I turned to Zeke, alarmed for him, but he was already ablaze. Bright torrid flames sprouted from him like fur. His eyes undimmed he watched me, calm but curious, concerned, and then he fell to ash before me. “There are forests higher on the Rim,” he said again, and then the wind dispersed him.

River of fire, river of stone

Did they look up, fox-wolves drinking the sudden
warm water? Did they even have the time
to look up at the odd glow to the east,
a second hellish sunrise, red as fire
incinerating forests? Broadleaved oaks
and ash, the lurid-leaved persimmon trees
whose fruit fattened the horses, fed the short
faced bears, leaf litter of magnolia trees
ablaze at once? The sky would have been dark
for days, the eddied stratosphere pregnant
with dust, and thin plumes of it blowing west
against the usual ocean wind, the storm
of fire stoked by a scouring blast
across the plains. Did the Eucyons flee,
or drawn by terror-stricken, injured prey
would they have chased the fire along its edge
coyote-like? (The opportunist dog
as old as Hesperocyon, 40 million
years ago.) Guile doomed Eucyon’s whelps
to leg-hold traps, to tar pits, to the leash,
so as the peccaries, pronghorn, the sloths
and rabbits ran wild-eyed and westerly,
the fox-wolves might have headed toward the fire.
No matter. They were drinking. Did the banks
glow ruddy? Did the wretched stream run dry?
The earth had opened up, and lava bled
into the Miocene Sierran streams,
ran toward the Fresno Sea. Did they look up?
That old, steep-sided river canyon might
have taken a few moments to escape.
Fish would have been turning belly up
as river water warmed, the main stem blocked
and shrinking pools filled gills with caustic ash.
They may have been distracted. When the wall
of seething rock, molten and fast, came down
the river canyon, sandbar pools in steam
subliming at its front, air crackling and the screams
of animals unable to escape
to herald it, they may have stood, eyes wide
reflecting fatal red, transfixed, and then
even the water in their veins would burn.
Who knows? The red brim-filled the rill,
burned every tree, each fish, each sprig of moss
and raptor’s nest, melted the top few feet
of gold-flaked cobble, scoured the soft rock walls
the river had incised, flowed swift until
the earth’s anger subsided, cooled, a strange
traumatic calm descended slow after
burn-out, and other fox-wolves came to eat
what meat there was, charred by the pallid fire
of trees, cool by comparison, and the new rock’s
red glow subsided over days. Rain came
and then the river, ousted from its bed
worked on the softer rock. Eucyon whelped
the wolves. The sloths died off. The salmon lost
its fangs. The land grew cold and mountainous,
ice shrouded the peaks, and fed the streams
to quarry out the rock. That river now
a long mountain, the lava all that still
remains of those old days, the canyon walls
long gone, the sea the river fed now plowed
for cotton, its flow frozen fine-grained rock,
wild oat awns nodding from its crevices,
and travelers intent on granite domes
pass by the mountain, never seeing it.

Pine needles

East side Sierra

The line between sleep and wakefulness is indistinct at the best of times. After four hours’ driving in the dark on roads not visited for a decade, peering into unlit corners of the woods hoping for an empty space and finding none, dark massifs looming and receding with only a void of stars to betray their contours, the boundary can vanish as eyes in the wooded verge when the low-beams pass. A lifetime spent not getting lost, or at least not badly, and twice in an hour I found myself turned around on the June Lake road and heading back the way I came, without meaning to. One had best go back to the point of origin. I went to Lee Vining, took a breath, filled the tank, then tried again.

And in the campground, another bout of getting lost. The Off-Roaders have enjoyed the place to death. Why go fifteen feet out of your way when just enough space exists between those pines there to make a new, more direct road? Twice, ensnared in a web of two-rut, I thought of simply parking, sleeping until either daylight or the horn of a blocked F-350 woke me, but I found a place to make a cup of tea, to roll out my sleeping bag in pine needles and pumice.

Pumice is an aerosol inverted, a suspension of air in stone. South Pacific sailors have encountered massive drifts of it vented into the sea by volcanoes, pebbles and stones and rocks afloat in conglomerations ten miles long and a few feet high. They appear solid, but step out onto them and they part beneath your feet. The sea will swallow you up. And so I should have known better than to try to sleep on a mountain of pumice, landlocked as it may have been. Land did its best to swallow me.

At 8500 feet each breath brings just three-quarters the oxygen of a breath at sea level. Come up from sea level in a day and the body strains to adapt. I lay motionless on my back, my heart pounding, Cassiopeia above me and curling westward. My eyes strained to adapt as well. The moon was new and dark. Only stars lit the landscape, and though there were thousands more at altitude the day’s fire smoke masked their light. There on the surface of the earth, thin air alone and pines between me and the faint stars, noise off the highway two miles east, I waited for sleep.

Sleep did not come.

Or if it came it came suddenly, with vivid dreaming of reclining on the surface of the earth beneath the Jeffrey pines, smoke-masked stars casting pale light on my upraised hand, the galaxy a pumice raft of light afloat in a sodden sky, and me in conversation with myself. Or was it me? There seemed two people there, not me alone, and though the other flitted in and out of mind like a postponed task forgotten, his presence, or hers, was still distinct. Call her her. A discrete person, there or created out of mind’s whole cloth, and keeping me awake at that. I rolled onto my side to close my eyes, to smell the soft breezes that coast along the ground, rich needled humus and the butterscotch of Jeffrey pine bark, and she would tap my shoulder and remind me. Open your eyes and watch the sky.

I must have been dreaming. I must have. There was no one there with me, no task assigned, and yet aside from her soft whispered reminders the dream was wholly unimaginative. To lie on the ground in a particular spot among the trees, to fall asleep, and then to dream that you are lying on the ground in that spot beneath those trees? A possibility prosaic enough that it is extraordinary. The pine branches fifty feet above blocked swathes of starlight, and the breeze played around the nape of my neck as the tarp crackled beneath my sleeping bag, a meteor streaked from the White Mountains to disappear somewhere near Tuolumne Meadows and I jerked alert, and then her nudge and a voice telling me I had work to do.

There is a third possibility, of course, a straddling of the realms of wakefulness and sleep. This could have been some sort of fugue, a mental trauma, the nervous grief and isolation and excruciating love of the last months boiled over in my head in a froth of metaphor. I am no mystic, or at least I am not when Coyote is not in the room. I already think in broad and capitalized terms about Purpose, about Time and Love, about The Land. No need for hamadryads or devas: even skeptical and sane I can pan the landscape’s placer for bright meaning, discern the personality of place. But she was there, and real, or dream-real, or mere star-story froth from this aching tête brûlée, she was telling me I had work to do.

I had to fall into the land. No mean feat, this. Even with my skin ripped off this year, as porous to the land as I was that day, to meld into that pumice-land would have exfoliated me to the bone. I tried my best, once I understood what was being asked of me, and yet each time I thought I had melded with the land a nudge and voice would tell me that I had only fallen asleep.  To meld one must sleep, but be conscious of one’s sleeping: to mind well the skin-boundary between viscera and vastness, but forget which side of the line you’re on. Mere sleep stops up the sleeper’s ears, deprives the land of voice. My voice, or hers, or the ten thousand things I hear only when awake? I don’t recall. Maybe all of them. Six hours or more I lay there, Cassiopeia spun one-quarter turn, until I saw the beginnings of dim light toward the east, and then I fell asleep for real. I dreamed improbable events with people I had not seen in years, placed myself two thousand miles from the pines and pumice, and woke for real when raven’s metallic hork rang above my head. A Steller’s jay stood on my food cache and when I rose to chase it, the least chipmunks raised a shrill alarm, but not for me: a red-tailed hawk had swung low over the spot where I had slept, and curved around the base of the far pines and on.

The River of Gold

Near my usual camp on Cima Dome — two and a half hours’ hike away — is a small mountain of limestone. It rises abrupt and aloof, ridges of hard sediment tilted almost perpendicular to level, the softer stuff in between eroded away into scree and talus, sterile stony soil to hold up the Joshua trees and junipers.

There are caves in the limestone, passages hollowed out by the once-relentless passage of Pluvial-era water, stalactites that grew when the desert was sodden but no longer. Thirty miles away a similar network of caverns is a California State Park, and tourists in flip-flops gawk at illuminated colonnades as they stomp down handrailed stairs. These caves are silent, though, aside from the calls of saw-whet owls and the night’s coyote arias, the wind out of Arizona through the limbs of Joshuas. Paleontologists have pulled old bones out of them, lizards and squirrels twelve thousand years old or more.

There is a broad river flowing a mile beneath the rock.

Or so, at least, it is said. A century ago three Native brothers working the Dorr Ranch in the east Mojave went out to look for caves described by their tribal elders — of which tribe it is not known — and found a cleft in the rock. From the entrance cavern a passage descended unfathomably deep into the earth, and at its base there was yet more descent.

Thirty years later, in December 1934 Earl Dorr filed a notarized affidavit describing his descent into the cave the Peysert brothers had shown him.

A Civil Engineer, Mr. Morton, and I spent four days exploring the cave for more than eight miles. We carried with us Altimeters, Pedometers, and a Theodolite, with which to observe and record actual directions, take elevations and measurements by triangulation. Our exploration revealed the following facts: 1. From the mouth of the cave we descended as shown by the Altimeters to be about 2000 feet, where we encountered a canyon, which from the Altimeters and by calculations we found to be from 3000 to 3500 feet deeper; making total depth of 5400 feet from the mouth where we entered the caves to the floor of the canyon.

We found the cave divided into many caverns or chambers, of various sizes, all filled and embellished with Stalactites and Stalagmites, besides many grotesque and fantastic shapes that make these caves one of the wonders of the world.

The largest chamber we explored is about 300 ft. wide, 400 feet long and from 50 to 110 feet high. It is encrusted with crystals, fashioned into festoons of innumerable Stalactites, that hang from the ceiling, some of which are extremely large.

One, the largest seen, is 27 feet in diameter and hangs 1510 feet down into a 3000 ft. canyon. This great Stalactite is perpetually washed by water flowing down over it and falling into the dark canyon depths. The huge glistening white crystal is 500 feet longer than the Eiffel Tower, and challenged us with amazement and wonder.

There is a flowing river on the floor of the canyon, which rises and falls with tidal regularity. All measurements and estimates of the river, including its tides and beach sands were reckoned by triangulation, taken with the Theodolite, and while we did not reach the river, nevertheless, taking observations with our theodolite and its telescope, we reckoned the river to be about 300 feet wide at high tide and 10 feet wide at low tide. It rises and falls from 7 to 8 feet. The Peysert brothers confirm our reckoning.

The next part of the affidavit ensured that the legend would be kept alive.

When the tide is out, there is exposed on both sides of the river from 100 to 159 feet of black sand, which the Peysert brothers report is very rich in placer gold. They report the sands on the river shore to be from 4 to 11 feet deep; and on an average about 8 feet deep.

There are numerous ledges above the canyon that are from 10 to 40 feet wide and covered with sand. We personally explored the ledge sands for a distance of more than eight miles, finding little variation in the depth and width of these ledge sands. And wherever examined, the ledge sands are found to be fabulously rich in placer gold…

Both Mr. Morton and myself filled our pockets with the sands from the ledges, carried it out and had it assayed. Just what Mr. Morton’s sand assayed, I do not know, but it was approximately $2000. per ton. I carried out ten pounds and two ounces of the ledge sand, and panned seven pounds, recovering more than $7.00 in gold, with gold at $20.00 an ounce. I sold the gold for $18.00 per ounce.

Those pockets full of sand would be worth close to three hundred bucks today, each bank of that river holding more than two million dollars worth of black sand per linear foot, and thus in the fifty years since Earl Dorr died a number of attempts have been made to find the deep cavern. The most recent enterprise has abandoned the notion of finding the original passage, and is instead attempting to drill down through the desert to reach the deeply hidden “3,000 foot canyon.”

The story is improbable in the extreme, to put it mildly. There may be a deep cavern, perhaps a very deep cavern. I will leave it to the structural engineers to say whether one could build a 1500-foot stalactite out of calcite and not have it shatter under its own weight. I will say that mine promoters have often, in the last two centuries of western American history, made statements from which, if you stood on their most verifiable parts, the periphery of the actual truth could be dimly seen out on the far horizon. Phoenix has its Lost Dutchman mine, Bishop its Lost Cement mine, and dozens of others lure unwary prospectors, gullible investors.

Anyway, few places have been seismically explored as thoroughly as the Mojave, and the notion of an undiscovered hollow 3000 feet deep and at least eight miles in length is laughable.

But I can’t let go of that river of gold.

Not the gold itself. Were it there, I’d say “leave it in the ground.” From an environmental point of view, the gold would be the least valuable of the cavern’s contents, and mining would destroy the cave for all but miners.

No, it is the river itself that has caught me up in its current. There is something about deep tunnels to the ocean and I have heard such things said about more than one place, always in the realm of wild speculation or local legend. Growing up near New York’s deep Seneca Lake I heard schoolboy tales of undiscovered passages between the lake bottom and the Atlantic. The lake was said to have tides, its level rising and falling on a slow but notable daily rhythm. (This was later explained to me as an effect of the more prosaic but still lovely seiche, periodic sloshing in a lake 38 miles long by three wide, three days from high tide to high tide.)

A freshwater warm spring in Nevada near Death Valley has also been rumored to have deep oceanic connections. Devil’s Hole is best known for its resident pupfish, a unique species that has been limited in range to one small submerged rock ledge since the last Pluvial. The spring is very deep: at least 400 feet deep, measurement complicated by the spring’s branching into a network of deep limestone caves. But the spring is certainly not connected to the ocean. If it were, the water level would be somewhat lower: the banks of Devil’s Hole are at 2400 feet above sea level.

Earl Dorr claimed his river of gold flowed toward the Gulf of California. There is, in fact, a river flowing from the vicinity of his cave toward the Gulf. It is called the Colorado, and it has been rather well explored. More than 260 miles from that little limestone hill to the Colorado Delta, and much of that distance made up of impermeable igneous rock: Dorr’s river has its work cut out for it, and it really ought to collaborate with its above-ground cousin.

It cannot possibly exist. How could it? But I have felt that river, waking on frozen nights out on the ground at three in the morning. I have felt it flow a mile beneath my shoulder blades. I have walked and whistled along the tule banks of the San Buenaventura, cast lines into the Timpanogos, and I have sighed a little to awake to this landlocked West, in a time after Fremont killed the rivers of legend and the engineers took care of the remainder. I drove one winter toward Los Angeles and a ghost appeared, Tulare Lake come from the dead, a winter of flood spread silver across acres of dead cotton fields and the teal and mallards on its brow swimming where fifty generations of their ancestors could not. I walk each morning past rainforest and tree fern, built on an arid waste of sand by drowning a Yosemite.

Dorr’s River does not exist, it cannot possibly exist, and it is a mile down a lost and legendary hole besides, and so there will be no dams to block its flow and collect gold silt, there will be no aqueducts to siphon it off to water alfalfa in the desert, there will be no resorts, no jet skis to tear up the banks with wakes. It has never been and thus we cannot tame it. We cannot kill it: it flows still, a mile beneath my back as I consider the night’s Mojave stars.

Xeric Conifer Woodland, then and now

Caution: do not anthropomorphize

MB said something about Joshua trees and junipers in the same field of view a few days back, and I promised a post. It’s not actually all that uncommon to see the two species growing together, as the lower altitudinal limit for junipers in the Mojave is just about where the upper elevational limit of Joshua trees lies, with some overlap due to local microclimates and such. Sometimes a fault will run through the bedrock and provide a path for groundwater to approach the surface, and junipers — which in the Mojave are generally kept from growing lower than around 6,000 feet due to drought stress — will thrive a bit lower, their roots stuck in the water table. If you climb the Sierra Club trail up Teutonia Peak on Cima Dome and look back to the east from which you came, you’ll see a straight line of old junipers stretching a mile back to Sunrise Rock. They grow at just above 5,000 feet, and though they set abundant seed each year there are no other junipers nearby. You have to climb a few hundred feet up Teutonia to find junipers growing off the fault line. On the plain between Teutonia and Kessler peaks, the junipers form a line of perforation running through the thick Joshua trees, the only real source of shade in the forest.

Go to one of the junipers, look around for a while — mind the cholla stems — and you will likely find nearby a low mound of twigs and Joshua tree leaves and cactus skeletons, sometimes two feet high by five wide. This is the home of the desert woodrat, a.k.a the desert packrat, a.k.a. Neotoma lepida. Packrats are ubiquitous in the Joshua tree forest, and the wealth of berries a juniper provides each year prove a powerful inducement to settle nearby. The rats, which are the smallest of their genus at about eight inches from nose to tail tip, are mainly nocturnal: they come out of their nests — “middens” — at night and forage for plants to eat. On Cima Dome they seem especially fond of Joshua tree leaves. Or maybe that’s just what’s there. As you walk you’ll see trees where each leaf on one side of a particular branch has been sheared off evenly — nay, meticulously and methodically, as if the branch were a cob of corn being eaten by an ex-Navy man at a Fourth of July barbecue. This is the work of Neotoma lepida, and if you look around you will find a packrat midden within 50 feet: if not a pile of debris out in the open, then a comfy sheltered midden wedged between rocks or under overhangs, which is the setup the rats actually prefer.

Thus, two important facts about Neotoma lepida: they collect plant material and their range is about a hundred feet in diameter. Add to those two facts a third: a midden, once built, may house many generations of packrats. Many generations. Hundreds. Thousands. There’s a Pleistocene-era midden in the Colorado Rockies that was used more or less continuously from 950,000 years ago to 800,000 years ago: 150,000 years of habitation, a pile of sticks and leaves with a history compared to which the cathedral at Chartres is essentially a Quonset hut, Stonehenge a tilt-up strip mall. That, my friends, is tenancy.

Middens that are out in the open suffer the depredations of rain and snow, gales and determined badgers. The rock-fortified middens are more secure. Over the years the rats will bring in leaves and twigs, fruits and shiny stones and car keys, and then new layers of material will be brought in to put atop the old, and as the woodrats carry out their daily affairs in the midden they will urinate over it all over a period of years. Woodrat kidneys are desert kidneys, rather efficient at excreting salts without too much water to carry them, and the salty mess congeals into a hard, ochrous resin.

That resin — charmingly called “amberrat” by packratmiddenographers — preserves the plant material. In a cave, or under a nice big sheltering rock, away from the elements, the amberrat can preserve the material for thousands of years.

Thus an old packrat midden is a record of the vegetation of the immediate area over the span of time in which the midden has been used. And where you have thousands of years’ worth of well-preserved plant material collected from a precise location, there you have paleontologists. (Where the material is preserved by stanky rat piss, there you also have graduate students whose job it is to clean the stuff.) The plant material is identified and dated, and then we have a bit of a picture of how the vegetation in the area changed, if at all, over thousands of years. (Given the rats’ proclivity for collecting small pieces of bone, the middens occasionally provide a glimpse into animal life as well.)

And since packrats are thick on the ground in the southwest deserts, our recapture of information contaned in packrat middens is limited primarily by the supply of graduate students. There are lots and lots of data out there. And in the Mojave, one of the things those data tell us is this: the altitudinal ranges of both Joshua trees and junipers were once very different than they are today.

17,000 years ago the desert didn’t just smell like rain, it often felt like rain. Where there are now playas and salinas at the bottoms of Mojave valleys, there were broad freshwater lakes rich in wildlife. It was a wetter time, and though the countryside was not particularly lush, there was enough water in the soil that junipers could grow far down-slope. So could Joshua trees, for that matter, and even single-needle pines. In a number of places throughout the desert, the valley floors — when not flooded — were covered in what is sometimes called a Xeric Conifer Woodland, what modern-day desert rats of the two-legged variety call “P-J,” or Piñon-Juniper Woodland. Joshua trees were a minor component of that forest.

And then the dry came. Around 16,000 years ago the drought started, and it really got underway about 10-12,000 years ago. The lakes dried up, even the deepest one in the Mojave, Lake Manly, leaving its bed in Death Valley dry and crackling in the heat except for sometimes. The valley floors got too dry and hot for PJ with scattered Joshua trees. The first creosote bushes started to sprout on valley floors, and some of those plants are still alive. With their fruit dispersed by any number of birds and mammals, piñon and juniper gained a foothold in the (relatively) wetter mountains. Joshua tree didn’t rise quite as far. But deprived of competition with their former conifer neighbors, the Joshuas now dominate their part of the Mojave — at least visually.

In the Antelope Valley, 60 miles from the ocean, downstream from the well-watered San Gabriels and Tehachapis, the valley floor still hosts mixed forests of Joshua trees and junipers. Or at least it does in those few square miles, like in the photo above, not cleared for development. Flickers still cut their arcing paths between the trees, and woodrats collect sardine can keys and pull tabs to perplex the graduate students of 14007 AD.

Zeke

February here is a time of reminders, of bright creased-red flowers swelling from dank wood, green renewed and moist, succulent. Downhill is a patch of Narcissus and he always stepped on them. Each year I would forget and lose myself in thought and then look up to see him trampling down the bright green stems, the leash still slack between us. My neighbors are patient people, and never complained though I saw it in their eyes. Their patience has been rewarded. The Narcissus are blooming this week, grown tall and unbent.

There is one patch of soil ungreened on the entire hill, a rectangle of upturned earth three feet by four. We went to the nursery a week after he died, bought blue flowers to plant over him. In our yard in Richmond he loved the Scilla: he would loll about for hours among the Delft-blue blooms, a wide patch of them two feet high until he rolled on them. I always meant to grab the camera. The nursery had no Scilla, but it is far too late for planting Scilla. We bought forget-me-nots.

I have been remembering a day eleven years ago, a mile down the road from my father’s house in New York, when we walked down Buffalo Creek in search of fossils. The creek was broad and nowhere more than a foot deep, sun-warmed July water slick with ropes of algae. We found a slab of shale, oddly intact and harder than its surrounding rock, with crinoids and brachiopods, horn corals in it, and I lugged it back a quarter mile to the truck. Craig and Allison were there with Becky, Zeke and me; we waded back upstream and then Zeke trapped himself on a little island, paced back and forth along the shore as we climbed the bank on the far side. He cried, grew a little frantic. It was only fifteen feet or so across, and no more than a few inches deep, a riffle really over shallow stones, and I called encouragement to him from atop the old abandoned bridge on which we’d parked. He didn’t listen. Before I could go back down to help him cross he’d run the other way across five times as much water, and up the far bank to reach the bridge from the other side. He flew up to us smiling. A cloudburst off Lake Erie hit and drenched us all before we could get in the truck.

The sun shone the day after he died, and we dragged ourselves out in it. South of us is the Heart Place, a ridge cloaked in pines, a reservoir atop it, and both of us went there alone with Zeke. Becky took him there when I was callous, and he’d drowse in the thick pine needles as she wept. I took him there when she was gone. We sat there together the day after he died, the trail up to the ridgetop a teary blur, our howls thrown at the unfair world below us.

It rained the whole next week.

Rain a bit on our dry soil and the soil comes up alive and green. Plums blossom all at once in February on the Pacific Coast, the quince and currants with them. There is a pink currant in our garden, and a yellow one, and both show color now. The creek is up. Mallards delve beneath submerged grass stems. I have been to the creek at least twice a day since we buried him, and I have not seen the egret flying once. Instead, he stalks the creek on foot.

I stalk the creek on foot. I run down to the bay and along the shore, race the trains rolling slow past the crew resetting sidetrack ties. Each morning I leave, walk stupidly to the closet door for the leash until I remember, go downhill beset by ghosts. At this corner I lifted him over the curb his last few weeks, when his feet were too unsure to land safely without help on the slanted pavement below. My right arm around his waist, my left hand under his breastbone I would lift him over, and steady him for a moment when his feet touched asphalt. At that long patch of ivy under oaks he would stop, smell the leaves that overhung the curb. His last visit to the park we lingered beneath that plane tree. He was stretched out on the lawn and I sat leaning up against the trunk, telling myself I would bring a book next time. On the way back up the hill he would stop again at that patch of ivy, look imploringly at me until I hoisted him, and he would lean against my shoulder for the next two steep blocks.

I turn the key in the lock and I hear him jump up to greet me and he is not there. I walk into his room and from the corner of my eye I see him lift his head from his bed to look at me through clouded eyes and he is not there. Until a week ago the sparrows foraged between his feet, trusting and unafraid. They pick over seeds and ants on the upturned soil now, and an Anna’s hummingbird browses the rosemary flowers next to him, its red head patch now dull, now brilliant through the breath-fogged window.

The plums will bloom, and then the cherries, and then the Bradford pears. When the crape myrtle blooms this summer we will travel, we tell ourselves. We will hike together unburdened by our love for him. The oaks will flower, and the grasses. The hills will brown. The wind will shift from the east. In October, or not long after, I will look up and notice rain. I will remember congratulating him, by that patch of ivy, for making it to one more season of rain, and not long after the plums will bloom again. The memory will fade and soften. I will forget him an atom at a time.

That day in New York I breathed hard putting the slab of Devonian shale in the cab of the truck, in the hollow behind the driver’s seat, and laid his blanket over it. He would sleep on it as we drove west the next two weeks, step around it for eleven years after that. He grinned in the downpour as Becky loaded him in the truck bed, climbed in after him with our niece. He was always so afraid we’d go on without him. The slab is twenty feet from him now, a jumble of Devonian crinoid stems and modern California dust. We found brachiopods that day, hard dull gems of the detail of life preserved. They shaped the rock around them. Years of proximity welded sediment into rock, a perfect imprint of the animal, and then the animal dissolved away into the world and left a void in its exact shape. The fossils we held were that void filled, a bit of dust at a time and pressed into the creases, a representation of the lost one finely detailed but still without life.

There will be years and years, each small forgetting a betrayal, each small betrayal a comfort, each small comfort another death. There is no lesson here, no lesson. Narcissus sought himself reflected in the world and found only death. Plums will bloom until there are no more plums. I will join him diffused into the soil, our component atoms intermingled one day soon, a dog and a man who walked together for a time, a brief spark of sweetness in an aching world.

The truth about fetuses

So today, being the anniversary of the decision in Roe v. Wade, is “Blog For Choice Day,” and a whole lot of feminist-oriented bloggers are writing eloquent posts about why they’re pro-choice. They’re talking political rights to bodily autonomy, respect for the full human status of women, resistance to the nascent kleptotheocracy the US seems set to become, and a whole bunch of other good reasons. They’re writing political tracts, personal stories, and thoughtful essays, and you should take a look at this roundup of posts at Feministing or the, um, mother lode at Bush v. Choice to get a sense of the range of writing.

And in fact the people who’ve written so far have covered all the usual valid reasons why a guarantee of full reproductive rights for women is the bedrock of a truly free society, so I don’t have to talk about any of that. Which is great, because it frees me to reveal the real reason I’m an avid supporter of legal, accessible, and affordable abortion services.

Fetuses are goddamn punks.

I mean, just look at ‘em. Sitting there all floaty and unconcerned, not taking any responsibility for the world around ‘em, content to just sit there and leech off of someone they don’t even know yet.

Meanwhile, we’re out here every single day using our own lungs and kidneys, and using our own skeletons and muscles to hold ourselves up against the pull of the earth’s gravity, and we do it 24/7, even when we’re asleep! Not only do fetuses not pull their own weight, they don’t even support it. They just sit there in their hot tub with their precious little bulbous heads, their immaculate little eyespots, sucking the oxygen out of women’s blood and replacing it with toxins, then kicking them if they get bored.

And for this they want full legal status as human beings?

And get this: they can’t even be arsed to argue for constitutional protection. No, they have very important naps to take and thumb-buds to suck. They hire that work out to sleazy legislators and sanctimonious zealots.

But the worst of it? They’re cowards, hiding out in Club Uterus until they’re “ready to be born.” “Ready” my ass. More than a third of them off themselves rather than face the cold hard world, most of them before they even become fetuses! “But it’s too haaard to grow a central nervous system!” “I don’t wanna differentiate my genitalia!” “I miss being a blastula!” “That placenta is itchy!” “I wanna stay stuck here in the Fallopian tube where it’s snuggly!”

Goddamn whiners.

I have an idea for you, little Mr. “but I can’t breathe on my own,” little Ms. “Don’t drink a beer, Mommy.” You want full rights as a human citizen of the world? We got this little hazing ritual you have to go through. It’s called “birth.” If you want to be taken seriously, you crawl on out through that birth canal, mister. We’ll even go so far as to give you a little help with a Caesarian section if you need it. We’re nothing if not fair. Your blubbering about how you’re not ready for it doesn’t impress anybody. Even the weakest human out here has done it, Bucko. Even the babies.

Because seriously. Right now we’ve got enough problems keeping our own civil rights, and we really don’t have time to worry about granting them to some little glorified embryo who’s not willing to commit. You get yourself born and we’ll talk. I don’t work with anyone who’s too good to use her own lungs like the rest of us.